Rav-ki-Vav Stepwell at Patan, Gujarat, India

Beautiful, utilitarian stepwells of India are in danger of becoming extinct

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When Muslims conquered different parts of India through the years, they halted the practice of representing deities, people and animals in the ornamentation of the stepwells because of an injunction against graven images. But some of the stepwells commissioned by Muslims were beautifully ornamented too, Lautman wrote. Hindu builders employed post and lintel construction with corbels to support domes, but Muslims used arches and true domes.

The magnificent sculptures of the Rani-Ki-Vav remained well preserved over centuries after being buried under silt.

The magnificent sculptures of the Rani-Ki-Vav remained well preserved over centuries after being buried under silt. Source: BigStockPhoto

Now many wells are dried up because of unregulated pumping, or when the water is present in some cases it is covered with algae or plant growth. Lautman says stepwells are also being used as garbage dumps and latrines. Some have been mined for stone for use in other structures. Others are crumbling from lack of maintenance. Some have been destroyed.

But others are still in use, “though not always in the way you’d expect,” she said in e-mail. “Unfortunately, many of them lack water due to the precipitous drop in the water table, a crisis only recently (but thankfully) being addressed. But in other areas, I’ve seen plenty of wells with water being used for washing, irrigation, and thirst-quenching—exactly as they were used hundreds of years ago. Other wells are still being used as temples, while still others have been being appropriated for clever contemporary uses, extending stepwell significance into the 21st century. For instance, a hotel in Rajasthan offers elegant dinners in a nearby stepwell, while certain renowned architects and artists have incorporated the wells into their work.”

Featured image: Rav-ki-Vav Stepwell at Patan, Gujarat, India ( Jeremy Richards / Dreamstime )

By Mark Miller


Seeing these designs, makes me feel like architects nowadays don't deserve even 5% of their paycheck.

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