Stepwells are essentially wells 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. They are most common in the dry western regions of India where water storage is crucial, especially in Gujarat and Rajasthan but are also found in other arid regions of the Indian subcontinent including Delhi, Maharashtra, Karnataka and parts of Pakistan.
A number of names exist for stepwells in various local languages. In Hindi and Rajasthani languages they are called baudi, bawri, baoli, bavadi, etc. In Gujarati and Marwari language, they are usually called vav.
Purpose of stepwells
Found in several parts of India, Stepwells are storage and irrigation tanks that enable the people to cope with the seasonal fluctuation in availability of water. A basic difference between stepwells and tanks and wells, was that the former made it easier for people to reach ground water in addition to maintaining and managing the well. In some related types of structure (johara wells), ramps were built to allow cattle to reach the water.
In addition to storing water, stepwells also served a social, cultural and architectural purpose.
In addition to providing water, the stepwells also served a leisure purpose since the base of the well provided relief from daytime heat, and this relief was even more if the well was covered. With its growing social importance, villagers started decorating stepwells by adding ornamental and architectural features, often associated with dwellings in urban areas. These ornamental additions also ensured their survival as monuments. Stepwells were also sites of many social, cultural and religious gatherings; and in most areas they had significant royal patronage.
The structure of a stepwell can be seen as divided into two parts. The first is the vertical shaft through which water is drawn, as in any well. The second is the surrounding structure – passages and steps that provide access to the well, and chambers for social and leisure purposes. These structures were often adorned and beautifully carved, and developed into cool summer retreats.
The concept of stepwells is known to be as old as 600 CE. There is also the opinion that it may be older still, even dating from the time of Indus Valley Civilisaton. However, most of the existing stepwells were constructed in the last 800 years. One of the earliest existing stepwells is in Ahmedabad – the Mata Bhavani’s Vav. It was built in the 11th century. The structures above the well are built in the Solanki school of architecture ad consist of highly ornamented pavilions of upto four storeys.
Most stepwells have fallen into disuse in during the past century or more. This happened especially after the advent of piped water and overhead water tanks. However, there is a realisation that stepwells need to be revived, as they are efficient water storage systems. Stepwells also serve as excellent rainwater harvesting systems and for recharging the underground water. With an increase in the water usage, lack of mechanisms to replenish the ground water, water tables in many areas have fallen significantly and the importance of stepwells has come to the fore – not only as architectural ruins but as good rain harvesting and water storage systems.
- Davies, Philip. The Penguin guide to the monuments of India, Vol II. London: Viking, 1989.
- Tadgell, Christopher. The History of Architecture in India. London: Phaidon Press, 1990.
- The Globalist