Home is where the heart is

•January 30, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The  eleven posts below this one are written while traveling through Gujarat, but we never found the time to go to an internet connection and take the time to upload the files. Only three days ago we returned to the Netherlands, Three flights, one from Ahmedabad to Mumbai, one from Mumbai to Frankfurt, and the last to Amsterdam. Three steps away from a different world, back into what we are used to. The train from Amsterdam home crossed the IJssel, and my heart jumped, what a beautiful river, winter level, so high and wide meandering between the winter dikes. Good to be home, a pity the cows, the dust, the stepwells, our friends, something new around the corner is no longer. But on the train home I wrote paragraph after paragraph on how these stepwells can be read as passages. Different ‘types’ of stepwell stress different dimensions.  The sheer diagonal descent of Adi Chadi, the dark, angular zig-zag of Navghan Kund, the gangway around the well of RaKenghar, the four -cardinal- approaches to Chobari, the opposite congruence beyond the symmetrical of the double helical stepwell in Mehemdabad, and more. These experiences in a different world seem to me as valuable here as they are there.

It would be nice though if I could wake up in our own bed, next to my love, our kids visiting, and to open the window and see a ‘farm’ in Ahmedabad. “Home is where the heart is”, but in spirit we must be able to do better.


•January 28, 2011 • Leave a Comment


For a group of about thirty architecture students at CEPT who take a digital photography class we’ve set up the following exercise:

Exploration of a stepwell, Dada Harir in Ahmedabad, based on four different approaches. Photography is first of all a transformation of reality. Technically photography is about light-dark, focused-unfocused, color and composition, but decisive is the point of view. Photo’s that combine the subject and your personal thoughts, associations, reflections, fascination are more interesting. On the other hand to be communicative beyond the personal, a good photo is also related to the subject. The good photo tells something about the subject photographed and its context as well as about the photographer and his/her position. As a consequence the approach of a subject will contribute to the way the final photowork will be made and presented. To get a feel for this sense of how a point of departure defines the point of view of a photographer we propose the following exercise:

Step one (Saturday)

Four randomly composed groups 1-2-3-4 each pick up a task before the members start to make their final photo(’s)

1            the members of the first group make twenty drawings in/around the stepwell. Big small, color, black and white, that is up to you.

2            this group ventures out in and around Dada Harir and its neighborhood to enquire about the stepwell. Talk to twenty people or ask twenty questions, please don’t limit yourself to the historical or architectural aspects, but associate from that point with an open eye for social replacements of the original functions of a stepwell.

3            this group is the lucky one, they immediately start photographing, right from the moment they leave house. Take 20 photo’s at least in the stepwell, or even better take 20 x 20 🙂 discover the stepwell through your camera.

4            concentration is the keyword for this fourth group. They do ‘nothing’, prepare yourself for 20 minutes of slowly taking in the stepwell: see, touch, smell, ‘taste’, hear the stepwell and its immediate surrounding.

Step two (Saturday)

Gather per group and discuss in your group your experiences. Show each other what you did, and try to distill the meaning of what you’ve experienced.

Step three (Saturday/Sunday)

Return to the stepwell and make the photo’s that you think will relate your personal experience to the essential of the stepwell and your ideas about photography. This you can do individually or you might team up with one or more.

Step four (Monday)

Have the selected photo(‘s) printed in that way you can present the photowork as it should be communicative.

Step five (Monday evening)

We sit down in a room and discuss the works per group. The other three groups listen in. After the first group the next etc. Each group up till thirty minutes. We’ll round this off by discussing if and if yes, how, the different points of departure have influenced the final point of view.

After that we will show some of the work we’ve done on stepwells in Gujarat during two stays in Gujarat. Photo’s and some video. Up till one hour.

Jeroen van Westen, Curdin Tones and Parth Shah


•January 28, 2011 • Leave a Comment

We arrived at Ahmedabad, and this big, big town, is very different from Rajkot. One of the good things is we meet the students Parth teaches at the school of architecture. Nikunj Vakani and Sapan Gajjar, two sixth (final) year students help us to get around and we discuss with them the stepwells in depth. Sapan writes an essay on stepwells for an international competition. In his abstract he is very clear that stepwells are architectural in a sense that you can experience the sacred and the functional. He concentrates on light, on the Hindu beliefs in life as a cycle of rebirth, and the in between of architecture: that what is between inside and outside.

There are two aspects we try to raise his awareness for. Why, if this is all so sacred and architecturally perfect, are most of the stepwells so neglected, and second, why he is so interested in stepwells. Sapan explains he is interested in the sensorial experience of what he feels is spiritually charged. But, he agrees this chain is broken for most of the stepwells. Stepwells are functional, sacred and architecture. The architecture is still there, but loses meaning when the functional disappears. Some stepwells still are sites for ‘the sacred’, and a few are set apart as monuments. We stand at the parapet of the Adalai stepwell when we come to the conclusion, if there is no new chain to be linked to the broken chain of the stepwell there is no hope to escape the stepwell as a museum piece. In Adalai the wells are closed of, you can watch the wells from behind bars or through a steel grid. Very sad when you consider this stepwell as designed for the fourth aspect of a stepwell: a comfortable meeting place. Now, this might be a lead to a new opportunity for stepwells. They could become quiet places where one meets each other in the shade. They should be clean and safe, accessible and returned to the city/village/area by not only renovation of the stepwell, but also the urban weaving, the landscape setting, the … outside must fit the inside, and the stepwell is the in between, build by light and shadow.

One more pot

•January 28, 2011 • Leave a Comment

There are three main types of water vessels. The small household Matlu, about 20 cm diameter, the bigger 40 cm Matlu and the tall, 75 cm high Naan. Back in Rajkot in ‘our’ garden of College Wadi I set up one more session with a pot, the tall pot. This pot grinds sound from outside, and the bigger distance between bottom and opening might make it possible to see the full circle when the lid slides of and water is poured in, or a lota dips in. I really hoped to see the inner body of the pot, and I do. The light plays tricks and what I know to be hollow looks like it is a nice round belly. This very physical, human connotation meets the small stepwells we saw. In one, out in the open fields, a Banyan tree rooting in the well, I made a GoPro-recording from the limb of the tree. It was fun to climb the tree. The dimensions of this particular well, in the protective shade of the tree created a feeling of being at home. These two recordings, the one in the pot and the one in that tiny stepwell connect. Slowly ideas grow on how to include films in a show of the photos. Up and down, inside and outside, walking and roping in, pot and well, pot and body, steps and view, these couples can be linked into each other creating a chain of thoughts and associations. Surprisingly it is the pot that is the key factor in my personal relationship to the formal architecture of the stepwells, the small stepwells the step between pot and stepwell as a physical grip on a spiritual structure.


When I put the Matlu upside down on top of the Naan to say goodbye to College wadi, the Matlu feels warm, the Naan cold, two emotions of water in pot. While we sit at the veranda looking at the person this combination of two pots looks like, Curdin wonders if there is a word in Dutch like the German “Gefäss”. We cannot pin down the exact meaning, but we feel it is a generic word for hollow bodies that can contain food/liquids/…, comparable to the word vessel. We associate it on a more abstract level with to understand, embrace, to carry, … Not sure yet, but there might be something hidden in this word that may help to explain the nature of the research.

Ragsitapur, a walled village

•January 28, 2011 • Leave a Comment

No houses outside the wall, the gates still intact, the streets wide and rather clean. It looks prosperous enough, well maintained houses and a five-storey stepwell with a small tower at the entrance separately from the raised stepwell. Why? When you walk up you can see the tower or at other stepwells often a pavilion. The entrance pavilions are a nice shady space at a place where likely many people passed by to fetch water, so a very social place. But this tower? This small tower? Steps lead to the roof of this gate like structure. May be, it is to sit and watch the animals and people come by.

There is water in the stepwell but the women drop their pots in a different well, two hundred meters closer to the lake, ‘hiding’ behind the earthen wall that connects to the stonewall around the village. Actually, they don’t throw in their pots but a rubber replica of the old leather bags, and fill the pots from the bag.


A sacred grove

•January 28, 2011 • Leave a Comment

After Dandalpur we had to make a choice, the day passed quickly, only two hours of good light left. Either we could do smaller stepwells nearby, or we could try to find a shortcut to Chobari. There is no such road on the maps of Surendranagar, but there are way more roads in reality. Without signs, just ask your way from one village to the next. We were lucky there were several people walking along the road who wanted a ride. One old lady told us that she never ventured beyond the village where she was born and where she now lived with her husband, children and grandchildren. I know there is a world where you come from, but I don’t have to go there. Why should I?

Faster then expected we arrived at Chobari, meaning four windows, or four rectangles. Again a stepwell near a through road, this time in a grove of huge Banyan trees. The sun low, almost full moon rising. A square stepwell with four  entrances May be I should describe it s four stepwells meeting crosswise in a square well.  The water is very high, but the floor of the inner terrace is visible, possibly originally with four pavilions at the end of each stepwell. And t may be even a central pavilion over the actual central well?

There are many shrines, two at each entrance, and two per stepwell in the central square pond, totals sixteen. Engraved text runs along the walls of this stepwell. Gujarati lettering, but the words make no sense to Parth. This must be an older version of the language. At this site we re-open the question on how functional and the sacred are intertwined. They are not articulating each other like night and day, or nature and culture, but they are conditional to each other. First of all there is the need to have fresh water, second, water is sacred. Why is it sacred, because it is, recognized as the preliminary condition for survival, for life, certainly in arid regions.

We enjoyed this stepwell in the silence of many bird sounds, the birds settling for the night. We walked a bit further in the surrounding of Chobari Vav and found the remnants of another, small, stepwell, like Tre Koshi, and behind an earthen wall a lake, dry, on an island a small temple, like a small copy of the Modhera Sun temple, the entrance pointing east.

Lake Chantrasar, Pratapapur

•January 28, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Gujarat is THE dairy farm of India. The yoghurts, buttermilk, paneer, milk, they all taste great. A special treat is to us what comes from the buffalo, the rich mozzarella taste is super. We doubt that the city cows, living on cardboard, plastic bags and some green fodder imported into the city, produce as tasty milk. In fact it is a miracle you can drink it.

Pratapapur embodies this white gold of the buffalo. There are so many black water buffalo in this village. The village has a lake. Buffalo love water! The lake is octagonal, the shoreline in dressed stone, each side about 40 meters long. Three sloping entrances/exits for the buffalo. We saw a  group of fifty swim out of the eastern entry and exit at the southern one where we stood. Heavy, happy breaths, splashing, shiny black well rounded bodies. A powerful bunch.

The Northern entry is the silt basin that connects the lake to a natural water body. The four sides without entrances are steps into the lake where women do the laundry, bath at the southwestern and the men at the southeastern  side. Just next to the southern entry there is a regular well with clear water, very clear. While I did a GoPro recording women came and dropped their pots, children watch them and me around the well. An old man with lovely eyes followed us all morning we were there, helping out without speaking. He encouraged the women to do throw the pots in the water, and those images are great, the camera comes up, a pot comes down, the camera is passed by the pot that is hauled in with long firm movements that you can see as a shadow on the well’s wall.

So peaceful this village, exemplary of how water can create a dairy farm in arid land.


•January 28, 2011 • Leave a Comment


A giant stepwell, but ruined by the 2001 earthquake, yet worth a visit. We decide that this a good place for a vertical lowering lowering of a videocamera with the ‘Shah-pulley’. I hope it will be interesting when we lower it first facing the intact entry part, and up, facing the caved in part towards the well. We bought different ropes after the first experiment in Adi Chadi, not trusting the cotton silky rope will hold out in the end. And may be a woven rope is more stable, and as it is thicker, easier to spot for pigeons?

Even though the pulley goes down slowly, concentration of this slow giving and reeling in rope in the heat is exhausting, there is a certain sway. This makes the architecture look ‘shaky’? Fluid? Is that good? For this particular well, a ruin, it adds to the image. Technically, the footage could be darker towards the bottom, we still have problems on how to solve the problem of the great difference in light conditions when you cannot change the settings on the way down (or up). The automatic setting doesn’t show the powerful difference, the descent into darkness, into coolness, into the secret the steps into the earth lead to. May be we have to choose for over exposure that just shows what is going on for the upper level and above the earth, hopefully with still recognizable important aspects at the lowest levels.


There is another problem we notice. Is this kind of vertical movement looking into the horizontal axis not too architectural. Is there enough of a story being told in these shots? I wonder if we do these kind of shots in Dada Harir in Ahmedabad next week, how it would be if people were gathered on the platforms, the pavilions in the towers. People walk up and down the stepwell. I have no particular anthropological goal in mind, but am looking for a  reference to the major side effect of a working stepwell, just to pull it out of only architecture! Tricky, before one knows, the performance is central instead of the stepwell and its associative powers. How to explore this unison between the functional (fetching water), community, and the sacred power of water?

Back to Dada Harir: one person walks the staircase with an empty pot, fills the pot with water, and carries the pot up again. One camera is lowered over the deepest vertical axis, pointing horizontal towards the person fetching water who walks the diagonal axis. A different camera is in the water pot, looking up, vertically registering the light shafts and pavilion towers. This covers all three axis of a stepwell and shows a quintessence of the well: fetching water underground. Hope we can do it, there seem to have been some problems between Muslim and Hindu during the kite festival, and Dada Harir is in a more Muslim neighborhood.


•January 28, 2011 • Leave a Comment

In Wadwhan we also met with a former principal who after his retirement developed his interes tin the history of India. He is originally from Rampura and guided us there to his ‘mother stepwell’. It was not the first time he brought foreigners there to this big stepwell a couple of kilometers outside  the village. Since the late eighties a German researcher, Birgit and her husband Gustav regularly stayed with them. The research subject was memorial stones for Birgit and for Gustav, a photographer, stepwells. So far I missed this source, even though these photos are supposedly widely published.

The Rampura Vav is a beauty. Five pavillions, intact, along a rural road, people come and do offerings. We saw several pour milk in a ‘bowl’ carved in the entrance, and drip milk all along the rim of he stepwell. Again the good rains of last year filled up the well and water was pumped abundantly to the fields. Our guide told about the drought in the 1960’ies which made it possible in 1970 to pump out the last bit of water and to clean the stepwell completely.. We did a GoPro drop and when we later that evening watched the video at the computer we were excited: Yes we could see the lower windows to the well! But the drop itself was not so good. We work with different kinds of rope and this combination of wind, weight and well was not right for the camera. We don’t look for a clear image of the well, we are looking for a transformation that opens up different understandings of the stepwells, of my relation to them. We decided it would be worth it to do it again, which we did, this time we brought the computer so we could immediately after doing it watch and judge the video. The GoPro has no monitor itself, this small gem that brings us so much! Like in this well: this second time there is a continuous, rather high speed rotation, which blurs the ochre stones of the stepwell’s walls into a look inside a waterpot when thrown on a potters’ wheel.

Hospitality in Wadwhan

•January 28, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Traveling in te rural parts of northern Gujarat, off th national or state highways takes time, even if you hire a taxi with a great driver like David. The beautifully decorated, but often heavy, overloaded old trucks ruin the dirt roads terribly and a good monsoon does the rest. That is why we looked for a central town to stay, so we wouldn’t have to drive in and out of Surendranagar from Rajkot. Friends of Parth and Brinda offered us an empty house of an uncle in Wadwhan. Wadwhan is a charming old town with a big and great stepwell and an unfinished windpalace. Unfinished but what a concept, and such impressive architecture.

The extended family of the uncle who owns the house we stayed in are idealistic intellectuals with a broad cultural and social interest. The last evening in Wadwhan we gathered. We looked at last years photo’s I brought along, and some  of the footage shot with the GoPro waterproof camera, where the camera dis into ta well. After that, a lively discussion started with great comments and questions. ~The layered collages and the stitched panorama’s caused two discussions. First, does this show a stepwell in a truthful, convincing way. Or, behind that, can you combine several images into one photo, is that still a photo?

The next layer was about why do you show it this way, what are you looking for?

When I talked about my interest in framed water, water that has been culturally managed as a mean to study cultural relationships to a natural environment, our discussion took a turn. Most of the family talked in Gujarati so we had to wait for translations by the members who do speak fluent English. Midnight tea was served and after that I was too tired too concentrate. I gifted our host a print of their choice, they chose one of the most complex  collages!? The next day when we returned the keys we heard they had continued till three in the morning. The ‘verdict’: …. My feeling is they really love the images are happy about the multi-layered images which give clues to functionality, spirituality and the natural and cultural environment of the stepwells: water deep down in the earth, mirrors of a culture.