Lost Subterranean – The Declining Stepwells

A vibrant vivid hue is always seen when any one turns their head toward the thought of travelling through the expanse of the culturally vibrant Indian Subcontinent. Backpacking through the country to the famous like Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Varanasi, Ahmedabad, Nagpur, Nasik etc. between the sandstone red, marble white, stone grey and the deciduous green, has always been an adventure to head on. But there are still pages to these mysterious chapters that few of the very many have stumbled upon.

Welcome to the land of multitudes of differentials, not explored, or not pointed on the map that very often and one of the many are the subterranean caverns called the stepwells.

Adalaj Vav, Ahmedabad, Gujarat Picture Courtesy : Achyuthan Ramaswamy

Adalaj Vav, Ahmedabad, Gujarat
Picture Courtesy : Achyuthan Ramaswamy

Many would be familiar with the Step-wells of Adalaj, Gujarat and that’s it. Why? The simple reason it is listed in the Archaeological Survey of India(ASI) and the UNESCO as a world heritage site.

Addressed in the native tongue as kalyani or pushkarani, bawdi or baoli, barav, vaav, these can be found spread across the western portions of Indian subcontinent.

Mahila Bag Jhalra, Jodhpur, Rajasthan Picture Courtesy : Victoria Lautman

Mahila Bag Jhalra, Jodhpur, Rajasthan
Picture Courtesy : Victoria Lautman

Spectacular masterpieces of engineering and aesthetics, thousands of the unlisted that have become obsolete and are on the verge of extinction.

Rani ki Vav, Patan, Gujarat Picture Courtesy : Victoria Lautman

Rani ki Vav, Patan, Gujarat
Picture Courtesy : Victoria Lautman

Rani ki Vav, Patan, Gujarat Picture Courtesy : Victoria Lautman

Rani ki Vav, Patan, Gujarat
Picture Courtesy : Victoria Lautman

The common folk residing in proximity who are ignorant, because of no prior knowledge regarding the deep cultural roots these edifices tie to the motherland or the businessmen who are driven by the motive of greed and actually know the monetary value attached to theses rocks, end up taking them apart brick by brick or stone by stone till the whole place vanishes. Also the adaptation of pumps and taps have made the usage of wells pretty much non-existent.

Anonymous Baoli, Fatehpur Picture Courtesy : Victoria Lautman

Anonymous Baoli, Fatehpur
Picture Courtesy : Victoria Lautman

Exponential urban expansion also leads to the destruction of these places with typical stereotype clause adjoined to them, “Nobody use these now anyway!” or “It’s been lying abandoned for so many years that nobody will notice that its gone.”

Security and rules tying to the sanctity of the place have become redundant and there is nothing to stop the inexorable march of time from crumbling these remarkable structures.

Agrasen ki Baoli, Delhi Picture Courtesy : Victoria Lautman

Agrasen ki Baoli, Delhi
Picture Courtesy : Victoria Lautman

Chand Baori, Rajasthan Picture Courtesy : Rishwanth Jayaraj

Chand Baori, Rajasthan
Picture Courtesy : Rishwanth Jayaraj

The basic idea behind construction of these wondrous elements is to smartly deal with the stark changes in the climate. Water has always been an agent of cool. So a system was built to collect the rainwater, not just any other burrow on the earth, but a regressive structure which from a particular distance recedes into the ground with step inundations. In accordance with the ancient culture of royalty these stepwells are never left without the decorations that mark its elegance. Keeping with the tradition of Indian Culture, various motifs in basis with the religion are inscribed in relation to the type of step well.

Mata Bhavani, Ahmedabad, Gujarat Picture Courtesy : Victoria Lautman

Mata Bhavani, Ahmedabad, Gujarat
Picture Courtesy : Victoria Lautman

These were generally used as bathing spaces, a summer retreat, and space for festivities and common location for various meetings.

This was the scenario nearly 5 centuries back, after that with the slow decline of Kingsmanship these structures also lost serenity and went into the state of decay that we see today.

Possible solution to preserve these cultural edifices, is for the various private or government trusts with potential, to take up a drive into conservation and restoration of these decaying structures under the watchful eyes of UNESCO and ASI so that a whole cultural heritage is not pushed down the darkness of abyss, never to be seen again.

By: Achyuthan Ramaswamy

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