Karnataka, while already teeming with the prettiest temples, formidable forts, Ashokan edicts, pre-historic cave art, and megalithic burial sites, is also home to stepwells locally called Pushkarnis or Kalyanis. Though it is the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan that are popular for their ornate vavs and baolis, Karnataka has its own share of minimalistic and endearing pushkarnis that may not be as flamboyant but could possibly be precursors to the elaborate and multi-storeyed stepwells of Western India.
Pushkarnis are wells or reservoirs built as part of temples and are used for bathing and cleaning rituals before praying to the deity. The major difference between pushkarnis and baolis is while pushkarnis are primarily stepped tanks fed either by rains or high water table, baolis built in arid areas of Western India along with a stepped tank have a well that is the primary source of water. The lower levels of baolis lead you directly into the depths of the well.
Let us traipse across the beautiful state of Karnataka and across timelines to discover its rather unknown world of charming pushkarnis.
It is in the town of Lakkundi, about 12 kms from the district headquarters of Gadag in north central Karnataka, that you discover the charms of Western Chalukyas or Later Chalukyas’ architecture (10th to 13th Century AD). Lakkundi with its riches of temples is a gem waiting to be discovered as nearby popular places like Badami, Aihole and Hampi get all the attention. Lakkundi is a treasure house with about 50 temples and 101 pushkarnis. It is quite possible that the same Chalukyas moved to Gujarat to become Solankis who built the exceptional Rani-ki-Vav in Patan that has recently been declared a World Heritage Monument.
|The majestic Muskina Bhavi at Manikesvara Temple, Lakkundi|
On the outskirts of the Lakkundi town you come to a pleasant surprise. In the beautiful Manikesvara Temple complex, there is a pushkarni locally called Muskina Bhavi. Now this pushkarni is the most elaborate and baoli-like you have ever seen in Karnataka and gives the baolis of Western India a run for their money. So far the pushkarnis have been basic square tanks with few steps leading into a shallow water tank. Here, in Lakkundi, the tank is dug deep with stone steps built into the sides almost all the way to the base.
|Muskina Bhavi in Lakkundi Karnataka|
There are entry points into the tank on three sides. The main entry in the south is the most interesting. Steps bring you deep inside the well as you reach the cool and comforting shelter of a two storied mantapa built using heavy stone pillars. The most endearing feature is the niches built into the sides of the pushkarni. The canopied structures are shrines that were possibly added by the Hoysalas later. The stepwell and the temple sit among manicured lawns with trees all around the complex.
|Pushkarni at Chennakesava Temple in Belur|
The Hoysalas (10th to 14th Century AD) followed the Western Chalukyas and gifted Karnataka with the most exquisite temples. In Belur, Hoysalas’ earlier capital, the ornate Chennakesava Temple has a pushkarni next to the gopura. The graceful, small tank has little shrines that provide a teaser to the spectacular Hoysala temple sculpture.
|Pampa Sarovar - one of the six holy sarovars - Anegundi Karnataka|
Now coming to the place you have visited several times and have fallen in love with. Anegundi or Old Hampi is the site of mythical Ramayan’s Kishkindha, the Kingdom of Monkeys. Lord Ram and Lakshman are believed to have bathed in the Pampa Sarovar during their quest of abducted Sita. The backdrop of boulders, monkeys going about their business, the serenity of the place, Rishyamooka Hill and Vijalakshmi Temple looking over divinely; here on the banks of Pampa Sarovar you can actually see Sabari feeding Ram wild berries.
Across Tungabhadra river to the south of Anegundi, is glorious Hampi, the capital of the majestic Vijaynagar Empire (14th to 17th Century AD). All major temples in Hampi have their pushkarnis. The Hampi pushkarnis are quite plain and functional. It is possible that along with bathing rituals, watering the orchards, the tanks were used to conduct boat races during festival days.
|The majestic Pushkarni in the Royal Enclosure at Hampi Karnataka|
Here in Hampi, among the ruins of the Royal Enclosure, ASI in mid-1980s discovered a spectacular pushkarni. Built out of chloritic schist blocks, the pushkarni is remarkable for its geometric proportions and comes closest to baolis of Rajasthan. The pushkarni was believed to be fed by the waters of tank outside the urban core in Kamalpura by a system of masonry channels, elevated stone aqueducts and terracotta pipes. No extant temple is seen here. It is possible this tank was used by the royalty for pleasure.
|Pushkarni in the Pan-Supari Bazaar, Hampi|
Moving beyond the royal temple Hazara Rama Temple, in the Pan-Supari Bazaar, there is another interesting pushkarni with an associated unidentified temple and a stambh.
|Pushkarni near Lotus Mahal, Hampi, Karnataka|
Following the same path on the way to the Lotus Mahal enclosure, you come to yet another Pushkarni. You never associated Hampi with pushkarnis but as you walk into trails not taken before, there seems to be plenty of pushkarnis here!
|Pushkarni in Krishna Bazaar, Hampi, Karnataka|
In the Krishna Temple complex, walking through the Krishna Bazaar brings you to a rectangular pushkarni, surrounded by colonnades and with a small pavilion standing in the middle of the tank. At the height of summer, the tank is dry.
|Pushkarni near Vitthal Temple, Hampi, Karnataka|
As you walk from Vitthal Temple through the bazaar, another pushkarni is seen on the left quite similar to the one in Krishna Bazaar. It is recommended to walk this stretch instead of taking the electric van.
|Manmatha Tank near Virupaksha Temple, Hampi, Karnataka|
A functioning pushkarni Manmatha Tank is seen just outside North Tower of the Virupaksha Temple facing the river. The massive tank is lined up with a number of shrines, some predating the temple itself. Few yards away, Tungabhadra flows cheerfully under dark monsoon clouds.
|Pushkarni near Achyutaraya Temple, Hampi, Karnataka|
Matanga Hill overlooks the Courtesan’s Street. Another pretty pushkarni with a pavilion adds to overall scene as you walk towards the Achyutaraya Temple leaving Hampi Bazaar behind.
|Pushkarni near Pattabhirama Temple in Hampi, Karnataka|
Beyond the Pattabhirama Temple on the way to Domed Gateway is another pretty looking pushkarni. Away from the town, the pushkarni is a great spot to spend an afternoon.
|Stepwell in the village of Malpannagudi, near Hampi|
On the way to Hampi from Hospet, there is stepwell in the village of Malpannagudi. Built in 1412, the octagonal well is surrounded by sultanate-style arcades. Most visitors in their hurry to get to Hampi miss all these gems on the way.
|Anantashayanagudi near Hampi|
Another gem on the way to Hampi is the massive Anantashayanagudi with a huge rectangular sanctuary. In the rear there is a comparatively small pushkarni as kids play games on a Sunday.
|My favourite fort in Karnataka - Chitradurga|
Moving south of Hampi, your favourite Karnataka fort at Chitradurga has several pushkarnis too. Among forts, Chitradurga has probably the most incredible fortscape. Large boulders combine with man made walls to create the most impregnable of forts. Inside the seven layers of walls, temples and water bodies compete for attention.
|Gommateshwara, Karkala in Udupi, Karnataka|
As you climb the Western Ghats to arrive in the beautiful Konkan, rains weave magic and Udupi beckons with plate full of surprises. Forty kms away, Karkala has a huge monolithic statue of Gommateshwara, second only to the massive monolith at Shravanabelagola. Just outside the wall is a small pushkarni from where kids emerged after swimming, bringing your attention to the tank and the misty hills in the horizon.
|Badiger Gudi in the Durga Temple Complex, Aihole, Karnataka|
Now if we are talking of temples in Karnataka, how can we not mention Aihole. Badiger Gudi in the Durga Temple Complex has a small pushkarni attached to the temple.
|Banashankari Temple with its huge Deep Stambh near Badami|
Moving back into the times of Badami Chalukyas or the Early Chalukyas (6th to 8th Century AD), we come to Banashankari Temple near Badami, north of Gadag. The three side colonnaded pushkarni is enormous and full of water. The unique feature of the pushkarni is the huge Deep Stambh Tower on the west side. The swaying coconut trees all around present a wonderful sight as pilgrims take a swim in the perennial tank with the sun going down behind the deep stambha.
|Agasthya Lake in Badami, Karnataka|
Back in town of Badami, you are treated to your favourite and the most iconic view of pushkarnis in Karnataka. In your previous visit, you had seen the glorious view as you climbed the North Hill to look at the sculpted caves. This time you are walking towards the east end of Agasthya Lake hemmed in between the North and South Hills. In the distance, Bhuthanath Temple seems to float on the green waters of the tank. Clothes stretched on the steps dry under the evening sun. Badami transports you back into time. All you can see is the water of the kund, temple and hills in the background. Karnataka has become even more beautiful. Discovering the understated world of Pushkarnis has added another dimension to the built heritage of Karnataka.
A version of this story appeared in the Spectrum supplement of Deccan Herald on 7th June 2016
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