Well Shot

Photos: The amazing architecture of India’s ancient step wells

American journalist Victoria Lautman has spent four years visiting and photographing 120 step wells across India

In a sandy field between Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar is a wall. Thirty years ago, American journalist Victoria Lautman walked up to that wall and was surprised to be looking down into the most intricate architecture she had ever seen. The structure was Rudabai Vav – a five-storey, decagonal step well built at the end of the 15th century. It was the beginning of an obsession for Lautman who calls herself a pagal videshi for returning to India in 2011 and spending four years photographing every step well she could find in the country.

Rudabai Vaav

“I have never seen any kind of ancient engineering that could compete with this kind of structure,” said Lautman, who was completely taken by the fact that very few step wells announce their presence until you are literally upon them. “What you experience inside – the way it activates all four of your senses except taste – is something that is very, very hard to feel in contemporary architecture.”

Lautman has visited 120 step wells, which are found mostly in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Delhi but also in many other parts of the country. The wells, called baoli in Delhi, jhalra in Rajasthan and vaav in Gujarat, were all built more than 500 years ago and some as early as in the 2nd century. The wells vary in size and shape – from three to ten storeys into the ground with square, circular or polygonal openings to the sky. They have arches to walk through and platforms to rest on.

Some step wells are well preserved like the Rani Ki Vaav in Patan, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site last year. Some are tourist attractions like the Rudabai Vaav. Others have crumbled and become repositories of trash. “Literally ten minutes away from Rudabai Vaav, in the town of Ambapur, is a step well built at the same time and by the same queen that is fabulous but is completely trashed and nobody sees it. I would say that 90% of the ones I see are in terrible condition,” Lautman observed.

Ambapur Vaav

Baoli in Fatehpur

Each well is an architectural and engineering marvel. The wells were built by sinking vertical shafts and removing substantial amounts of sand and rock from the depths. The walls of the well were shored up to prevent them collapsing into the opening. The steps were then built into the side of the well.

Snehal Shah is an architect in Ahmedabad who has been studying step wells for the past 30 years. “One mystery I haven’t been able to solve, is how they knew about soil mechanics,” he said, about the builders of the baolis.

Most of the wells are near rivers, some near temples and villages. They were used not only for the practical purpose of extracting water but also as gathering places, for rituals and rest from traveling.

The baolis were great to access groundwater but they didn’t really have a mechanism to recharge the water table, according to Diwan Singh, convener of a group called Natural Heritage First. “These stepwells were for drawing water from the ground. Harvesting rainwater wasn't part of the job. Recharge usually happened naturally through the ground or through water bodies,” he said. Other structures like the tankas and kundis of Rajasthan collect every possible drop of rain in the arid state. What the step wells do protect is the accessible groundwater from the sun to minimise losses through evaporation.

The experience of the stepwell has overturned some of Lautman’s ideas about architecture. The way we experience architecture is to look up. you look up to see a building, you look across to see a building. This was the first time I had ever actually looked down to access a building. It subverts the idea of what traditional architecture is,” she said.

Vaav in Champaner

Lolarka Kunda

Chand Baori, Abhaneri

Support our journalism by paying for Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Bringing the glamour back to flying while keeping it affordable

The pleasure of air travel is back, courtesy of an airline in India.

Before dinner, fashionable women would retire to the powder room and suited-up men would indulge in hors d’oeuvres, surrounded by plush upholstery. A gourmet meal would soon follow, served in fine tableware. Flying, back in the day, was like an upscale party 35,000 feet up in the air.

The glamour of flying has been chronicled in Keith Lovegrove’s book titled ‘Airline: Style at 30,000 feet’. In his book, Lovegrove talks about how the mid-50s and 60s were a “fabulously glamorous time to fly in commercial airlines”. Back then, flying was reserved for the privileged and the luxuries played an important role in making travelling by air an exclusive experience.

Fast forward to the present day, where flying has become just another mode of transportation. In Mumbai, every 65 seconds an aircraft lands or takes off at the airport. The condition of today’s air travel is a cumulative result of the growth in the volume of fliers, the accessibility of buying an air ticket and the number of airlines in the industry/market.

Having relegated the romance of flying to the past, air travel today is close to hectic and borderline chaotic thanks to busy airports, packed flights with no leg room and unsatisfactory meals. With the skies dominated by frequent fliers and the experience having turned merely transactional and mundane, is it time to bid goodbye to whatever’s enjoyable in air travel?

With increased resources and better technology, one airline is proving that flying in today’s scenario can be a refreshing, enjoyable and affordable experience at the same time. Vistara offers India’s first and only experience of a three-cabin configuration. At a nominal premium, Vistara’s Premium Economy is also redefining the experience of flying with a host of features such as an exclusive cabin, 20% extra legroom, 4.5-inch recline, dedicated check-in counter and baggage delivery on priority. The best in class inflight dining offers a range of regional dishes, while also incorporating global culinary trends. Other industry-first features include Starbucks coffee on board and special assistance to solo women travellers, including preferred seating.

Vistara’s attempts to reduce the gap between affordability and luxury can also be experienced in the economy class with an above average seat pitch, complimentary selection of food and beverages and a choice of leading newspapers and publications along with an inflight magazine. Hospitality aboard Vistara is, moreover, reminiscent of Singapore Airlines’ famed service with a seal of Tata’s trust, thanks to its cabin crew trained to similarly high standards.

The era of style aboard a ‘flying boat’ seems long gone. However, airlines like Vistara are bringing back the allure of air travel. Continuing their campaign with Deepika Padukone as brand ambassador, the new video delivers a bolder and a more confident version of the same message - making flying feel new again. Watch the new Vistara video below. For your next trip, rekindle the joy of flying and book your tickets here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Vistara and not by the Scroll editorial team.