BY Joe Bindloss

India's most beautiful stepwells

India’s special contribution to world architecture is the stepwell, elevating the humble act of collecting water into an extravagant piece of public theatre.

Known variously as baoris, baolis and vav, stepwells fill and empty with the changing seasons, allowing access to water via cascading terraces, no matter how high or low the water level.

Most stepwells were lavishly ornamented and decked out with niches and pavilions where people could swim, bathe, perform religious rituals, and cool down.

Here’s our pick of seven of the most spectacular.

No. 7

Surya Kund Stepwell, Modhera, Gujarat

An easy day trip from Ahmedabad, Modhera's handsome 11th-century Sun Temple was built so that the dawn sun would shine into the inner sanctum during the equinox.

The temple pavilion backs onto the Surya Kund, a huge stepwell studded with more than 100 small shikharas (spired temples) and shrines, like a sunken art gallery of carved stone.

No. 6

Rajon Ki Baoli, Delhi

This atmospheric waterhole drops silently in the dry, dusty forests of the Mehrauli Archaeological Zone, overlooked by most of the tour groups who flock to the nearby Qutab Minar.

The location is eerily quiet – it’s easy to see why legends of spooks and spectres have grown up around this secluded site, which overflows with ruined mosques, tombs and pavilions.

No. 5

The Pushkarinis of Hampi, Karnataka

Stepwells are primarily a north Indian tradition, but the Vijayanagar ruins at Hampi are dotted with ceremonial tanks, or pushkarinis, that are built in the stepwell style.

Within the royal enclosure, the Stepped Tank is a classic Indian stepwell, long since stripped of its upper pavilions, but with its eye-catching cascade of pyramid-shaped stairways still intact.

No. 4

Adalaj Vav, Adalaj, Gujarat

This 15th-century stepwell is a masterpiece of stonemason's art – a jewel-box of columns surrounding a central, octagonal well shaft, covered in carved flowers, elephants, deities and other motifs.

According to legend, the sultan who commissioned it was so pleased, he killed the masons to stop them duplicating their masterpiece.

No. 3

Agrasen Ki Baoli, Delhi

This oft-missed Delhi landmark is just minutes from the mercantile chaos of Connaught Place. It cuts a 60m-long slice through the earth, faced with niches under Islamic arches.

It's said to be haunted but is a favoured selfie spot thanks to a starring role in the 2015 Aamir Khan blockbuster ‘PK’.

No. 2

Rani-ki-Vav, Patan, Gujarat

The grand-daddy of Indian stepwells, Rani-ki-Vav is one of the few surviving relics from the once-powerful Chaulukya kingdom, which ruled large areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan in the 11th century.

Today, the stepwell is Unesco-listed, both for its incredible size and for the intricacy and elegance of the carvings of Vishnu and other deities covering every spare inch of exposed stone.

No. 1

Chand Baori, Abhaneri, Rajasthan

Perhaps the most striking of all India's stepwells, Chand Baori is the setting for a string of Bollywood song and dance numbers.

3500 steps topple down the sides of the enormous central tank in an intricate criss-cross pattern that recalls the facets of a cut diamond – albeit one that’s 13-storeys deep.

If it looks a little familiar, the stepwell had a cameo in the 2012 Batman flick 'The Dark Knight Rises'.

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