In the history of humankind, the quest for water led to settlements near coasts, rivers and lakes and to the creation of reservoirs to harvest and store water for daily needs and to tide over times of scarcity.
Wells dug into the earth offered access to water from the natural water table or spring waters, and filled with rainwater, providing succour in drier months. Over time, stepwells – wells with a flight of steps to access the water – came to be built. As the water level dipped in summer, a person would walk down a few steps to reach the lower water level, and in the post monsoon months, the water would be more accessible. Stepwells are seen in different parts of India, predominant in the drier regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan, where rainfall is limited to monsoon, long spells of dry months and sparse vegetation necessitated the building of reservoirs for storing water. These stepwells are known by different names – such as baori and baoli in Rajasthan and north India, vav in Gujarat and pushkarini in Karnataka
Variety is Key
Over time, stepwells have evolved into unusual, beautiful and vast underground monuments. There are interesting variations in stepwells such as in the presence of a temple and religious iconography; their form in terms of shape; number of entrances and staircases; design of staircases (as one long flight with landings or a series of short flights in a geometric pattern); being large and completely open to sky appearing more like ponds or tanks and others being covered in parts; the number of levels; and the degree of ornamentation.
Outside the well, the temperatures may be searing, with little shade from vegetation to offer respite from the heat. Yet, within the confines of the stepwell, it was cool, with shaded spaces to relax, and water for drinking. Thus, stepwells became a welcome retreat for women who came to collect water, for travellers and traders, pilgrims and soldiers. Overtime, the commissioning of a stepwell was regarded as a meritorious act as it was considered blessed by the presence of deities and life-giving water. In recent decades, the use of stepped wells has reduced. Some continue to be visited as a water source, many for their sheer beauty, some have been restored, while some lie neglected.
Agrasen Ki Baoli, Delhi
In a city that traces its origin to ancient times, and one that is dotted with historic monuments, are many wonderful structures that speak of times past. One of the most charming surprises of New Delhi, is Agrasen ki Baoli, located in a narrow lane off Old Hailey Road, near Connaught Place. Walking along the quiet street, one gets an experience of making a discovery as the rectangular stone baoli unexpectedly comes into view. Eighty metres long and 15 metres wide, with a long flight of steps going down to the water level that are flanked by high stone walls with arched niches, the baoli offers a quiet spot in the heart of the capital. With 103 steps, it consists of three levels.
It is believed to have been built by Raja Agrasen, who lived at the time of the Mahabharata; its extant architectural style conveys that it probably underwent restoration during the 14th or 15th century CE. Its history, elegance and state of preservation has it credited as one of the finest baolis in the city.
Chand Baori, Abhaneri, Near Jaipur, Rajasthan
Be prepared to be dazzled by a symphony of geometry, symmetry, linearity and more as you glimpse the mesmerising Chand Baori! Located about 80 km from Jaipur, in front of the Harshat Mata temple dedicated to the goddess of joy, dated to 7-8th century CE, the large open air baori takes one’s breath away with its play of lines! For it has a fantastic series of landings and double flights of steps along three sides of the baori till the water level; the fourth side has spaces for resting, as does the top-most level. The baori’s details are fantastic: 3,500 steps, descending 20 metres, down thirteen levels… making it one of India’s largest and deepest baori.
The baori takes its name from its builder. It was built by King Chanda (8-9th century CE) and served as a precious source of water and a place for meeting and resting. Its vast dimensions must have caught ample rainwater, gushing down its stonewalls, that added to the ground water ensuring a good water supply for the long dry months.
Rani Ni Vav, Patan, Gujarat
In a state dotted with a spectrum of stepwells, Rani ni Vav or the Queen’s Stepwell stands out for its magnificence! It was built by Queen Udayamati in the 11th century; at that time Patan was a capital city graced with architecture patronised by the royals. Rani ni Vav is an elaborate complex of seven storeys with beautifully carved columns, brackets and beams. Its walls are lavishly embellished with exquisite sculptures of Lord Vishnu and his incarnations, deities, apsaras, natural life and decorative motifs; there are over 500 principle and 1,000 minor sculptures.
The sculptural beauty, scale of the stepwell, the play of light, and cool deep environs… make the stepwell a magical subterranean world. It is 64 mt long, 20 mt wide and 27 mt deep.
It was flooded by the waters of the Saraswati River and silted over for centuries, yet restoration in the mid-1980s rescued it from the sands of time, and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Pushkarni, Hampi, Karnataka
Every stone, at the spectacular erstwhile kingdom of Vijayanagara (1336-1646) at Hampi, a UNESCO World Heritage site, from its massive boulder-strewn landscape to its majestic stone architecture and galaxy of monuments, seems to whisper history. Amidst its temples, palaces, bazaars, gateways, stone chariot, stables and more are pushkarinis or sacred stepped tanks built adjoining temples for rituals that were supplied by water, flowing through channels, from the Tungabhadra River. The Krishna temple has an atmospheric pushkarini that captures the aura of Hampi in its setting and construction of stone. It is a serene tank, in an awesome setting, with a pillared arcade on the sides, and steps going down to the water’s edge. In the heart of the shimmering waters is a small structure, with four corner columns and a superstructure, where the idol of the deity would be placed during festivals.
written by :- Brinda Gill