Thirty years after Chicago-based photographer and writer Victoria Lautman first stepped into the famous stepwells of India, the magic of that experience has not waned. If anything, it has taken the shape of a fascinating pictorial book titled “The Vanishing Stepwells of India”, published by the London-based Merrell Publishers.
Stepwells are uniquely Indian architectural monuments to water, its collection, preservation and community use. They have existed for over 12 centuries but in the past century or so have begun to fall prey to cultural and official apathy and indifference. Lautman’s book is a remarkable chronicle of the stepwells, many of which have compelling folklore built around them.
The journalist’s fascination with stepwells began 30 years ago when she was visiting Ahmedabad on an architectural tour and was taken to Rudabai Vav (Rudaibai Stepwell), also known as Adalaj Vav, on outskirts of the city.
“At first, looking down into the unexpected man-made chasm, I was absolutely stupefied. It was so shocking to be looking down into architecture rather than up at it, that it disoriented me. I had never seen anything remotely like it before. Then, the experience of descending into the earth, with views telescoping into space, surrounded by ornate sculpture, towering pillars… it left me breathless,” Lautman told IANS in an interview.
“I had no idea how deep the steps went, only that my senses were heightened by the extreme contrasts I experienced. The above-ground din became hushed, the heat of day transformed into cool enveloping air, and the bright sunlight became diffuse and murky. Yes, magical, or profound, or transformative, those are all appropriate ways to describe the experience, and it was powerful enough to stay with me for 30 years,” she says.
Lautman says when she first saw a stepwell she was left “staggered.” “I would never in a million years have pictured anything resembling that complex, mysterious, subterranean edifice,” she says. Her idea of a “well” was a long cylinder with water at the bottom and a bucket on a rope — “it couldn’t be further than how Rudabai Vav appeared.”
Although the presence of life-giving water suggests that stepwells might once have exuded a sense of joy, today Lautman says she cannot “describe the structures in those terms, much as I love them dearly”. “Most stepwells I’ve seen are in such a dilapidated condition they can’t exude anything approximating “joy”. Sadness, or fatigue, and even malevolence in a few cases. But not joy,” she says.
For her book Lautman visited 200 stepwells in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Telengana, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. She was struck by their “engineering and architectural ingenuity”.
“I am always astounded when considering the knowledge that went into designing them, how much earth was moved, how solidly the structures were built, and that so many are still standing for over a millennium. Building subterranean structures is, I am told by engineers, more difficult than building above ground, and is subject to much greater pressures. And yet there they are, often still functioning as they did hundreds of years ago,” she says.
Lautman says the recognition of the historical importance of stepwells is uneven. “In Delhi, Hyderabad, Jodhpur, Jaipur and many other cities, important restoration work is taking place on the baolis, and their historical importance is recognised. The same is true in the vavs around Ahmedabad — Rudabai, Dada Harir, Rani ki Vav and others. But those efforts don’t extend to many other stepwells nearby — even within the city — and communities have often lost touch with the history and importance of their local well,” she says.
“I have been to many villages, towns and cities that have spectacular stepwells, but the people living nearby are mystified by my interest, and won’t be interested themselves until respect and pride come back into the picture. That’s hard to achieve, but until it happens, there’s no reason anyone would care about their upkeep,” she says.
One obvious dimension to the presence such spectacular if neglected ancient monuments would be their tourism potential, but in Lautman’s experience not much has been done to tap into that.
“Tourists come to India for the forts, palaces, tombs, temples… but stepwells’ Few tourists have ever heard of them, they are rarely in guidebooks, no one asks to see them, so why bother,” she says. At the same time, though she says that the tide is turning, “with wonderful results, and more of these efforts will guarantee the future of stepwells”.
“For instance, Abhaneri in Rajasthan now has a yearly festival that draws hundreds of people to the magnificent Chand baori; Raas hotel in Jodhpur just cleaned up an adjoining stepwell and it’s so beautiful, tourists and locals flock to it, and can eat in an adjacent café; the Rawla Narlai hotel offers “dinner in a stepwell” — it’s one of the most creative and lovely new uses of a stepwell I’ve experienced. And another terrific development catching on in various cities are stepwell tours, which wouldn’t have been imaginable a decade ago,” she says.
The book’s primary purpose, apart from chronicling their engineering and architectural brilliance, is to make the people across the world aware of their existence as they plan their visit to India. Lautman is also planning to make a documentary about them.
(Mayank Chhaya is a Chicago-based journalist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
By Mayank Chhaya