In the foreseeable future, countries will fight not over oil, but over water. It goes without saying that water is synonymous with life. India perfected the art and science of harnessing water a long time ago and developed ingenious ways to do it. Tankas, khadins, inundation channels, phad are just some creative systems that evolved in India during the course of history in response to cultural, geosocial and climatic factors to store and efficiently use available water. Of these, the Bawadis or the vavs or the stepwells of western India stand out not only as unique water harnessing systems, but as architectural marvels, astounding engineering feats and irreplaceable links and repositories of the study of historical, social and cultural periods.
Stepwell construction can be traced back to the late sixth century, and its rudimentary precursors can be seen in the Indus Valley and Harappa civilisations. Though the stepwells found their origin in the hands of anonymous masons in south-western Gujarat, the idea spread to rest of the arid regions of India and the nobles and the higher class people soon began to fund their construction. By the 19th century, several thousand state-of-the-art stepwells of various scales of architectural grandeur were built in Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat. Enveloping the simple idea of collecting water, stepwells developed as elaborate and intrinsic community monuments, which lived on through both the Hindu and Muslim reigns, rooted deep as symbols of utilitarian and artistic accomplishment. Many stepwells have been found dedicated to goddesses, perhaps because fetching water from wells was mostly the responsibility of women, and the stepwells offered themselves as a gathering place and a respite from their otherwise monotonous lives.
Though the name of the stepwell may change with the dialect of the region, all of them have essentially evolved around the same design principle, architectural spatial layout and construction systems. Stepwells penetrate the aquifer; some built 9-12 storeys underground, which seems an impossible task today even given all the modern sophisticated construction systems and tools. Stepwells essentially consist of two main components — the well with the steps leading to it and the adjoining multi-level chambers that were built to offer a cool retreat to travellers. These could have square, rectangular, circular and L-shaped profiles.
Some of the most spectacular stepwells are Ugarsen’s stepwell in New Delhi, Chand Baori in Abhaneri near Jaipur, Neemrana Baoli on the Delhi-Jaipur highway, the Adalaj vav in Gujarat and the Rani ki vav in Gujarat which was recently chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is one of the most intrinsically carved monuments, built in the Maru-Gujara architectural style. Built in 1505 AD by Queen Udyamati in memory of her late husband of the Solanki dynasty, it is 209 feet long, 65 feet wide and 88 feet deep with seven levels underground. It has over 800 elaborately carved sculpture panels depicting Vishnu and his ten incarnations spread over seven galleries. At the water level, Sheshashayi Vishnu, the incarnation in which he lies on a thousand hooded serpent Shesha depicting infinity, can be seen. Due to geotectonic disturbances that flooded Saraswati river, this stepwell was buried for over a thousand years till the 1980s when the Archaeological Survey of India excavated and preserved it.
Stepwells fell into disuse with the rise of the British power in India during the 19th century. Declared as sanitary disasters, they were feared as repositories of water-borne diseases and parasites. Sadly, the grand legacy of stepwells in India has lain redundant and dormant ever since.
What is the future of stepwells? It is time historians, preservationists and communities recognised that stepwells need to be preserved as monuments, as part of modern urban fabric for their historical, geo-social identity and unique construction feat.
Stepwells have tremendous potential to be economically self sustainable. This traditional wisdom, if revived and reinforced with modern science and technological inputs, can help in meeting modern water needs in our villages and suburban areas with the ever growing population.