India’s hidden subterranean stepwells captured in photos

A new photobook has been published that unveils the history behind one of India’s best kept architectural secrets – a series of idiosyncratic subterranean stepwells scattered all over the country.

The Vanishing Stepwells of India MAHILA BAAG-002.JPG
The multi-hued Mahila stepwell lies adjacent to a road leading into the “old city” of Jodhpur © Victoria Lautman

Called The Vanishing Stepwells of India, the project was completed by Chicago-based journalist Victoria Lautman over the course of seven years, and saw her exploring different parts of India to discover more about the background of the unique ancient structures. Also known as baolis, vavs and kunds in various parts of the country, stepwells are manufactured storage systems that were created to allow people to access a water source by descending a series of steps. Not only did they provide communities with water all year long, but also served as civic centres, refuges, remote oases and, in many cases, active places of worship. Besides their functions, they were also marvels of engineering, architecture and art, with some being lavish and ornate while others were minimal and utilitarian. They could be enormous, plunging nine stories into the earth, or could be intimately scaled for private use. 

The Vanishing Stepwells of India CHAND BAORI.JPG
One of the oldest, deepest, and most significant stepwells in India, Chand Baori is off the busy highway linking Jaipur and Agra © Victoria Lautman

Thousands of stepwells were created across India, but most were eventually abandoned due to modernisation and depleted water tables. The Vanishing Stepwells of India includes 75, a fraction of those that Victoria photographed, and presents hundreds of colour photographs, descriptions and GPS coordinates that enable readers to track down the elusive structures. 

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There are nine subterranean levels to the well and descent of Neemrana Baori © Victoria Lautman

“Over thirty years ago, during my first visit to India, a local guide drove me outside the city of Ahmedabad, parked the car in the dirt, and pointed me to a mundane wall. When I looked over the parapet, the ground fell away, and I was staring into a deep, man-made chasm, with a parade of ornate columns descending deep into the earth. I’d never seen anything like it and had no idea what this subterranean structure was, but it was so exciting, so totally unexpected: we’re conditioned to look up at architecture, not down into it, and I was stunned. That was my first stepwell and during my many subsequent trips to India I eventually became obsessed with these subterranean marvels,” Victoria told Lonely Planet.

Seeing that first stepwell proved to be a life-changing event for Victoria, leading to countless journeys, lectures, articles, books and exhibitions all related to the subject. 

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Batris Kotha Vav in Gujarat sits between modern structures, it has even less visibility than most stepwells © Victoria Lautman

The project is also on view at a special exhibition at the Fowler Museum at UCLA in Los Angeles until 20 October, and includes 48 photographs with information. Stepwells were engineered and constructed from around 600 CE, with the exhibition focusing on documentation of 16 sites built between the ninth and 18th centuries.

More information on Victoria’s work is available at her official website.

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