India is a vast country full of iconic architecture including countless stunning temples, mosques and palaces — but one often-overlooked typology might be the most extraordinary of all: Stepwells are water storage facilities on a monumental scale, designed to help populations across India cope with seasonal fluctuations in water availability. Thousands of stepwells were built across the country starting around the second century A.D., but as India’s water table has dropped, the majority dried up and was abandoned long ago.
Chand Baori; Abhaneri, Rajasthan; circa 800 CE/18th century
Van Talab Baoli; Amer, Rajasthan; circa 1600/19th century
Ujala Baoli Mandu; Madhya Pradesh; late-15th/early-16th century
As a consequence, this unique form of infrastructure — often of immense scale and embellished with ornate details — is slowly crumbling away. In an attempt to document these beautiful but fragile architectural marvels, journalist Victoria Lautman has been traveling to India for the past several decades to photograph hundreds of unique wells. Lautman’s new book, entitled The Vanishing Stepwells of India, provides a fascinating record of these structures before they disappear completely.
Batris Kotha Vav; Kaoadvanj, Gujarat; circa 1120
Dada Harir Vav; Asarwa; circa 1499
Navghan Kuvo; Junagadh, Gujarat; fourth/sixth/mid-11th century
Like portals into a subterranean world, many of these giant wells are up to 10 stories deep, and some had complex programs beyond their primary function as a source of fresh water. Many powerful philanthropists commissioned special stepwells as tributes to Hindu gods, complete with elegant columns, shaded arcades and cascading staircases hewn from solid rock. “Descending into the earth is a profound experience, one in which sweltering heat turns to enveloping cool, and noises become hushed,” wrote Lautman, reflecting on her emotional reaction to entering the wells.
Published by Merrell, The Vanishing Stepwells of India is available now.
Hat-tip to Colossal; all images © Victoria Lautman