When one considers India’s architectural marvels, more often than not we allude to masterpieces by the Mughals, the ever so sophisticated Taj Mahal being a prime instance of that. If not the Mughals, the grandiose of the Rajasthani palaces and forts is talked up and if its neither of the aforementioned, then comes the colonial influences that adorn many a hill station in India. However, scattered throughout India’s vast architectural landscape are vestiges of history that are often overlooked – the step-wells.
Scattered across Gujarat, Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, the earliest stepwells (numbering in the thousands) were rudimentary structures that were dug into the landscape to provide access to water for residents of an area. With the progression of time, greater emphasis was placed on embellishing and ornamenting these functional structures into the architectural gems that we recognize them as today. Such was the significance of the stepwells in times past, that they soon became places of worship for many, oftentimes constructed near temples. In Hindi, they are referred to as ‘baoli’s’ or ‘baori’s’, and in Gujarati they are called ‘Vav’s’.
The Chand Baori Stepwell in the Rajasthani village of Abhaneri
The innumerable and complex steps of the ancient stepwell known as Chand Baori
Such is the allure of these resourceful water harvesting systems that Victoria Lautman, a journalist from Chicago, spent years charting a path across India and in the process, personally visited over 200 stepwells, photographing and documenting these spectacles of craftsmanship and engineering. For those of you who are enthralled by the subject and would be keen on a deep dive, her work is showcased in the book titled, ‘The Vanishing Stepwells Of India’ by Victoria Lautman. A passage from the preface of the book reads, “We do not choose our obsessions; they choose us, and I could never have predicted that stepwells would commandeer such a large slice of my life. All it took was one look over a modest stone wall on my first trip to India more than 30 years ago, and the ground disappeared. In its place was a man-made canyon with a complex parade of steps, columns and platforms leading into the earth to an unfathomable depth”, she continues, “I had no idea what I was seeing, but it subverted the experience of architecture as something we look up at, not down into. It was exciting and transgressive.”
Lautman further arrays her experience flawlessly into words, “Every form of architecture has an immediate, physical impact as we move through it, but descending into the earth is a particularly powerful, even profound experience”, “The extreme contrasts that exist in so many stepwells heightened my senses the further I descended. Sweltering heat turned to an enveloping cool, and the din above ground became hushed.”
A local woman exiting a stepwell
Notwithstanding the importance stepwells played in Indian society for over 1500 years, that did not promise them a sheltered future, as several have disappeared altogether, only a handful have survived and a paltry number have been conserved by local governments and communities who can afford to do so.
A view of the Adalaj Stepwell from bottom to top
The Adalaj Stepwell is located in the village of Adalaj, close to Ahmedabad city in Gujarat
Built in 1498, Adalaj Stepwell was constructed in the memory of Rana Veer Singh, by his wife – Queen RudadeviPhoto Credit: Shutterstock
The Last Avatar of Lord Vishnu – ‘Kalki’ at Rani Ki Vav
Rani Ki Vav, a recognised UNESCO World Heritage Site in Patan GujaratPhoto Credit: Shutterstock
Raniji ki Baori, also known as ‘Queen’s stepwell’
The rainwater catchment known for its picturesque, symmetrical stairways at Panna Meena ka Kund at Rajasthan
Pushkarani Stepwell, Hampi. Each major Hindu temple complex in Hampi had a large water tank which were called Pushkarani’sPhoto
Agrasen ki Baoli in Delhi, a designated protected monument by the Archaeological Survey of India
The Panna Meena ka Kund steps form shifting patterns, depending on the position of the viewer
A plain, unassuming wall obscures the simple curl of steps at Helical Pav, Gujarat.
A pool of sacred water lies behind Lolark Kund’s unique archway, a tall, narrow slit in an otherwise stark wall. Located in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.