While walking through Jodhpur I came across this wonderfull stepwell. I knew about stepwells but was pleasantly surprised when I actually saw one. In this post a bit more in the phenomenom of the stepwell.
The stepwell I encounted was in the center of the old blue city, close to the hill with the massive fortress. Abandoned and invisble from the street there was this waterreservoir from old times. On one side of the steps was a ceremonial platform. Recently the site had been used recently as rubbish dump.
There was still water in the tank, and since the monsoon was about to arrive a lot would soon be added. But for the moment the place was full of squirrels and pigeons. And as I was staring the water, I noticed bubbles and something moving. The water was populated by huge fish.
Dated to 600 AD, stepwells are essentially inverted ziggurats excavated from the earth, producing an infrastructural monument to water collection. Like most great inventions, the concept driving a stepwell is surprisingly simple and composed of two parts – a well and access route. The large well is used to collect monsoon rain, which then percolates through layers of fine silt (to screen particulates), eventually reaching a layer of impermeable clay. Eroded rock from the Western Himalaya, further refined through several centuries of farming has produced a fine alluvium soil for the wells, which acts as an ideal filter. With larger sediment gathering at the top, the stepwell operates like an underground aquifer.
The second component of the stepwell, are the steps or access passages to collect the water. Unlike traditional wells, stepwells allow one to enter, manage and maintain the well, creating a spatial occupation of the infrastructure. Some stepwells contain continuous transport infrastructure, such as ramps, to allow cattle to reach and transport water. More elaborated stepwells host galleries and chambers surrounding the passageways that were ornamentally sculpted. It is no surprise that these wells that allowed communities to sustain their crops during the arid months, eventually became religious temples dedicated to water. The functional characteristics of stepwells, soon made them a metaphor for the Ganges – the largest and most divine river in India.
Stepwells, also called bawdi or baoli , or vaav are wells or ponds in which the water can be reached by descending a set of steps. They may be covered and protected, and are often of architectural significance. It can be multi-storied also in which a bullock turns the water wheel (“Rehat”) to raise the water in the well to the first or second floor.
They are most common in the west of India. They may be also found in the other more arid regions of the subcontinent, extending into Pakistan. The construction may be utilitarian, but sometimes includes significant architectural embellishments.
A number of distinct names, sometimes local, exist for stepwells. In Hindi speaking regions, they include names based on baudi (including bawdi, bawri, baoli, bavadi, bavdi). In Gujarati and Marwari language, they are usually called vav or vaav.
All forms of the stepwell may be considered to be particular examples of the many types of storage and irrigation tanks that were developed in India, mainly to cope with seasonal fluctuations in water availability. A basic difference between stepwells on the one hand, and tanks and wells on the other, was to make it easier for people to reach the ground water, and to maintain and manage the well.
In some related types of structure (johara wells), ramps were built to allow cattle to reach the water.
The majority of surviving stepwells originally also served a leisure purpose, as well as providing water. This was because the base of the well provided relief from daytime heat, and more such relief could be obtained if the well was covered. This led to the building of some significant ornamental and architectural features, often associated with dwellings and in urban areas. It also ensured their survival as monuments.
Stepwell construction is known to have gone on from at least 600 AD. Most existing stepwells date from the last 800 years. There are suggestions that they may have originated much earlier, and there are some suggestions that precursors to them can be seen in the Indus Valley civilisation.
I already found the stepwell in Jodhpur impressive. But then I discovered this one on the internet: The deepest stepwell in the world, Chand Baori.
Chand Baori is a famous stepwell situated in the village Abhaneri near Jaipur in Indian state of Rajasthan. This step well is located opposite Harshat Mata Temple and is one of the deepest and largest step wells in India. It was built in 9th century and has 3500 narrow steps and 13 stories and is 100 feet deep. It is a fine example of the architectural excellence prevalent in the past.
There’s also a different type of stepwell. Instead of the inverse pyramid shape, it’s more like an actual ‘step-well’. Some fine examples can be found in Gujarat.
What is intriguing about stepwells is that they were both an infrastructure to collect water as well a space of gathering and leisure. As a subterranean landscape, the base of the inverted pyramids provided a cool microclimate to escape the hot conditions at grade. As such, these became central public spaces of gathering and architectural significance. The collection of water also attracted large ecosystems of bees, fish, lizards, parrots, pigeons, and turtles amongst other species. Each monsoon would reinvigorate these stepwells and promote new life. As a functional, religious and social infrastructure, these became the central spaces for many communities to gather, bathe and converse.
- More info can be found in this book: Steps to water: the ancient stepwells of India (google book preview)
- Another link on stepwells: http://www.xflo.net/en/2011/02/28/abhaneri-step-well/