The Vanishing Stepwells of India

The Vanishing Stepwells of India

evolved in response to India’s dramatic climate which
is bone-dry most of the year with intermittent monsoon rains.
Establishing a reliable water supply all year long was imperative,
particularly in regions where the water table could be many stories
underground at its lowest ebb. Steps – sometimes over a hundred of
them – allowed direct access to the water, and as the level rose
during the monsoons, they gradually submerged, reappearing again
when the flow receded.

Rudimentary, rock-cut stepwells are thought to have developed
between 300-500 CE, and by the early 7th century they’d become
extremely sophisticated in terms of engineering, architecture and
art. By then, they were the most multi-functional structures of
their times, performing many roles beyond simply harvesting water.
They provided refuge from the heat, acted as subterranean Hindu
temples, were resting points along remote trade routes and social
centres at which women gathered on a daily basis. Important
charitable gifts to the community from royal or wealthy patrons,
it’s thought that about 25% of stepwells were commissioned by
women, who often dedicated the structures to their deceased

By the 18th century, stepwells could be found in cities,
villages, and the hinterlands, within forts, on palace grounds and
in private gardens. Many can still be seen if only you know where
to look. Despite their former importance, most of these magnificent
structures have languished in various states of decay for
centuries, and with little factual information available. When
pumps, tanks and plumbing became available in the 19th century,
stepwells lost their original purpose and were no longer
maintained. Today, a handful are preserved by the government, but
the majority – thousands, across India – were abandoned, eventually
filled with rubbish, encroached on all sides or on the verge of
collapse. Raising awareness internationally is the only way to
guarantee the survival of these endangered edifices, and put them
back on the architectural grid.

The Vanishing Stepwells of India by
Victoria Lautman published by Merrell

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