In the 2005 film Paheli, the characters Lachchi (Rani Mukherjee) and Kishanlal (Shah Rukh Khan) each stop at the Hadi Rani ki Baori in Toda Rai Singh, Rajasthan as part of their separate, but related, journeys.
For Lachchi, it is her journey to Kishan's home as a bride.
For Kishan, it is his journey away from home - and Lachchi - to manage his father's business in a far away town.
They both meet the same stranger at the well ...
Stepwells ("baoli") are very common in western India where it is estimated that around 3,000 of these structures have been built.
Western India has a hot and semi-arid climate and depends mostly on two months of monsoon rains for the water supply. To cope with the seasonal fluctuations in water availability, structures were built to help store water. Stepwell construction is known to have been undertaken as early as 600 A.D.
Building a stepwell required digging deep trenches into the earth to reach the groundwater, available year-round.These trenches are lined with blocks of stone, without mortar, and stairs are built to lead down to the water. According to archdaily.com:
Construction of stepwells involved not just the sinking of a typical deep cylinder from which water could be hauled, but the careful placement of an adjacent, stone-lined “trench” that, once a long staircase and side ledges were embedded, allowed access to the ever-fluctuating water level which flowed through an opening in the well cylinder. In dry seasons, every step – which could number over a hundred – had to be negotiated to reach the bottom story. But during rainy seasons, a parallel function kicked in and the trench transformed into a large cistern, filling to capacity and submerging the steps sometimes to the surface. This ingenious system for water preservation continued for a millennium.
While each stepwell has its own unique architecture, they all have steps which provide access to the pond. Some stepwells also have ramps so cattle can get to the water.
The story about Hadi Rani, this stepwell's namesake, is both fascinating and frightening. According to todaraisingh.com:
Hadi Rani is known for her legendary character. She was a daughter of Hada Rajput and was married to a Chieftain Chundawat of Salumbar in Mewar. Hadi Rani sacrificed her life only to motivate her husband to go the war. In the year 1653-1680 a battle was fought between Maharaja of Mewar and Aurangzeb. Maharaja of Mewar called her husband for the war. But the Sardar hesitated about going to war as he was married only a few days earlier. However, being a Rajput and to protect the Rajput honour he had to join the battle and he asked Hadi Rani to give him some memento to take with to the battlefield. Hadi Rani thought that she was an obstacle to his husband in completing his duty for Mewar of being a Rajput. So, to motivate her husband to go the war and protect Mewar, she ordered her head to be severed and presented to her husband. On seeing the head of his beloved Hadi Rani, the Sardar shattered but then tied her head proudly as a memento around his neck by its hair. He fought bravely in the battlefield and made the forces of Aurangzeb to run but even after the victory he refused to go from the battlefield and he cut his neck too as he didn’t want to live anymore.
After hearing this story, perhaps it is appropriate that we learn in Paheli that many ghosts happen to reside near the Hadi Rani ki Baori.
Besides being a primary source of potable water, stepwells also served as a resting place for the travelers. Because stepwells are deep, the base of the well provides relief from the scorching heat of the summer. This effective technique for cooling the atmosphere is being leveraged in modern buildings in Jaipur where he temperature rises to 45 degrees C or 113 degrees F.
The practice of making stepwells into an art form was begun by the Hindus and popularized under Muslim rule. Over the centuries, stepwell construction evolved so that by the 11th century they were astoundingly complex feats of engineering, architecture, and art. Todaraisingh.com has the following to say about the Hadi Rani ki Baori design:
The traditional architecture of this baori, when seen from a distance, makes this place a must-visit. The Baori has unique features in it as there is no symmetry in the design and many more. The steps are built in such a way that it will collect the water. The steps looks crazy almost like waves rolling down the hill side.
Stepwells became gathering places. Religious ceremonies were held in these architectural wonders. They became places of social and spiritual significance. However, during the British Raj stepwells were replaced with pipes and pumps to address concerns over the quality of hygiene in the wells. As a result, many of the stepwells were abandoned competely -- as were the celebrations held there. Many stepwells fell into disrepair.
Amol Palekar, the director of Paheli, said of the Hadi Rani ki Baori:
"One of the most fascinating locations in this film is the well. The baori is a fascinating in Rajasthan but very few people know about this."
However, since the release of the film the Hadi Rani ki Baori has become a popular destination.
Postscript: With the current water scarcity issues increasing in western India due to drought and climate change, agro-engineers have been studying stepwells as a means to help address the region's water shortages.
If you enjoyed this story, check out our other Filming India (Travel) posts.