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 stepwells.
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’.
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.”
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.