The Forgotten Stepwells of India
With droughts the world over, we stop to reflect on the astoundingly complex ways Bharat’s engineers assured life-giving water’s availability in arid regions
They are astonishing architectural wonders, virtually unknown beyond the villages in which they lie. Join us to explore the stepwells of India, marvels of water conservation from days of yore. Journalist Victoria Lautman was first enchanted by these marvels in the 1980s and remains mesmerized by them, visiting India frequently to catalog and hopefully preserve them. This article begins with questions from Mark Miller’s interview for Ancient Origins (www.ancient-origins.net) and continues with additional questions from HINDUISM TODAY.
Which was the first Indian stepwell you visited?
The first was 30 years ago, on my first visit to India—it was Rudabai Vav in Adalaj, Gujarat.
That began your love of these marvels?
Yes, that memory of Rudabai had been simmering in my memory for decades. I couldn’t get it out of my head, it was so powerful, the whole experience of walking up to a low wall in what was then just a dirt patch (now there’s a grassy park around it), wondering “what are we doing here, going to see a wall?”then peering over the edge and having the ground just fall away. There I was, looking down many stories. It was vertiginous, like walking to the edge of a cliff, but without realizing there was a drop—entirely unexpected. And the memory of walking down a seemingly endless flight of stairs, space telescoping into the distance, sounds hushed, light murky, the air suddenly cool instead of sweltering. I was enchanted and disoriented at the same time. I had been back to India many times since then, with this embedded memory, but not until four years ago, when I spent three months in India, did I decide to confront it. I wanted to see if that indelible recollection was real or embroidered over the years. Well, you can see what happened. I became utterly obsessed.
In India, historical sites often have very little information on display. Was it difficult to find out about the origins of these masterpieces in some cases?
Yep, it’s not easy, and in so many cases there’s just no information at all. Even when there’s a beat-up sign attached to a stepwell declaring it is “protected” by the local government, that’s often the only information: no date, name, who commissioned it, nothing. It’s terribly frustrating. But two points are important to me. I’m not a scholar but a journalist who embarked on a trajectory purely out of my own interests. I never dreamed of personally seeing what is now about 120 throughout the country! I backed into the subject in terms of research and, after seeing about ten or so, began vacuuming up everything I could read or discover or ask those more knowledgeable than I. So I am honestly a conduit for other people’s research. The most relevant work was undertaken many years ago by a trio of scholars: Jutta Jain-Neubaur, Morna Livingstone and Julia Hegewald. Without them, I’d be clueless about the history of these marvels.
Are there any that are fully functioning and being used as a water source?
Yes, though it’s limited. Many of them, especially in the dry, western states, lack water due to the precipitous drop in the water table which, as you know, is a crisis only recently (but thankfully) being addressed. But in places like Madhya Pradesh, where the water table seems healthy, I’ve seen many wells filled with water being used for washing and irrigation. There are also wells still being used as temples, and others are being appropriated for clever contemporary uses, extending stepwell significance into the 21st century. For instance, a hotel in Rajasthan offers elegant dinners in a nearby stepwell, while certain renowned architects and artists have incorporated the wells into their work. There’s even a zip-line in Neemrana that I’m told lands close to the village’s stupendous baoli, though I haven’t seen it, and even the thought terrifies me.
What was the most surprising find among these architectural wonders?
Oh, that’s a long list, but I’ll point out something physical and something personal. I’ve encountered several families living in a couple of the stepwells, which I didn’t expect to see. I won’t say where because I’d hate to inadvertently rat them out. What better use of a dried well than as a shelter for the destitute? As for the personal reaction which I’d never anticipated, it may contribute to my obsession. I find them so sad and diminished, in the same way we experience a formerly adored celebrity no longer recognizable after decades outside the public eye. It’s sentimental, but I feel in a way that I’m paying homage to these once-loved beauties, and they make me acutely aware of our own mortality.
How many trips to India did you make to document them all and how many have you visited?
Since that first trip back in the 1980s, I’ve returned over a dozen times, but you just stop counting at some point. These days I stay for several months, which has been wonderful. But I’ve never come specifically to document stepwells. I just plan excursions around them in areas that interest me, generally off tourist routes, and where I pursue other interests and stories. I travel all over. Delhi’s my home base, and I’m constantly searching for material to use in various lectures and a blog I write in India. But I’ll be staring into stepwells the rest of my life!
What are the dates of the oldest you saw, and the newest?
Last year I made it a point to see what are purportedly two of the oldest actual stepwells, not rudimentary precursors that appeared between the 3rd and 5th century (though those dates are flexible, depending on who you read). The Manjushri and Jhilani vavs in the rural village of Dhank, Saurashtra, are either 6th or early 7th century. Who knows? It was incredibly rewarding to see them, despite their being in deplorable states. And though it’s not technically a stepwell, the Birka Bawari in Jodphur is the most contemporary iteration I’ve seen. It was built around 2009 specifically to harvest water in a residential development. It looks fantastic, based on traditional stepwell design, and is to be applauded for adapting an ancient, efficient and gorgeous system to modern needs.
What about the deities you have found and whether they are still worshiped and how they are worshiped in the wells?
Most of the wells I’ve visited are devoid of people, water and any worship, but I know there are a number of active temples. The most marvelous working temple I’ve visited so far is Mata Bhavani vav in Ahmedabad. It’s the oldest stepwell in the city, built in the mid-11th century, and even though it’s technically protected by the government, the local community has been using it for decades, adding sculptures and decoration, building homes around it, performing daily rituals. Mata Bhavani is a form of the Goddess, and She is in the main sanctuary, but there are lots of other shrines throughout the well. Another stepwell, Gelmata-ni vav in the small village of Bhadla, Gujarat, is more a pilgrimage site. It’s a vibrant place, built in the 13th century and with carved images of Shiva and Parvati, Ganesh and Vishnu. The water there is considered blessed, and everyone—families, babies, holy men—comes to drink it or pour it on themselves.
Is there any preservation consciousness within the Indian government, and have they cataloged the wells?
Yes, there is such a consciousness and it seems to be rising as India’s water crisis worsens. The Archeological Survey of India has undertaken preservation of several wells, and protected many others. But in so many cases, protection means a gate, usually locked, and a sign saying the monument is protected. That doesn’t stop it from falling apart, or keep animals and people from getting in to ruin things further. INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, is trying desperately to restore and preserve monuments. They have chapters all over, and interested people can call them. But even when intentions are good and the people devoted, there’s simply not enough time, money or employees to tackle a country full of stepwells. There are outside organizations, too—Global Heritage Fund and Aga Khan Trust come to mind. It’s a drop in the bucket. Still, a drop is better than nothing at all! As for a catalog, nope, that doesn’t exist. I’m trying to get a book published that’s simple, clear, with beautiful photos, and maps: anything to generate more interest from the widest array of potential fans. The more tourists who see the wells, the better our chances to preserve them for the future.
ALL PHOTOS THIS PAGE COURTESY VICTORIA LAUTMAN
Water wizadry: Jodhpur; Champaner; Abhaneri; Varanasi; the author at the entrance to Neemrana stepwell in Ahmedabad; Gwalior
Respite for travelers: This well in Adalaj, Gujarat, was built in 1499 ce by Queen Rudabai. As with many surviving stepwells, it provided relief from daytime heat for villagers and caravans following the trade routes. The larger wells also served as places for social gatherings and religious ceremonies, as seen in this ornate subterranean shrine which would periodically be engulfed by water.
What is the single most impressive, fully functioning stepwell?
That’s hard to say, because “fully functioning” is tricky. Mata Bhavani is impressive because it’s like walking back into the 12th century, getting a sense of how subterranean temples felt and looked and smelled. So it’s functional in that sense, but not for irrigation or drinking or washing. Others are “well-kept” but don’t function at all: Rani ki Vav in Patan was just designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is pristine from restoration, but it’s no longer a temple or a well. Then there’s a huge, gorgeous well in Madhya Pradesh with plenty of water to irrigate, wash and drink, but only one family uses it, whose ancestors have always lived on the premises.
How would you describe the average Indian’s attitude about these wells?
The average Indian honestly has no idea what they are, or has maybe heard of them but never seen one. I met a fellow who grew up a few blocks from Agrasen ki Baoli in Delhi and he had no idea it was there. He was really embarrassed. No one teaches about the wells. They’re not in history books or guidebooks or on tourist itineraries. Little wonder they’ve become invisible. I will say though, that whenever anyone Indian or otherwise sees a picture of one, their jaw drops.
Can you share a personal moment during your many adventures that you have never told anyone?
Early in my explorations when about to descend into the Neemrana well, I was convinced I would die falling down the broken, treacherous steps. I hated the idea that my son would never see me again if I fell into that pit. I asked my driver to take a photo of me standing at the entrance so my son would have a final shot of his mom, smiling and happy! (see photo on page 65). That well remains one of my favorites to this day. Strange, but true.
VICTORIA S. LAUTMAN is a freelance print and broadcast journalist specializing in architecture, art and design. She holds an MA in art history and lives in Chicago. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org