Photo by Colores de India. Chand Baori, Abhaneri, Rajasthan
THE STEPPED WELLS OF INDIA
The wells of India are a marvel of the architecture of the Indian subcontinent, it is within the best kept secrets and at risk of being forgotten. While temples, palaces and forts concentrate tourist visits, hardly anyone knows about these masterpieces, often not even the locals themselves.
Have you met any?
Stepwells proliferated in India from 600 AD. They are also called "baolis", "baoris" or "vavs" depending on the region and language.
These buildings were the first efficient water harvesting systems, and a marvel of architecture, engineering, and craftsmanship. They are structures built below ground level, even with up to 10 or more stories deep, consisting of a well from which the groundwater is extracted, with passageways, chambers and stairs that give access to it.
They were born out of the need for a year-round supply of water, for drinking, washing and watering, as India's climate is extremely dry for much of the year, followed by torrential monsoon rains. They were also a place to cool off and take refuge from the heat.
Several thousand proliferated throughout India until the 19th century in towns and cities. However, most are in a state of decrepitude and today the wells are in danger of extinction. It is estimated that as of today there are around 2000 surviving stepped wells.
In the dry seasons, it was necessary to descend hundreds of steps to fill the containers with the waters, while during the monsoon those steps gradually submerged as the water level rose.
Most of these baoris also served as places of social gatherings and religious ceremonies, generally associated more with women, who collected water and could freely gather (one of the few places where they escaped the imposed restrictions) as well as officiate their offerings to the gods. Due to this function, wells are found with great ornamentation similar to Hindu temples.
Not only for the villages, but on the trade routes these wells were of great importance for travelers, as a refuge from the intense heat and as a meeting place.
The kings and local rulers ordered the construction of these wells, in a gesture of magnanimity for the population and reaffirmation of their power and wealth. It is believed that a large part were financed by the queens in memory of their deceased husbands.
Despite their importance for a millennium, the British Raj considered that they were unsanitary, from which the wells were falling into disuse, when not destroyed or abandoned.
After the British, the advent of modern conveniences also contributed to its neglect. Even in cities, secretly hidden structures are still found surrounded by buildings, so they are only visible from the roofs or windows of adjacent homes.
More recently, preservation work began by the Indian government and various NGOs, bringing many of these Baoris to light again, dug up or cleaning them of dirt and debris. If these stepped wells were repaired and restored, they would represent a source of easy access to drinking and irrigation water for thousands of small villages. It would also reactivate heritage tourism.
Victoria Lautman, a Chicago journalist, discovered their existence on a trip to India and fell in love with them, dedicating successive trips to their search and documentation. This led her to personally visit more than 200 wells, compiled in her book: "The Vanishing Stepwells of India".
One passage says:
"We do not choose our obsessions; they choose us, and I could never have predicted that stepwells would commandeer such a large slice of my life. All it took was one look over a modest stone wall on my first trip to India more than 30 years ago, and the ground disappeared. In its place was a man-made canyon with a complex parade of steps, columns and platforms leading into the earth to an unfathomable depth.
It was utterly disorientating. I had no idea what I was seeing, but it subverted the experience of architecture as something we look up at, not down into. "
Let's take a look at some of these amazing stepwells.
Chand Baori - Abhaneri, Rajasthan
Located in the Abhaneri area of Rajasthan, the Chand Baori is located in a small potters' village and is the most popular stepped pit in North India.
This 13-story structure dates back to the reign of King Chanda in the 9th century. It consists of 3,500 steps that reach a well located 30 meters deep, which makes it one of the largest and deepest in the country.
Chand Baori is dedicated to the Goddess of Joy and Happiness and was built to serve as a source of water and social gatherings. In an extremely hot area, it provided coolness and shade.
The stairs are in perfect symmetry and offer a stunning view. Legend has it that as you go down the steps, there is no way to go back the same way.
Agrasen Ki Baoli - New Delhi
Agrasen ki Baoli | © Varun Shiv Kapur / FlickrAgrasen ki Baoli is one of the secrets of Delhi. Located near Connaught Place, the baoli consists of three levels and 108 steps that descend into the well. Its construction is attributed to the Lodi dynasty. Today, it is a monument protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)
Baoli Ghaus Ali Shah - Haryana
This well located in Gurgaon, was built during the Mughal empire by the local chief Ghaus Ali Shah. Made of stone and bricks, it is in the style of Turkish hammams, with relaxation and recreation chambers on the upper floors.
Toor Ji ki Jhalra - Jodhpur, Rajasthan
Toor Ji ki Jhalra is a recently restored stepped well dating back to the 18th century. Built of red sandstone, it has beautiful carvings of animals and sculptures of deities. This well is considered one of the best in the country. Before being restored it was a completely abandoned and rubble-strewn place, but today children can enjoy a bath and take relief from the sweltering heat of Jodhpur.
Adalaj ni Vav- Gandhinagar, Gujarat
Located in the quiet village of Adalaj, this vav (well) has served as a resting place for hundreds of years for many pilgrims and caravans along its trade routes. Built in 1499 by Queen Rudabai, wife of the Vaghela chief, this five-story step was not only a cultural and utilitarian space, but also a spiritual refuge. It is believed that the villagers came every morning to fill with water, offer prayers to the deities carved on the walls, and interact with each other in the cool shade of the vav. There is an opening in the ceilings above the landing that allows light and air to enter the octagonal shaft. However, direct sunlight does not touch the flight of steps or landings except for a brief period at midday, making the temperature inside the well six degrees cooler than outside.
Intricate Islamic floral patterns are found that blend seamlessly with Hindu and Jain symbolism. There is a belief that the small frieze of navagraha (nine planets) towards the edge of the well protects the monument from evil spirits.
Panna Meena Ka Kund - Jaipur, Rajasthan
As can be seen, the deserted Rajasthan has numerous stepwells. This 16th-century well is located in the small town of Amer, overshadowed by the famous Fort, a must-see for tourists, making it a virtually overlooked site. Its main function was that of social gathering and bathrooms. It has been maintained thanks to the efforts of the local municipal authority.
Rani ki Vav - Patan, Gujarat.
Rani ki Vav (Queen's Well), from the 11th century, is a UNESCO World Heritage site located in Patan, on the banks of the Saraswati River.
Designed as an inverted temple to highlight the sanctity of the water, it is divided into seven levels of staircases with sculptural panels of high artistic quality. The well is 10 meters in diameter and 30 meters deep.
Built in memory of King Bhimdev by his widow, Queen Udayamati, around AD 1050. , was flooded by the Saraswati River and only excavated in the late 1980s by the Archaeological Society of India (ASI).
The steps are quite wide and profusely carved with more than 600 figures. Most are related to Lord Vishnu, including the Dashavataras (Ten Forms of Lord Vishnu). There are carvings of other mythical forms such as Vishkanyas (women who possess snake-like venom) and Apsaras (celestial women).
Pushkarini - Hampi, Karnataka
Pushkarini literally translates to "temple tank".
Every major Hindu temple complex in Hampi had a large water tank called Pushkarani. They were generally symmetrical, square, and in the center of the pool there used to be a shrine with the image of the deity.
Many of these tanks were destroyed or hardly any remains.
The Archaeological Service of India and the Karnataka State Department of Archeology and Museums have been conducting archaeological excavations in Hampi for the past few years and have uncovered many interesting structures and antiquities from the Vijayanagara Empire, unknown until now.
During an excavation in 1984-85 conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India, a beautiful tank was discovered that was completely below the surface of the ground and was not at all visible from the outer surface. This is perhaps the most beautiful tiered tank discovered so far in Hampi. Archaeologists date back to the 15th century AD.
Shahi Baoli - Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh.
Foto de Colores de India - Shahi Baoli (interior)
Shahi Baoli was built around a large well that had initially been dug as a reservoir to store water for construction work near the Bara Imambara. When it turned out to be a perennial source of water, connected underground to the river, Asaf-ud-Daulah, the nawab of Oudh, ordered it to be built as a guest house - the Shahi Mehmaan Khana.
After its completion, on April 6, 1784, Warren Hastings, the governor general of the East India Company, was one of the first distinguished guests to stay.
Only a small part of the Shahi Baoli remains and it exists today in the form of a double arched doorway and an open staircase leading to the well along with a five-story structure formed with interconnecting open arches and galleries. It is believed that there are two more submerged floors below the palace.
Lolark Kund - Varanasi
The structure that can be seen today probably dates back to 1000 AD, but the origins of the Lolark Kund go much further back, and it is most likely one of the oldest sacred sites in Varanasi.
The well is accessed from three sides with very steep stairs that descend 17 meters to the pond, the fourth side faces east and is formed by a huge stone wall with a slit that lets the rays of the rising sun pass through.
One of the legends around the well says that centuries ago a huge meteorite was dropped and ever since then people believed that a fragment of the sun had fallen here.
The well's water comes from an underground source known as Paatal Loka, which is credited with healing powers for skin diseases, but above all it is believed that women who bathe in its waters will be blessed with a male child.
Raniji Ki Baori - Bundi, Rajasthan
The town of Bundi is famous for its baoris or stepped wells. Raniji ki Baori (the Queen's Step) is the largest of the more than 50 baoris that adorn the city. This baori was built in 1699 by Rani Nathavati Ji, the youngest queen of the ruler Maharao Raja Singh of Bundi. Measuring 46 meters deep, this stepped shaft is a multi-story structure decorated with carved pillars and a high arched gate. Each floor has places of worship for making prayers and offerings.