A HAPPY OUTCOME of the destruction of the political fortunes of the Congress party is the deserved erosion of the Communist stranglehold on our institutions. This has manifested itself in the emergence of an unapologetic Sanatana civilisational narrative across the globe, especially over the last decade. One of its most visible facets is the increasing interest in rediscovering the various elements that built and sustained the Sanatana cultural complex for eons. Temples, architecture, sculpture, art and monuments form a central ingredient in this project of cultural recovery, and the work that is going on in this area is truly unprecedented in terms of scale, resources, scholarship and investment.
A sub-specialisation in this realm includes almost an explosion of interest in the excavation, study and maintenance of step-wells. With little exaggeration, it maybe said that the tradition and practice of constructing step-wells is another great marker of the cultural unity and civilisational continuity of Bharatavarsha. Like Sanskrit. Like temples. Like our Deities. Even if we are to go by just the number of step-wells discovered so far, it is clear that this ancient land was a beautiful network of zigzagged step-wells.
Indeed, step-wells are a beautiful confluence of functionality, mathematics, art and Sanatana piety. A measure of how inaccessible our own culture has become to us is this: when the step-wells were built, their primary purpose was to supply water to the village or town. It was like the ubiquitous village lake or tank, a public utility. Today, we admire them as artistic relics of the past forgetting that our “past” is actually continuous. That is a topic for another day.
However, the elegant aspect of our step-wells is the fact that there is a story behind almost every step-well. Populated by real-life characters and events and inspirations. In fact, every story of every step-well brings us a step closer to reconstructing the accurate history of Bharatavarsha in an all-encompassing and multidisciplinary sense.
This essay narrates the story of an unknown step-well at Mangalna, Rajasthan. I have tried in vain to trace its exact location and am still unsure whether it exists today but the inscription which narrates its story opens a profound universe before us in a picturesque fashion.
THE MOST PRONOUNCED feature that beckons us to the Mangalna step-well is the circumstance and the era it was built in. Twenty-three years after the treacherous defeat and murder of the last great Hindu Samrat of Uttarapatha: Prithviraja Chahamana. His intrepid and revenge-hungry brother Hariraja managed to recover Ajayameru for a while but had to burn himself to death when he was cornered by the vile Qutub-ud-din Aibak. After this, Ajayameru became a vassal of the Turushka sultan in Delhi.
An offshoot of this Chahamana lineage sprouted and then flourished in Ranastambhapura under the leadership of Prithviraja’s son, Govindaraja. His son was Vallanadeva (or Balhanadeva), who stabilised the new Rajput Empire and paved the way for the emergence of Hammiradeva, a name that still evokes great pride and thrill in this land of Hindu heroes.
The story of the Mangalna step-well opens in the reign of Vallanadeva. Its hero is his Mahāmaṇḍaḷēśvara or chief feudatory named Jaitra Simha, a Kshatriya descended from the Dadicha gotra. The popular surname “Dahiya,” found even today in and around Rajasthan, Haryana and Gujarat is a corruption of “Dadicha.” The Dahiya Kshatriyas till date worship Dadhmat Devi as their Kula Devata or family deity. An inscription of the Dahiya Kshatriyas was discovered in the famous Kevaya-Mata Temple in Kinsariya, Rajasthan. More on that in a separate essay.
Apart from being a gallant general, Jaitra Simha as an administrator, deeply cared for the welfare of the people in his dominions. An illustrious son of his illustrious father, Padmasimhadeva, Jaitra Simha was pained to observe the plight of his citizens suffering from water scarcity in this Daumāra bhūmi.
The term in the Marwari dialect for water scarcity is dumāra. Indeed, the term Marwad itself means “land of the desert.” It is derived from Sanskrit: Maru = Barren or Desert; Wāda = area or region.
Accordingly, Jaitra Simha ordered the construction of a large step-well in the Maṅgaḷānaka region so that its inhabitants would never fall short of water again. Today, Maṅgaḷānaka is the nondescript Manglana village, lying eighty kilometres north of Ajmer, in the Parbatsar district. A straight line spanning 115 kilometres due west from Jaipur leads to this forgotten village.
The remarkable feature of this episode is the fact that Jaitra Simha did not levy any tax to meet the capital expenditure to fund the step-well construction. However, once it was completed, he ordered select cesses for its maintenance, known as Dharmārtha or charitable levies. These taxes were proportionately distributed across each plough and each oil-mill employed in Manglana. The levy is as follows:
15 Seers of cluster beam, black gram, chickpea, and moth bean produced by each plough
1 Tola of oil from each oil-mill
In turn, the people of Mangalana paid the levies willingly because they recognised the profound source of Jaitra Simha’s impulses: the Dharmārtha would provide food and water to the hungry traveller, wayfarer and pilgrim alike. The night-traveller would also be supplied with lamps to light his way. It is clear that the rationale behind this specific tax from specific professions was entirely consistent with its utilisation.
A Miniature of Enlightened Local Administration
LIKE EVERY ENLIGHTENED ruler, Jaitra Simha was farsighted. He founded a board of trustees which would ensure the continuity of this noble institution of charity even after his death. The board and not Jaitra Simha was henceforth entrusted with the management of these cesses. It was the familiar Pancha (from whence the term, Panchayat is derived) system comprising the following men: Ajaya, Lohara, Alhana, Bhopatiya, and Devadhara. These were village headmen and officials serving in various administrative capacities.
The Mangalana Stone Inscription dated 1215 records the whole event in detail. It was first deciphered in 1912 and sent to the Ajmer Museum for safekeeping and preservation. I was unable to find out whether it still exists there. It should ideally count as one of India’s inestimable civilisational and cultural treasures. And if it has been lost or defaced, it is a national loss. The insight it shines on the ennobling and well-oiled complex of the unbroken Hindu administrative and governance systems is an enduring beacon of guidance for contemporary and future bureaucratic procedures. Indeed, it displays an almost 1:1 correspondence between the Kautilyan administrative precepts and practices. The same correspondence can also be seen in almost all Hindu Empires, big and small.
The fact that Jaitra Simha commissioned the step-well in such chaotic and dangerous times moves us emotionally. On the one side, the Ranastambhapura branch of the Chahamanas was fighting a daily battle for survival against the intractable Turushka enemy who knew neither ethics nor statecraft and was alien to culture and refinement. Yet, the Chahamana ruler and his Mahāmaṇḍaḷēśvara not only protected their citizens but attended to their most elementary needs.
Needless, the Mangalana Stone Inscription also names names in a highly revealing manner:
This inscription composed to consecrate a step-well aptly ends with an invocation of the sacred rivers of Bharatavarsha that include the Deva-Nadi Ganga, Kshipra, Vetravati, Sarasvati, Mahanadi, Gandaki and Purna, and prays to the three seas to bestow their fruits upon this step-well. In other words, to keep its water filled to the brim.
The picture that evidently emerges from a study of this rather brief inscription comprising just fifteen verses is of cosmic scope. In a miniature, it opens the doors of history, archeology, administration, culture, society, and above all, the patently Hindu impulse of Dharma, which made all this possible. In that sense, the story of the Mangalana step-well is a profound invitation to explore the crypt containing a tiny sliver of the history of the Dharmasastra as expressed in lived experience.
In the end, the Mangalana Stone Inscription, which narrates the precise details of this step-well also gives us its precise location. It is a village named Hari-Durjjodhana. Today, it is known as Hariyajun, site of the famous Hariyajun Mataji Temple, about twelve minutes from Mangalna. Equidistant from Ajmer and Jaipur. Tucked away from the commercial tourist circuit of Rajasthan. Perhaps for its own good. In every sense, it is a repose for the seeker and not the pleasure-house for the reveller.
Unfortunately, I was unable to determine whether the step-well actually exists in Hariyajun today. That is a sacred calling for the archeologist to unearth.
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