I’ve Spent Years Searching For India’s Vanishing Subterranean Marvels
Thirty years ago on my first of many visits to India, I saw a form of architecture entirely unknown to me. Called a “stepwell” (but known throughout India by many other names including “vav” and “baoli”). I was stunned after peering over a low stone wall to find the ground disappear beneath me. A man-made stepped chasm plunged six stories underground, full of ornate stone columns and sculpture that seemed to disappear into murky shadows. Talk about dramatic: it was thrilling, subversive, and disorienting to be staring down into architecture rather than looking up at it. I’d never experienced anything like it.
I’d studied architecture and art, so why hadn’t I ever heard of a stepwell? Turns out very few people have, even in India, and consequently these unique subterranean edifices have largely slipped off history’s grid. Four years ago, with that indelible memory still haunting me, I began seeking out more stepwells and found myself utterly obsessed. Now, I’ve seen about a hundred and twenty in seven states, with more soon to come.
The purpose of a stepwell was simple: provide water 24/7, all year long. But in India’s dry desert states, accessing groundwater might mean digging a hole nine stories deep, and the only way to reach the buried water was by long stepped corridors. When torrential monsoon rains eventually moved in for weeks or months, the water table rose significantly and many of the steps – if not all – would submerge, gradually revealing themselves again as the water level subsided.
Last year, the largest, costliest, most grandiose stepwell of all – Rani ki Vav in Patan, Gujarat – finally became a UNESCO World Heritage Site after many years on the waiting list. Hopefully, this will stimulate more interest, and perhaps in the future, stepwells will appear on tourist itineraries rather than on an “extinct species” list. (H/T: Bored Panda)