January 2019, driving through Gujarat searching for stepwells, we arrive at Virpur.
Between Junagadh and Surendernagar is the small town of Virpur. In the centre of town is the 12th Century Minal Vav stepwell, named after the woman who ordered it's construction. At first sight it's a disappointment, the location is rundown and the water at the bottom of the well shaft is full of litter. It's a classic Gujarati stepwell with a pillar and lintel construction, the more elegant styles with archways that came with the Islamic influence of the Mughals didn't make it this far south.
An unusual feature are the octagonal columns above ground. They seem to be purely decorative but look rather drab. Wire mesh covers the ground level openings above the two platforms between the descending steps and red painted steel girders have been added to give some support.
The unexpected charms of this stepwell are down to fact that although it's no longer a source of water, it's a popular shrine - the town's women have come here for centuries to pray to the fertility goddess Narmada Devi who rides a crocodile.
Walking down the steps we come to the first of several old and worn, but very beautiful, carved figures of Hindu deities smudged red with red vermilion paste, including what I believe is a reclining Vishnu, almost worn away by thousands of hands over the centuries. A garland of marigolds, a small round clay oil light and pieces of coconut have been left by devotees.
Dropping down a level we come to an red vermilioned shrine with a central meditating figure surrounded by intricate carvings. Opposite to that is another beautifully carved shrine with a central figure I believe to be Saraswati.
As we descend further we get different views of the stepwell and another shrine where someone has left a paper cartoon of Popeye in front of another figure, again maybe Saraswati, that's so worn away by the erosion of the years that figure is almost skeletal.
Dropping to the bottom level there are good views back up the well and climbing back up the well we come across a spectacular shrine portraying celestial beings, carved out the stone eight centuries ago, a truly magnificent piece of stone carving. Small figures stand at the feet of the long headed celestial beings, above them are elaborately carved geometric and organic shapes containing figures displaying a profound sense of energy and movement.
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