Stepwells, also called bawdi or baoli are wells in which the
water can be reached by descending a set of steps. They may be
covered and protected, and are often of architectural significance. It
can be multi-storied also in which a bullock turns the water wheel
("Rehant") to raise the water in the well to the first or second floor.
They are most common in the west of India. They may be also found in
the other more arid regions of the subcontinent, extending into
Pakistan. The construction may be utilitarian, but sometimes includes
significant architectural embellishments.
A number of distinct names, sometimes local, exist for stepwells. In
Hindi speaking regions, they include names based on baudi (including
bawdi, bawri, baoli, bavadi). In Gujarati and Marwari language, they are
usually called vav.
All forms of the stepwell may be considered to be particular examples
of the many types of storage and irrigation tanks that were developed
in India, mainly to cope with seasonal fluctuations in water availability.
A basic difference between stepwells on the one hand, and tanks and
wells on the other, was to make it easier for people to reach the ground
water, and to maintain and manage the well.
In some related types of structure (johara wells), ramps were built to
allow cattle to reach the water. The majority of surviving stepwells originally
also served a leisure purpose, as well as providing water. This was because the
base of the well provided relief from daytime heat, and more such relief could
be obtained if the well was covered. This led to the building of some significant
ornamental and architectural features, often associated with dwellings and in
urban areas. It also ensured their survival as monuments.
Stepwell construction is known to have gone on from at least 600 AD. Most
existing stepwells date from the last 800 years. There are suggestions that they
may have originated much earlier, and there are some suggestions that
precursors to them can be seen in the Indus Valley civilisation.
Numbers of surviving stepwells can be found in Gujarat,
Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra. There are
also smaller numbers elsewhere including in the British isles
where the water source is close to the surface [now covered
over at Rooskey in Co. Leitrim}. Significant ones include;
The Rani Ki Vav, Patan, Gujarat
Agrasen ki Baoli, New Delhi
The Rani ki vav at Patan, Gujarat, The Adalaj ni Vav at Adalaj, Gandhinagar,
Gujarat and Chandinath ki vav of Bhinmal.
In Neemrana (Rajasthan), when arriving from New Delhi
Raniji ki Baori in Bundi, Rajasthan
The Pushkarani monument at Vijayanagara, Karnataka
Some in Amber, including the 'Panna Meena ka Kund' and 'Sarai Bawdi'
Several existing structures in Delhi, including a recent pre-Mughal finding in
the Red Fort
The Sharenshwar ni vav at Halvad, Gujarat.
The great Mughal emperor Babur recorded in his memoirs that he built a
baoli in Agra Fort, India. The baoli was completed after the battle of Khanua in 1527 and Babur
placed an inscription there to this effect. Babur actually used two "Rehant's" to carry the water
to a higher level. This was altered when Akbar built his palaces (1565-1573). It was necessary
to use a third Rehant to raise water. Therefore a three-storeyed water pavilion was erected at
the mouth of the second well and three overhead tanks were built on its roof. Water from
Babur's baoli was conducted into these tanks. This plan was again altered when Shah Jahani
Mahal was built. Massive walls were raised in the middle of Babur's baoli and the rooms were
closed up. Alternative arrangements of water supply to the overhead tanks was made. Babur's
baoli is now buried in the basement apartments is only partially accessible. The overhead
tanks with inscribed tablets have survived intact.
Chand Baori, Step Well, India
Chand Baori, in the village of Abhaneri
near Bandikui, Rajasthan. Stepwells, also
called bawdi or baoli are in essence wells
in which the water can be reached by
descending a set of steps. They may be
covered and protected, and are often of
architectural significance. Chand Baori
well is 30 meters deep, it has 13 floors
and 3,500 steps.
Built back in the 10th century, the incredible well of Chand Baori, India
was a practical solution to the water problem in the area. The arid
climate forced the locals to dig deep for a dependable water source,
one that would last throughout an entire year. Legends say that ghosts
build it in one night and that it has so many steps to make it
impossible for someone to retrieve a coin once it's been dropped in
Rani Ki Ji Baori, Bundi
The small city of Bundi, Rajasthan is sometimes called
"The City of Stepwells" for the more than 50 wells in and around
the city. The Rani Ki Ji, or "Queen's Stepwell" is the most famous.
It was built in 1699 by the spurned second wife of the king, who
was cast aside after she bore him an heir. She turned her energies
to public projects, building nearly 20 wells, including the 46 meter
Rani Ki Ji. 40 feet wide at the top, 200 steps descend to the water.
Stepwell at the lost city of Vijayanagara, Karnataka
In the lost city of Vijayanagara there is a large step pond style well
near the ruins of Hampi, similar to Chand Boari, but with four
Agrasen Ki Baoli, New Delhi
In 2002, more than two months of digging removed centuries
of silt and trash from the Agrasen well in Delhi. Located close
to the the famous Jantar Mantar observatory, the well is
deep and rectangular in shape, 60 meters long, by 15 meters
wide, with with 103 steps, some of which are submerged.
The construction dates is unknown, but it most likely dates to
the mid 1300s. A new appreciation for these wells come both
from renewed cultural and architectural pride, but also in
realizing that the ancient system of holding water still makes
a lot of sense.
The Rani Vav (Queen's well) at Patan,
built during the late eleventh century, is probably the most magnificent
step-well in Gujarat. Multi-storey colonnades and retaining walls link a
stepped tank to a deep circular well. Throughout, the ornamentation is
sumptuous. Columns, brackets and beams are encrusted with
scrollwork and the wall niches are carved with figures. Hindu deities
alternate with alluring maidens on the walls flanking the staircase. Its
monumental construction and ornate treatment suggest that it also
served a ritual ceremonial purpose.
One of the earliest of these step-wells is the Mata Bhavani's vav at
Ahmedabad, built in the eleventh century. The water is approached
by a long flight of steps above which rises a sequence of two, three
and four storey open pavilions. The elaborate ornamentation of the
columns, brackets and beams, and the friezes of motifs are in the
Solanki school of temple architecture.
The Dada Harir's vav at Ahmedabad,
together with the vav at Adalaj, is
the finest example of the Muslim period.
The Dada Harir's vav is modeled on the
earlier Mata Bhavani's vav, though it has an
additional domed pavilion at the entrance.
One striking feature of this vav is the
complete absence of figural themes. The
motifs in stylized scrollwork that adorn the
wall niches may be compared with those
that appear in Islamic architecture. The vav
at Adalaj, located 12 miles north of
Ahmedabad, is octagonal. As the long flight
of steps descend, columns and connecting
beams create open structures of increasing
complexity; the receding perspectives of
columns and cross-beams are particularly
striking. Wall niches incorporate miniature
pilasters, eaves and roof-like pediments.