Stepwell in Western IndiaAs we all know, water is essential to all life on earth. It’s all about water. In the desert we are aware of the lack of water to sustain meaningful life and today we see the tragic consequences of too much with the what is happening to the people living close to mighty Mississippi river.

During the late 6th and early 7th centuries, for Gujarat and Rajasthan, located in the arid western states of India, nothing was  more important than water. It has defined the lives, myths and rituals of the people of this region.

Un-named masons dug deep trenches in the earth to reach year-round groundwater. Building upward, they lined the walls of the trenches with huge stone blocks. These blocks were laid without mortar and the slope of each trench was paved with stone steps leading up from the water. These were the first stepwells with a visible architecture providing access to the invisible landscape of underground aquifers. “An aquifer is a body of saturated rock through which water can easily move. Aquifers must be both permeable and porous and include such rock types as sandstone, conglomerate, fractured limestone and unconsolidated sand and gravel. Fractured volcanic rocks such as columnar basalts also make good aquifers.”

Several thousand stepwells were built throughout history in the towns and villages of western India.  The most distinctive period of stepwell construction covered half a millennium–from the late 11th through the 16th centuries. These exquisite  artistically designed monuments can be seen throughout the countryside. The most impressive likely being the Rani ki Vav, or Queen’s Stepwell, at Patan, Gujarat. They are wonders of proportion and symmetry–monumental but at the same time intimate.

Stepwell of eastern IndiaThe stone stepwell remained the state-of-the- art in water management for more than 1000 years.  Yet, with the onset of the British Raj in India in the 19th century, which heralded the installation of pipes and taps for drawing and distributing water, the use of stepwells became redundant.  Their demise was not only the end of a unique source of water, but also as a gathering place and focal point for many of the deepest feelings of the local people. This caused a complicated mix of environmental, social, and even religious outcomes that continue to unfold today.

Nature being the way it is, stepwells were hosts to not only to people, they were home to communities of fish, lizards, bees, palm squirrels, snakes, birds and turtles. Their images were carved into half-hidden walls and nooks—a testimony to the artistic talent of the people who revered this source of life to all life forms.

Gujarati stepwell inscriptions also explicitly state that the water found therein comes from the sacred river Ganges.  To bathe in a stepwell was the same as taking a ritual bath in the river, therefore, the Hindu pilgrims dream of reaching the sacred city Varanasi.

In spite of the exquisite architecture and clearly demonstrative illustration of the ingenuity of the ancient Indian people, these buildings are among the least known or visited monuments in India.


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1 Comment on The ancient and sacred stepwells of India

  1. Gideon says:

    This is an interesting story. The artwork is amazing as well as the reminder of the ingenuity of people who depend on finding and preserving water to survive. Worth more than gold.

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