ARCHITECTURE

Photos: View India’s ancient, forgotten stepwells before they disappear

Quartz india
Quartz india

Stepwells—often hidden in plain sight in India’s arid regions—are ancient, indigenous water structures. Typically, they are open subterranean constructions, with steps leading deep into the ground, where water can be collected and stored for use the year round.

Stepwells were particularly useful in dry Indian states like Gujarat and Rajasthan, where the water table can be buried “ten storeys or more underground.”

Born out of sheer necessity, the most basic stepwells were innovated and constructed first between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D. Through centuries, however, the designs became increasingly sophisticated and aesthetically elaborate.

But these deep, often decrepit, structures are now disappearing.

Thirty years ago, when Chicago-based journalist Victoria Lautman travelled across several Indian states with a dozen architects and designers, she encountered one such structure.

Just outside Ahmedabad, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, she saw “the ground opened up,” Lautman recalled. She was at Rudabai Vav (vav in Gujarati means stepwell), in the village of Adalaj.

Lautman visited India several times, but it was not until 2011 when she decided to pinpoint on a map India’s obscure stepwells—and visit them. “They don’t announce themselves,” she told Quartz. “Today, they could be next to a shopping mall or at a popular tourist spot, and you wouldn’t know about them.”

For instance, a stepwell, called Agrasen Ki Baoli (baoli in Hindi means stepwell), is located right off New Delhi’s commercial district of Connaught Place. The stepwell is 60-meter long and 15-meter wide, and has as many as 103 steps.

“In the last four years, I have seen 120 of them in seven different states,” Lautman said. Her goal now is to publish a book and a map of India’s disappearing architectural marvel.

Here are some of the photographs of stepwells around India, sourced from Lautman’s personal collection.

Takht Baoli, Narnaul, Haryana.
Takht Baoli, Narnaul, Haryana. (Victoria Lautman)
Rani ki Vav, Patan, Gujarat.
Rani ki Vav, Patan, Gujarat. (Victoria Lautman)
Rajon Ki Baoli, Mehrauli, Delhi.
Rajon Ki Baoli, Mehrauli, Delhi. (Victoria Lautman)
Neemrana, Rajasthan.
Neemrana, Rajasthan. (Victoria Lautman)
Mukundpura Baoli, Narnaul.
Mukundpura Baoli, Narnaul. (Victoria Lautman)
Mertaniji ki Baori, Jhunjhunu, Shekhawati.
Mertaniji ki Baori, Jhunjhunu, Shekhawati. (Victoria Lautman)
Mertaniji ki Baori, Jhunjhunu, Shekhawati.
Mertaniji ki Baori, Jhunjhunu, Shekhawati. (Victoria Lautman)
Mahila Bag Jhalra, Jodhpur, Rajasthan.
Mahila Bag Jhalra, Jodhpur, Rajasthan. (Victoria Lautman)
Kundvav, Kapadvanj, in Gujarat.
Kundvav, Kapadvanj, in Gujarat. (Victoria Lautman)
Helical Vav, Champaner, in Gujarat.
Helical Vav, Champaner, in Gujarat. (Victoria Lautman)
A destroyed stepwell at Fatehpur, Shekhawati.
A destroyed stepwell at Fatehpur, Shekhawati. (Victoria Lautman)
Dada Harir Vav, Ahmedabad, in Gujarat.
Dada Harir Vav, Ahmedabad, in Gujarat. (Victoria Lautman)
Chand Baoli, Abhaneri, in Rajasthan.
Chand Baoli, Abhaneri, in Rajasthan. (Victoria Lautman)
Ambapur Vav, Gujarat.
Ambapur Vav, Gujarat. (Victoria Lautman)
Ujala Baoli, Mandu, in Madhya Pradesh.
Ujala Baoli, Mandu, in Madhya Pradesh. (Victoria Lautman)

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