Inside the mysterious and exotic ancient subterranean stepwells that even the locals don’t know exist
India is one of my top three countries in the whole world but I must admit I’d never heard of these “stepwells”, let alone seen one. India has some extraordinary architecture and it’s just such a shame that it is so vast and the infrastructure so chaotic that almost nothing is done to preserve structures such as these for travellers to explore and enjoy.
Journalist Victoria Lautman has explored over 100 sites featuring the mysterious and marvellous stepwells – the subterranean masterpieces that served first as a vital means to access and store water between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD but remain architectural wonders to this day.
The Chicago journalist has spent four years exploring up to 120 sites and says her ‘smouldering obsession’ with the impressive and varied underground structures stems from their mystery, beauty and history.
‘They are fascinating on so many levels it’s hard to count. First and foremost, they are just so visually stunning – beautiful, grand, mysterious, and historically important while also being nearly unknown,’ Lautman told MailOnline.
‘I love that they subvert our expectations of architecture as something we look up at. Who looks down to see a building? But that’s how to access the stepwells, by looking down into them, walking down into them, and penetrating the earth.
‘The fact that they have so little – if any – presence above ground is also marvellous. You can be nearly at the edge of some of these and have no idea.
‘Some have a very low wall. But when you look over the wall, the ground opens up and plunges perhaps six storeys. It’s disorienting, subversive, interesting and gorgeous at the same time. That’s about perfect to me.’
Lautman said she saw her first stepwell 30 years ago on her first journey to India and says they ‘could easily have been the most important civic monuments of their day’.
Stepwells have fallen out of fashion and dried up due to centuries of water mismanagement and increased, and largely unregulated, bore wells.
Now they serve primarily as slowly crumbling reminders of the past, but a current water crisis in India is seeing them come back into consideration.
‘Today, they have little importance in comparison to their former stature but they’re certainly significant monuments that can’t help but enrich the history of India, of architecture, of art and engineering,’ Lautman said.
‘Even civic and religious history are represented. Interestingly, at the moment they’re being reassessed thanks to India’s deepening water crisis: stepwells were efficient, beautiful water harvesting systems in use for over a millennium.
‘The decision to de-silt and then recharge certain stepwells – bringing groundwater back into them – turns them back to their former use hundreds of years ago. That would be a wonderful way to preserve them.’
Lautman says she has a ‘smouldering obsession’ with stepwells, such as Khamba in Gwalior and Navlakhi Vav in Baroda
Lautman says stepwells ‘are fascinating on so many levels it’s hard to count. First and foremost, they are just so visually stunning – beautiful, grand, mysterious, and historically important while also being nearly unknown’
Rani ki Vav in Patan (left) was in June last year recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Rajon Ki Baoli (right)
While not set to rival the Pyramids or India’s Taj Mahal as world-renowned wonders, recent acknowledgement of their importance and impressiveness – the sculpture-encrusted Rani ki Vav in Patan, Gujarat, being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Sites – gives their fan significant hope of survival.
‘The recognition for the magnificent, enormous, sculpture-encrusted Rani ki Vav in Patan can’t help but raise the profile of stepwells internationally,’ Lautman said.
Evolving from sandy holes filled with water into elaborate structures, stepwells were once the centre piece of daily life, especially in baron parts of the country in which water was their most precious commodity. They also provided respite from the heat with their layers significantly cooler than outside.
‘They were active, social gathering places – women are still the water-gatherers, and it would have been much more fun to spend time in the stepwell with your friends than waiting in line at the village tap,’ says Lautman.
Other stepwells served as subterranean temples for rituals and prayers, but concrete evidence about the use and history of stepwells is scarce.
‘There’s a lot of guesswork, and a lot of mythology surrounding certain ones. I can pass along the fact that Kirit Mankodi, the foremost authority on the newly-minted UNESCO site, Rani ki Vav, estimates that it took 15 to 20 years to build,’ Lautman said. ‘That one is many times the size and unimaginably more ornate than any other. Compared to that, perhaps it would be several years to construct.’
Lautman’s exploration has been aided significantly by the scholarly works of Jutta Jain-Neubauer, Julia Hegewald, and Morna Livingston on stepwells, but their expertise is rare and even locals aren’t entirely clued up on their potentially major attractions.
‘I ask everyone I meet, all over India, if they’ve heard about a stepwell somewhere,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t matter if they’re an architect, professor or tea-wallah in a village market – actually, those fellows are usually the best to talk to -eventually, someone knows something and can point me in the general direction.’
‘Finding one generally involves hours of driving around in circles, stopping to ask at least six locals, backtracking and stumbling around. But then there can be treasure.’
Lautman’s expeditions have taken between a few days and a week, usually just with a driver, but last year she enlisted the help of a guide ‘because my execrable Hindi was useless and probably just confused everyone.’
‘I feel I’ve scored, big-time, when the guide and driver get out of the car and start taking pictures with their cell-phones. After all, this is their history, not mine,’ she said.