India has always been a storehouse of some great cultures, cuisines and not to forget the very fine architecture that one gets to see in her heritage monuments. One such that has always fascinated me are the step wells or Baoli (baori, bawdi or Pushkarini) which were man-made wells with proper steps to go down be it for the whole community or exclusive for the Royals.
Stepwells first appeared in India between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D. as they helped to solve the problem of water that few regions like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and others saw while Delhi, Maharashtra also sees ample of these architectural marvels. By 11th century around these Baoli’s saw some complex architectural engineering, and today merely as tourist sites these stepwells are totally an awe-gaping historic beauty. Having visited few, here is my list of top three.
RANI KA VAH, PATAN, GUJARAT
I happen to visit Rani ka Vav or the Queens stepwell this January, I was not even ready to be exposed to just a grand architectural beauty. As the flight of steps led me, the 11th-century architectural marvel was built by Queen Udayamati for her king Bhimdev I. Mesmerized by its magnitude, one gets to see some ornamental stone carving at this UNESCO heritage site. As the steps descend the sculptures carved on the walls weave a story in themselves. Not know to anyone for 70 years, the way this stepwell is built east facing in an inverted temple design with seven storeys. More than 800 sculptures along with intricate craving along with Patan patola motifs and numerous sculptures dedicated to Lord Vishnu and his various forms like Kalki, Rama, Krishna, Narsinh, Vaman, Varahi on the wall. The lowermost level that used to be an escape route is now blocked by stones and silt.
It’s located around 125 km from Ahmedabad and take around 3 hours to reach there.
CHAND BAORI, ABHANERI, RAJASTHAN
The scarcity of water in Rajasthan saw the rise of stepwell or baoli’s as they served as reservoirs too. Build by King Chanda of the Nikumbha Dynasty, in Abhaneri (Dausa district) in the 9th century this baoli is just around 2 hours drive from Jaipur. The stepwell sees 3,500 symmetrical steps and the play of light and shade in the steps makes this piece of heritage even more interesting. The three sides see a play of staircases while the fourth side sees finely carved jharokhas (windows), galleries and balconies. Regarded as the deepest and largest step wells in the country, these jharokhas were meant for the Royal family. This 19.5-meter deep baori’s corridor on all sides sees beautiful sculptures all in a much-neglected state which were recovered during the excavation. The symmetry of the steps is just picturesque. This community gathering place during olden days served as a dependable water source for the area.
There’s a temple of Harshshat Mata adjacent to this beautiful architecture.
AGRASEN KI BAOLI, DELHI
Hidden in the bylanes of the capital city Delhi, Agraseb ki Baoli has been the location for many Bollywood flicks. Named after Raja Agrasen (or Raja Ugrasen) of Agroha, this is a typical U – shaped baoli (stepwell) and one the largest and most ornate ones in Delhi. The architectural details say that the baoli was built during the Tughlaq Period or Lodi Period. Around 60 meters long and 15 meters wide this baoli sees 103-108 steep steps and dual arches (a facade arch and the true arch) alongside the walls as you take the steps down to the well which is dry most of the time. There are chambers which must have served as changing rooms for those coming here. Most of the time these stepwells served as emote trade routes where travelers and pilgrims could park themselves and their cattle’s that they carry along. The visible parts consist of three levels.
The National Archives refer this place as Oojer Saini Bowlee. The spooky part is as you go down the sound totally vanishes and only echo remains and the screeching of bats that have made this place their home makes it more mysterious.
HAMPI PUSHKARANI, KARNATAKA
Listed amongst as one of the most ancient stepwells in the country, the Hampi Pushkarani are sacred water tanks or baoli’s that are close to the temple. Most of the temple in this town see this water tank feature. Some of the pushkarani’s are not associated with something spiritual but were built for the use of the members of the royal family of Vijayanagara. Built-in Vijayanagara style of architecture these water tanks see elaborately carved pillars surrounding them. Built during 15 century the tanks got the fresh water from the Tungabhadra River.
The step wells of India are architectural masterpieces. Every step well is very articulately carved and designed. They are the lesser known architectural wonders of the country.