Karnataka, which boasts of magnificent monuments of architectural and historical importance, is also home to artistically-designed traditional stepwells, locally known as pushkarni or kalyani. Though the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan are popular for similar structures called 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 ornate and multi-storeyed stepwells of western India.
Pushkarnis are wells or reservoirs built normally as part of temples and are used for bathing and cleaning rituals before praying to the deity. Some of them are also used for domestic purposes. The pushkarnis of Karnataka are shallow and primarily rainfed, and therefore tend to get dry in the summer months. However, in places where the water table is high, the pushkarnis would have water perennially. Baolis built in the arid areas of western India have wells as the primary source of water.
Architectural marvel Let us traipse around the State to discover its rather unknown world of charming pushkarnis. It is in the town of Lakkundi, about 12 km from Gadag, that you discover the beauty of Later Chalukyan architecture. Lakkundi is a treasure house with about 50 temples and 101 pushkarnis. In the beautiful Manikesvara temple complex here, there is a pushkarni, locally called ‘Muskina Bhavi’. Now this pushkarni is the most elaborate and baoli-like structure I have ever seen in Karnataka. Normally, the pushkarnis in the State are basic square tanks with a few steps leading into a water tank. Here, in Lakkundi, the tank is dug deep with stone steps built into the sides almost all the way to the base.
There are entry points into the tank on 3 sides. The main entry in the south is the most interesting. The steps bring you deep inside the well as you reach the cool and comforting shelter of a 2-storied mantapa built using heavy stone pillars. The most endearing feature is the niche built into each side of the pushkarni. The canopied structures are shrines that were possibly added by the Hoysalas later. The stepwell and the temple sit among the manicured lawns with trees all around the complex.
The Hoysalas gifted Karnataka with exquisite temples. In Belur, their earlier capital, the ornate Chennakeshava 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.
Now, coming to the place you have visited several times and have fallen in love with, Hampi. All major temples in Hampi have pushkarnis. The pushkarnis here are plain and functional. It is said that along with domestic use and watering the orchards, the tanks here were also used to conduct boat races during festival days. Among the ruins of the royal enclosure of Hampi, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) discovered a spectacular pushkarni in the 1980s. Built out of chloritic schist blocks, the pushkarni is remarkable for its geometric proportions and comes closest to the baolis of Rajasthan.
The pushkarni is believed to be fed by a tank in Kamalapura by a system of masonry channels, elevated stone aqueducts and terracotta pipes. No extant temple can be seen close to this tank. It is possible that this tank was used by the royalty.
Normally, Hampi is not associated with pushkarnis, but as you walk into the trails not taken before, there seem to be plenty of pushkarnis here. 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. As you walk from the Vittal 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.
The Manmatha Tank, a functional pushkarni, is seen just outside the north tower of the Virupaksha Temple facing River Tungabhadra. The massive tank is lined up with a number of shrines, some predating the temple itself. A few yards away, River Tungabhadra flows cheerfully under dark monsoon clouds.
One more pretty pushkarni with a pavilion adds to the overall scene as you walk towards the Achyutaraya Temple. On the way to Hampi from Hosapete, there is a stepwell in the village of Malpannagudi. Built in 1412, the octagonal well is surrounded by sultanate-style arcades.
Tourist’s favourite Moving back into the times of Early Chalukyas, we come to Banashankari Temple near Badami. The 3-side colonnaded pushkarni is enormous and full of water. The unique feature of the pushkarni is the huge deepa stambha (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.
In the town of Badami, you are treated to your favourite and the most iconic view of pushkarnis in Karnataka. In my previous visit, I had seen the glorious view as I climbed the North Hill to look at the sculpted caves. This time I walked towards the east end of Agasthya Lake hemmed in between the North and South Hills. In the distance, Bhuthanath Temple seemed to float on the green waters of the tank. Clothes were stretched on the steps to dry under the evening sun. Badami transports one back in time. All one can see is the water of the tank with the temple and hills in the background. After the trail, I realised that discovering the understated world of pushkarnis adds one more dimension to the built heritage of Karnataka.