Step-wells, like Chand Baori, are incredible feats of engineering. Common to the Indian subcontinent and parts of Pakistan, they continue to amaze visitors to this very day.
But what are they, and how were they built? Read on to find out.
What is a stepwell?
Stepwells, otherwise known as Gujarati vav, Hindi baoli or baori, are a special type of subterranean edifice, usually with a central pond or well. They are most commonly found many parts of western India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and surrounding regions.
Most step-wells in India and Pakistan are purely utilitarian structures, but others can have highly ornate masonry and may even include temples. They are usually found in the more arid regions of both India and Pakistan.
They are one of many types of water storage and irrigation tank that were developed and designed to help locals cope with seasonal fluctuations in the water supply.
Their design can vary widely, and all incorporate a central well that extends down into the underlying water table. They were used for centuries by locals to provide water for drinking, washing, bathing, and the irrigation of crops.
The incorporation of steps makes it a lot easier for people to access the water supply and perform maintenance, when compared to other solutions like wells or storage tanks.
Many also served as cool sanctuaries for traveling caravans, pilgrims, and other travelers during the heat of the day or overnight. These complex pieces of civil engineering were often commissioned by royalty, or other wealthy and powerful patrons.
Although thousands were built over the centuries, many became abandoned as a result of modernization and falling water tables across the region. Under British rule, step-wells were also considered unsanitary and places likely to breed diseases, and thus were either destroyed outright or filled in. And after Indian independence, some local communities have also allowed them to silt up due to negligence and financial hardships.
Some are even used as refuse tips. But, India's growing water crisis has seen a renewed interest in these ancient structures and a program to preserve many of the remaining stepwells is currently underway.
How is a stepwell made?
Stepwells were built by excavating several stories underground in order to reach the water level of a particular site.
Once complete, the wells, and walls, of the excavation were lined with masonry (usually without mortar), and staircases of a varying design were also added from the ground level to the water reservoir.
Their architectural design can vary depending on the age and region, and will commonly include a blend of Hindu and Islamic architectural styles.
Stepwells typically have a vertical shaft from which water is drawn, and a surrounding inclined subterranean masonry structure (sometimes with passageways, chambers, and temples). Some also include galleries and other chambers surrounding the wells, often ornately carved, to provide cool, quiet retreats for visitors.
Rudimentary versions first appeared around the 3rd Century AD, and their design evolved into highly complex structures over time.
What are some famous stepwells?
And so, without further ado, here are some examples of the most interesting or famous stepwells in India. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.
1. Dholavira may have been one of the very first stepwells in India
Dholavira, located in Gujarat in western India, might just have one of the first step-wells ever built. An archaeological site, it is thought to date from the Indus Valley Civilisation and appears to have first been occupied in around 2,650 BC.
An interesting structure is present at the site that contains some sophisticated hydraulic engineering, a central well, and steps leading down to it from ground level. What is more, this stepwell is pretty big, measuring around 241 feet (73 meters) long by 96 feet (30 meters) wide and 33 feet (10 meters) deep.
2. Chand Baori is probably the most photogenic stepwell in India
Another amazing stepwell in India is Chand Baori. Located in a village in Rajasthan, it is an amazing 13 stories deep, with iconic triangular steps leading to the water source at its center.
Built sometime in the 8th or 9th-century AD, it is the oldest surviving stepwell in the region. It was built by the King of Chanda and includes a temple, pillared corridors, and other highly ornate masonry structures.
It is one of India's largest and most spectacular.
3. Rani ki vav is another impressive stepwell
It is one of the finest examples in India and is designed as an inverted temple to the sanctity of water.
Left to silt over, it was rediscovered and excavated in the 1940s and was restored in the 1980s. Today it is listed as one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites.
4. Agrasen ki Baoli is another amazing stepwell
Agrasen ki Baoli is a 14th-century stepwell located in the city of New Delhi. It is another of India's most impressive stepwells. Now a protected monument, it is 197 feet (60 meters) long and 49 feet (15 meters) wide.
It is unknown who built it or when exactly, but some believe it was originally commissioned by the legendary king Agrasen (hence the name), who is said to have lived 5,000 years ago, but whose existence has never been proven. The existing structure was probably built in the late 14th century or early 15th century and was restored recently.
5. Adalaj ni Vav is a literal labor of love
Andalaj ni Vav stepwell near the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat is yet another interesting stepwell. Not only is it exquisitely beautiful, but the story behind its construction is quite tragic.
The story goes that in 1499 the kingdom was conquered by the Muslim warlord Mohammed Begda (Mahmud Begada). He killed the Hindu king Rana Veer Sinh, and took a shine to his widow Rani Rudabai.
Demanding her hand in marriage, she only agreed if Begda would complete the stepwell that her former husband had started. King Mehmud Begada agreed, and when it was finished, Queen Rudabai threw herself into the well and died. She had never planned on marrying King Mehmud, she just wanted to see her husband’s stepwell finished.
6. The wonderful Toorji ka Jhalra
Yet another amazing stepwell in India is Toorji ka Jhalra, Rajasthan. Recently restored, it is thought to have been built sometime in the 18th-century AD.
It is situated near Jodhpur and is built from red sandstone with many exquisite carvings of animals and deities. Once filled with debris, it has since been cleared and restored to near perfect condition.
The well is widely considered one of the finest in the subcontinent.
7. The Royal Enclosure is one of the most revered step-wells in India
Such well-temple combinations can be traced back to the Vijayanagara Empire (1336-1646) and were used as a place of worship by the people of Hampi.
Today, most of them lie in ruins, but some good examples still exist. The Royal Enclosure is located near the Hazara Rama Temple.
8. Surya Kund is another famous stepwell in India
Built sometime in the 11th-century, Surya Kund is located on the site of the famed Sun Temple in Gujarat. Built under the reight of Bhima 1 of the Chalukya dynasty, this rectangular stepwell has four terraces, and no less than 180 miniature shrines to Lord Ganesha, Vishnu, and other local gods.
The site was used both for water storage, and also for performing religious ceremonies. Today, the temple site is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and is very popular with tourists.
9. Panna Meena Ka Kund in Jaipur is another famous stepwell
And lastly, Panna Meena Ka Kund is another impressive stepwell. Located in the so-called "Pink City", it really is something of an architectural marvel.
Built sometime in the 16th-century, it served to provide water and a focal point for the surrounding population. While not one of the biggest in Rajasthan, it is very popular with tourists to the region.
And that's a wrap.
Stepwells are not only amazing feats of engineering, but most are also beautiful things to look at. So, next time you find yourself in India, why not make a beeline for the nearest one?
You will not be disappointed!