An Enquiry into Thirst, and the 28th Parallel
Location: The Moon Stepwell at the Forgotten Temple of Happiness
Next to a temple to the goddess of happiness, in the village of Abhaneri — which could translate as ‘Lost Lustre’ — a hundred kilometers east from Jaipur in Rajasthan, there is a monument to thirst, and it’s antidote. The Chand Baoli, Moon Stepwell, made more than a 1000 years ago, some say by a djinn over a night. The desert begins not far from here, bang on the 28th parallel.
The Chand Baoli descends 30 meters (100 feet) down into the earth, in a cascade of 13 stepped terraces, comprising of 3,500 steps. It is said that no one ever climbs up, or down, the same steps twice. The well appears like a vertical mirage, emanating from a vertical, not horizontal horizon. It was said that it always had cool, potable water, even in the driest of times.
Climate Change, Rainfall and The Paradox of Floods in the Desert
Rajasthan (where Abhaneri is located) is India’s driest state. The great Thar Desert is steadily advancing. And yet, there is a paradox of intense rainfall, and floods, in a place thought to be arid. There has been more rainfall in Rajasthan in recent years than there has been in the last two hundred years. Both desertification and excess rain are attributed to long term patterns of climate change. As if the desert and floodwaters were competing for attention, trying to warn us.
At the same time, Rajasthan is also facing a severe groundwater depletion crisis. A decadal average study has inferred that there has been an overall decline in groundwater by 62.7 % in the state (November 2008 – November 2018).
Increasing rainfall on dry, sandy, rocky ground does not seep in. It evaporates quickly. The clouds burst, but the earth remain thirsty.
The Memory of Water and a Poem to Thirst
There is a story of water that can be told with creeping deserts, flash floods and a thirsty earth. The step well, which has registered the rise and fall of water, both harvested from rain, and kept safe as groundwater, is like a mnemonic device. Its steps are the memory of water.
The Water and the Desert Crossing; Birds and Humans
Migrating birds, on voyages thousands of kilometers across, stop to quench their thirst, pulled to places of refuge by the memory of water. Reservoirs at the edge of the desert become places of solace, for birds
and humans. The stepwell at Abhaneri was more than a place to quench your thirst before moving on towards the desert crossing; it was a place to rest, to pause, to prepare for the next moment for both humans and non-humans.
Thirst and Tides in the Body
To be thirsty is to immediately understand the limits of the body. Every structure that human beings build – home, refuge or shelter – has to make room for the means of quenching thirst. It is possible to live in a house without a kitchen, but not in a place where there are no means to store water. To make room for water is to make room for life itself. What does a house for water look like?
There are tides, currents and deltas under our skin. The architecture of the human body takes into account the fact that sixty percent of us is water. The body is a deep well. A strong, healthy body can stretch itself to live for close to three weeks without food, but without water we would be dead in three days.
An Architecture of/for Water
Thinking about an architecture for keeping water safe is a starting point for the way in which built form produces possibilities for the human body. The step well is a method for transforming the reality of scarcity into an embodiment of method for living with scarcity.
Clepsydra: The Water Clock and the Theft of Time
It is possible to tell time by measuring water. Not just hours, but also aeons. Geologists look for water marks in the stratigraphy of rocks to mark different epochs. Water clocks to measure the flux of time by means of calibrating increasing or decreasing water levels are known as clepsydra – which means time thief. The water clock, by literally making the passage of time in relation to the drainage of water, seems to witness time flowing away, being stolen. It is possible to see a stepwell as a giant clepsydra, a device that marks the ebb and flow of time with the rise and flow of water levels, and with its reservoir as a treasure of stolen time.
Water Divinations, for the Thirst Enquirer
People have looked into, and at water, to discern patterns, to see reflections of themselves, and of the heavens. What kind of divinations are possible at chand baoli? With its cascading structure, with its niches and alcoves, the chand baoli holds as a metaphor for the ascent and descent of human consciousness to the sources of its nourishment. It is a place for divination, for sensing the future, for guarding the present, for remembering the past, and knowing the secrets and auguries that are revealed only to the thirsty enquirer.