ARCHITECTURAL HERITAGE

A photographer’s deep dive into India’s stepwells: ‘It was like discovering a new galaxy’

Victoria Lautman was accustomed to looking up when admiring architecture. All that changed one day in Rajasthan.

Bruce Wayne, the alter ego of Batman, made his way up the stone steps of the dark underground prison he was desperately trying to escape. When he eventually emerged from the prison’s deep depths in the film The Dark Knight Rises, he was standing in the middle of a desert. Behind him was a structure many Indian movie-goers instantly recognised – Rajasthan’s Mehrangarh Fort. Another location from Wayne’s escape sequence in the film was filmed at the Chand Baori stepwell in Abhaneri, Rajasthan.

Chand Baori, Abhaneri, Rajasthan (Image courtesy: Victoria Lautman).
Chand Baori, Abhaneri, Rajasthan (Image courtesy: Victoria Lautman).

The Chand Baori is only one of thousands of magnificent stepwells surviving in India. “It is compelling because it is a layer-cake of history,” said Victoria Lautman, photographer and author of The Vanishing Stepwells of India. “It’s a rarity with its original Hindu construction, dating from around 800 AD, surmounted by a much later Islamic addition.”

Stepwells are unique to India. They served as water tanks, a space for social gatherings and, in some cases, temples of Hindu worship. The water collected in stepwells was used for everything – drinking, irrigating fields and religious ceremonies. There are also many stories, real and imagined, which make these structures endlessly interesting.

Lautman’s book, recently released by London-based Merrell Publishers, explores the beauty, architecture and legends of these structures, which have married practicality with grandeur for centuries.

A print and broadcast journalist, Lautman came across her first stepwell while travelling with a group of architects who were on a mission to see the modernist buildings of India designed by Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, and BV Doshi. That was nearly 30 years ago.

Rudabai Vav, Gujarat (Image courtesy: Victoria Lautman).
Rudabai Vav, Gujarat (Image courtesy: Victoria Lautman).

“It was like discovering a new species of mammal or a galaxy,” said Lautman. “I was taken to what was basically an unremarkable patch of desert, where there was a low wall in the distance. I was wondering ‘What are we doing here, looking at a boring wall?’ But looking over this parapet, I confronted a deep, man-made chasm with a parade of carved columns and pavilions. It was completely unexpected, incredibly shocking, and subversive in that we’re conditioned to look up at architecture, not down into it. The experience of descending into this subterranean edifice, deep into the earth, was one of the most powerful experiences of moving through architecture that I’ve ever had. Still. Harsh sunlight became deep shadow, the heat in Gujarat was replaced by enveloping cool air, and the above-ground din disappeared into a pervasive hush. It was magical.”

The group’s travels took them to Ahmedabad, where Lautman encountered the Rudabai Vav in Gujarat, which would mark the beginning of her obsession with the water harvesting systems. Themes of romance, loss and sacrifice can be found in the legend associated with Rudabai Vav’s history. Lautman writes:

“It’s patroness, Ruda, was a comely Hindu queen whose husband had already begun work on the elaborate stepwell when he was killed in battle by Sultan Begada. The sultan was subsequently smitten by Ruda’s beauty, and the widow promised to marry him on one condition: that she could complete the stepwell in honour of her fallen first husband. Begada agreed to the terms, but upon its completion, Ruda inaugurated the well by throwing herself in.”

Since then, the Chicago-based journalist has visited over 200 stepwells in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh, among others, many of which have not survived modernisation.

Adi Kadi Vav, Junagadh, Gujarat (Image courtesy: Victoria Lautman).
Adi Kadi Vav, Junagadh, Gujarat (Image courtesy: Victoria Lautman).

Lautman describes The Vanishing Stepwells as a guide for those interested in visiting the sites mentioned in the book. Next to each of the 75 stepwells in the book, Lautman has helpfully included its GPS coordinates.

In the book’s foreword, Divay Gupta, principal director of the architectural heritage division at Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage or INTACH, writes: “In India, water has always played an integral part in architecture and city planning. The subcontinent has a long tradition of buildings connected with water... The connection between architecture and water is generally regarded as a connection between the secular and the sacred, between earth and heaven... Baolis, vavs or bawadis, as they are called in various parts of the country, are a building typology unique to the Indian subcontinent. They are testimony to the traditional water-harvesting systems developed in ancient times, and to the engineering and construction skills and the craftsmanship of those who built them.”

Bahadur Singh Barot ki Vav, Patan, Gujarat (Image courtesy: Victoria Lautman).
Bahadur Singh Barot ki Vav, Patan, Gujarat (Image courtesy: Victoria Lautman).

The skilful architecture of these stepwells is reflexive of the transitions in Indian history. Some are a combination of the Hindu aesthetic of ornamentation and the architectural innovations introduced by Muslim rule, like the Chand Baori itself, the original structure of which was built around 800 CE by Raja Chand and then later constructed upon to reflect the eighteenth century Mughal aesthetics.

“It is unusual to see these different styles of architecture in such close proximity, since the islamic faith forbade any figuration; but it is certainly fortunate that much of the ninth-century edifice was left in place close to the water’s edge,” writes Lautman.

According to the writer, the biggest change occurred during Muslim rule, starting in 15th century in Gujarat, when architects shifted from post-and-beam construction to the new stylistic traits introduced by Muslim rulers, such as spiral staircases, octagons, and chhatris, besides the arches and domes that began to appear with a gradual disappearance of lavish figural ornamentation seen in Hindu wells.

One such example is the Mukundpura Baoli in Haryana, which lacks any ornamentation but is characterised by four chhatris or domes, which give it a regal feel.

Mukundpura Baoli, Haryana (Image courtesy: Victoria Lautman).
Mukundpura Baoli, Haryana (Image courtesy: Victoria Lautman).

The baolis became common spots for festivals and social meetings. To this day, specific stepwells are frequented during festivals, like the Lolark Kund in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, described by Lautman as “one of the most distinctive water structures… combining the classic deep-funnel kund form with wide flights of steep steps”. Located near the confluence of the Ganga and Asi rivers, the Lolark Kund is dedicated to Surya, the Hindu sun god. It is widely believed that a dip in the water contained within the Lolark Kund aids fertility in women and it is still common for women to travel to this stepwell in the hope of getting pregnant with a son. “Women struggle down the dizzying steps, trying to reach the sacred water,” she writes. “After bathing, they leave their wet clothing behind, along with a piece of fruit or a vegetable that they pledge never to eat again.”

Lolark Kund in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh (Image courtesy: Victoria Lautman).
Lolark Kund in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh (Image courtesy: Victoria Lautman).

According to Lautman, several factors contributed to baolis becoming sites for social rituals. “Mother goddesses are associated with water and fertility in so many cultures, so the development of stepwells as subterranean temples was (and still is) a natural evolution from the purely utilitarian... Women meeting in the wells for the daily gathering of water and performance of rituals would be a social experience too, and who wouldn’t want to take refuge from the hot summer sun? All of these ancillary functions of a stepwell had built-in social components.”

Preservation efforts by the Archaelogical Survey of India have been made for some stepwells, like the Chand Baori or the Rani Ki Vav in Patan, Gujarat, which has been recognised as a world heritage site by The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. However, many, especially those in cities, have fallen into disrepair or become the local garbage dump for the houses and buildings which mushroom around the stepwell.

Rani ki Vav, Gujarat (Image courtesy: Victoria Lautman).
Rani ki Vav, Gujarat (Image courtesy: Victoria Lautman).

Apart from obvious conservation efforts, Lautman said there is a need to popularise stepwells among tourists and locals alike as an incentive for bodies like ASI and INTACH to preserve these structures. Some luxury hotels, like the Raas Hotel in Jodhpur and the Rawla Narlai hotel between Udaipur and Jodhpur, have taken the initiative to clean stepwells adjoining their property.

“There’s a gorgeous 18th-century stepwell adjoining the stylish Raas Hotel, but it was in terrible shape, filled with toxic water and floating debris,” said Lautman. “The hotel recently drained and cleaned it, removing three centuries of really disgusting muck and revealing an extraordinary piece of architecture. Then there’s the town of Abhaneri between Jaipur and Agra, home to the incomparable Chand baori, where a festival inaugurated in 2014 draws lots of people to the ancient well. There are so many ways to integrate stepwells into tourist itineraries, and my hope is that, in villages and towns where stepwells are neglected, any presence of tourists will inspire more clean-up efforts and generate some revenue for surrounding communities.”

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.