Water as a utilitarian and ritualistic element has been important throughout the history of the Indian subcontinent. Rgveda has associated water with the idea of creation and so has the Islamic doctrine. This association of water with the divine attribute of creation in almost all the pre-modern civilizations seems to have been the result of the life sustaining quality of this natural element. Apart from acquiring it from natural sources, civilizations have also succeeded in controlling, diverting and manipulating water. The architecture used in this process is called water architecture and in Indian context this architecture manifested in many building types including wells, step-wells (baolis), well houses, ponds, reservoirs, pools, tanks etc.
These water structures were not only spaces of utilitarian and economic activity but they also emerged as upholders of many socio-cultural aspects of public life like pleasure and entertainment. The architecture and the presence of the element of water made these structures visually appealing which must have been an important factor in the arrangements of pleasantries around them.
Social gatherings and parties:
There is a considerable information about the social gatherings that were organized around water architecture. Ibn Batuta writing in the 14th century AD talks about Tank of Sultan Iltutmish at Delhi. He tells that it was the place on the western side of which were two built platforms. These platforms had stairs which led to the water of the tank and beside the platforms were domes containing seats for the people to sit and enjoy the view. These domes were the haven of pleasure and amusement seekers reports Ibn Batuta. Further in the centre of this tank was a great pavilion built of squared stones which was two storeys high. This structure could only be reached by boats when the tank was filled with water but at other times it could be walked to and inside the domed structure there used to live world renowned fakirs. This reference comments upon the nature of social gathering at such water structures and their public spirit. The other major tank at Delhi is also mentioned by Ibn Batuta, regarding which he writes that this Hauz-khas was larger than the Hauz of Iltutmish and on its sides were about forty domes and around it the musicians lived and performed and such was the significance of the presence of musicians there that the place had come to be known as Tarababad (House of musicians). This was a site of organization of a large market as well which was described to be one of the largest in the world. The space around the hauz was also marked by a number of mosques including the one congregational mosque and many smaller ones. In these mosques female and male reciters used to perform the tarawih prayers during the month of Ramazan and there were a considerable number of women who attended the prayers. These references hint upon the essence of public pleasantries as experienced in the vicinity of the visually relieving and physically soothing structure of a tank.
The pleasurable element associate with these tanks at Delhi seems to have survived till much later time. There is mention of this tank as a space for parties and gatherings during the Lodi period (16th century AD). A source reports that one of the nobles under Sultan Sikandar Lodi, Miyan Zabar-ud-Din used to spend 8 months of his year in Delhi. About his stay at Delhi it is said, “… he used to go on every Monday to the Hauz-i-Shamsi (Shamsi tank) along with his friends, among whom were included the scholars, Mashaikh, Sufis (Saints), poets, scientists, Qawals (singers) and musicians and held a party on its bank. He maintained a large kitchen from where victuals were freely distributed.” This reference acts as an important marker of the persistence of the nature of the pleasantries as was experienced around the Hauz of Delhi from Tughlaq to Lodi period. Further the presence of Jahaz Mahal on the bank of the Hauz-i-Shamsi with its clearly Lodi architectural features also asserts the continued occupation of the site and most probably it was this structure or a similar structure that must have been used by Miyan-Zabar-ud-Din for his extravagant parties.
A glimpse of public pleasantries along the water bodies can be had from a reference to a later Mughal Shahjahanabad. It is informed that the bank of dariya (river/ lake) was an important space of gathering of the crowd and of performers for showing off their skills.
Sports and Hunting:
Apart from the parties, performances and public gathering that went on in the vicinity of the water structures, they were also sites where the sport of hunting could be pursued. This pursuit could be made both by the royals and by the common travelers. It is significant to note that when passing through the country of Champarin, Peter Mundy came across two large tanks which were lying on the outskirts of the establishments he visited. He informs that there was abundance of fowl in both these tanks and when they stopped by them on their journey, they did manage to kill some of these fowls. Not only did the fowling take place in such structures but there was scope for fishing as well which was an important activity undertaken. Mention can be made here of a town which is called by Peter Mundy as Puttatalaw (Patthar-talao, Patari), it is said that by the side of this town was a Large Tank where the king used to stop by on his journey from Agra to Burhanpur. And it was in this tank that the Emperor enjoyed the sport of fowling and fishing. The lake under the city of Fatehpur Sikri is reported to have a store of fishes as well.
The water aesthetics along with public gathering, music, food, sport and parties present an interesting picture of public pleasure as was experienced around water structures.
Women and water architecture:
On the front of gender these spaces became domains of female expression and also acted as sites of gender interactions. The public nature of the spaces made these interactions discreet. Anecdotes mentioned in Waqiat-i-Mushtaqi , an important source of Afghan history, mentions many stories of forbidden love and most of them unfold in the theater of water structures. One of these stories takes place at the site of a well at Bhogaon, which was the stronghold of Rai Pratap the Rajput chief during the reign of Sultan Bahlul Lodi. It is reported that there was a girl who was drawing water from this well and a student who was passing by the place stopped by to have some water. On looking at this beautiful girl the student was captivated by her beauty and fell in love and refused to take water to drink from any other women who were present there but this woman. She agreed to give him water but got irritate because of the fact that he couldn’t drink water and continued to stare at her face, this made the woman angry and she asked him to jump in to the well. The lovestruck man soon jumped into the well and ended his life. There are more such anecdotes reported. Ovington, a traveler in Mughal India gives a detailed analyses of the ornamentation and beauty of the Bania women who used to come to collect water from the well. He writes about their gold rings, bracelets and anklets which they show off when they go to collect water. These women might have come to well to collect water and gossip with the other women but they also were visible and accessible in these public spaces. These references suggest that the public water structures were spaces of interaction of genders and of discreet, forbidden love in addition to being sites of regular mundane life activities.
Water spaces of medieval times then can be understood to have been lively places of much public activity, party and other pleasures and pleasantries. They also sometimes acted as means of subversion of social norms regarding gender.