‘Step’ping into history

Anjali Jhangiani
Saturday, 13 January 2018

When American author Victoria Lautman first visited India 30 years ago, a local guide in Ahmedabad drove her outside the city and stopped near a very ordinary-looking wall. When she looked over the parapet, she was completely shocked to discover that the ground fell away into a deep, man-made chasm with a parade of ornate columns descended into darkness. “It was so unexpected that I was dumbfounded.

When American author Victoria Lautman first visited India 30 years ago, a local guide in Ahmedabad drove her outside the city and stopped near a very ordinary-looking wall. When she looked over the parapet, she was completely shocked to discover that the ground fell away into a deep, man-made chasm with a parade of ornate columns descended into darkness. “It was so unexpected that I was dumbfounded.

We are conditioned to look up at architecture, not down into it. But entering the structure was even more extraordinary, a steep progression five stories into the earth, surrounded by sculpture, cool air, and hushed sounds,” she recalls. It was such a powerful experience that she remembered it for decades. 
Six years ago, she finally began to study stepwells in India.

“I became completely obsessed. To date I’ve visited over 200, with hundreds more to come, I hope,” says the author of The Vanishing Stepwells of India, a book that Lautman will be discussing at the Jaipur Literature Festival that kicks off on January 25, as well as other venues in the country till February 12. Here’s a quick chat about her experience while writing the book:

Of all the stepwells you’ve visited, which ones particularly caught your attention and why?
Every stepwell is striking in some way, with unique characteristics. It can be gorgeous, or difficult to find, or is especially derelict and unloved. But here are a few that are always at the top of my mind: 

Ujala Baoli (c. 1500) at Mandu Fort in Madhya Pradesh. It’s one of the most peaceful, mysterious, and eccentric stepwells I’ve seen, off by itself away from the fort’s main areas. There’s something very lonely about it, and I’m overwhelmed by its beauty.

Chand Baori in Abhaneri, Rajasthan, is impossible not to find impressive by virtue of its scale, depth, and age, along with a dazzling array of 3,500 steps. But this is also one of the most interesting stepwells historically. It’s an architectural layer-cake originally built by a Hindu ruler around 800 CE, but with a later Islamic addition from the 18th century. Seeing the two styles merged is a rarity.

The Helical Vav (16th century) outside the fortress city of Champaner, Gujarat, is as simple as Chand is overwhelming. This is the most minimal stepwell, with no decoration anywhere, just an abstract curl in space. It’s more like contemporary art than a 500-year-old edifice.

Which stepwells have left a lasting impression on you?
Rudabai Vav in Adalaj, Gujarat (c. 1500) was the very first stepwell I saw decades ago, and you never forget your first love. What an indelible impression that experience made on me, it still gives me chills when I think about it.

I return to particular stepwells over the years and can see how much they have deteriorated. In a way, I feel I’m paying homage to these former beauties before they fade away. But there are many folks out there championing the stepwell cause, stirring up interest and support, and in some cases reclaiming or repurposing stepwells for new uses. 

A prime example is Toorji ka Jhalra in Jodhpur, which was beautifully restored after three centuries of filth clogged it up. Today it’s a destination for locals and tourists, filled with fresh water. And the Rawla Narlai hotel in Narlai, Rajasthan, offers a romantic dinner at the edge of a fabulous stepwell on their property, a perfect way to admire the ancient building. These transformations are inspired, and so heartening. Hopefully there will be many more in the future.

Why do you think the stepwells have become such a forgotten facet of Indian architecture?
There are so many reasons, some of which make sense, and some of which are inexplicable, considering that stepwells were the most vital, multi-functional structures in their communities for over a millennium. But their primary function of providing water all year long became obsolete when modern conveniences like hand-pumps, village taps, and plumbing were introduced. It was obviously much easier to use a pump than go traipsing down many flights of steps every day with water jugs on your head. 
As a result, stepwells were untethered from their communities, and when maintenance was no longer a priority, decay set in. At that point, the respect and significance formerly bestowed on these subterranean marvels just faded away.

But that doesn’t really explain why this unique category architecture lapsed into obscurity. Scholars Jutta Jain-Neubauer, Morna Livingston, and Julia Hegewald each wrote seminal studies of the stepwells many years ago, and even those didn’t manage to percolate into public consciousness. It just doesn’t make sense. 

When people see the photographs, they’re dumbstruck, and I specifically wrote this book to help raise awareness and, hopefully, to nudge the typology back onto the historical grid.
How long did you study the stepwells? What route around India did you take?

If I count my first indelible stepwell experience, then this book technically started 30 years back. But even though I returned to India many times, I didn’t turn my focus to stepwells until six years ago. I resisted the suggestion of writing a book for a couple years, since I knew how challenging it would be to synthesise what little solid information exists. But when I eventually began searching for a publisher and got a contract, I was given only three-and-a-half months to write the entire thing. It nearly killed me.

I would have planned things very differently had I set out to write a book from the start. I’ve just meandered around the country, seeing as much as possible, and wherever I went, I’d search out stepwells, or pinpoint a city like Bundi or Narnaul where there were several wells to be seen. On the way to more remote villages like Dhank, Gujarat, I would drive around for hours and days, asking if anyone knew of stepwells in the vicinity. It was an arduous treasure-hunt. I did the best I could, under the circumstances.

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