Stepwells have been harvesting rainwater in India for 1,500 years but many have have fallen into disrepair. With water shortages becoming more prevalent across the continent, these ancient masterpieces for design are being returned to their former glory.
Stepwells are sometimes small stone-lined trenches, capturing rainwater and refilling underground aquafers, while others are masterpieces of inverted architecture, like the extraordinary Chand Baori in Rajasthan. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was built by King Chanda of the Nikumbha dynasty in the 9th century AD, and is one of the largest stepwells in the world. It's essentially a beautifully crafted inverted step pyramid dug straight into the ground and lined by 3,200 steps set on symmetrical staircases.
Stepwells once restored, still function just as well now as they did in their heyday, and different states in the country are looking to add them to their hydrological arsenal.
“It’s ironic that stepwells been ignored, considering how wonderfully efficient they were at providing water for nearly 1,500 years,” said Victoria Lautman, author of The Vanishing Stepwells of India. “Now, thanks to the restoration efforts, stepwells will come full circle.”
The stepwells are known as “baolis” or “bwaris” and many of India’s more than 3,000 baolis have fallen into disrepair or have been abandoned - some have even been turned into dumps. In a nation where 600 million people - around half the population - face severe water shortages daily, traditional water-harvesting solutions are a harbinger of hope.
"In three months during the rainy season, millions of litres of water can be collected," says Ratish Nanda, a conservation architect and projects' director at the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, an organisation leading restoration efforts.
It's hoped that reviving the stepwells will enable people to reclaim their traditional resources and spaces of community life.
Today's OGN Sunday Magazine articles: