Exploring the Ancient Rajasthan 

One of the first planned city developments of northern India, Jaipur, was designed based on “Shilpa Shastra” principles to create a defensive architecture that utilized the surrounding natural features. UNESCO (2015) argues that “Jaipur represents a dramatic departure from extant mediaeval cities, as it has a grid-like structure with wide streets intersecting at right angles, earmarked sites for buildings, Havelis, temples and gardens, and caste-based neighbourhoods (UNESCO).

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Amber Fort with Step Wells in Jaipur, France_©Kuldeepsingh

After Maharashtra, Rajasthan (or the old Rajputana region) boasts the second-highest number of forts in India. Fortresses such as these are a testament to the Rajput love for fortification and a symbol of the Rajput chivalry and valour. In Rajasthan, most of the defences we see today were built after the 11th century. During the city’s planning, the water supply system had special consideration. The town’s geographic location was surrounded by hills, which allowed for different catching areas available for rainwater storage.

Amber, a district of Jaipur, is a popular tourist attraction and is responsible for almost one-third of Jaipur’s revenue from tourism. In a serial nomination as ‘Hill Forts of Rajasthan’, Amber Fort Complex, along with six other hill forts in Rajasthan, was added to the tentative list of World Heritage Sites 2010. 

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Atmosphere of the stepwell in Rajasthan _©Anubhuti Chandna

Water and Architecture of Rajasthan

Architecture evokes feelings of calm and well-being with water. Its dynamic and fluid nature has influenced design. In contrast to aesthetics and physical characteristics, water plays a critical role in defining space in the landscape. It can also act as a pattern in the urban level of planning, as water is considered one of the most essential elements in architecture. It shows different possibilities depending on the perspective or visualisation of the person. 

The mythology of Hinduism holds that water is the boundary between heaven and earth. For centuries, step-wells and stepped ponds, also known as Bavdis, Bawadis, Baolis, and Vavs, have served as traditional water systems that served communities and people been hotspots for social, cultural, and touristic interactions. As part of the Semi-Arid region of Rajasthan, step-wells and stepped ponds are indigenous to the semi-arid region, similar to tanks, cisterns, paved stairways alongside rivers (Ghats), and cylindrical wells elsewhere in India (Livingston & Beach, 2002).

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Hydrology, Topography and Historic Structures in Amber_©Neha Rajora
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Hydrology, Topography and Historic Structures in Amber_©Neha Rajora

The Catchment Areas of the Different Systems in the City Of Jaipur

Aqueducts connected 16-mile canals to nearby rivers to supply water to the city. With the town’s development, a dam was constructed in 1844 across the river Dhravyavati and a canal that runs east to west through the city, wide enough for several horsemen to ride side-by-side. A variety of channels and wells would then distribute the water throughout the city with direct access points. The canal was buried within the markets after the metalled roads, and new supply pipe system was built, and its deep walls were filled in.

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Catchment Areas in Jaipur_©Anubhuti Chandna

Five Typologies of Step Wells in Amber

The climate in Western India is hot and semi-arid, with unpredictable rainfall. Consequently, the monsoon rainwater always had to be collected and stored for use during the remaining dry months of the year. That’s how step-wells were created. They have been an integral part of western Indian communities for centuries as places for drinking, washing, bathing, and colourful festivals. Furthermore, they provided an incredible sanctuary for caravans, pilgrims, and familiar travellers during the heat of the day and overnight. However, these magnificent structures were much more than simple reservoirs.

These can be classified into five categories, as found in Amber –

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The five typologies of stepwell in Amber_©Anubhuti Chandna

Typology 1 These stepwells have direct access to the water storage reservoir through a series of steps. Wells and natural springs do not exist.

Typology 2 This typology has steps on one side that lead down to a reservoir connected to a well. During monsoons, the rise in well water reaches the pool through openings in the wall that separates the well from the stepwell.

Typology 3 Similar to typology 2, it has an added layer of single semi-open rooms or arcades that run along the walls of the stepwells.

Typology 4 Typically found near temples, these structures are encircled by arcades or habitable rooms on one side and access steps on the other.

Typology 5 The fifth type has steps on all four sides, which lead down to the water storage. A natural spring supplies the water, and there is no well. 

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Clockwise. Typology 2, Cheela Bawadi; Typology 1, Atreya Bawadi; Typology 3, Sarai Bawadi; Typology 4, Bengali Baba ki Bawadi; Typology 5, Parshuram Dwar ki Bawadi at Amber_©Anubhuti Chandna
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Tattar ki Bawadi in Amber_©Anubhuti Chandna

Past to Future Transition

In the past, apart from being the local source of clean drinking water, the stepwells served as communal centres and meeting spaces for people from different villages when they came to get water. The stepwell’s cultural heritage and historical significance are significant for communities today, particularly the younger generation from the surrounding villages. Stepwells were life saviours of crops and man alike in India’s most challenging geo-climatic regions (Das 2002, Bhatt 2014). Indeed, they combined social, religious, and functional purposes. Therefore, the water used only for drinking purposes had to be kept clean and unpolluted. The water was hauled up using buckets from the ground level. However, these stepwells have become culturally decadent and hygienically unsuitable as they’re being used as spaces for disposal waste.   

Plastic bottles, wrappers, and other urban waste can lie at the bottom of the stepwells without a masonry base, stagnating in water. After considering and analyzing the local culture, climate, environment, social and economic context, revival strategies have been recommended that rejuvenate and retrofit stepwells into modern urban cityscapes. A few space design strategies suggested restoring the stepwells are parks, walkways, melas, and bazaars. 

Preserving the Essential

Stepwells contribute to the sustainability of water use while enhancing India’s urban and rural spaces and preserving its culture. They combine both sustainability and culture. Observed in Amber, it illustrates that they have fallen into disuse as a water resource and are almost absent in the historic cultural scene of India. In India, they can be found in regions that experience high to extreme levels of water stress, reinforcing the need for traditional water storage systems to be revived.

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Proposed Purpose of the Step ponds as visualized_©Neha Rajora

Therefore, this intends to propose revival strategies that conserve them as a heritage water body and offer a community space that is pointedly lacking in most cities, forcing people to frequent only malls or stay confined to their residential communities. They will prove to be tranquil additions to parks and plazas and lively water shows in carnivals. This will sustain the populace with their sanctified water during water duress and play an essential role in improving water self-sufficiency in rural areas.

Beautification of the place intended with water and landscape as purpose _©Mithril

References 

www.youtube.com. (n.d.). Water Architecture of Rajasthan | Panel Discussion. [online] Available at: https://youtu.be/G6sPni0lQb4

www.youtube.com. (n.d.). Water Heritage and Culture of Rajasthan with Neeraj Doshi. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h9jH16gFIuQ

issuu.com. (n.d.). Amber report by Amita Sinha – Issuu. [online] Available at: https://issuu.com/amitasinha/docs/amber_report

Nomadic Shoes. (2019). Water Storage System at Amber Fort by Heritage Water Walks. [online] Available at: https://nomadicshoes.com/things-to-do/water-storage-system-at-amber-fort-by-heritage-water-walks/

Admin (n.d.). Amber Palace Water Walk. [online] Heritage Water Walks. Available at: http://heritagewaterwalks.com/amber-palace-water-walk/

Author

Neha Lad, an Architect soon to be, adds a taste of design and creativity to the world of Architecture enhancing Nature as an added sweet dish, bringing unique flavor to the norms of Biology. She aspires to become an architect who depicts life in harmony with nature, where writing is her predominant mode of expression.

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