The Vanishing Stepwells of India

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Stepwells of India - 270The Vanishing Stepwells of India by Victoria Lautman (with a foreword by Divay Gupta) is a stunning large format coffee table book about stepwells. Global Heritage Fund, the archaeology organization I work with, had stepwell projects a few years ago and their description runs:

Stepwells are wells or ponds in which the water can be reached by descending a set of steps. Builders dug deep trenches into the earth to collect the water of the monsoon rains to obtain a source for dependable, year-round groundwater.

Stepwell construction is known to have gone on from 500 to 600 AD in the south western region of Gujarat, India. The practical idea even spread north to the state of Rajasthan, along the western border of India where several thousands of these wells were built. The construction of these stepwells hit its peak from the 11th to 16th century. Most existing stepwells date from the last 800 years. Their lattice-like walls, carved columns, decorated towers, and intricate sculpture make them exceptional architecture, while their presence tells much about the region’s ecology and history.

That straightforward description hardly does them justice, they’re often amazingly beautiful and because we’re so used to architecture that soars upwards, being confronted by something which tunnels downwards can be a pleasantly surprising shock. Over the years I’ve visited a few stepwells in India, but I must confess that I didn’t realise how many there were or quite how incredibly beautiful they can be. Unfortunately they’re also threatened, not appreciated enough locally and often vandalised, cannibalised for their stone or used as rubbish tips. They can also be very difficult to find and reading this book I discovered that I’d often walked right by some of these stepwells and not realized they were there. The book pinpoints each of them with a GPS location.

Lonely Planet’s India guide covers some stepwells including Rani-ki-Vav, the Queen’s Stepwell, in Patan, Gujarat which is UNESCO World Heritage listed. That’s only scratching the surface, there are estimated to be 3000 of them in India, enough to satisfy the thirst of anybody who becomes a stepwell addict due to this wonderful book.