Mad About Step Wells

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.

Chand Baori, Abhaneri

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.

Raniji ki Baori, Bundi

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).

Baori, Neemrana

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!

The well attached to the baori at Neemrana

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.

Pushkarni, Hampi

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.

Assi Khambe ki Baori, Fort, Gwalior

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.

Rajon ki Baoli, Delhi

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.

Gandhak ki Baoli, Mehrauli, Delhi

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.

Nizamuddin’s Baoli, Delhi

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.

Agrasen ki Baoli, Delhi

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.

The baoli at the Wazirpur Group of Monuments, Delhi

 

 

 

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37 thoughts on “Mad About Step Wells

  1. I’d only seen step wells in films but was always awestruck by the architecture. Then, I went to Lucknow, and got to see the Shahi Baoli at the Bada Imambara. We had a very good guide (he actually got his History right!) who was also very entertaining. And he told us about its unique feature – the way the central window aligns with the entrance so you could see the visitors’ shadows in the waters of the baoli while you remained unseen. It was fascinating.

    As were the acoustics in the main hall of the imambara – a whisper could be heard across the room. Amazing!

    Your photographs and descriptions make me want to visit each and every one of these step wells. Thanks for a virtual tour, Madhu – it will have to do until the real trip is forthcoming. :)

    • Thank you, Anu, for the appreciation! I’m glad you liked this. And I’m glad you reminded me of the Imambara: it’s been may years since I went to Lucknow, but I do recall the acoustics in that main hall. Our guide went to one end and struck a match – and we could hear it! That was fascinating. Oddly enough, while I remember that and I remember the bhool-bhulaiya, I have absolutely no memory of a step well. I wonder if we were never shown one? Because I think I’d have remembered if I had seen a baoli.

      Sigh. It seems I will have to go back to Lucknow. :-D

  2. Madhu,
    Fascinating pictures and very interesting accompanying write-up. I must have seen at least half of these, but my interest has been only to take some touristy pictures.

    ‘Agrasen ki baoli’ – Was this the one in the film ‘PK’?

    • Thank you, AK – glad you liked this.

      Yes, Agrasen ki Baoli is the one in PK. And the Chand Baori at Abhaneri, if I’m not mistaken, is the one in Paheli. It is certainly the step well in The Fall and The Dark Knight Rises.

  3. Hi,
    What a nice write-up and mainly the photos.
    I have no words to describe them. I have been only to Hampi.
    Rest all, let’s see.
    Being a doctor, I tend to equate a step well with a disease that was rampant once. I don’t think it’s a place to name it or to go in further details. ☺
    But now onwards, I will equate it your post and the awesome photos would linger in my mind.
    Oh,
    I wish, I could visit all the places, including Hampi, once more.
    Thank you for this.
    👍👍

    • Thank you, Anup! Glad you liked this.

      “I tend to equate a step well with a disease that was rampant once.”

      Now I’m very curious! What, what? :-D

  4. Golly, I used to live in Sector 5 in the late 70s, and I vaguely remember seeing this baoli then, except it was so overrun and filled all about with various dungs that I hesitated to approach…It’s so nice to see your historical posts – more, please!

    • Wow, that’s interesting. And I’m not surprised at the condition you mention – I’ve seen far too many forgotten monuments treated that way! Fortunately, when I last visited the Wazirpur Group of Monuments (a few years back), the ASI were just completing a restoration project. They’d cleaned up everything, repaired the monuments, and created a pretty garden in which to enclose them. Very nice.

      As for historical posts, have a look at the ‘Historical Trivia’ category (you’ll find it in the right side panel on the blog pages) – there’s plenty of stuff there on history.

  5. A nice post as is expected of a historian! I have seen only one in the list. Agrasen ki baoli. Sadly people in the vicinity too did not seem to know or care much about it.I was really surprised and liked what I saw. I asked a few of my Delhi colleagues to go there.Not surprisingly only one guy shared my enthusiasm. This was pre “3 idiots” though. I am told it had become crowded after the movie.
    Sad even our monuments need filmy endorsement.Much like the time in Udaipur or Chittorgarh where the guides spend more time in reeling of the names of the movies in which the monument/ garden/lake has been featured.
    Bundi and Abhaneri look enticing! Didn’t know Hampi had one too!
    The treasures that are scattered across the length and breadth of our country. It will take more than a lifetime to even scratch the surface.
    I want to go on a trip already..sigh

    • I’m so sorry, I missed your comment earlier. I can imagine why Agrasen ki Baoli would’ve suddenly have become popular ever since 3 Idiots – that is something that tends to happen, especially when a monument is anyway rather nice. Tughlaqabad Fort, despite its appearance in Lakshya, is forbidding enough and unpretty enough (not to mention out of the way enough) for too many people to throng to it. :-)

      It is a real pity that our monuments need filmy endorsement. I remember, too, that bit about Chittorgarh – our guide too insisted on telling us which film was shot where (he boasted that he’d been guide to Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman while they were shooting Guide, but when I asked him since he’d been working at the fort, he said 1970. I didn’t have the heart to point out to him that Guide was released in 1965).

      “I want to go on a trip already..sigh

      Me too! I checked out the Stepwell Atlas Philip linked to in his comment, and I already want to go on a trip to see some of the others in India.

      • Yes the stepwell Atlas is pretty good. Though some seem to be like temple ponds with a few steps. Wonderful photos…will keep visiting the site!

        • I suppose they basically cover everything that combines well with steps… technically a step well, yes, but somehow nothing short of several levels of steps strikes me as a baoli or its ilk! :-)

  6. Very nice article. Please be aware of our Stepwell Atlas, which is a collaborative mapping site that now lists over 2000 stepwells and notable stepped water architecture (with accurate location info – GPS coordinates – and photos). See http://www.stepwells.org or the ‘Stepwell Atlas’ android app.

  7. Oh goodness Madhu! It was only a matter of time. I knew that you will someday write about Stepwells knowing how much they fascinate you. Well, I am equally crazy about these little pieces of art! I marvel at the vision and workmanship that have withstood the test of time. Water being such an eroding force, it baffles me how these structures are still standing. It speaks volume of the quality of engineering at those times (some are claimed to be from AD 600)..

    You mention Gwalior’s baoli which for some reason I have no recollection of, though I remember visiting Fort several times but I was very young (<10) still I think I should have remembered. Oh well!. Thank you for documenting these and taking spectacular pictures to accompany these magnificent structures.

    A couple of years back I read about many of these on CNN by Victoria Lautman (I may have mentioned this in one of your earlier posts) where she posted stunning pictures with her research. In this article she claims that there are perhaps still around 1,000 stepwells left in India and at one point there were about 3,000. She thinks making these more popular can pave the way to preserving them.

    https://www.cnn.com/style/article/victoria-lautman-wells/

    • “It speaks volume of the quality of engineering at those times (some are claimed to be from AD 600)..

      So true! I am also impressed by the amount of aesthetic sense that went into making something that was basically functional. If you see the purely functional architecture of these days (or of the past 50 years or so, in some cases more), it is purely functional – nothing beautiful about it at all.

      I have read a good bit more by Victoria Lautman ever since you first told me about her. When I went to Hampi earlier this year and visited the pushkarni, I was quite fascinated. Not just because it is lovely, but also as a result of some very wonky (as I later realized) information our guide gave us: he said that King Krishnadeva Raya (I think), on a campaign in Odisha, found this step well there, and liked it so much that he dismantled it and brought it to Hampi, where he had it reassembled and installed. Considering each stone of the step well does have markings which (I assume) refer to where it goes, this seemed plausible enough.

      As it turned out, no other source I (or a helpful friend) could find suggested anything but a local provenance for the pushkarni, so that came to nothing. But I read some great articles by Lautman, including the one you’ve linked to. Thanks!

      P.S. Do have a look at Philip’s comment, above. I am so excited by this!

      • Interesting story about Hampi. I can’t imagine how one would even undertake such a huge task of dismantling steps and assembling at another location. It would not be feasible.

        I registered with the site Philip mentioned above. That is such a cool idea!

        • “I can’t imagine how one would even undertake such a huge task of dismantling steps and assembling at another location. It would not be feasible.

          I would think it would just require a very analytical and organized mind, and plenty of labour. Lots of stuff has been shifted – I know chateaus have been moved around in Europe, and closer home, in Deeg, there’s a beautiful Mughal palace (well, a pavilion really) which was dismantled from Agra – where it originally stood – and brought to Deeg by the victorious Raja of Deeg after he defeated the Mughals.

          • Interesting! I agree the “lift and shift” would require a lot of analytical planning and I am not sure the cost of doing this exercise would be outweigh the cost of building it from scratch (in the context of Step wells)

            • True! So much easier to dig one’s own. Though perhaps it was always a way of showing off power – that one had the wealth and the throw-one’s-weight-about type of power to accomplish something like that.

  8. Hi,

    This is absolutely fascinating.
    Apart from their archeological and aesthetic value, these baoris are also a sign of the vision of our old rulers. Droughts and famines have always been a part of nature but it takes what you can call doordrishti and welfare of generations in mind to spend so much money and labour of this kind to saturate water.
    Unfortunately these future generations (including us) have still to realise their true value and potential.

    • Well said. Yes, I agree it takes a lot of foresight (and a level of philanthropy that stretches well beyond the foreseeable future) to build something like this.

      But I must point out, too, that baolis built during Mughal times by noblemen could well have another motive attached to them: that of retaining a certain amount of property. In Mughal times, all Muslim Mughal nobility (I don’t think this applied to non-Muslims who worked for the Mughals, though I could be wrong) were subject to the law of escheat. They retained any wealth accruing from their income from the state only during their lifetimes. When a Mughal nobleman died, his property – barring perhaps a small sum to keep the family solvent – reverted to the state exchequer, which then parcelled it out, mostly dividing it up among other noblemen or royalty. The exceptions made (i.e, the property which could be retained by the family) consisted of buildings etc which the dead man had erected for philanthropic purposes: mosques, sarais, bath houses, wells, and of course, step wells.

      • That was an interesting piece of information. Thanks.
        Could you maybe sometime in future share similar information on the other conservation techniques used in the past and their historical aspect.

  9. What a gorgeous post, Madhu! I’m not sure what I envy most – your photography skills (my pics Never come out this good) or your descriptive writing skills. I’ve never seen a step well outside of films and since a visit to India isn’t in the cards for anytime soon, your words and photos have satiated my love of history and architecture – for the time being. :-)

  10. I have found very interesting documentary on Stepwells/Baolis produced by the Rajya Sabha TV.

    Here’s the link

    The other episodes of this series are also very informative. Hope you will like these episodes.

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