Consider a country where getting water necessitates the construction of a 10-level stepped structure that descends into the earth. Thousands of imaginative stepwells were constructed in India from the second century AD to the nineteenth century, many of them funded by philanthropists, to whom the parched community was eternally grateful. This was before advanced technologies enabled people to extract water from deep underground.
With the arrival of new waterworks, plumbing, and village taps, several stepwells have been neglected and are in disrepair. Some have been almost demolished. Most people are still thirsty because the water table has dropped much further in recent years. Victoria Lautman, a Chicago-based independent writer, has been monitoring stepwells across India until they slip into disuse and are demolished by negligence or outright destruction.
Some stepwells are plain, while others are elaborately designed, as evidenced by images in Lautman’s ArchDaily essay “India’s Forgotten Stepwells.”
In an e-mail to Ancient Origins, she wrote, “I’ve seen approximately 120 now, in eight nations, and I can’t seem to stop.” “I can’t stand the fact that so many of them are crumbling to ashes, forgotten, and decrepit. But I had no intention of being a Stepwell Champion; I was just following my passion at the time.
In response to a question about how much time she spends documenting India’s stepwells, Lautman said, “I’ve come to India for about 2 1/2 months in the winter for the past four years.” “I don’t just go looking for stepwells….” Although, out of that moment, I could spend several weeks—on and off—looking for wells in different locations, mostly in conjunction with other projects I’m investigating. As a result, putting a fine point on it is difficult. But I’d admit I’ve put a lot of effort into it!”
Stepwells were designed because the climate in India fluctuated from being dry for part of the year, when water was scarce, and then being flooded with monsoon rains for several weeks, she wrote on ArchDaily.
She claims that the whole architectural group of stepwells is on the verge of extinction. As a result, she has conducted a census of them and is attempting to raise awareness of them so that they can be rescued before it is too late. Part of the reason for their demise is that the British Raj regarded stepwells as unsanitary breeding grounds for disease and vermin, and had many of them filled in, barricaded, or otherwise demolished.
“It was critical to ensure a year-round water source for drinking, bathing, irrigation, and washing, particularly in arid states like Gujarat (where they’re known as vavs) and Rajasthan (where they’re known as baoli, baori, or bawdi), where the water table could be buried ten stories or more underground. “Stepwell building progressed over the years to become astoundingly intricate feats of engineering, design, and sculpture by the 11th century,” she wrote on ArchDaily.
The masonry-lined stepwells were sunk deep into the earth. Workers commissioned by wealthy individuals, including many women, constructed hundreds of steps leading down to the water table, which fluctuated in height. The water level in the system was lower in the dry seasons. During rainy seasons, the water may be close to or at the surface, requiring less of a descent to access water.
Staff dug a deep cylinder and placed a stone-lined trench beside it, along with a long staircase and side ledges, to create a stepwell. A hole in the well cylinder allowed water to flow into the trench. “Stepwells may be rectangular, oval, or even L-shaped, constructed from masonry, rubble, or brick, and have as many as four different entrances,” Lautman wrote.
She claims that no two stepwells are alike and that each has its own personality. Some are simple, whereas others are complicated. Statuary representing Hindu deities, to whom the stepwells were devoted, can be seen in some of them. Lautman described some stepwells as “true subterranean temples.” Hindu stepwells were used for ceremonial bathing and prayer, and some are still used as temples today.
Because of an injunction against graven depictions, Muslims halted the ritual of portraying deities, humans, and animals in the ornamentation of stepwells when they occupied various parts of India over time. Lautman wrote that some of the stepwells commissioned by Muslims were often beautifully ornamented. Muslims used arches and true domes, while Hindus used post and lintel architecture with corbels to support domes.
Many wells have dried out as a result of uncontrolled pumping, or the water that is there is coated with algae or plant growth in some cases. Lautman claims that stepwells are also used as trash cans and latrines. Any of them have been mined for cement, which has been used in other buildings. Others are crumbling due to a lack of upkeep. Some have been almost demolished.
Others, she said in an e-mail, are always in use, “though not necessarily in the way you’d expect.” “Unfortunately, all of them are without water as a result of the dramatic decline in the water table, a situation that has just recently (but thankfully) been resolved. However, I’ve seen lots of wells of water being used for bathing, drainage, and thirst quenching in other places, just as they were hundreds of years ago. Other wells are still used as temples, although some have been cleverly adapted for modern purposes, bringing stepwell meaning into the twenty-first century. A hotel in Rajasthan, for example, serves exquisite dinners in a nearby stepwell, and famous architects and artists have used the wells in their work.”