By Sushmitta Renganathan
In India, water and waterbodies were always seen as life-giving and healing forces of nature. Water’s place of honor and reverence is visible in many architectural marvels. Tracing the idea of sanctity in water might take us as far as the documented beginning of civilization in India, or even further. While the social significance of water and waterbodies seems to have led ancient Indian settlements to perfect the art of water harvesting, conservation, and conveyance through the creation of several typologies of structures, specific to the ecological diversities and culture of the regions; the spiritual significance of it, seems to have led to its enshrinement through mastery in subterranean architecture and engineering. One of the most prominent examples of structures under this built form are the stepped wells.
“…A descent deep into the earth, which can easily evoke the terror of an otherworldly abyss, instead serves to intensify awareness of the ordinariness of life.” Says art historian Milo C. Beach on the experience of descent into the stepped wells.
The history of this typology, dates back to as early as 3rd century BC when the concept – of what is now a unique symbol of ancient India’s architectural genius emerged as simple excavated pits in sandy soil, reaching for the water tables. By 11th century AD, the architecture of the stepped wells had evolved to such an extent, that the typology was largely represented by multi-storied, lavishly carved structures, with surface decorations and ornamentation as elaborate as those of temples.
A significant example of this subterranean structure is “Rani-ki-Vav” also known as “The Queen’s Well”, built in the 11th century, on the banks of Saraswathi River in the historical town of Patan, once the capital city of Gujarat. It is said that geotectonic changes along the Saraswathi River bed in 13th century, led to flooding — according to some accounts, and drought according to others — and the eventual abandonment of the Vav till the mid 20th century. In 1958, excavation and restoration works of the Vav began by the efforts of Archaeological Survey of India, and in 2014 it was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Constructed at the peak of craftsmanship in our subcontinent, Rani-ki-Vav is a seven-story deep testament to the complex Maru-Gurjara style of Architecture. However, when one enters the site today, the nature of the structure reveals nothing, but a wide flight of steps in the midst of landscaped bunds in a bare field. As one follows the steps, surfaces adorned with sculptures of Gods, Goddesses, and other heavenly creatures, lead the way to the cavernous well: An inverted temple marking the sanctity of the water harvested, 23 meters deep into the ground.
Although a small percentage of stepped wells continue to be in use in India, the majority have been lost to time, squalor, and neglect. Cultural journalist Victoria Lautman in the documentary “Subterranean Ghosts: India’s Disappearing Stepwells”, explains the Indian subcontinent’s journey away from stepped wells:
“Industrialization, unregulated pumping, and drought has depleted the water table in many places. But step wells began to lose their prominence and have been in precipitous decline for a century. While a handful have been protected and restored by the Indian Government, many more have been demolished, left to deteriorate. During the British Raj, they were deemed unhygienic and were often filled in. Centralized village water taps, plumbing, and storage tanks replaced the physical need for step wells, leaving the social and spiritual aspects unmoored.”
India is home to many more ancient tributes designed to emphasize on the sacrosanctity of water and waterbodies. Some remain, while the others are lost to time.