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.”

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