Unique Underground Marvels
American journalist Victoria Lautman writes about the famous and the forgotten stepwells of India in her book, “The Vanishing Stepwells of India.”
Stepwells, marvels of architecture and functionality, were built across India wherever water access was problematic. It was, however, mainly in the northern regions of the country and in the arid provinces of Rajasthan and Gujarat that most stepwells were being built in the third century. These stepwells provided access to water for bathing, irrigation and drinking. Furthermore, stepwells became popular gathering sites and places of worship, meditation and rest.
Victoria Lautman, Chicago-based broadcast journalist, writer and lecturer, has written about these ancient wonders of architecture in her book, “The Vanishing Stepwells of India,” published my Merrell in 2017. Lautman has lectured widely on topics related to India, especially India’s stepwells. She holds a master’s degree in art history and a bachelor’s degree in archeology.
Lautman has documented over 200 stepwells she has encountered in India. Among these, 75 are represented in her book. “The connection between architecture and water is generally regarded as a connection between the secular and the sacred,” writes Divay Gupta, principal director of the Architectural Heritage Division of INTACH, a nonprofit society that seeks to preserve Indian culture and heritage, in the foreword of the book. The stepwells, known in Hindi as baori, baoli, bavadi, or in Gujarati as vav, exemplify this connection and are representative of a unique architectural typology of India.
Excerpts from an interview with Lautman.
When was the first time you encountered a stepwell in India? Was there a particular one that captured your attention?
About 30 years ago, during my first visit to India, a local guide drove me outside the city of Ahmedabad, parked the car in the dirt, and pointed to a mundane wall. It just looked boring to me, but when I looked over the parapet, I was stunned to see a deep, man-made chasm, with a parade of ornate columns descending deep into the earth. I’d never seen anything like it and had no idea what this subterranean structure was. But it was so exciting, so totally unexpected, since we’re conditioned to look up at architecture, not down into it. This turned out to be the Rudabai vav in Adalaj. And that first experience not only captured my attention, it eventually changed the trajectory of my life.
What inspired you to write a book about the stepwells in India? Could you tell us about your research process?
Initially, I had no intention of writing a book, and even resisted the suggestion for a long time. I’m not a scholar, and knew how difficult it would be for me to synthesize what little solid information exists on the topic—it was too daunting! But, I eventually realized that a book is the best way to raise awareness about these unique marvels; more people needed to know they even exist and can be visited. That’s what became my inspiration to write the book.
Any research is problematic, and considering the historic importance and prevalence of stepwells, there’s woefully little reliable information about them. The three absolutely essential books on the topic were written by scholars Jutta Jain-Neubauer, Morna Livingston and Julia Hegewald, and I’m deeply indebted to them. But their books are out of print and not easily available. I also combed through government websites, newspapers, historic documents and the like, and spoke to as many people as I could. Still, no matter what I read or whom I spoke with, it’s clear that boilerplate facts—dates, patrons, etc.—are often non-existent or just wildly conflicting. The process of research was, for me, incredibly frustrating.
How well-known are the stepwells in India?
That’s a complex question. There are a number of stepwells that are cared for by the government and well-known regionally: Chand baori in Rajasthan and Rudabai vav in Adalaj are two examples. And Rani ki vav in Patan, Gujarat, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014. So, in those instances and a few others, stepwells have a public profile, sometimes even their own websites and Facebook pages.
But even these examples are almost entirely unknown outside India and within the country itself. They appear on few tourist itineraries even when they are just a few steps away from crowded sites, and aren’t mentioned in most guidebooks.
On the other hand, stepwells may still be in use as shrines and temples or for irrigation. So, obviously, in their local communities, they’re not forgotten. Some are pilgrimage sites and can draw worshippers from further away.
Did you have difficulty finding them?
Absolutely, in many cases. It was like a treasure hunt that could take hours and hours of driving around, sometimes in circles, even when there’s an important stepwell located right in the middle of a city or town. When I began my stepwell search years ago, there were no GPS [Global Positioning System] coordinates available for those already known, and locating those that weren’t obvious could be a real chore.
If luck is on your side, a stepwell might materialize easily. But when they’re in the middle of nowhere, or are especially unobtrusive, it’s easy to drive by them before even realizing you were looking right at it. Since the structures were built into the ground, they can hide in plain sight, with little above-ground presence, maybe just a low wall or a pair of posts. But when an elusive example is finally found, it really is like discovering treasure. Including GPS coordinates for each well in my book was important to me, as it can save others a whole lot of time.
What are the stepwells used for today?
They can be used for all sorts of things or nothing at all. Some are still fully-functioning temples, even when there’s no more water. Others might be falling apart but still house important shrines. When water is still available, some are used in irrigating fields, washing or watering animals.
I’ve also seen stepwells that have been re-purposed—in one case, as a sort of “wishing well” where locals go to to ask djinns for help, and another is a draw for hotel guests who can have dinner at a gorgeous stepwell on the property.
Do you think that your work and your book will help resuscitate some of the wells? Do you foresee development of tourism and guided tours of Indian stepwells in the near future?
I do hear from people who have incorporated stepwells into their visits based on the book or lectures I’ve given, and I’m frequently asked about those that are easy to access in Delhi and elsewhere. At least one large tour company has added them to its general itineraries, which is so rewarding for me; it’s exactly what I’d hoped the book might inspire. I dream of stepwell tours, guidebooks, many more scholarly studies, university classes, a documentary, stepwell maps and refrigerator magnets.
But what I desperately hope for is busloads of tourists pulling up alongside stepwells all over India. This can be an important economic opportunity for communities selling water, snacks and postcards, and will guarantee a stepwell will be better cared for in the future. It may be a fantasy now, but it’s not impossible.
Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.