A few days back, an old photo I’d posted on Facebook, of the Chand Baori at Abhaneri, suddenly began drawing a good deal of attention. People wanted to know where it was, how old it was, and so on.
That made me remember—with fondness—all the other step wells I’ve been to. So, I thought, why not share some photos of those, too? (And no, I’m sorry but the supposedly magnificent Rani ki Vaav, which I’ve not yet got around to visiting, isn’t on this list).
A little introduction: what is a step well? Step wells, as the name suggests, have steps cut into the walls of the well, to lead down to the level of the water. Typically, step wells are to be found in the more arid parts of northern and western India, especially in the states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Delhi and Gujarat, where they are known variously as baolis, bawris, vaavs or by similar names (in Karnataka, where also there are step wells, they are called pushkarnis). The basic concept of a step well is that it should efficiently conserve rainwater: this is done in two adjacent tanks, one being the more visible, usually square or rectangular step well itself, the other being a conventional circular well, of the kind most people associate with the word ‘well’, often tucked away behind the quadrilateral tank. This well is usually covered up to prevent dirt, as well as to reduce evaporation. People needing to draw water from the step well descend the steps to get to the water; as water evaporates or is used up over the months, more steps have to be traversed.
While a lot of step wells are purely functional, many are more than just sources of water. Since it took a good amount of wealth to construct a step well, it was invariably a philanthropic undertaking by a ruler or other nobility—and there were often additions to improve the step well and make it multipurpose. Many step wells are surrounded by cells that could be used for shelter. Others have places of worship attached to them. Some are examples of the most exquisite carving and architecture.
Sadly, most (all?) step wells are now in a state of disrepair. The luckier ones are part of archaeological complexes which mean they receive some degree of protection, but the majority are either completely forgotten or end up as dumping grounds for local garbage.
Here, then, are my photos of some of my favourite step wells. Enjoy!
1. Chand Baori, Abhaneri: Situated in the village of Abhaneri (Dausa district, Rajasthan) and about 95 km from Jaipur, this is by far the most stunning step well I have seen (it is also, as per a friend, the largest step well in the world). The Chand Baori dates back to circa 800-900 CE, and was constructed by Raja Chand. It extends over 13 levels and consists of a mind-boggling 3,500 steps arranged in a crisscross pattern. This one is so famous that it’s even been featured in several films.
2. Raniji ki Baori, Bundi: Also in Rajasthan, in the riverside town of Bundi (it lies on the bank of the Chambal, across the river from Kota) is the baori built by Rani Nathavati Ji in 1699 CE. This one looks drab and unadorned from the outside, but the interior is beautifully carved, with pillars and stone sculptures of Hindu deities on the walls.
3. Baori, Neemrana: Again, a baori in Rajasthan—and this one is, of all the Rajasthan baoris I’ve listed, the one closest to Delhi, just about 130 km from the capital. The Neemrana Baori is a huge structure, stretching down across nine levels. The interesting thing here is the size of it—from its entrance right to the back is quite a distance, and that distance is punctuated by arched pavilions atop ‘bridges’. Long rows of arched colonnades on either side would probably have made this baori a popular resting place with travellers.
Oddly enough, for a step well of this size, very little is known about it (it’s conjectured to have been built sometime after 1700 CE, and is believed by some to have been built by a queen).
Also note the circular well that forms part of the baori. Now, this is the sort of depth that ensures pretty much a reliable supply of water!
4. Pushkarni, Hampi: Situated in the Royal Enclosure at Hampi, this step well came as something of a surprise to me. Who would expect a step well in a place seemingly with abundant water? The Tungabhadra, after all, flows right next door. And, as stone channels show, the step well (known as a ‘pushkarni’ here in Karnataka) was filled with water from the river, not rainwater. Even more interesting, the geometric crisscross arrangement of the steps here is eerily reminiscent of the Chand Baori, though the steps are not anywhere as as numerous.
5. Assi Khambe ki Baori, Fort, Gwalior: This step well is the most unusual on this list, because unlike any of the others, it’s circular rather than four-sided. As its name suggests (‘assi khambe’ meaning ‘eighty pillars’), the step well is ringed by eighty pillars. Raja Man Singh Tomar of Gwalior (late 15th century-early 16th century) built this one, with its steps divided into outdoor and indoor ones. People wanting to get to the water would first walk down a stairwell, then out through an arched doorway, before descending the outdoor steps.
6. Rajon ki Baoli, Delhi: And now on to Delhi. Since I’ve spent most of my life in Delhi, I’ve visited all the major baolis in Delhi. The Rajon ki Baoli, named for masons rather than kings, is situated in the Mehrauli Archaeological Park—it’s possible that at one time, a group of masons used the baoli’s water for their work, and the name stuck. One reason I especially like this baoli is that its surroundings, amidst trees and undergrowth, with twittering birds and squirrels running about, are a pleasant change from much of Delhi.
The Rajon ki Baoli has a tomb (whose, is not known) and a small mosque attached to it.
7. Gandhak ki Baoli, Delhi: Also in Mehrauli, though outside the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, is the Gandhak ki Baoli, the ‘sulphur baoli’, because its water (originally drawn from a sulphur spring) smelled of the mineral. This one may not be very impressive—it’s a sleepy, rather neglected baoli—but it has the distinction of being among Delhi’s oldest step wells: it was probably built during the time of Iltutmish, in the early 13th century CE.
8. Baoli at Nizamuddin, Delhi: This is one of the most interesting baolis in Delhi, and for a good reason: it has a delightful legend behind it. The Sufi mystic, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya (late 13th-early 14th centuries CE), had this step well constructed at the same time that the local Sultan, Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, was building his fort (Tughlaqabad). Tughlaq disliked Nizamuddin (whom he saw as a rival for power in Delhi, even if the power was of a different kind) and therefore, to prevent the baoli being made, passed a law that during the day all construction workers could work only at the Tughlaqabad site. When workers at the baoli got around this by working at night, Tughlaq retaliated by banning the sale of oil—thus, effectively, stopping Nizamuddin’s workmen from using oil to light lamps. It is said that Nizamuddin worked a miracle and made the water of the baoli glow, thereby allowing the work to be finished.
9. Agrasen ki Baoli, Delhi: Spreading across three levels, Agrasen ki Baoli is situated right next door to Connaught Place—in fact, you can see the high rises of Connaught Place and around soaring up beyond the trees that curtain this baoli from the main road. No-one is absolutely certain who built Agrasen ki Baoli or when, but it’s likely to have been constructed during the 14th century, by a member of the wealthy Agrawal community, who bestowed on it the name of the legendary king Agrasen.
10. Baoli, Wazirpur Group of Monuments, Delhi: And, to end, a little-known but neat little baoli. The Lodhi-era Wazirpur Group of Monuments is in RK Puram’s Sector 5, tucked away so well that I lived for years within walking distance of this place and never knew of it. The monuments are mostly tombs (and recently restored, too, so generally in good condition). There’s a pretty little wall mosque, and there’s this baoli, made of rubble masonry (large rough stones, bound with mortar). The decoration is sparse, consisting mainly of shallow arches along the side walls, but it’s a quiet and tranquil space.