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August 15, 2017

A Walk Down The Enchanting Stepwells Of India

Text by Shubham Ladha. Photographs by Victoria Lautman

Shrouded in history and culture, the magnificent stepwells of India are being resuscitated by journalist Victoria Lautman

Unique to India, stepwells have been an integral bridge between several Indian civilizations and traditional water harvesting techniques. While the first ones were built as early as 600 CE and reached their height till the twentieth century, they’ve been forgotten with the technological advances of the present and are still hidden from many as glorious, architectural marvels and sites of socio-cultural significance. There’ve been many scholarly works on stepwells, but American journalist, Victoria Lautman’s dormant curiosity with India’s architecture bloomed when she first laid her eyes on one.

Over the course of years, Lautman has visited more than two hundred of these structures, as a curious journalist following her passion. She’s compiled tales of about 75 of these in her book, The Vanishing Stepwells of India, by Merrell Publishers and has recently been invited to participate at Jaipur Literature Fest 2018. Having referenced other scholarly works, Lautman’s book describes the stepwells with their exact GPS locations and their legends with great beauty and reverence. Along with their styles and functionalities, the book landmarks their historical transitions. While some styles remain pure, others have largely merged their aesthetic.

Excerpts from an interview with Victoria Lautman…

When and where did your fascination for stepwells begin?

When I first visited India about 30 years ago, a local guide in Ahmedabad drove me outside the city, parked on the road and pointed to an ordinary wall in the distance. It looked completely boring, which only added to my surprise when I glanced over the edge. The ground fell away into a deep chasm, with a parade of ornate columns descending steeply into murky darkness. We’re conditioned to look up at architecture, not down into it, so this was a new and extraordinary experience for me. Years later, I realized it was the Rudabai Vav – also known as Adalaj Stepwell. Since then, I returned to the country many times, but only began to research the structures in earnest five years ago. I visited several in Delhi that few tourists ever see, but it was outside the city, in the small village of Neemrana, where I became truly obsessed. The 16th-century baoli there is immense, incredibly deep and so mysterious…truly one of the most remarkable structures I’ve ever seen.

You’ve described descending into stepwells as ‘powerful’ and ‘profound’. How so?

When descending into the space, my senses became amplified, as harsh sunlight becomes increasingly murky, hot air turns cool and humid and the noise from above the ground becomes hushed. It can be disorienting, especially if you have no idea how deep or long the edifice is. By the time you’ve reached the bottom, it really is another world.

Which have been some of the most striking creations you’ve come across?

Ujala baoli (c. 1500), in the magnificent Mandu Fort in Madhya Pradesh, is one of the most peaceful and eccentric I’ve seen. Even though there are many sophisticated water structures grouped near each other in the central area, Ujala is at the far reaches, off the normal route. No-one was around, and I hadn’t anticipated seeing it, but a local guide explained where to find it.

Batris Kotha vav in Kapadvanj, Gujarat, is from around 1120 CE. The deep structure is filled with water and draped with vines, which give it a romantic but terribly sad ambience. This was a simple, utilitarian, community well in its day, now in awful shape, yet it has retained its dignity.

Mukundpura stepwell (c. 1650) outside Narnaul, Haryana, seems almost dainty in its scale and structure. Finding it entailed driving through a number of agriculture villages until it rose from the middle of a lush field. The community swarms around me when I visit, they just cannot understand what I find so interesting about it.

It’s impossible to see Neemrana baori and not be flabbergasted. How is it possible that this magnificent, nine-story deep structure doesn’t appear in history books? There’s absolutely nothing like it, anywhere in the world. There’s so little factual information available that there are actually three separate dates for it in various sources: 15th century, 1570, and 1720.

Ambapur vav is like the poor sister of Rudabai vav and Dada Harir vav. All three were built within a few years of each other (c. 1500), and very close to one another outside Ahmedabad. This one is not as ornate as the other two, but is unique and very elegant: tall, narrow, and with lovely little niches piercing the walls all the way to the top.

Helical vav, just outside the fortress city of Champaner, Gujarat, was most likely built in the early 16th century. It is the simplest, most sinuous, abstract form possible, and although other stepwells take this shape throughout the country, it’s my favorite. When I show this photo during lectures, there are audible gasps in the audience.

Chand baori in Abhaneri, Rajasthan is one of the best-known stepwells. It’s been used in several movies, is easily reached off the Jaipur – Agra highway, and the government keeps it in great shape. It’s a particularly interesting stepwell – with 13 levels and geometric steps. Although it was originally built by a Hindu ruler around 800 CE, it has a later 18th-century Islamic addition. Seeing the two styles together is a rare treat.

What are the most memorable experiences you’ve had while discovering or accessing stepwells?

I’m often asked if I feel unsafe or threatened by anyone in my travels, but people have been unfailingly kind, even if utterly bewildered by my presence. They’ve let me into their homes, onto their roofs, into their gardens and shops when I needed to get a better view. One of the most remarkable experiences I had was in the little town of Dhank in Gujarat, home to one of India’s oldest stepwells (or “vav”, the local term) from around 600 CE. When we finally located the well, a wonderful Rabari herder, Khimabai, led us into the bush to show us two other ancient wells I’d never have found otherwise. We stayed and had tea with him and members of his village – it was perfect.

And what were some of the challenges you had to overcome?

There are several sources that were critical to my explorations, particularly the work of scholars Jutta Jain-Neubauer, Morna Livingston, and Julia Hegewald, but it’s a shame that their books are out of print and hard to come by. Whether in cities or villages, stepwell locations can be so ‘under the radar’ that even locals often don’t know where to find them. This is why I’ve included GPS coordinates for each of the 75 entries in my book.

I’ve also faced physical barriers. Climbing or sliding down the most decrepit structures can be harrowing, and falling into the well shaft itself is a fear of mine. In fact, anyone who hates heights, darkness, bugs, bats, bees, snakes, or an occasional mongoose, would be really unhappy. A number of stepwells are maintained by the community or government, but most have steps that are broken, covered with centuries of crud, or just non-existent. I’m probably lucky that all I’ve ever broken was my foot!

The structures were also difficult to photograph. Many times, I’ve had to crawl on my belly to the edge of a deep well just to get a photo of the shaft. There have been many times I asked myself, ‘Why are you doing this? No-one’s forcing you’, but I’d hate myself if I didn’t get as many photos as possible.

What differences in terms of design and functional usage did you find?

Stylistically, the range of stepwells seems infinite; no two are identical (except for a matched pair in Bundi, Rajasthan). With regards to functionality, some are still used to harvest water for irrigation, used as active subterranean temples, places to cool off, or all of the above. Some lacking water can still have important shrines within them, and others have been repurposed in significant ways. Indaravali baoli outside Fatehpur Sikri has been transformed into a wishing well (for lack of a better term), as I was told by the attendants that locals go there to beseech djinns. The Rawla Narlai Hotel near Jodhpur even offers a dinner overlooking an impressive stepwell on their property.

Did you come across any sufficient preservation efforts? Do you think stepwells will ever hold the cultural or aesthetical value they once did?

There are many important and dedicated efforts going on, seemingly more than ever before, perhaps due to India’s water crisis but also because of a renewed commitment to heritage. The Archeological Survey of India is ramping up efforts to restore and protect stepwells in Delhi, and many active NGOs are making vital contributions. INTACH, the Aga Khan Trust, Gram Bharati Samiti, the Prince Claus Fund and the Global Heritage Fund are just a few that have devoted time and money to the cause. Progress is definitely occurring.

Still, more important than stepping in to preserve or recharge a stepwell is the act of linking it to the surrounding community. In order for a stepwell to survive – whether in a city, town, or village – it is up to the locals to care for it as it was cared for in the past. Without stimulating pride in ancient heritage, there’s no hope whatsoever. It’s not an easy task, but it is possible.

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