The Vanishing Stepwells of India

I have traveled through India on three occasions. And these stepwells have never been called to my attention. What fascinating structures they are!  There are hundreds of them, found mostly in the Indian states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Delhi dating from the sixth century up to the eighteenth.

They are neglected, not getting the attention they deserve. But that may change. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage is carefully restoring many of them and Victoria Lautman’s book, The Vanishing Stepwells of India, will also help to correct that inattention. Lautman has visited more than two hundred of them.

The stepwells are part of the Indian architectural heritage that includes the many Hindu and Jain temples and Moslem mosques. They are subsurface wells that have borrowed decorative elements from the various craft traditions of local guilds to decorate the long flights of stairs.

They commonly descend one or two levels below the surface, depending on how high the water table is in the area. Some descend five to seven flights of steps to gain access to cisterns filled with drinking water (dubious), but also water for irrigation, laundering, bathing, and ablutions. The cool subterranean spaces created are also used for socializing as surface wells have for millennia.

They are well-named – stepwells. The descent is by somewhat dubious stone stairs with no railing. They are made even more precarious by their being slippery when wet. And for part of the year they are quite wet.

Most often Hindu temples and Islamic mosques were built on a plinth, accessed by a flight of stairs. Hence climbing (in the case of stepwells, descending) is associated with acquiring holiness. In some ways these stepwells represent a reversion back to even older rock-cut spaces, the Buddhist temples at Ellora and Ajanta.

Most of these stepwells were acts of devotion and charity on the part of Hindu nobility. Muslim rulers, Lautman contends, did not disrupt the culture of these stepwells, including the human representations, which Moslems normally avoid.

The stepwells contain an amazing array of stone statuary, Hindu gods and goddesses that are often placed in richly carved niches, elaborately decorated door frames, and carved interior chambers. Much of the statuary and other carved material that can be found at each level of these subterranean spaces have been reused from existing Hindu temples. India’s goddesses are better represented than the gods, although images of Shiva and Ganesh can be found. Most of the stories told are drawn from the Ramayana and are meant primarily for a female audience. This religious architecture – temples, mosques and stepwells- attests to the wealth present in the medieval sub-continent of India

Lautman describes several stepwell prototypes. Some involve a direct descent to underground chambers, four to five stories below, in one or two instances as many as nine. Others are L-shaped stairwells, leading to an octagonal, or cylindrical, or square drum. In some cases the stepwells take the form of an inverted pyramid with multitudinous steps arranged in such a way as to become decorative elements in themselves. Galleries, somewhat like side chapels in a medieval church, radiate off of the primary shaft, often with balconies. And like medieval churches, these side chapels have pavilion-like structures, called chhatris.

Some of the architectural features were carved in situ. More often they were carved elsewhere and installed. Red sandstone is used sparingly, mostly to add color. It usually indicates later additions.

Most of the stepwells were constructed for the purpose of providing cool, refreshing spaces in a hot land. Imagine how appealing these wells were to participants in caravansaries. They were a part of a system that regulated water uses. If the stepwells had a dependable supply of water, they often became a shrine. If that were their destiny, they were better kept.

From Lautman’s extraordinary photographs you can hope that some of the careful reconstruction will involve a good weeding.  Lots of pigeons, and an occasional monkey or two have taken up permanent residence.  Indians enjoy the presence of their fauna.

I am indebted to a two-volumned study of Hindu and Moslem architecture by Percy Brown, Indian Architecture; Buddhist & Hindu Periods and India Architecture; Islamic Period (Taraporevala Sons & Company, 1964). More recent scholarly works like Lautman’s have not, however, made Percy Brown obsolete, mainly because of the many, many plates of photographs and restorations that he has incorporated into this third edition.

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