Would you believe these stunning architectural gems are designed to store drinking water? In a country which deals with summers of drought followed by a deluge of monsoon rains, water storage is of crucial importance. Stepwells, also known as baori, are found all around India with some dating back to 400 AD. Many of these stepwells are grand architectural gems with ornate detailing built as memorials, or temples to appease the gods. Others are simpler, and functioning only as water storage chambers or irrigation tanks.
In arid regions, groundwater was an important source of fresh water. But to get to it, builders had to dig pretty deep. Getting from the top to the bottom of these wells required numerous steps. And so, the stepwell was born.
As distinctive as these architectural feats are, they’re not that well-known, and seldom visited! They’re often far off the beaten track and away from the large tourist destinations. But they’re definitely worth a look.
Pipes and Pumps
The British Raj weren’t impressed with these storage tanks, finding the hygiene issues less than desirable. But they were impressed with stepwell architecture. The British began installing pumps and water pipes for the majority of cities so these days, piped water is more accessible (albeit not to all). But it does mean that many of the stepwells have fallen into disrepair. You can still visit many of them, and some are better preserved than others.
Usually these stepwells were at the heart of the community, becoming a meeting spot for townspeople. It’s interesting to note in this country of many social castes and ancient religions, that stepwells do not belong to a particular social strata, or only one religious group. Women would meet here to collect water for the family, and natter in the shade. The cooling effect of the water in the well can make it up to five degrees cooler than the temperature at ground level, and niches carved into each level became excellent places to seek shelter from the sun.
Some of the stepped wells are ornate, others more utilitarian; often carefully cut pieces of rock that need no cement to hold their shape.
Above is the Helical Vav stepwell in Champaner Gujarat. The steps that go down are 1.2 meters wide, but there’s no handrail so watch out!
Meanwhile, in Rajasthan, the Chand Baori stepwell is one of the largest and dedicated to the Goddess of Joy and Happiness. It is said to have 3,500 narrow steps and descends 20 meters to the bottom of the well.
Awe and Respect
There are not only wells, which are used for drinking water, but also stepped ponds used for ritual bathing. These are often found in temples or mosques.
One of the most famous of these stepwells is perhaps Rani Ki Vav in Patan, an 11th century stepwell constructed in memory of King Bhima I. Sitting on the banks of the Saraswati River, it was flooded and later silted in the 1980s to uncover much of the ornate carvings still intact. Granted UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2014, the Rani Ki Vav step well made it onto the latest 100 rupee note.
It’s incredible to see how civic architecture fosters a sense of community. Escaping from the midday sun, the stepwells are a place of cool and calm, where water is still and reflects the sky. It’s a link between not only the groundwater but the rains above.
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