Indian stairwells
August 31, 2015 5:26 PM   Subscribe

Rudimentary stepwells first appeared in India between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D., born of necessity in a capricious climate zone bone-dry for much of the year followed by torrential monsoon rains for many weeks. It was essential to guarantee a year-round water-supply for drinking, bathing, irrigation and washing, particularly in the arid states of Gujarat (where they’re called vavs) and Rajasthan (where they’re baoli, baori, or bawdi) where the water table could be inconveniently buried ten-stories or more underground. Over the centuries, stepwell construction evolved so that by the 11th century they were astoundingly complex feats of engineering, architecture, and art.
posted by curious nu (20 comments total) 83 users marked this as a favorite
These are really fascinating. Thanks for posting this!
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 6:06 PM on August 31, 2015

Now I know what they're called! Edward Burtynsky had some images of stepwells in his "Water" exhibition.

This one.
And this one.
And here's one more.
And a whole page of stepwell stuff.

I'm not a huge Burtynsky fan, but those particular prints are huge and stopped me cold.
posted by Drab_Parts at 6:08 PM on August 31, 2015 [12 favorites]

I can only suppose that the Hellwell in Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light -- a novel which draws principally upon Hindu mythology -- was inspired by these. Particularly the kind in Drab_Parts' links above.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:16 PM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm so used to seeing the open square pit of Chand Baori in photos I didn't know this gallery style existed. I just did a tourist trip through Rajasthan and am sad I didn't get to see any step wells. I did get to see the 18th century Jantar Mantar though, an amazing set of astronomical observation instruments in Jaipur. Really fascinating monumental architecture.
posted by Nelson at 6:35 PM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

I had two immediate reactions. The first, many of these are lovely. The second wasn't quite as serious, so I hesitate to share, but...

You say "millennia old stepwell?", I say "perfect excuse for why my next fantasy RPG world will have 'dungeons' littering the landscape".
posted by fings at 6:45 PM on August 31, 2015 [6 favorites]

They are still handy if you need to hold Batman prisoner.
posted by lagomorphius at 6:46 PM on August 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

This is an amazing post. Thank you, curious nu! Another thing to add to my to-do list for my long-wanted trip to India.
posted by holyrood at 7:00 PM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

That's amazing!
posted by odinsdream at 8:10 PM on August 31, 2015

> I did get to see the 18th century Jantar Mantar though, an amazing set of astronomical observation instruments in Jaipur.

You missed out! Agrasen's baoli is walking distance from Jantar Mantar. It's a little tucked away behind bungalows though, so you have to already know it's there to find it.
posted by vanar sena at 8:40 PM on August 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

Uh, that's the Jantar Mantar in Delhi, not the one in Jaipur.
posted by vanar sena at 8:43 PM on August 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

Those are seriously impressive engineering and construction projects.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:51 PM on August 31, 2015

Stepwells! Thanks so much for this—stepwells are great and this is a fantastic article on them that will take some time to dig through (down into?).

A couple things:

1) I was just in Bundi which features quite a few beautiful stepwells, most prominently Raniji ki Baori, but also lots of other stepwells, including at least one that is privately owned and several that are abandoned in the overlooming Taragarh fort. Definitely a good place for convenient, compact viewing of stepwells, mostly in pretty good shape and easy to access.

2) For my PhD, I work on a Hindi poet, Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh, one of whose most well-known (and well-liked by me), poems, "The Brahman-Demon," features a stepwell as its setting for the said Brahman Demon. Here is all of the poem translated by a colleague, and this is my own translation of the first few, stepwell-heavy, lines:

Out of the city, towards the ruins
an abandoned, empty stepwell
in the cold darkness
the settled depths
these drowned steps
around old water...
makes no sense
you don't get it
but you know it's deep.

Around the stepwell
tangles of branches
a single fig tree standing over.
and on the branches
hang owl's nests
abandoned, brown, round.

The glory of a hundred good deeds
settles into a smell
raw, wild and green
swimming in the air
becomes the dark suspicion
some past greatness unknown to you
rattling in your heart

Stepwells! It seems hard to imagine them as anything other than always-already ruins, just as it seems equally unlikely that they would ever be filled in and paved over—but both must happen. Thanks again!
posted by Stilling Still Dreaming at 9:13 PM on August 31, 2015 [10 favorites]

Very interesting, I am curious on how to go about dealing with the issues of keeping the water and environment clean. The Article describes vavs being uncomfortable for people with phobias towards bats, snakes, bugs, etc. Not to mention algae growth.
posted by jadepearl at 1:10 AM on September 1, 2015

Wow. This is excellent! Thanks for posting!

ArchDaily used to be one of my Favorites, but I got to a point where all the starchitect buildings and $500/SF private residences were just so many monuments to ego that I couldn't take it anymore.

They need more posts like this.

Now do one on double-helix stairs, ArchDaily!
posted by subliminable at 7:24 AM on September 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Ha was going to mention Burtynsky (whom I love) by Drab_Parts beat me to it.
I love these, thanks for the post.
posted by Theta States at 7:45 AM on September 1, 2015

OK, I can't seem to find any explanation of whether they are dug, or built into already-existing chasms. Or both.

Anyone know?
posted by IAmBroom at 8:18 AM on September 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

These are gorgeous and amazing and so very functional! Thanks for posting!
posted by jillithd at 12:29 PM on September 1, 2015

I would drink all the water I carried up out of there if my water intake on the stair master is any indication.

But man my legs would look awesome.
posted by sio42 at 12:57 PM on September 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

Way late to the party, but wow.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:49 PM on September 24, 2015

What he said.
posted by homunculus at 5:53 PM on September 24, 2015

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