India’s Vanishing Stepwells

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December 30th 2019
Published: December 30th 2019
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Aberhani StepwellAberhani StepwellAberhani Stepwell

Located 10klm off the highway between Jaipur and Agra
Some of the most stunning architectural structures in India are to be found below ground, these are the stepwells, or ancient water stores. Stepwells are unique to India and from around the 3rd century CE were built throughout the country, particularly in the arid western regions.

Over the past couple of weeks we have had the privilege of visiting several of these fascinating structures and today we visited the largest in Rajasthan, Aberhani Stepwells. It will feature in my next blog, but I though I’d give a little more information on just what a stepwell is.....

Excavated in order to reach the water table, the purpose of a step well was simple - to provide water all year round. But they also fulfilled other functions. They offered pilgrims and other travellers a respite from the heat, and became places in which villagers could socialise. Stepwell construction evolved so that, by the 11th century, the wells were amazingly complex feats of architecture and engineering.

Although every stepwell is different, most of them incorporate stunningly symmetrical, long stepped corridors leading from ground level to the water. Many also functioned as inverted temples, featuring column-supported shade pavilions and elaborate stone carvings. When torrential monsoon rains eventually moved in for weeks or months, the water table rose significantly and many of the steps would submerge, gradually revealing themselves again as the water level subsided.

Today, few stepwells are in use. The majority have been left to silt up, fill with rubbish and crumble into disrepair. Gradually, however, the Indian government and heritage organisations have come to recognise the need to preserve these architectural wonders. In 2014 India's best-known stepwell, the Rani ki Vav, otherwise known as The Queen’s Stepwell, in Patan, northern Gujarat, (unfortunately not in our itinerary) became a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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