History of India’s Stepwells

from Natural History (May 2003) by Morna Livingston

In southwestern Gujarat (India), in the late 6th and eartly 7th centuries AD, anonymous masons dug deep trenches into the earth to reach dependable, year-round groundwater.  Building upward, they lined the walls of the trenches with huge stone blocks, laid without mortar, and paved the slope of each trench with stone stairs leading up from the water.  Thus were built the first stepwells–visible architecture that gave access to an invisible landscape of underground aquifers.

The idea proved immensely practical, and so it soon spread northward to what is now the state of Rajasthan, to areas barely moist enough to farm.  Ultimately, several thousand stepwells were built in the towns and villages of western India.  The grandest period of stepwell construction spanned half a millennium–from the late 11th through the 16th centruy–dotting the countryside with exquisitely embellished monuments, the most extravagant of which is the Rani ki Vav, or Queen’s Stepwell, at Patan, Gujarat.

Rani ki Vav, or Queen's Stepwell, at Patan, Gujarat

Owing to its delightful qualities and lucid design, the stone stepwell remained the state of the art in Indian water management for more than 1000 years.  Yet with the onset of the British Raj in India in the 19th century–and with it, the installation of pipes and taps for drawing and distributing water–stepwells fell on hard times.  Their demise as a source of water, as a gathering place, and as a focal point for many of the deepest feelings of the local people has brought about a tangled mix of enironmental, social, and even religious consequences that continue to unfold to this day.

In concept, the Indian stepwell is cunningly simple.  Monsoon rain is caught in a depression or behind a hand-built earthen dam.  The rainwater percolates down through fine silt, which screens out particulates, until the water reaches an impermeable layer of compact clay that keeps it from sinking deeper into the ground.  In that way the muddy runoff of the monsoon is stored near the surface as a giant sheet of clear water:  an underground aquifer.

A Gujarati stepwell simply penetrates the aquifer.  It is filled by seepage; there is no obvious water current.  The fall and rise of the water level at the bottom of the well reflects the droughts and deluges at the surface.  Along staircase, punctuated with landings, leads down to the well at the bottom.  When the water table is high, during and shortly after the monsoon, the visitor descends only a few steps to drink or bathe or fill the household vessel; when the water is low, she much descent farther, as deep as nine stories down, to where the final flight disappears into clear, dark water.  At each landing is an open porch, supported by columns and protected from exposure to the broiling sun, where the visitor can pause to enjoy a quiet moment in the cool shade.

Much of the soil in the stepwell region is a fine alluvium (which is what makes it such an effective water filter), eroded from the western Himalaya, far to the north.  Broken down as it travels, and broken down further by 5,000 years of farming, the soil holds few rocks.  Hence the stone for constructing the stepwells had to be brought on wooden-wheeled ox-carts from distand quarries to the chosen sites.  Brahmin theologians planned the monuments; low-caste artisans called somparas did the engineering and hard labor.  Diggers moved the dirt with hoes and lifted it in baskets; masons plied their trade with poles and ropes, hammers and chisels.  Some of the workers were women–a practice still evident in the region today.

The heavy blocks of stone were marked with hand-size, deeply carved numbers and letters to indicate their intended placement; the somparas, though illiterate, were nonetheless highly skilled at interpreting the marks and then fitting the muddy blocks together by touch, in accordance with the building plan.  All the effort and expense were supported by a flourishing trade in such items as indigo dye, perfume ingredients, and locally printed fine cotton cloth.  Stepwells were prestigious public gifts, and the financing of them was a worthy of great and wealthy patrons:  queens, wives of prominent traders, even successful prostitutes.

A stepwell was host not only to people but also to entire communities of bees, fish, lizards, palm squirrels, parrots, pigeons, and turtles.  Images of fish, shrimp, and snakes were carved into half-hidden wails and obscure nooks, delighting anyone who encountered them.  With the arrival of every monsoon, the whole world joined the stepwell in hatching, spouting, recharging, and refreshing.  But even the pleasures of water cannot explain the staying power of the stepwell as institution:  its almost unvarying form, its appeal to donors, its astounding beauty.  Those persistent qualities derived from its role as a dramatic and imaginative metaphor for the Ganges, the greatest of India’s rivers:  Gujarati stepwell inscriptions explicitly declare that the water found in them comes from the Ganges.  thus to bathe in a stepwell was to take a ritual bath in that sacred river, and thus to attain the Hindu pilgrim’s dream of reaching the sacred city Varanasi.

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