I love stepwells. They are one of India’s most fascinating and unique architectural features, and definitely not to be missed. Some are magnificent in their design. In hot weather, they are especially delightful, as they stay much cooler than their surroundings.There are many terms for step wells in the many different languages of India. In Hindi they are called baoli or baori. In Kannada they are called kalyanior pushkarani, in Marathi, barav, and in Gujarati, vaav. Stepwells were first built over a thousand years ago in response to the climate. India has three seasons: summer, winter and a monsoon season which lasts from May through October. In many parts of India, it’s rare to get rain outside of monsoon season. Stepwells are storage tanks that were designed to store water when there was none available, so they are most common in the more drought-prone parts of the country. The walls of the wells are lined with blocks of stone, without mortar, and a series of stairs leading down to the water. Some of them are covered and protected and others aren’t. There is quite a wide variety of designs, many of which are beautiful or ingenious.
Many stepwells were commissioned by wealthy people to honour deaths of family members. They served as a place for social gatherings and religious ceremonies, as well as places to just hang out when it was too hot.
Water is an important element in Hindu mythology. It is considered the boundary between heaven and earth and it is called tirtha. As manmade tirthas, the stepwells became not only sources of drinking water, but cool sanctuaries for, prayer, meditation, and bathing. Usually, women were associated with these wells because they were the ones who collected the water. They were the ones who prayed and offered gifts to the goddess of the well for her blessings.
Stepwells were quite common in India until the British arrived and had a lot of them closed down due to unsanitary conditions. The British installed pumps and pipes to get water to peoples’ houses instead and they banned a lot of stepwells in different areas of the country. Personally, I think that’s a real shame. I wish they had maintained them instead.Unfortunately, only a small percentage of them are still in decent condition and open for tourists to visit. Most of these were built in the last eight hundred years.
Bundi, Rajasthan is a good place for stepwells and there are over one hundred there. Gujarat has quite a few still in existence as well. New Delhi also has some, a few of which are being actively restored. Hampi and Lakundi also have quite a few in the northern state of Karnataka.
As India’s population continues to increase they are running into water shortages in many areas of the country. Less rain is also falling due to climate changes and too many trees being cut down. There is talk of these stepwells being used again to store water during droughts. I would love to see them returned to their original glory and new ones being built. Why not?