Stepwells, or stepped ponds, in India are among the most neglected of the world’s great bodies of architecture

The gift of water

View of a section of the 15th century stepwell at Adalaj, near Ahmedabad. Photographs: Morna Livingston
View of a section of the 15th century stepwell at Adalaj, near Ahmedabad. Photographs: Morna Livingston

Gange cha, Yamune chaiva, Godavari, Saraswati
Narmade, Sindhu, Kaveri, jale-asmin sannidhim kuru
(Make this water sanctified by your presence, O Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu, Kaveri)
— Ancient morning prayers recited while bathing in India

Queen Rudadevi (wife of Chief Veersingh Vaghela) had this (step)well constructed. May it be firm and durable as long as the sun and the moon are in heavens.
— Inscription at the Adalaj stepwell, near Ahmedabad, ca. 1498

Both the above statements — one an invocation, the other a devout wish — relate to water, the element with which we, in India, have an especially intimate, primordial relationship.

Without water, no ritual can be complete; it is in the waters that the great god, Varuna, resides; it is these around which so many of our concerns, in the present world and the one hereafter, revolve; it is they whose presence or absence defines our lifestyle. To give the gift of water is among the highest of gifts that can be thought of.

Speaking of the spiritual merit of providing or constructing reservoirs of water, a popular saying in Rajasthan goes like this: Dus koopa samo vaapi/ dus vaapi samo hada (one vaapi equals 10 wells; one hada or tank equals 10 vaapis). Around reservoirs of different kinds and bearing different names — koopa, tadaaga, kunda, vaav, vaapi, baoli, sarovara — inscriptions abound and memories hover in the air. These gifts, these acts of generosity, are not easily forgotten.

Reservoirs can, of course, be constructed without elaborate structures around or above them but not so in the two, especially dry regions of our land: Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Carving in a niche in the stepwell at Ambapur.
Carving in a niche in the stepwell at Ambapur.

It is there that not only do these structures exist in large numbers but also there that they take the magnificent form sometimes of stepped ponds, and sometimes of stepwells — "perhaps, the most neglected of the world’s great bodies of architecture" — locally and generally called by the simple name, Vaav. Apart from an occasional reference going back to the second century, their consistent history of construction goes back to upwards of 1,200 years.

Estimates about their numbers vary, but it is generally believed that in western India alone, nearly 3,000 of these were built: in Gujarat in most of the state, except the southern part of it, and in Rajasthan, running along the Aravali hills northwards. Many of them carry the names of the person, the benefactor, who had them constructed — in Rajasthan, the Hadi Rani ki Baori at Todaraising in Tonk, for instance, the Moosi Rani ki Chhatri at Alwar, the Dhabaiji kin Baori at Bundi, the Panna Meena ki Baori at Amer; or in Gujarat, above all, the great Rani Vaav at Patan.

Majestic structures

But these names and dry statistics convey nothing of the grandeur, the sheer majesty of some of these structures. There are stepwells that are like whole temples built underground, one descending storey after another, sometimes as many as nine, deep into the bowels of the earth. Gentle, broad steps lead the pilgrim, the wayfarer, the parched traveller, the seeker, down to where the water is.

On the way down, you can rest, take in the sight of magnificent sculptures, marvel at the way these vast, unanticipated spaces have been carved out of solid earth. And you can almost sense, quietly, the presence of countless past generations of men and women and children who must have descended these steps, with gratitude in their hearts, in the years gone by.

Stepwells, and stepped ponds with their superb geometry of criss-crossing steps, require elaborate and thoughtful treatment, something that has been accorded to them by dedicated researchers like Jutta Jain-Neubauer or Kulbhushan Jain or Kirit Mankodi or, more recently, by Morna Livingston, but cannot possibly be done in this short, somewhat hurried piece. They also raise questions like: Were these accessible to all persons regardless of religion, caste or class? Can a sharp distinction be drawn between Hindu stepwells and Muslim stepwells? Why is it that it was more princesses whose names they bear than princes who had them built? But these cannot again be easily addressed here.

Carving inside a niche at Adalaj.
Carving inside a niche at Adalaj.

Spell of Stepwells

All that I can do here, appropriately, is only draw attention to this magnificent heritage. And to recall, or evoke, some of the atmosphere that one can breathe in them. For doing this, I cannot do better than Morna Livingston, whose words are as evocative as her photographs, and who fell under the spell of stepwells a quarter of a century ago when she visited Adalaj, as she says, and watched a small group of women descending the long stairs of steps for performing a ritual for a newborn boy and who, artlessly — the ritual over — placed the baby in her lap for her to share their joy. She was moved to tears, she writes, by the warmth and the simplicity of it all. That day, she says, "I knew that my devotion to the wells was about being in them, not about being in libraries." Let me, however, cite here in full a passage from her book, Steps to Water, that captures to near perfection the atmosphere that I have spoken of above

"The pool has an eerie, comforting silence, for the water enters the building with no ripples, bubbles, or sound". Outside, there is teeming life, but once you are inside it, deep underground, the "hubbub is forgotten in the formality and silence of a stepwell. Even a stepwell in a city of millions, like Ahmedabad, rarely carries noise from above; its separation from the earth is marked.

Yet in the well, every sound is magnified, nothing is louder than the flap of a pigeon’s wings moving or a slight splash. The jingle of an ankle bracelet is not lost in the din of surface life. Below the ground level parapet, attention shifts to diurnal, lunar, and seasonal rhythms in which light changes slowly, and the monsoon comes and goes. Time in a well is so slow, you forget that anything is urgent.

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