Thirty years ago, on my first visit to India, I glanced over an ordinary wall. The ground fell away and was replaced by an elaborate, man-made chasm the length and depth of which I couldn’t fathom. It was disorienting and even transgressive; we are, after all, conditioned to look up at architecture, not down into it, and I had no clue as to what I was looking at. Descending into the subterranean space only augmented the disorientation, with telescoping views and ornate, towering columns that paraded five stories into the earth. At the bottom, above-ground noises became hushed, harsh light had dimmed, and the intense mid-day heat cooled considerably. It was like stepping into another world. This was a stepwell – one of thousands that proliferated throughout the subcontinent, predominantly in India, beginning in around 600 C.E. They were first and foremost efficient water-harvesting systems, but that bland label doesn’t begin to describe how spectacular these structures are as marvels of architecture, engineering, and craftsmanship. Yet few people outside (and often within) the country have ever heard of stepwells, much less seen one, and millions of visitors flocking to India’s forts, palaces, temples, and tombs are completely oblivious to the wonders languishing nearby, often mere steps away and hiding in plain sight.
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