A brahmin invented chess in India in the fifth century to convince his monarch that while a king might be the most important player, no attack or defense of his realm could occur without his subject's support. The chess moves protected the king, his advising minister, his elephants, and his chariots - and thus, his borders. When the West adopted chess, the minister metamorphosed into a queen and the elephants and chariots into castles and bishops, and this shift suggested a different context for control of the checkered board.
Dynamic fifth-century India saw other innovations parallel to chess, but none more important than the invention of the great medieval stone cisterns with access stairs, the stepwells and stepped ponds of western India. Over centuries the borders of the kingdoms that built them were contested repeatedly. Only after Independence in 1957 did these western Indian lands become the contemporary states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, with the present border being drawn between them in i960. While embattled during most of their history, the loss of the Hindu and Muslim kingdoms mean that no king remained to build new cisterns for his people, while old ones fell into disuse. On the point of utter ruin, the abandoned buildings eventually came to be adopted both by the government, which borrowed Western preservation models in the hope of tourist income, and by local people, who needed to house their goddesses in a place tradition connected with fertility through its water. While outsiders might view the democratic government and the villagers as two facets of one group, the two came up with diametrically opposed methods of contesting these prizes. And a tentative staking of stepwell territory in the 1980s and 90s by one group or the other led by the late 90s to separate vocabularies of architectural elements that make each group's intentions toward its water buildings clear.
This paper will examine the decisive split that occurred as the two groups claimed one water building after another. It will examine how pun-like double meanings led to hardening these sites with metalwork, attaching to them a history, and attracting people to them. The parallel transformations make more vivid and more clear than has the media the paradoxes of water use and the meaning of history in India today. Water buildings in their new guise appear as two separate entities, even though they were once cut like chess pieces from the same stones. They articulate that mysterious mode Indians call preservation, so hard to define because it is always in flux. Water buildings have become a territory where two distinct entities in India, the villagers and the central government, are struggling to establish their own voices and chart new boundaries.