Rajasthan is a popular tourist destination where people go to experience the vibrant life and colour of India and explore wonderful old palaces and hilltop forts. But there’s another hidden architectural treasure that goes unnoticed, literally beneath the surface.
About 20 years ago I saw an image of an astonishing subterranean architecture, it turned out to be a stepwell, an extraordinary architectural wonder. It’s taken me many years to find them, my Indian friends didn’t know of them, they’re hidden from view, underground, underused and often dry and derelict.
Stepwells were built, often with hundreds of steps, leading down to the water table which, in the dry desert conditions of Rajasthan, would vary with the seasons. They were constructed mostly between the 14th and 17th century, although some go back over 1000 years, and, like the palaces above the surface, they are often beautiful architecture masterpieces.
They were not just places to gather water, they were often used for worship and were places for people, especially women, to socialise, offering refuge from the summer heat. They also attracted passing travellers which brought trade. Many were commissioned by women, usually the wives and widows of maharajas and landowners.
Very few are in use today, the British discouraged their use, the water table has dropped and they are often dry. Most have fallen into disrepair and they can be extremely hard to find – but they can also be right under your nose, there is one in the very centre of New Delhi and another inside the grounds of the Delhi’s Red Fort. And hardly anyone knows they’re there.
They fall into two basic designs: an inverted pyramid with steps that go down to the water level or long stepped trench possibly with supporting buttresses and shady alcoves. At the bottom of the trench is a tiny tunnel leading to a circular well shaft topped by a winch, operated by a buffalo, to draw water into a series of settlement tanks which remove the silt. Stepwells can be huge, the deepest have hundreds of narrow steps descending 200 feet or more. The Neemrana stepwell is nine storeys deep.
In 2017 we searched some small towns in Rajasthan for these forgotten wonders, known variously as baolis, baoris, vavs and kunds. Descending into their depths can be unnerving. Bats fly at you in narrow staircases, crumbling ledges require nerve. The bottom of the well may have a narrow tunnel to crawl through while you try to ignore the mosquitos, wondering, is this stupid? But exploring the chambers and staircases of these awesome underground buildings is irresistible.
The photographs, taken in February and September, are for sale, starting at £25, in sizes from A3 to A1 and are printed with archival inks by Matthew Conduit of Untitled Studio.