The sweat was already clinging to my skin even though it was January and before noon, but South India is a place where winter is forgotten. Being on the road for a couple of months for work for the adventure company I used to work for meant I got to see a lot of India – although only the south, but even then the regions were as diverse as crossing countries.
I wasn’t sad to miss out on the Taj Mahal, but I was devastated I wasn’t going to visit one of the beautiful and surreal stepwells, usually found in the north of the country. So that morning, as we stood among the ruins in Hampi, Karnataka looking at the map of this ancient city, a photo in the corner grabbed my eyes – I saw a stepwell. I called over the boy who had just sold us some postcards and asked him where this place was. He pointed us in the vague direction and I insisted that we had to go there.
I finally had my chance to see a stepwell live, carved in stone. It wasn’t quite Chand Baori, but it was still a stunning piece of architecture.
Stepwells are not only objects of underrated architectural beauty, but served a purpose, particularly up in the arid deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat. They started to appear in the period spanning the 2nd to the 4th centuries AD as an innovative measure to collect water after the season of the heavy monsoon rains. However, they evolved into complex constructions in the 11th century, becoming something that looks more like a work of art than what was essentially a method of water storage. Asides from needing water to live, the stepwells played a part in Hindu culture, becoming havens for meditation, prayer and bathing.
The estimated number of stepwells in Gujarat and Rajasthan came to over 3000, and today there are still 100s of stepwells, some quite hidden from the untrained eye. But the tragedy is many of them have fallen into disrepair, filled with rubbish and are slowly vanishing. Under the British Raj, these stairwells saw their decline as the raj found these wells unsanitary counteracted them by installing modern pipes and plumbing systems, even outlawing these beautiful structures in some places.
Some have gone dry today, others are better preserved and some completely forgotten, or even become filled with rubbish. Journalist Victorial Lautman photographed and you can read more about them in her articles about these wonderful structures. I would love to return to India and perhaps follow in Lautman’s footsteps to see these fascinating places for myself.
Cover photo by Doron.