“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water”
Water has a special significance in human mythology and is believed to be a boundary between heaven and earth. Water in ancient times was the most important ingredient in all the rituals and ceremonies and was meant to be the most sacred thing present on the planet of earth. With the advent of, civilizations the significance of water increased, and settlements started to emerge along the water courses. It changed the living lifestyles of the then people. And with this, the act of quenching the thirst became the primary deed for all the families. “Places in India like Gujarat, a hot tropical region that is also dry and arid, water can make the difference between life and death” (Bhatt 4).
The inhabitants of these regions devised many interesting methods of storing and managing water as there was no rainfall except during the monsoons. And there was not a single drop of natural water supply during dry seasons. Among these traditional water harvesting systems, step-wells were the most efficient ones. These structures attained their unsurpassed monumentality and elaborateness in Gujarat- the “Land of Step-wells”.
Known as ‘Baori’ or ‘Baoli’ in Hindi and as ‘Vav’ in Gujarat, step-wells are the proficient outcome of engineering and the local architecture which amalgamates the form and function together. This unique form of subterranean architecture survives from the 7th century in Indian architectural history. “The earliest structural step-wells built by huge stone blocks can be ascribed to the 7th century, the period when temple architecture in Saurashtra (the peninsular part of the state of Gujarat) was at its inception” (Jain xiv).
These open-to-sky structures were like when a large inverted pyramid mass that has been scooped out from the earth creates a deep depression. Step-wells are indigenous to the region of Gujarat and Rajasthan. These were subterranean structures that were 3-9 stories deep thus creating a long passage for the heat to escape. They had semi-open arches which served as summer retreats for travelers or caravans, especially for those who were on foot, also acting like highway infrastructures. During monsoons, the descent of stairs was less as the well got filled by the rains and ascend to the higher flights, and this rainwater recharged the water table too. “An excavation lined with stone allows the water level inside the cavity to fluctuate freely with the surrounding water table” (Livingston et al. 22).
The 9th to 12th centuries were the golden era in the stepwell’s history, there were numerous of these step-wells that were built at this time. Quenching the thirst of others is believed to be a righteous deed, so the kings of the semi-arid regions started establishing these well-structures to give water security to their people. The rich Brahmins had a vast knowledge of ‘Silpasastra’ or ‘Vastusara’ and ordered the low caste Somparas to construct them. From the 14th to 18th century, regions like Gujarat were conquered by the Mughals. “The obvious influence of Islam style in the later built step-wells were mainly the diminutive sizes of Hindu sculptures. The major changes were on the pavilions as they were the stand out icons of any step-well above the ground” (Livingston et al. 77). The distribution of step-wells in Gujarat was in such a way that they facilitated trade routes. Ali Muhammad Khan in his book Mirat-i-Ahmadi says that “One finds that nearly every village and town in Gujarat has at least one step-well of its own”.
A step-well can be located at three different places-
- Housing a temple or shrine inside or could be connected to a temple.
- Within or at the edge of the village.
- At the periphery of the overland roads or completely outside the village settlements.
In Gujarat, the climate is such that the water will only be available in enough quantity in monsoons in rivers, ponds, etc., but during the dry seasons, these water reserves stand dry that’s where the step-wells come to rescue. So, water conservation is the primary function of the step-wells but they also had other multi-disciplinary functions. They not only provided water for drinking but also other household chores. They acted as cool and fresh retreats in hot summers for the caravans (highway infrastructures). The water for animals was also drawn from these stepwells. Irrigation of fields was also done with the help of the step-wells. “At the rim of the well, there is a sluice to receive the hauled-up water and lead into a pond from where it runs through a drainage system and is channeled into the fields” (Jain 4).
These step-wells were the hotspots for social and cultural interactions. In ancient times women were not allowed to talk to anybody and were not allowed to participate in public meetings. This was the only place where women could talk to other women while drawing water too in the evenings or early mornings. “Occasional existence of circumambulatory passages around the well and stone benches with sloping backrests allowed the villagers to come and rest here in the summers” (Jain 4). Another interesting feature of the step-well is hidden in the soil ingredients. The minerals or salts present in the earth of the step-well have the quality of strengthening other materials like satin, silk cotton, or metals. It is said in the Mirat-i-Ahmadi that ‘cotton clothes, embroidery, and satin’ increase in ‘luster and color’ if they are washed in the wells of the Kankaria tank in Ahmedabad. When in the summer months the tank dries up, water from nearby wells is poured into it and mixed with the mud at the bottom, then it regains its brightening quality.
These structures gradually lost their significance during British Rule as Britishers had a fear of the unsanitary conditions of these step-wells. Many of these step wells were locked down and they got no maintenance, people stopped using them gradually with the advent of centralized water pipes and pumps which well catered to their needs. Most of them are either dried up due to overuse or inadequate recharge or contain water that is now polluted due to no maintenance. These step-wells not only served the community with water but it had many other deeper meanings and significance that they used to hold in ancient times but now these are just all forgotten with the advent of modernization.
- Livingston, Morna. (2002). Steps to Water: The Ancient Stepwells of India. Foreword by Beach Milo. Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.
- Jain, Jutta. (1981). The Stepwells of Gujarat: In Art-Historical Perspective. Abhinav Publications.
- Bhatt, Poornima. (2014). Her Space, Her Story, Exploring the stepwells of Gujarat. Zubaan.
- Khan, Ali Muhammad. (1965). Mirat- i- Ahmadi: A Persian History of Gujarat.
- UNESCO. (2014). Rani Ki Vav (The Queen’s Stepwell) at Patan Gujarat. UNESCO.
Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/922/ [ Accessed on: 14 August, 2021].