India's stepwells are truly amazing, but relatively few people know anything about them. Victoria Lautman wants to change all that, reporting on their long history in a book -- and in a series for WaterShapes on three of the country's most wondrous architectural and cultural treasures.
By Victoria Lautman
How does an entire category of architecture slide off the grid of history? Few people have ever heard of India’s magnificent stepwells let alone seen one, yet in their prime, these subterranean complexes were arguably the most significant structures in each of the communities they served. Indeed, in a tradition of waterworks that stretches back thousands of years, stepwells have long been among India’s most efficient water-harvesting systems.
By the 18th Century, there are thought to have been thousands of these unique edifices built throughout the Indian subcontinent. Commissioned by benevolent patrons and patronesses, they served as refuges, gathering places and spiritual centers, their water used for drinking, irrigation, bathing and religious ablutions.
Stepwells for public use proliferated in cities and villages, along isolated trade routes and adjacent to temples and mosques; some were also built for private use by the wealthy. In any sort of setting, they could be almost unimaginably huge or more intimately scaled; some were encrusted with ornamentation, while others were modest and utilitarian. A shallow stepwell might have had two or three levels, while others plunged down by nine or more.
As will be discussed in the three installments that make up this series, the prominence of stepwells in the past has not guaranteed a reliable future for them. Hundreds of astonishing stepwells still exist in India, but they are generally unknown outside the country – and even within it.
A LONG HISTORY
Chand Baori is one of India’s better-known stepwells. It has appeared in several popular films, including the beloved Bollywood romance Paheli (2005) as well as two Western movies, The Fall (2006) and the Batman franchise’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Despite such international exposure, millions of tourists drive by each year, oblivious to the marvel they pass just off the highway between Jaipur and Agra.
Before going further, it’s important to note that stepwell terminology can be daunting, laden with many regional variants. Chand Baori is a perfect example of how confounding these descriptors can be. In the state of Gujarat, for example, a stepwell is most commonly referred to as a vav, while in Rajasthan a stepwell may be called, among other names, baoli, baori, bawadi or jhalra.
Even stepwell styles can further complicate things. Early precursors appeared around the 4th Century AD, cut into solid rock without any separate structural components. The first examples of engineered stepwells were built around 600 AD in the town of Dhank in Gujarat, establishing the common configuration of a straight, stepped corridor leading to a well cylinder that accessed groundwater. This was the basic blueprint that evolved over the centuries into increasingly complex, lavishly ornamented subterranean structures. But stepwells could also be square, L-shaped or round, incorporating one, two, three or occasionally four entrances.
An additional stepwell variation is known as a kund, easily recognized by a quadrilateral funnel shape often resembling an inverted pyramid and defined by patterns of pyramidal steps. Chand Baori is a classic example of a kund, its 3,500 stairs arranged in a steep and particularly mesmerizing 13-level descent. It is one of one of India’s most breathtaking stepwells by virtue of its immense scale, vertiginous depth and complex pedigree – a lineage, as explained below, that accounts for the so-called “apartments” cascading down one wall of the structure.
This is also one of India’s earliest stepwells, commissioned by local Hindu ruler Raja Chand around 800 AD. At the lower levels, deities are still enshrined, watching over the sacred water. As with all stepwells, as the water rises during monsoons, the steps – deities and all – would gradually submerge until the water eventually receded.
By the 18th Century, the Mughals predominated in Rajasthan and “updated” Chand Baori with Islamic elements, essentially producing a layer-cake of architectural history rarely seen in India. In an unusual twist, much of the original Hindu structure was left intact, including the carved deities that were antithetical to Islam’s prohibition against any figuration. But the Mughals also embedded a striking complex of rooms, galleries, graceful arches and terraces in the earlier façade – the “apartments” that cascades to the water in a union of Hindu and Islamic elements.
Railings were installed years ago by the Archaeological Survey of India to prevent any tumbles, and they recently began charging an entry fee to help with Chand’s upkeep. That’s a good sign, and there’s also been an uptick in visitors to the stepwell, which is garnering more attention at last. Now, it even has its own website.
Many stepwells continue to this day to function as temples and shrines, but even more have had their formerly profound connection to the local community severed and, after generations of neglect, are no longer valued. Nonetheless, even the most dilapidated or abandoned stepwells can retain the essence of their former glory – that is, the sublime engineering, craftsmanship and design that kept them at the forefront of social and religious life in India for over a millennium.
This makes their anonymity all the more puzzling, considering that India’s palaces, forts, temples, mosques and tombs are thronged with tourists yearly, and yet itineraries and guidebooks overlook stepwells that might be within yards of popular destination. A wonderful 14th-century example lies close to photo opportunities at the world-famous Red Fort in Delhi, while Chand Baori can be found just 15 minutes off the busy highway between Jaipur and Agra. But ask any India lover if he or she has visited these readily accessible sites and the reply will nearly always be “no.”
To be sure, many of the stepwells are in deplorable condition, frequently hemmed in by the cities that have grown up around them. Some have become open trash pits or are hosts to bats, bees and other creatures, while others are quarried for their stone. The lack of interest in – or respect for – these ancient wonders is abundantly clear. The drastically-reduced water table has led to India’s ongoing crisis, resulting in fewer and fewer wells that are able to reach a supply.
Ironically, the increasing demand on the country’s water system has spurred efforts to salvage and revitalize some stepwells. Initiatives at the local level been successful, with one such project located in the middle of Jodhpur’s congested Old City: In 2014, the 300-year-old Toorji ka Jhalra was filled with toxic water and laden with trash. Little was known about the precise size and depth of the structure, and the community had no interest in the monument.
It was only when a local organization removed hundreds of truckloads of rubbish that an astonishing stepwell with many unusual features was revealed. The water was cleaned, businesses around the newly-named Stepwell Plaza flourished, and today Toorji is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.
For further reading, click here for details on my book, The Vanishing Stepwells of India (Merrell Publishers, London, 2017).
But despite these and many other efforts, it’s unlikely that more than a fraction of India’s stepwells will get much attention. The combination of a vast country with its thousands of ancient sites and limited funds for preservation makes choosing what gets “saved” a nearly impossible prospect.
It’s heartening that some contemporary architects and artists have turned to stepwells for inspiration, including Jodhpur’s award-winning architect Anu Mridul. Around 2008, he designed the Birkha Bawari near the Maharaja’s palace and, while not technically a well, this beautiful, successful water-harvesting system is based on traditional stepwell architecture. There are also stepwells that have been repurposed for art installations and concerts, and one hotel in Rajasthan – the Rawla Narlai – offers romantic, candlelit dinners in the ancient stepwell on its property.
Next time: a look at another fascinating stepwell with more information on their use and social roles.
Victoria Lautman is a Los Angeles-based broadcast journalist, writer and lecturer. Focusing on all forms of art and culture including architecture, design, and literature, she frequently writes and speaks about India. Her book, The Vanishing Stepwells of India, was published by Merrell Publishers (London) in 2017. For more information, visit her website: www.victorialautman.com.