Indian Stepwells/ The world beneath our feet

When I visited my uncle and aunt in Ahmadabad, Gujarat, some years ago, I was taken aback by one of the most wonderful things of Indian architecture. Now, I am not very well versed in the art of designing houses or structures, but when something is beautiful, it probably doesn’t require a degree-holder to appreciated it.

Ahmedabad's Baoli

We had taken a drive and arrived at Adalaj – made famous by the ‘Baoli’ or stepwell there. It was a brilliantly designed water storage system, where one could go down the steps – spread out on different levels – and collect water even in the driest of climates. The medieval stepwells were designed to collect the rainwater from the torrential monsoons, and keep it safe for consumption and use during the hot summer months. According to reports, over 3000 of such stepwells were built in the day. But as we found better ways to tame nature (if you are among the few who believe we actually can), the stepwells were reduced to garbage dumps or at best forgotten.

I remember taking pictures of statues etched onto the wall, a small window-like structure where I stooped, designs all over the place – up, down, all over. I didn’t think many people would talk about these structures till I saw them again in Bollywood movies and some travel magazines. By and large forgotten – isn’t that the sign to be included in a Lonely Planet issue?

However, one lady’s attempt to make a proper record of sorts for India’s forgotten stepwells, led me to speak to her, over emails.

Chicago-based journalist and writer, Victoria Lautman saw the Adalaj stepwell, or Rudabai Vav, almost 30 years ago. According to her, “the fact they were unknown to pretty much everyone, and so were sliding slowly out of existence (except for a handful) was what interested me. But first and foremost, they are just so visually stunning – beautiful, grand, mysterious, and historically important.”

Chand Baori in Rajasthan (pc: Wiki)

What can one love about stepwells? I am sure, most of us would appreciate it but wouldn’t sit around thinking day and night about them. Would we? But Victoria saw more to it.

“There are many things I love about them, including that they subvert our expectations of architecture as something we look up at. But it’s the reverse for stepwells, to access one you must first look down into it, then allow it to lure you underground.

The fact that they have so little – if any – presence above ground is also marvelous. You can be nearly at the edge of some of these and have idea. Some have a very low wall, and when you look over it, the ground opens up and plunges perhaps 6 stories. It’s so disorienting, subversive, interesting and gorgeous at the same time. That’s about perfect to me. No wonder I wanted to pick it up!”

I asked her if there has ever been a favourite, and she refuses to answer – like a mother who cannot pick her favourite child. Each, she says, has been beautiful ( I am tempted to believe her, of course). “Some are ornate, some are utilitarian and plain, they can be huge or intimate – they’re all marvelous. And often the most decrepit, forgotten, unloved one has a special place in my heart. Like a mangy mutt at the pound.”

And there have been decrepit ones for sure. Remember the “Incredible India’ ad which showed a couple of people always trying to etch their names on monuments, or some throwing rubbish here and there? The Swacch Bharat Yojana may have come too late, because 90 per cent of the stepwells seems to have fallen prey to the ‘civilized’ people’s way of littering.

“They can be 6th century, 13th century, 15th or 16th – but all really old, important, significant structures, and are literally barely standing up or filled with garbage. It’s one of the reasons I’m driven to document them – I want people to see the state they are in, and try to rescue them.

But I always point out that the government really does try. It doesn’t always get it right, and maybe poor choices get made, but how do you restore gazillion incredible monuments in a country the size of India with a history so vast? How do you choose which edifice or object gets the money and manpower? It’s impossible. There’s no way anyone can win this. It’s a drop at a time.”

Score. Government! History. Zero.

The lady on the Stepwell crusade says that the best part of this journey is the discovery. “It’s an ongoing process, but the start of it – it’s like falling in love, I wanted to know everything, I was besotted. And stumbling around India searching for these mysterious edifices was – is – exciting, never knowing what will be found. A treasure hunt! But the more important impact  – not a personal one – is raising awareness internationally and in India, if possible. The more people visit them, the better their chances of survival.”

(Just a little bit of note here. My timeline does have photos of friends visiting some Baoli’s from time to time. Which is great, makes for amazing pictures and probably a good dinner time conversation. Even if movies like Shahrukh Khan-starrer Paheli, or last-year’s superhit PK with Aamir Khan didn’t show the beauty of the stepwells, these are all easily accessible and can be visited any time of the year).

Victoria points out that while there are marvelous underground cisterns in Istanbul and Rome and other ingenious ways of water harvesting around the world, nothing like the stepwells of India exists anywhere else. The purpose and engineering was entirely different from each.

Victoria is trying to raise awareness and she is willing to do a lot to that effect. However, while her website has a contact section and she is incredible responsive on mail, her lecture proposals have been turned down and offers to author books/ articles have been declined.

“I wish I had a plan. Just a few weeks ago I thought I’d come to the end of this, running out of steam and feeling like I’d wasted a chunk of my life sitting alone in the bottom of ancient, magnificent, ruined, remote Indian pits. I couldn’t get anyone interested, was turned down for lectures, for articles, for books. My only plan was to throw in the towel and return to other projects that the stepwells interrupted. If you work in total obscurity and no one’s interested in your work, what’s the point? I may still get to that point. But then, one influential blog post comes out, and suddenly the spotlight in on. Who know how long it stays on? So I honestly can’t tell you a plan. Maybe ask me in two months…”

But till she does, I hope more of us get to visit the Baolis before they vanish altogether. Weekend trips anyone?

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