India’s Forgotten Stepwells

  • 28 Jun 2013
  • by
  • Articles Editor's Choice
Agrasen ki Baoli, Delhi. Image © Victoria S. Lautman

It’s hard to imagine an entire category of architecture slipping off history’s grid, and yet that seems to be the case with ’s incomparable stepwells. Never heard of ‘em? Don’t fret, you’re not alone: millions of tourists – and any number of locals – lured to the subcontinent’s palaces, forts, tombs, and temples are oblivious to these centuries-old water-structures that can even be found hiding-in-plain-sight close to thronged destinations like Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi or Agra’s Taj Mahal.

But now, India’s burgeoning water crisis might lead to redemption for at least some of these subterranean edifices, which are being re-evaluated for their ability to collect and store water. With any luck, tourist itineraries will also start incorporating what are otherwise an “endangered species” of the architecture world.

Learn more about these stepwells’ curious histories, after the break…

Mertani Baoli, Jhunjhunu. Image © Victoria S. Lautman

Rudimentary stepwells first appeared in India between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D., born of necessity in a capricious climate zone bone-dry for much of the year followed by torrential monsoon rains for many weeks. It was essential to guarantee a year-round water-supply for drinking, bathing, irrigation and washing, particularly in the arid states of Gujarat (where they’re called vavs) and Rajasthan (where they’re baoli, baori, or bawdi) where the water table could be inconveniently buried ten-stories or more underground. Over the centuries, stepwell construction evolved so that by the 11th century they were astoundingly complex feats of engineering, architecture, and art.

Rani ki Vav, Patan. Image © Victoria S. Lautman

Construction of stepwells involved not just the sinking of a typical deep cylinder from which water could be hauled, but the careful placement of an adjacent, stone-lined “trench” that, once a long staircase and side ledges were embedded, allowed access to the ever-fluctuating water level which flowed through an opening in the well cylinder. In dry seasons, every step – which could number over a hundred – had to be negotiated to reach the bottom story. But during rainy seasons, a parallel function kicked in and the trench transformed into a large cistern, filling to capacity and submerging the steps sometimes to the surface. This ingenious system for water preservation continued for a millennium.

Madha Vav, Vadhavan. Image © Victoria S. Lautman

In many wells – particularly those in Gujarat – covered “pavilions” punctuated each successive level, accessed by narrow ledges as the water level rose, and providing vital shade while also buttressing walls against the intense pressure. For this same reason, most stepwells gradually narrow from the surface to the lowest tier underground, where the temperature is refreshingly cool. By building down into the earth rather than the expected “up”, a sort of reverse architecture was created and, since many stepwells have little presence above the surface other than a low masonry wall, a sudden encounter with one of these vertiginous, man-made chasms generates both a sense of utter surprise and total dislocation. Once inside, the telescoping views, towering pavilions, and the powerful play of light and shadow are equally disorienting, while also making them devilishly difficult to photograph.

Neemrana Baoli, Neemrana, Rajasthan. Image © Victoria S. Lautman
Neemrana Baoli, Neemrana, Rajasthan. Image © Victoria S. Lautman
Neemrana Baoli, Neemrana, Rajasthan. Image © Victoria S. Lautman

By the 19th-century, several thousand stepwells in varying degrees of grandeur are estimated to have been built throughout India, in cities, villages, and eventually also in private gardens where they’re known as “retreat wells”. But stepwells also proliferated along crucial, remote trade routes where travelers and pilgrims could park their animals and take shelter in covered arcades. They were the ultimate public monuments, available to both genders, every religion, seemingly anyone at all but for the lowest-caste Hindu. It was considered extremely meritorious to commission a stepwell, an earthbound bastion against Eternity, and it’s believed that a quarter of these wealthy or powerful philanthropists were female. Considering that fetching water was (and is still) assigned to women, the stepwells would have provided a reprieve in otherwise regimented lives, and gathering down in the village vav was surely an important social activity.

Mukundpura Baoli, Narnaul. Image © Victoria S. Lautman

Stepwells fall into similar categories based on their scale, layout, materials, and shape: they can be rectangular, circular, or even L-shaped, can be built from masonry, rubble or brick, and have as many as four separate entrances. But no two are identical and – whether simple and utilitarian, or complex and ornamented – each has a unique character. Much depends on where, when, and by whom they were commissioned, with Hindu structures functioning as bona-fide subterranean temples, replete with carved images of the male and female deities to whom the stepwells were dedicated. These sculptures formed a spiritual backdrop for ritual bathing, prayers and offerings that played an important role in many Hindu stepwells and despite a lack of accessible ground water, a number continue today as active temples, for instance the 11th-century Mata Bhavani vav in Ahmedabad.

Mata Bhavani, Ahmedabad. Image © Victoria S. Lautman
Mata Bhavani, Ahmedabad. Image © Victoria S. Lautman
Mata Bhavani, Ahmedabad. Image © Victoria S. Lautman

Nowhere was a more elaborate backdrop for worship planned than at India’s best-known stepwell, the Rani ki vav (Queen’s Well) two hours away in Patan. Commissioned by Queen Udayamati around 1060 A.D. to commemorate her deceased spouse, the enormous scale – 210 feet long by 65 wide – probably contributed to disastrous flooding that buried the vav for nearly a thousand years under sand and mud close to its completion. The builders realized they were attempting something risky, adding extra buttressing and massive support walls, but to no avail. In the 1980’s, the excavation and restoration of Rani ki vav (which is hoped to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status soon) were completed but by then, long-exposed columns on the first tier had been hauled off to build the nearby 18th-century Bahadur Singh ki vav, now completely encroached by homes.

Rani ki Vav, Patan. Image © Victoria S. Lautman
Rani ki Vav, Patan. Image © Victoria S. Lautman
Bahadur Singh ki Vav, Patan. Image © Victoria S. Lautman
Bahadur Singh ki Vav, Patan. Image © Victoria S. Lautman
Bahadur Singh ki Vav, Patan. Image © Victoria S. Lautman

Once Muslim rulers began to dominate in India (dates differ depending on the area) stepwells shifted in their design both structurally and decoratively. Hindu builders used trabeate (or post and lintel) construction with corbel domes, Muslims introduced the arch and “true” dome. Hindu artists carved sculptures and friezes packed with deities, humans, and animals while Islam forbade depictions of any creatures at all. But when, for a brief period in Gujarat, the two traditions collided around 1500 A.D. a pair of brilliant offspring resulted close to the new capital of Ahmedabad, and worth a detour for anyone visiting the modernist masterworks of Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, or B.V. Doshi.

Rudabai Vav, Adalaj. Image © Victoria S. Lautman

Both the Rudabai and Dada Harir vavs are five stories deep with octagonal subterranean pools, each commissioned by a female patroness and, although Rudabai boasts three separate entrances (a rarity), it and Dada Harir vav are conceptual cousins, built at virtually the same moment just twelve miles from one another, commissioned under Islamic authority using Hindu artisans. Each is elaborately decorated, but with a notable absence of deities and human figures, but compared to other, more somber Islamic-commissioned stepwells, these two are positively flamboyant.

Rudabai Vav, Adalaj. Image © Victoria S. Lautman
Dada Harir Vav, Ahmedabad. Image © Victoria S. Lautman

As for the current state of stepwells, a hand-full are in relatively decent condition, particularly those few where tourists might materialize. But for most, the prevailing condition is simply deplorable due to a host of reasons. For one, under the British Raj, stepwells were deemed unhygienic breeding grounds for disease and parasites and were consequently barricaded, filled in, or otherwise destroyed. “Modern” substitutes like village taps, plumbing, and water tanks also eliminated the physical need for stepwells, if not the social and spiritual aspects. As obsolescence set in, stepwells were ignored by their communities, became garbage dumps and latrines, while others were repurposed as storage areas, mined for their stone, or just left to decay.

Trashed Anonymous Baoli, Fatehpur. Image © Victoria S. Lautman
Mertani Baoli, Jhunjhunu. Image © Victoria S. Lautman
Takht Baoli, Narnaul. Image © Victoria S. Lautman
Takht Baoli, Narnaul. Image © Victoria S. Lautman

Depleted water-tables from unregulated pumping have caused many of the wells to dry up, and when water is present, it’s generally afloat with garbage or grown over with plant-life from lack of attention, even in currently-active temple wells.

Ganga Vav, Vadhavan. Image © Victoria S. Lautman
Gandhak ki Baoli, Delhi. Image © Victoria S. Lautman
Madha Vav, Vadhavan. Image © Victoria S. Lautman
Anonymous Baoli (possibly Nagphuria ke Baoli, Narnaul). Image © Victoria S. Lautman

Stagnant water is the least of it: anyone with phobias for snakes, bats, bugs, heights, depths, darkness or filth will find many stepwells challenging. The unusual, 16th-century Bhamaria retreat well near Mehmedabad houses a colony of extremely vocal bats; the extraordinary 13th-century Vikia vav on a former caravan route near Ghumli is on the verge of total collapse. Stairs are unstable and treacherous. The list goes on.

Bhamaria Vav, Mehmedabad. Image © Victoria S. Lautman
Vikia Vav, Ghumli. Image © Victoria S. Lautman

Do these unique edifices have a future? Grim as it may seem, the growing urgency for water conservation has spearheaded a few recent efforts to de-silt and “reactivate” a few wells in Delhi and Gujarat in the hopes that they might once again collect and store water. Meanwhile, a number of contemporary architects have taken inspiration from vavs and baolis (along with other stepped water-structures like ponds,kunds, and tanks that are frequently mistaken for stepwells) which may help ignite more interest in – and appreciation for – these disappearing marvels.

IUCAA, Pune, India. Image courtesy of Charles Correa
Helical Vav, Champaner. Image © Victoria S. Lautman

Certainly, more books, studies, and articles are needed to help spread the word and anyone interested in further reading can look for these four invaluable tomes: Jutta Jain-Neubauer’s seminal (but out-of-print) The Stepwells of Gujarat In Art-Historical Perspective from 1981; Julia Hegewald’s costly but essential Water Architecture in South Asia of 2002; Morna Livingston’s gorgeous and informative Steps to Water, also from 2002; and Kirit Mankodi’s The Queen’s Stepwell at Patan (out of print) from 1991. But most important, gather your friends, get on a plane, and go see them for yourself before they dissapear for all time.

Victoria S. Lautman is a freelance print and broadcast journalist specializing in architecture, art, and design. She holds an MA in art history, a BA in archeology, and during frequent travels throughout India, has visited over forty stepwells with plans to see many more.

Cite: Victoria Lautman. "India’s Forgotten Stepwells" 28 Jun 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 21 Oct 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=395363>
  • Eoin

    Step wells in Rajasthan feature in The Dark Knight Rises and in the off-beat visually stunning The Fall from a few years back. Amazing structures.

  • Deepak Gupta

    Thanks Victoria for your essay. You need to send your essay to INTACH who is supposed to restore all these amazing historical structures. May be we can create save stepwell campaign and try to raise awareness. Let me know if you will be
    interested.

  • Victoria Lautman

    Thanks, Deepak, that’s a good idea, hadn’t thought of forwarding this to INTACH, although if you know someone in particular there, feel free to send it. I think they try very hard and have done great things but – as with the Archeological Field Survey of India – there are way too many monuments for far too few funds! Would love to have an “Adopt a Stepwell” program but I doubt it would get very far, unfortunately….

    So glad you enjoyed the article,

    Victoria

  • R. Girard

    I never saw that before, thank you Veronica, these are true wonders, now I know I have to travel to India…

  • Hitesh Mishra

    Amazing pictures. They capture the beauty of these buildings so well. Very informative. At the same time, It is sad to see the neglect of these forgotten legacies. Nevertheless, a great article. :)

  • Howard Metzenberg

    Magnificent photography. Someday I want to see these wonders in person.

  • Victoria Lautman

    Thanks, all…really thrilled to be sharing my obsession (and these are just some of the stepwells I photographed, couldn’t include all of them). I have a fantastic lecture prepared too…fyi! Hopefully, focusing raising their profile will help focus more attention on the issue of their preservation – spread the word. And thanks…

    • Jigisha

      Hi Victoria.. May be you can take help of indian institude to present your point and gives a lecture on it.. There are guest lectures once in a week in most of the renowed architecural universities – a place to start the propoganda

  • stef@no

    Dear Victoria, thank you very very much for your essy: it’s for me like news from the new world and I never realized that something used as a tank could be so majestic. As Galileo was right: the more I study, the more I realize I’m ignorant. I thought that a “functionalist” structure as the “piscina mirabilis” was amazing. But these stepwells are more and more because next to the function of the water there are rituals and social, ways of dealing to the building and to the people who visit it and use it, and to the deity, of course. So I believe the Vavs and Baolis express the true meaning of “architecture”.

  • ekaggrat

    hi victoria ,

    my undergrad thesis was on a few stepwells of gujarat.. These stepwells would only see the future is through their adaptive reused …

  • Bhavna Ramrakhiani

    This article serves as a great documentation of step wells. And to think that most of these structures are only found in Gujarat and Rajasthan, barring a few exceptions. Nowhere else in the world does one see such structures. I think The Archeological Survey of India also needs to be sent this. I do know that the Rani ki Vav in Pattan, Gujarat has already made it close to the tentative list of world heritage sites. Whereas INTACH is great at research and communications and publications, it is ASI that is the final authority on heritage sites – if it is protected by them. If not, best that local people do it with the help of conservationists and technical experts.

  • janine

    thanks for the article and pics. luckily, i have seen the patan and adalaj wells, truly amazing experiences.

    now i want to go back!

  • girish

    Thanks Victoria for your such nice photography….we Indian are so unlucky that we having such great things but we are not having capacity to take care of such historical structures…may be this structure in your country then it will take care very nicely….again thanks for your valuable input.

  • Axiomatic

    My undergrad thesis focused on the water infrastructures of Mumbai, both formal and informal, and specifically water retention and distribution. I did a ton of research into many of the surrounding issues and somehow managed to completely miss these stepwells. Which is really unfortunate because they seem to be a fascinating niche in architecture history and have some potent architectural application.

  • George

    thanks, unbelievable

  • http://www.acivicoltd.tumblr.com Rebecca O’Shea

    Not to forget the beautiful Escher-esq Chand Baori one of the deepest stepwell in the world, as featured in the film ‘The Fall’. A must see for anyone travelling between agra & jaipur http://thefall-locations.blogspot.co.uk/2008/10/13143-chand-ki-baoli-in-jodhpur.html?m=1

  • Goldenturtul

    The word is “Baori” not “Baoli” and “Bav” not “Vav”

    • Victoria Lautman

      Thanks for reading, Golden, but I must disagree: as mentioned in the article, stepwell terminology depends entirely what part of India you’re in – not just state by state but even city by city. Vav is correct in Gujarat, Baoli, baori and several other forms used throughout other states. Never have heard “bav” but I’m sure that could turn up too. And Rebecca, Chand Baori is indeed a gorgeous and deep water structure, but the name is, I believe, a misnomer, and also why it wasn’t referenced in my article: it is a “kund” or stepped pond rather than an actuall stepwell. We should start a movement to call it the Chand Kund…like the Surya Kund in Modhera! But all are marvelous despite the confused lexicon, and these are just quibbles.

  • Kanda NP

    Wonderful collection of photos and works. Thank you very much for giving us an opportunity to enjoy your work. Hope to see more these.

  • Omkar

    Played in them in childhood. Thanks for bringing back those sweet memories. Sad they are no longer in good condition.

  • Richard Hofmeister

    Kudos to my architecture history professors at University of Tennessee (a British couple) for showing us in 1987-88 some of these structures in our review of our world’s architectural history. The Indian (Krishna, Hindu, etc.) is one of the oldest, richest histories in the world with spectacular cultural monuments. Thanks for bringing these structures to light.

  • Darpana Athale

    Hello Victoria.
    Nice article and wonderful pictures.

    Just for your info, there are many step-wells in Karnataka and Haryana too.

    In Maharashtra, a step-well is called ‘barav’. THere is one that is well known in Parbhani district. And one not so famous, called Baramotichi vihir, in Limb- Satara district. It is not as big or elaborate as any of the ones featured in your article, but nevertheless interesting because of the history attached to it and the fact that it is made in Basalt, a very hard stone.

    ps: Chand Baori is a step-well, not a kund.

    • Omkar

      True, I am from Karnataka and have seen many of them.

    • Darren

      Can anybody tell me if these structures are found in southern Karnataka and northern Kerala? If so where? how old are they and who built them? What style and scale are these structures and what building material is used?

  • Victoria Lautman

    Hello Darpana, thank you for the response….yes, indeed I’m pretty sure there are stepwells in every state of India.I have to check that, but I’m nearly certain they’re found throughout the country, and I ought to have mentioned that in the piece, sorry. It’s in my lecture but somehow fell outer this….there are actually useful location maps (somewhat conflicting) in three of the books I mentioned! But for these purposes of this article, I was only in Haryana, Rajasthan, and Gujarat…in fact several of the stepwells pictured are from Haryana. But there’s much higher density in Gujarat and Rajasthan than anywhere else, which you must know since you sound extremely knowledgeable about them (I’d like to pick your brain for my next trip this winter). I’m merely “getting the word out” – there are many scholars far more knowledgeable than I am about these, and yet so few in the general public are aware of them, I’m acting as a conduit, focusing awareness in the hopes of preserving them. But iim interested in your assessment of Chand Baori as a stepwell, not a kund, please tell me! And thanks again…
    Victoria

  • Victoria Lautman

    Thanks so much, Darpana, for your thoughtful response. Yes, indeed there are stepwells throughout India, I believe (but must check on this) in every state, and I ought to have mentioned this in the article, it’s a part of my lecture and I neglected to include that info here, unfortunately. In fact there are helpful maps in three of the books I mentioned, showing (sometimes conflicting) locations. But for the purposes of this article, I was only in Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Haryana, where several of the baolis pictured are located. The greatest concentration, though, is in Gujarat and Rajasthan as I’m sure you already know, since you’re clearly very knowledgeable on the topic, and I’d very much like to “pick your brain” before my next trip in the winter! As for the Chand being a Baoli rather than a kund, please do enlighten me, my understanding is that it’s not a functioning well, no cylinder etc, but haven’t been there in many years and prior to my stepwell obsession. But also, I want to reiterate that I am in no way a scholar, merely a conduit for other’s research: my purpose is to bring these little-or-unknown structures into a wider context in the hopes of further preservation. I hope there will BE more interest iand research done to add to the existent body of work! Thanks again….and keep the suggestions coming.
    Victoria

  • Giusi

    Fantastic photography powerful expression of Architecture, you inspire me Now I want to see this wander in person.
    Thank you

  • robert edward cooper

    Imagine these with women going up and down in their colorful clothes. Are any of these still used?

    • Victoria Lautman

      Hello Robert, thanks for the comment…yes indeed some are still used (when water is present) for swimming and bathing, and there was recently a photo in the New York Times of kids enjoying a baoli in Delhi, I believe in the area of Nizamuddin. Others are still used as active temples…but unfortunately, for the majority, “abandoned decrepitude” best describes the current conditions.
      VL

  • Visual Senses Design

    Absolutely amazing and glorious. Such creativity then and now well yes some have the tap. Thank you so much Victoria. I have been to India many times and only saw one “Stepwell” in the 80s and then the tour guide sold us the site, more of an underground temple then the importance of the holding water. Your article is utmost interesting and visually enlightening.
    Let us hope and lets hope for many locals that they may see the light. Its’ not people power they are missing to safe these structures. I can’t wait if and when I return to make sure to keep your Article as a reference on planning my side seeing routes. I wish there were more pictures with water..but I guess I have to reincarnate myself into the past to see that now.

  • Adriano Scarfo

    There is real beauty to this ruin. The photography does capture what I would want to experience if visiting India… including the waste

  • Manushi

    Missing – Abhaneri near Jaipur.

  • Ar. Shubham Deo Prajapati

    Victoria Lautman ,
    You’ve published a really nice research. I am an architect and working on conservation of some forts in India and really wanna do something for stepwells which are in really bad shape, and you’ll surprised to know that these stepwells still can function very well, if conserved/restored.
    If someday i get some financier to finance, i would love to conserve these stepwells, as many as possible.

    Ar. Shubham

  • Barnet Alex Varghese

    Its a nice article and really nice documentation which you have done. Well apart from being a stepwell these some of these structures had ritualistic purpose. For example Rani ki Vav in Patan can connected with fertility cult aparantly its vaishnivite structure.
    Barnt

    • Victoria

      @Manushi – thanks for your comment but there’s dispute about Abhaneri being an actual stepwell since it’s considered a Kund – these have a specific shape and generally different purpose.

      @Barnet – and thank YOU for the comment too – I do believe in my article I mentioned ritualistic purposes, no? Mata Bhavani etc. I love and appreciate that aspect of stepwells and am sorry relatively few continue in use for that purpose.

  • Jackie

    Thanks for the enlightening article. I will be spending two months in India; leaving December 27. It is my first trip there. I think you may be in Gujarat when I am there in February. Please keep up the good work. Where are your lectures? I’d travel to hear one of them.

    • Victoria Lautman

      Hello Jackie – thanks for the kind message! How great you get to spend such a long time in India on your first visit, and that you’re visiting Gujarat too – lucky gal! Yes I will be there in February at some point, in India for another 3 months, but not sure of my schedule (how’d you know that??) As for the lectures, I’ve done several in Chicago for various audiences and hope when I return home in March I can market this – and another about “Non-Tourist India (what tourists should see, but don’t)” – to universities, museums, wherever there might be interest. But I’m terrible at self-marketing so if you have any ideas or advice I’d love to hear them! Haver a wonderful trip…V.