Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Now largely obsolete, these Escher-like cisterns were once monuments of public life. And in the midst of water shortage, stepwells may refill their civic role.
Little-known giants of civic architecture puncture the landscape of west India: Stepwells. There are hundreds of these carved-stone trenches throughout the country, with winding staircases and colonnades reaching as deep as thirteen stories into the ground to draw from the water table. Many are strikingly beautiful. Most are quickly disappearing.
Emerging somewhere around the fourth century A.D., stepwells guaranteed a year-round water supply for drinking, washing, and irrigation to villages, particularly in the semi-arid states of Gujarat and Rajasthan. By the 11th century, they'd become canvases for grand, stylistically diverse architectural visions, and served purposes well past the utilitarian.
For women, to whom the task of gathering water often fell, these were (and in many cases remain) places for social gathering. Some were (and again, remain) consecrated temples, with elaborate carvings of deities encircling the walls. Stepwells were true monuments of—and to—civic life.
But with the 19th-century arrival of the British raj, stepwells began a descent into obsolescence. Deemed unhygienic, they were replaced with modern plumbing, taps, and storage tanks. Many were filled in, or simply abandoned to decay and trash-dumping. And while some do continue to serve as social and religious sites, these days most stepwells are dry, as a result of unregulated tapping—a culprit in India's current water crisis.
Still, there may be hope. Last week, Delhi officials gave the go-ahead to de-silt and restore five medieval stepwells in the city, following the successful revitalization of two others. It's a big move from a historical perspective—and because the stepwells are expected to provide usable water. Some Indian engineers are also drawing inspiration from the old structures in designs for new modular water-collection tanks.
Some are also working hard to raise awareness of stepwells as masterpieces of architecture and engineering. Victoria Lautman, an American arts journalist who documents, writes, and lectures on India's stepwells (one such talk is coming to L.A. December 2), estimates that she's seen about 80 throughout the country and never fails to be struck by their disorienting grandeur.
"In most cases, there's so little above-ground presence to alert you or prepare you for what you’re about to see," she says. "They subvert the notion of what architecture usually means. We look up at architecture, we look across at architecture, but we rarely do we look down."