Stepwells in India -Zaidul Hasan
Water, the essence of life, has been a scarce resource in many parts of the world since ancient times. Nowadays, technological advancements have mitigated the scarcity of water, but in the past, water management posed one of the greatest challenges for civilizations. The question remained: how could a large group of people living in one place be provided with water for various essential needs? India, between the 2nd and 5th centuries AD, discovered a remarkable solution: stepwells, known as baoli, bawri, or vav.
The concept of building stepwells in India originated from the necessity to address the challenges posed by the region’s climatic conditions and water scarcity. These stepwells were a direct response to the arid and semi-arid landscapes in certain parts of the country, where the monsoon rains were often unpredictable and insufficient to meet the water requirements of the local communities.
Stepwells were particularly prevalent in the western states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, as well as in some parts of Madhya Pradesh. Evidence suggests that the construction of stepwells dates back to the 2nd century AD during the era of the Maurya Empire, although it is believed that the concept predates this period and evolved gradually over time.
Initially, stepwells were simple structures consisting of a series of steps leading down to a water source, which could be a natural spring, a river, or a reservoir. These early stepwells served as access points for collecting water, allowing people to descend to lower levels. The Adi Kadi Vav is an example of a simple structured stepwell that was carved directly into the rock.
As communities grew and their needs became more complex, stepwells evolved into elaborate and multifunctional structures. The medieval period, between the 11th and 16th centuries, witnessed architectural innovations, with stepwells being constructed with multiple levels of steps and intricate designs. During this time, powerful dynasties and kingdoms such as the Chalukyas, Cholas, Solankis, and Mughals provided the resources and expertise for the construction of grand stepwells.
Stepwells transcended their function as water reservoirs and evolved into architectural wonders. They showcased the artistic skills, engineering brilliance, and cultural heritage of the communities that built them. Stepwells began incorporating intricate carvings, sculptures, and architectural elements, transforming them into visually stunning structures.
Many stepwells became temples, adorned with sculptures of gods and goddesses, and decorated with elaborate ornamentation, prayer niches, and shrines. They became sites of spiritual, functional, and social significance. Stepwells built by India’s Islamic dynasties, where representational art was avoided, displayed sumptuous and intricate stonework. Despite their functionality, stepwells were not devoid of beauty.
Beyond providing water, stepwells served multiple purposes. They became gathering places for social interactions, resting areas for weary travelers, and venues for religious ceremonies and festivities. The steps and chambers of stepwells provided respite from the scorching heat, creating cool oases during hot summer months. Some stepwells even incorporated covered spaces to shelter travelers, traders, and pilgrims on their journeys.
Stepwells carried spiritual significance due to water’s sacred importance in Indian culture, symbolizing purity, life, and rejuvenation. Many stepwells were adorned with shrines, temples, and sculptures dedicated to various deities, transforming them into centers of religious devotion and pilgrimage.
Building a stepwell was a formidable challenge, as it involved underground architecture susceptible to collapse under pressure from the surrounding earth. Despite this risk, stepwells stood the test of time. They are not only beautiful but also triumphs of engineering.
Stepwells combined the necessity of water provision, engineering challenges, social importance, and the opportunity to create something beautiful. They resulted in some of the most striking, unusual, and impressive architecture found anywhere in the world. Instead of looking up like most buildings, stepwells invited people to look down into the earth as the structure opened below them, earning them the moniker of “inverted temples.” Yet, within the stepwells, people could also look up to the sky and the sun.
While many stepwells have been lost to time, buried, collapsed, or forgotten, thousands of them once existed in India. Despite becoming obsolete with the advent of modern plumbing and water infrastructure, some stepwells continue as temples and sites of worship. They remain integral parts of their communities, serving as tourist attractions or places for leisurely swims.
The stepwells of India are truly unique. They combine the vital function of providing water with masterful engineering, majestic architecture, delightful ornamentation, and social and spiritual significance. They exemplify the pinnacle of public architecture at its finest.