It all began with an in-flight magazine. As I idly flipped through its pages, I was struck by a photo of a dramatic multi-tiered stone structure spiralling deep into the ground, embellished on all four sides with the most intricate carving. It was captioned ‘The Step Well at Chand Baori, Abhaneri, Rajasthan.’ And I instantly added it to my bucket list of places to visit.
As I researched stepwells, I discovered that the ancient structures are wholly indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. They are excavations, often several hundred feet deep, with multiple tiers and subterranean channels that store and tap groundwater. The steps lining the sides of the well provide access to water while chambers and cornices carved into the sides serve as places to rest. Deeper stepwells had pulleys with which bullocks drew out water.
They were built in response to the perennial water scarcity in the deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat. The earliest stepwell (called vav in Gujarati and baori in Rajasthani and Hindi) is said to have been built as early as 550 A.D. in the Thar desert.
And so, armed with a wealth of information, I set out to find Chand Baori. The taxi driver and the concierge at the Jaipur hotel were surprised: “There is not much to see”; “You must leave the place early, by 3:00 p.m. It is haunted.” Much was said to discourage me, but my mind was made up. Driving on the impressive Jaipur-Delhi highway, through a state-of-the-art tunnel, I almost missed the turning to Abhaneri, a tiny village 95 kilometres from Jaipur. A kaccha road brought me to a small stone threshold, which I entered rather sceptically. And there it was, Chand Baori, one of the most spectacular stepwells ever to be built.
A quadrangle chiselled out of stone, 64-feet-deep, Chand Baori was built almost 1,000 years ago by King Chand Raja of the Pratihara clan. The stepwell is sheer poetry in stone and testimony to human ingenuity and perseverance. Built at a time when there was neither electricity nor sophisticated machinery, the precision of design left me dizzy. The 3,400 steps on three sides of the quadrangle are arranged in geometric symmetry, and the play of light and shade creates mysterious, diamond-shaped patterns. The fourth side of the well, which presumably held a pulley, is embellished with jharokhas (latticed windows) and ornate designs typical of Rajasthan. Much later, the Raja had cornices and chambers built along this wall, where he could enjoy full moon nights, with the reflection of the moon in the water deep below creating an ethereal effect.
Sadly, Chand Baori’s claim to fame today is not its spectacular architecture, but the fact that some of the most disturbing scenes in the movie The Dark Knight Rises were shot here, as also some portions of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Bhool Bhulaiya.
According to archaeological research, almost 3,000 stepwells were dug in Northwest and Central India, between the 5th and 18th centuries. They were the finest examples of water conservation, applied science, architecture and beauty. For instance, in Rajaon ki Baoli, built by Daulat Khan in Delhi’s Mehrauli Park, an impressive feat of engineering converted the dreaded loo (or hot wind) into cool air through intricate cooling systems.
Today, hardly 1,000 identifiable stepwells remain and they have turned into repositories of garbage. The first and hardest blow was dealt by the British who closed and silted most of them, labelling them unhygienic cesspools of infection and disease. After Independence, the abject neglect by the government and wanton destruction by citizens converted many beautiful vav s into garbage dumps. It took a UNESCO certification in 2014 and efforts by conservationists to introduce baoris and vavs to a new generation of Indians and encourage architects to speak about their value.
Indeed, almost every baori has a story to tell. The vav at Adalaj, 18 kilometres from Ahmedabad, tells the tale of Rani Roopba. King Rana Veer Singh of the Vaghela dynasty initiated the vav ’s construction. However, he was invaded, vanquished and killed by Muhammad Begada. Smitten by the beauty of the Rana’s widow, Rani Roopba, Muhammad Begada sought to marry her. She agreed, but on the condition that he complete the stepwell. He did it, with the best artisans, and the Rani then visited the stepwell, ostensibly for a purificatory bath before marrying him. She circumambulated the well, offered prayers to god and to Rana Veer Singh, and then jumped to her death. The Adalaj stepwell also has on its precincts the tombs of the five artisans who built it, all of whom were executed.
Constructing stepwells was often the preferred philanthropic activity of kings and queens. Artisans and sculptors embellished the cornices and chambers with exquisite carvings depicting gods and legends. Later Muslim invaders continued the task, and, in fact, built most of Delhi’s 30 stepwells. Stepwells not only store rainwater, they replenish groundwater. And since collecting water is often the burden of women, stepwells also became hubs where women congregated for some reprieve from their cloistered lives.
Baoris or vav s are some of India’s finest examples of form and function, aesthetics and architecture. Rani-ki-vav in Patan, Gujarat, constructed by Rani Udayamati in the 11th century, in memory of her husband King Bhimdev of the Solanki dynasty, resembles an inverted temple, seven tiers deep and embellished with the finest carvings. Excavated in the ’80s by the Archaeological Survey of India, Rani-ki-vav was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2014.
I might have ticked Chand Baori off my bucket list, but I’ve ended up adding many more stepwells to it!
Bhagyalakshmi Krishnamurthy is a parent by profession and traveller by passion.