Bhavita Saxena

[Photo Essay] Climbing Down To Life In India's Disappearing Stepwells

Bhavita Saxena
[Photo Essay] Climbing Down To Life In India's Disappearing Stepwells

They're often right under our feet, but we forget about stepwells, the ancient subterranean monuments studding the Indian landscape in thousands.

I don’t remember the first step well I photographed. But it was one of Delhi’s for sure. One day while I was reviewing and editing my photographs, I opened images of Ugrasen Ki Baoli only to realise how different water monuments look. When approaching a monument, one does not know what to expect, and then suddenly the land opens its arms, welcoming you to explore its depth. Curious to know more, I Googled “stepwell” and a whole new world opened up in front of me. Since then there has been no turning back.

  Lakheri Talab Baoli, Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh is used by locals to fetch water during summers when other nearby wells go dry.

Lakheri Talab Baoli, Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh is used by locals to fetch water during summers when other nearby wells go dry.

If I recollect today, my love for stepwells began in 2016. Until then, they were just like any other monuments to me and I was too caught up with noticing angles, light and composition to appreciate their beauty and purpose. I have visited more than 200 stepwells since then across Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and a few in Maharashtra. Being from an IT background, I, of course, started updating the details of the wells in an Excel sheet. My database today has information on over 2000 stepwells - their names, locations, GPS coordinates and directions - and it only keeps growing.

  Someshwar Temple Stepwell in Pimpari Dumala, a small village in Pune with two beautiful stepwells that store rain water for 3-4 months.

Someshwar Temple Stepwell in Pimpari Dumala, a small village in Pune with two beautiful stepwells that store rain water for 3-4 months.

The stepwells I visit are really old; some date back more than 400 years. They make me wonder where and how we lost the knowledge of combining materials to build these marvels. How, in spite of having their storeys immersed underwater for years, these structures still stand strong in their full glory! The word ‘stepwell’ doesn’t inspire people to visit them because most people are either not aware of what these structures are, or, to the few who are, they are unremarkable - just tanks with steps going down. But all that changes once you visit Rani Ki Vav in Patan, Gujarat. You'll be amazed to see the intricate carving going down floor after floor.

 Rani Ki Vav, Patan, Gujarat

Rani Ki Vav, Patan, Gujarat

 Rajgarh Kund, Alwar, Rajasthan

Rajgarh Kund, Alwar, Rajasthan

Dada Harir Vav of Ahmedabad in Gujarat is another marvel with five intricately carved storeys. Descend the steps and you will be lost in world of beautifully carved, symmetrical columns and slabs. Many stepwells may not be as beautifully carved, but they are no less grand. Chand Baoli in Abhaneri, Rajasthan has more than 3000 steps going down in a criss-cross manner for 13 floors. It is said that it is impossible to follow the same steps while going down and up!

  Badshahpur Fort Baoli, Gurgaon, Haryana

Badshahpur Fort Baoli, Gurgaon, Haryana

What is amazing is to see the similarity of stepwell design across states sometimes more than 1000 kilometres apart. A stepwell in Hampi, Karnataka, for instance, is very similar to a step kund in Rajasthan, indicating that architectural knowledge and design practices were shared across the country. Once I started visiting more stepwells, I began to noticing similarities in style, but came across  a few very unique ones, too.

A conventional design has flights of steps going down towards the water from one or two sides. You can sometimes see steps on three sides (or all four) with one side dedicated to religious activities and for people to stay and rest. Some wells are square or rectangular in shape, others are round. Many structures have two adjacent wells - one shallow, another deep.

  The structure is intact, but the well dry. Dhabhai Kund, Bundi, Rajasthan

The structure is intact, but the well dry. Dhabhai Kund, Bundi, Rajasthan

The Naharagar Fort stepwell in Jaipur stands out for its asymmetrical steps which are cut into a hill, giving them the appearance of waves down rolling towards the water’s edge. The walls of Adi Kadi Ni Vav (Junagarh) are carved out of stone. Helical stepwells like Champaner’s have stairs that spiral down along the wall of the well.

  Modhera Sun Temple stepwell, Gujarat. Many baolis have a religious significance and people insist that I take off my shoes before entering. I do, but once done taking photographs, I ask them why they keep throwing garbage in them. No answers.

Modhera Sun Temple stepwell, Gujarat. Many baolis have a religious significance and people insist that I take off my shoes before entering. I do, but once done taking photographs, I ask them why they keep throwing garbage in them. No answers.

These beautiful stepwells were constructed by rulers of old as a philanthropic activity. Most were built along pilgrimage and trade routes and became cool sanctuaries where travellers and caravans could break their long journeys. Stepwells also played a major role in rituals and religious ceremonies and were preferred places for social gathering and worship. Often, stepwells were not built only as a source of water, but also used to generate employment for local people.

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After having visited hundreds of stepwells, it’s not easy to pick a favourite as every stepwell I visit has a story associated with it. There are tales: of the time I travelled back 100 kilometres after hearing of a huge step kund; of being attacked by a bird for disturbing her nest at a stepwell, and another where I had to descend a rainwater drain to reach the well.

Their traditional relevance may be lost, but stepwells continue to play significant roles today. Many still have water which is used for irrigation or for filling tankers that supply water to the city; the unlucky ones are abandoned and used as garbage dumps.

  Raam Bagh Stepwell, Chatarpur, Madhya Pradesh

Raam Bagh Stepwell, Chatarpur, Madhya Pradesh

You may have heard many stories associated with stepwells, but the most beautiful ones I have heard come from the Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar stepwells - stories of pride, praise, pain and sacrifice that stir up a range of emotions. And yes, I did come across some ghost stories, too. In fact, this picture I took could birth another such story.

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There is no way to bring back the former relevance of stepwells but can we integrate them into our new lifestyles? There is much talk around rain water harvesting and new buildings are required to make provisions for it, but why can't these structures also be renovated and used for that purpose. If not anything else, stepwells can store enough water to keep our cities green.

  Taseeng Stepwell, Alwar, Rajasthan

Taseeng Stepwell, Alwar, Rajasthan

Why can't they become part of our architecture and engineering curriculum? To study how they were designed and how, say, their blocks and columns distribute pressure equally. Our country has a rich water heritage that we should protect, celebrate and be proud of. Yet, we are losing these beautiful structures. Stepwells look up to us, literally, to help them thrive. Are you ready to do your bit?

  A man taking a bath, a woman washing her clothes, a goat drinking water. No one needs to depend on anyone else for water.

A man taking a bath, a woman washing her clothes, a goat drinking water. No one needs to depend on anyone else for water.

Featured image: Panna Meena Ka Kund, Jaipur, Rajasthan.

Images: Author

Bhavita is an engineer by profession, photographer by choice and healer by chance. She is also an artist and poet. Her love for travelling took her to places where she got a chance to visit a few stepwells. It was a heart-warming experience to witness India's heritage but it left her heart-broken to see their current condition. She heard her life's calling and directed all her energies towards photographing various stepwells and geo-mapping them, as this entire category of architecture is slowly slipping off history's grid. Her key objective is to generate awareness and inspire people to preserve and recharge India's rich water heritage. Her photography is available on her Facebook page Bhavita's Handful of Spring. You can contact here at: [email protected]