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.

Divine Pleasures: Painting from India’s Rajput Courts

Divine Pleasures: Painting from India’s Rajput Courts; The Kronos Collections by Terence McInerney, et al. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016.

Divine Pleasures was published in conjunction with an exhibit of Indian miniature paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The paintings are mostly from the Kronos Collection, mostly water colors on paper. They are inspired by the painting traditions preserved in the Indian royal courts in Rajasthan and the Punjab Hills.

This Rajput princely class had allied itself with the Mughals, a warrior tribe from Central Asia, who ruled over the northern plain of India from the imperial cities of Delhi and Agra during the sixteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. The Mughals also sponsored their own painting traditions based partly on Persian poetry and inspired by Central Asian artistry.

By the mid-nineteenth century, these small states in Rajasthan and Punjab were gradually being annexed by the East India Company. The East India Company (later the Indian Civil Service) took over the administration of their land revenue and court systems, claiming, with considerable truth, that they were poorly administered by their native rulers.

In 1857 there was a serious revolt amongst the sepoys (Indian soldiers in the East India Company army) which caused the British to reverse the policy of annexation and preserve most of the remaining princely states. It made good political sense to keep these ‘native states’ around and to encourage their patronage of Indian arts and crafts. Indian mythology was a rich, but also an innocuous source of inspiration that artists drew upon for their themes. The curators of Divine Pleasures have skillfully created an exhibition that illustrates these various artistic traditions, Rajput and Mughal.

The essays about the art in Divine Pleasures point out that the great temple-building, which culminated in the complexes at Khajuraho and Konarak, was over. Indian miniatures became the most celebrated surviving artistic tradition. Many of the paintings have entered world markets for South Asian art and are now dispersed. Fortunately Steven Kossack has been a major collector and his collection has been donated to the Kronos Collection at the Met.

This painterly tradition on paper was a continuation of the practice of painting the stone statuary that adorned the Khajuraho and Konarak temples and particularly the enormous entry gates to the temple complexes in the same bright colors.

Why are these Indian miniatures so appealing? Certainly it is in large measure due to the use of color. Bright reds and yellows dominate. Each painting was framed by a colorful border carefully chosen to augment the paint. Sometimes a silver band is included.

The artists are good story-tellers. The paintings are commonly divided into several ‘scenes.’ Most involve a young woman pining away for a missing beloved. She has numerous ladies-in-waiting who participate in the anguish of unrequited young love. Most commonly the lover involved is either Vishnu or Krishna, one of the avatars of Vishnu. Caste is not mentioned in Divine Pleasures, but these tales are drawn mostly from the traditions of the Kshatriya or warrior caste and from their embrace of the bhakti movement, involving personal devotion to a god. Though a warrior caste, the males are rarely pictured fighting.

The authors believe that we are more likely to enjoy these Indian miniatures because we have been introduced to abstraction through western art. At times both these Rajput and Punjab art traditions do adopt a playful abstraction in their landscapes. For example their “lollipop trees.” But the landscapes are more often realistic. Most trees look like trees, and their leaves are carefully drawn and colored.

It is obvious that the Indian royalty enjoying this art were also fond of fabrics, and particularly fine cottons and silks. Rajasthani women wear long skirts rather than saris, mostly of beautiful cottons. They are often augmented by translucent scarves. The young women are commonly engaged in making music, on sitars, sarods, vima (all stringed instruments), and tubla (drums.) The men are youthful, handsome, and usually have trimmed facial hair. They wear colorful turbans and cummerbunds. Both men and women wear jewelry. Both frequently are smoking tobacco through a hookah or water pipe.

When the women are not lamenting an absent lover, they are actively engaged in the early stages of coitus with that lover. Lots of groping. Onlookers seem not to bother them.

I am particularly enthralled by of the representation of towns and large country villas located in the middle-ground or back-ground of a painting and mostly simple shapes and colors. They are definitely ‘abstractions’ of the reality of Indian urban life.

Gainesville is fortunate to have had a collection of Indian art, including Indian miniatures, given to the Harn Museum of Art by various collectors.