Once representing the very soul and essence of the community, today these marvelous water structures remain forsaken waiting to be remembered, revived and relived. With a rise in population, the decline in the monsoons and consequently the water table, and a growing awareness to preserve our heritage, these stepwells assume an overall significance in the contemporary times. We, therefore, travel back in time and dig deep into the forgotten history to bring to life these amazing architectural structures.
Our history is filled with glorious architectural marvels, some resulting from foreign settlers and invaders while others being the self-expression of the people living in this magical land. One such fabulous yet forsaken work of architecture is the stepwell.
Water is often connected with sacredness in our country. Sages have been known to meditate near a water body and bathing in holy water is believed to cleanse us of our evil thoughts.
Stepwells (commonly known as baoli, bawdi or kalyani, based on the vernacular language of the region) are underground water buildings with stairs usually from three to nine stories. Around three thousand stepwells were built between seventh and mid-nineteenth centuries A.D. These structures were mainly built in Rajasthan and Gujarat while the rest of the country had its share of ghats, tanks and cylindrical wells. The semi-arid landscape of this region allowed the architect to build steps leading to the water table. People had to descend only a short distance during the monsoon season and deeper when the water level fell.
In contrast to the stepped ponds which were often found near a temple and had a spiritual significance, stepwells were mainly built for utility purpose with residents, cattle, and travellers all using the same water. Thus, these areas portrayed as community centres with the hustle and bustle of people bringing these underground water structures to life.
These structures withstood the test of times. During the Mughal rule, a number of stepwells were built similar to the hamams or bath-houses which also represented sites for pleasure and ceremony. The stepwells were, therefore, modified to some extent and began to depict Mughal art and aesthetics. In Rajasthan, the Mughals enlivened the stepwells with the use of lights, flowers, and perfumes and this practice remained unbroken till the British took over who disliked the water structures but nevertheless celebrated them as a piece of architecture.
One can relive the beautiful sight where these structures meet the outside world. People descending into the shaded stonewalled corridors which come alive with children, middle-aged, elderly, travellers, and even animals all co-existing in harmony and using the precious water source as the means for their very sustenance. Time passes slowly as the comforting silence of water creates a sublime ambience with an aura of its own, a world within a world.
Today these magnificent water monuments, which were once a hive of activity, remain deserted and forsaken waiting for us to glance upon them and to preserve their remains. Will these architectural marvels go unnoticed and vanish under new development projects? The answer to the question lies in learning architecture and understanding how to protect these water bodies, which are the source of ground water enriched with minerals and life to billions on the planet.
Understanding the necessity of maintaining these water bodies, Sushant School of Art and Architecture at Ansal University, having a legacy of 29 years and being the Best Private Architecture School of India, is offering Master of Architecture (Built Heritage) programme specifically designed to conserve these highly important heritage sites, which is entirely focused on encouraging skill development to bring life to the heritage sites.