Stepwells are wells or ponds in which the water may be reached by descending a set of steps. They may be covered and protected and are often of architectural significance. They also may be multi-storied having a bullock which may turn the water wheel ("rehat") to raise the water in the well to the first or second floor.
They are most common in western India. They may be also found in the other more arid regions of South Asia, extending into Pakistan. The construction may be utilitarian, but sometimes includes significant architectural embellishments.
All forms of the stepwell are examples of the many types of storage and irrigation tanks that were developed in India, mainly to cope with seasonal fluctuations in water availability. A basic difference between stepwells on the one hand, and tanks and wells on the other, was to make it easier for people to reach the ground water, and to maintain and manage the well.
In some related types of structure (johara wells), ramps were built to allow cattle to reach the water.
The builders dug deep trenches into the earth for dependable, year-round groundwater. They lined the walls of these trenches with blocks of stone, without mortar, and created stairs leading down to the water. The majority of surviving stepwells originally also served a leisure purpose, as well as providing water. This was because the base of the well provided relief from daytime heat, and more of such relief could be obtained if the well was covered. Stepwells also served as a place for social gatherings and religious ceremonies. Usually, women were more associated with these wells because they were the ones who collected the water. Also, it was they who prayed and offered gifts to the goddess of the well for her blessings. This led to the building of some significant ornamental and architectural features, often associated with dwellings and in urban areas. It also ensured their survival as monuments.
Stepwells usually consist of two parts: a vertical shaft from which water is drawn and the surrounding inclined subterranean passageways, chambers and steps which provide access to the well. The galleries and chambers surrounding these wells were often carved profusely with elaborate detail and became cool, quiet retreats during the hot summers.
A number of distinct names, sometimes local, exist for stepwells. In Hindi-speaking regions, they include names based on baudi (including bawdi, bawri, baoli, bavadi, bavdi). In Gujarati and Marwari language, they are usually called vav or vaav (Gujarati: વાવ). Other names include kalyani or pushkarani (Kannada: ), bawdi (Hindi: बावड़ी) or baoli (Hindi: बावली) and barav (Marathi: बारव).
Water in the architecture of India could be found since the earliest times and had played an important role in the culture. Stepwells were first used as an art form by the Hindus and then popularized under Muslim rule.
Stepwell construction is known to have gone on from at least AD 600 in the south western region of Gujarat, India. The practical idea even spread north to the state of Rajasthan, along the western border of India where several thousands of these wells were built. The construction of these stepwells hit its peak from the 11th to 16th century. Most existing stepwells date from the last 800 years. There are suggestions that they may have originated much earlier, and precursors to them can be seen in the Indus Valley civilisation.
The first rock-cut step wells in India date from 200-400 AD. Subsequently, the construction of wells at Dhank (550-625 AD) and of stepped ponds at Bhinmal (850-950 AD) takes place. The city of Mohenjo-daro has wells which may be the predecessors of the step well; as many as 700 wells have been discovered in just one section of the city leading scholars to believe that 'cylindrical brick lined wells' were invented by the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation.
One of the earliest existing example of stepwells was built in the 11th century in Gujarat, the Mata Bhavani's Stepwell. A long flight of steps leads to the water below a sequence of multi-story open pavilions positioned along the east/west axis. The elaborate ornamentation of the columns, brackets and beams are a prime example of how stepwells were used as a form of art.
The authorities during the British Raj found the hygiene of the stepwells less than desirable and had installed pipe and pump systems to replace their purpose. The stepwells had social and religious activities significance. The Mughal rulers did not disrupt in the culture that was practiced in these stepwells and encouraged the building of stepwells. It was the British that forced abandonment of the wells, a continued loss of authority by the native rulers to the British and a loss on part of the local culture.
The importance of water to the locations in which they were found have been realized in recent decades, now that many communities in the area have scarcity of rain and water. The construction of these wells encouraged the incorporation of water into the culture where they were popular. These stepwells were proven to be well-built sturdy structures, after withstanding earthquakes in the range of 7.6 on the Richter scale.
Many stepwells have ornamentation and details as elaborate as those of Hindu temples. Proportions in relationship to the human body were used in their design, as they were in many other structures in Indian architecture.
- Agrasen ki Baoli, New Delhi
- Rajon ki baoli, New Delhi
- Chand Baori in Abhaneri near Jaipur, Rajasthan
- Jachcha Ki Baori, Hindaun City in Hindaun Block, Rajasthan
- Charthana Barav, Parbhani District, Maharashtra
- Rani ki vav at Patan, Gujarat
- Adalaj ni Vav at Adalaj, Gandhinagar, Gujarat
- Dada Harir Stepwell, Ahmedabad
- Toor Ji Ki Baori, Jodhpur
- Birkha Bawari, Jodhpur
- Bhoot Baori, Jodhpur
- Shahi Baoli, Lucknow
- Raniji ki Baori in Bundi, Rajasthan; Bundi has over 60 baolis in and around the town.
- Stepped Well or Pushkarani near Mahanavami dibba Hampi or Vijayanagara, North Karnataka
- Stepped Well at Manikesvara Temple Lakkundi, North Karnataka
- Nagakunda Sudi, North Karnataka
- Venkatappa Naik royal bath Kanakagiri, North Karnataka
- Stepwell at Mallikarjuna temple complex and another Stepwell, Aihole, North Karnataka
- Rohtas Fort, near Jhelum
- Wan Bhachran, near Mianwali
- Losar Baoli, near Islamabad
- Losar Baoli, Sher Shah Park Wah Cantt
- Makli Baoli, near Thatta
Stepped ponds are very similar to stepwells in terms of purpose but it is important to recognize the difference between these two types of structures. For example, stepped ponds were always built to accompany a nearby temple while stepwells were positioned away from noisy sites and future tourist attractions. While stepwells are dark and barely visible from the surface, stepped ponds are illuminated with the light from the sun. Also, stepwells are quite linear in design compared to the rectangular shape of stepped ponds.
Stepwells are certainly one of India's most unique, but little-known, contributions to architecture. They influenced many other structures in Indian architecture, especially many that incorporate water into their design. Ram Bagh in Agra was the first Mughal garden in India. It was designed by Mughal emperor Babur and reflected his notion of paradise not only through water and landscaping, but also through symmetry by including a reflecting pool in the design. Naturally, he was also very entranced by stepwells and felt that one would complement the garden of his palace and built a baoli in Agra Fort. Many other Mughal gardens include reflecting pools to enhance the landscape or as an elegant entrance. Additional famous gardens that incorporate water into their design include:
- Humayun's Tomb, Nizamuddin East, Delhi
- Taj Mahal, Agra
- Mehtab Bagh, Agra
- Safdarjung's Tomb
- Shalimar Bagh (Srinagar), Jammu and Kashmir
- Nishat Gardens, Jammu and Kashmir
- Yadvindra Gardens, Pinjore
- Khusro Bagh, Allahabad
- Roshanara Bagh
- Brindavan Gardens, Mysore, Karnataka (1927-1932)
- Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi (1911-1931)
- Shekhawat, Abhilash. "Stepwells of Gujarat". India's Invitation. Retrieved 30 March 2012.
- Davies, Philip (1989). The Penguin guide to the monuments of India. London: Viking. ISBN 0-14-008425-8.
- Livingston & Beach, page xxiii
- Livingston & Beach, page 19
- Tadgell, Christopher (1990). The History of Architecture in India. London: Phaidon Press. ISBN 0-7148-2960-9.
- Livingston, Morna (2002). Steps to Water: The Ancient Stepwells of India. New York: Princeton Architectural. ISBN 1-56898-324-7.
- Jain-Neubauer, Jutta (1981). The Stepwells of Gujarat: In Art-historical Perspective. New Delhi: Abhinav. ISBN 0-391-02284-9.
- Rima Hooja: "Channeling Nature: Hydraulics, Traditional Knowledge Systems, And Water Resource Management in India – A Historical Perspective". At infinityfoundation.com
- Livingston, Morna & Beach, Milo (2002). Steps to Water: The Ancient Stepwells of India. Princeton Architectural Press. ISBN 1-56898-324-7.
- Jutta Jain Neubauer The Stepwells of Gujarat: An Art-historical Perspective (2001)
- Morna Livingston Steps to Water: The Ancient Stepwells of India (Princeton 2002)
- Philip Davies, The Penguin guide to the monuments of India, Vol II (London: Viking, 1989)
- Christopher Tadgell, The History of Architecture in India (London: Phaidon Press, 1990)
- Abhilash Shekhawat, "Stepwells of Gujarat." India's Invitation. 2010. Web. 29 March 2012. <http://www.indiasinvitation.com/stepwells_of_gujarat/>.
- Stepwells in India at DMOZ
- "Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent - glossary". Indoarch.org. Retrieved 2006-12-18.
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