Architecture Built 1,000 Years Ago to Catch Rain is Being Revived to Save India’s Parched Villages
Nov 15, 2021
They brought access to fresh water for millennia, and existed as long-honored pieces of cultural heritage, and then they were abandoned. Now a new chapter is opening on the stepwells of India.
Modern sewage and irrigation systems made them obsolete, but under the weight of extreme drought, the stepwells of India big and small are being restored for their ancient ingenuity and modern thirst-quenching design.
Stepwells are sometimes small stone-lined trenches, capturing rainwater and refilling underground aquafers, while others are masterpieces of inverted architecture, like the Chand Bawri in Rajasthan—a World Heritage Site consisting of the inverse of a step pyramid dug straight into the ground and lined by 3,200 steps set on symmetrical staircases.
However at their core principal, 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 as India faces the worst drought in history.
“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 book 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 have not always been conserved as monuments to cherish. Instead, many of India’s more than 3,000 baolis have fallen into disrepair or outright abandonment, being turned instead into dumps or being buried by foliage.
“When they began clearing what they thought was a garbage dump, they found the structure of a step-well beneath the garbage,” writes Vikramjit Singh Rooprai, a heritage advocate and writer who works with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture—a non-profit leading the restoration of India’s baolis.
“It was one of the deeper stepwells of Delhi. After restoration, the Purana Qila Baoli has so much water that the entire lawns of the [Old Fort in Delhi] are being irrigated by it,” he adds.
Aga Khan Trust works with stepwells around the country, sandblasting the build up of toxic residue and crumbing material and working with heritage architects for governments interested in repairing the baolis.