Stepwells were culturally and socially significant structures in India that made it easier for people to access groundwater and maintain the well. Water is significant in Hindu cosmology as the tirtha or boundary between heaven and earth. The stepwells became not only sources of drinking water but also cool sanctuaries for bathing, prayer, and meditation. These subterranean structures built between the seventh and nineteenth centuries are wells with a long corridor of steps descending to the water level. While a stepwell’s primary function was to provide year-round water, it also served as a venue for social gatherings and religious ceremonies. Today, stepwells are more of an architectural significance with elaborate ornamentation and spectacular views.

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Stepwells of India_©travelandleisure.com

Dholavira has the earliest archaeological evidence of stepwells as well as water tanks or reservoirs with flights of steps. The first rock-cut stepwells in India were built between 200 and 400 AD. Uperkot caves in Junagadh have the earliest example of a bath-like pond reached by steps. Another example is Navghan Kuvo, a well with a circular staircase nearby. In the years of rampant invasions in India, the Mughal emperors did not disrupt the culture practiced in these stepwells but instead encouraged the construction of stepwells. During the British Raj, the authorities found the hygiene of the stepwells less desirable and installed pipe and pump systems to replace their purpose. Stepwells in India have different names, depending on the location; such as Vav in Gujarat, Baoli or Baori in Delhi and Rajasthan, and Barav in Maharashtra.

Rani ki Vav, Patan, Gujarat

Rani ki Vav at Patan is one of the most astonishing stepwells ever discovered in India. The UNESCO World Heritage Site was discovered in the 1980s when it was still flooded by the Saraswati river close to the site. The carvings and inscriptions of the stepwell were found in immaculate and pure condition by the Archaeological Survey of India. The step well was built in memory of ruler Bhimdev I by his widowed wife during the reign of the Solanki dynasty in the 11th century. Every stone of the structure is carved intricately. The galleries, that are dedicated to Lord Vishnu which contain hundreds of intricate figurines depicting his ten avatars, are a highlight. 

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Rani ki Vav_©tripadvisor.in

Adalaj ni Vav, Gujarat

The beautiful Indo-Islamic architecture of the Adalaj stepwell combines Islamic floral patterns with Hindu gods and symbolism. Elephants, mythological scenes, women performing everyday chores, and dancers and musicians are all carved into the walls. Behind the beauty and intricacy of Adalaj’s stepwell is a story rife with tragedy. Rana Veer Singh of the Vaghela dynasty began building the stepwell in 1498 for his lovely wife, Rani Roopba. However, he was killed in battle by invading King Muhammad Begda, leaving the well unfinished. The widowed Rani Roopba agreed to marry King Muhammad on the condition that he finish the well. However, she committed suicide after it was built by jumping into it.

The Adalaj stepwell is the only stepwell with three sets of entrance stairs. They all meet on the first level down, on a large square platform. The air becomes noticeably cooler as one descends to the fifth story. The view from the fifth story is one to behold. Some of the most iconic carvings are seen inside the stepwell, especially the Kalpa vriksha (tree of life), carved out of a single slab of stone.

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Adalaj ni Vav_©wikipedia.org
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Fifth storey of Adalaj ni Vav_©ahmedabadtourism.in

Sevasi Vav, Vadodara

The Sevasi Vav is located just outside the city limits in the Sevasi locality. The stepwell is easy to find in the age of Google Maps. Surprisingly, however, the majority of the locals are unaware of the stepwell’s significance. There will be a sign indicating that the site is a protected monument. Nonetheless, this gem has been subjected to the government’s neglect and ignorance for many decades. In 1496, Raja Haridas built the seven-story vav in memory of the spiritual leader Shri Vidyadhar.

The Sevasi Vav, like any other Vav, is laid out in an east-west direction and constructed of stone and brick. The entrance is a covered walkway with a dome in the middle. The walls and pillars are adorned with intricate carvings, sculptures, and relief work motifs of elephants and tigers. At different levels of the stepwells, there are ‘jharokhas’ with floral patterns and inscriptions similar to Adalaj ni Vav, but not as well preserved.

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Sevasi Vav (Left), Entrance to Sevasi Vav (Right)_©Author (Poornima Kotagal)

Chand Baori, Abhaneri, Rajasthan

Chand Baori at Abhaneri in Rajasthan is one of the most mesmerizing stepwells in India. It is a 13-story deep stepwell with symmetric triangular steps leading to the water at the bottom. The construction of the Baori can be dated back to the 8th century. Rajasthan is an arid land, so the design and final structure of Chand Baori were intended to conserve as much water as possible. During periods of extreme heat, the air at the bottom of the well remains 5-6°C cooler than at the surface. Chand Baori was used as a community gathering place for locals. A haveli pavilion and royal resting room are found on one side of the well.

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Chand Baori_©earthismysterious.com

Maharashtra Stepwells Campaign

Maharashtra has thousands of stepwells, with more than 1650 mapped and documented by Maharashtra Stepwells Campaign leaders. The stepwells are more than 700 years old and constructed during the Chalukyan era. The discovered stepwells came in a variety of shapes, including L-shaped, T-shaped, and helical-shaped stepwells. Stepwells in rural areas can be rehabilitated and used as a source of irrigation. With proper conservation, stepwells could be cultural centers of congregation and celebration.

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Helical stepwell at Walur_©indianstepwells.com
Sapteshwar Temple stepwell_©indianstepwells.com

With thousands of stepwells discovered across India, it is clear that India had an efficient water management system that provided water for drinking, washing, and irrigation for a long time. With water scarcity affecting every state today, water conservation and management are more important than ever. Water is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week in urban areas, while rural areas struggle to access depleting groundwater. The revival and conservation of stepwells would be an act that would require cleanliness drives, awareness drives as well as ecological purification of water. This would be the first step in preventing a major issue like water scarcity in the country from snowballing.

India’s stepwells are an important part of the country’s architectural history. They demonstrate engineering skills as well as core cultural values such as community strength and respect for natural elements. 

References:

  1. Indian Stepwells. Maharashtra Stepwells Campaign. (April 01, 2022).  

Available at: https://www.indianstepwells.com/2020/02/maharashtra-stepwells.html 

  1. Sharell Cook. 11 Abandoned Step Wells with Amazing Architecture in India. (Last updated on June 6, 2019). 

Available at: https://www.tripsavvy.com/abandoned-step-wells-with-amazing-architecture-in-india-1539344 

  1. Anuradha Goyal. Chand baori at Abhaneri – Most photogenic stepwell of india. (October 23, 2017).

Avaiable at: https://www.inditales.com/chand-baori-stepwell-abhaneri/ 

  1. Stepwell. (Last updated July 6, 2022). 

Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stepwell#Significance 

Author

Poornima is an architect from the city of Pune. Being a heritage enthusiast, she loves to explore the various threads of architecture, culture, and ecology that tie a community. She hopes to bring about a change in the perception of development in India.

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