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Step in to the Past

Posted by
Preeti Chaturvedi
on February 11, 2014 at 05:24 PM

Step wells, also called kalyani or pushkarani Kannada, bawdi (Hindi) or vaav Gujarati  are wells or ponds in which the water may be reached by descending a set of steps. They may be covered and protected and are often of architectural significance. They are most common in western India . They may be also found in the other more arid regions of the South Asia, extending into Pakistan. The construction may be utilitarian, but sometimes includes significant architectural embellishments. These pretty incredible structures found exclusively in India, are said to have been in existence since about 600 AD. 

© Courtesy of sources & research

Architectural Wonders

India has since long intrigued the western world and hundreds of thousands of tourists are drawn to visit the country each year. Be it temples, historical monuments, gardens, deserts, forests, wildlife or cultural heritage; India has it all in abundance. One of the architectural wonders in India is step-wells. Amidst the variety of sight seeing options in India, the step-wells go unnoticed. Not many are aware of these architecturally wonderful and highly embellished structures that serve more than one purpose. These remarkable structures are essentially wells in which the water can be reached by descending a set of steps.

Form and Function

Step wells were made for the storage of water or as irrigation tanks, to supply water to the community during the dry seasons. The construction of the wells gave people direct access to the water body; unlike other water storage options like wells and tanks. Step wells usually consist of two parts: a vertical shaft from which water is drawn and the surrounding inclined subterranean passageways, chambers and steps which provide access to the well. The galleries and chambers surrounding these wells were often carved profusely with elaborate detail and became cool, quiet retreats during the hot summers.


The builders dug deep trenches into the earth for dependable, year-round groundwater. They lined the walls of these trenches with blocks of stone, without mortar, and created stairs leading down to the water. The majority of surviving step wells originally also served a leisure purpose, as well as providing water. This was because the base of the well provided relief from daytime heat, and more of such relief could be obtained if the well was covered. Step wells also served as a place for social gatherings and religious ceremonies. Usually, women were more associated with these wells because they were the ones who collected the water. Also, it was they who prayed and offered gifts to the goddess of the well for her blessings. This led to the building of some significant ornamental and architectural features, often associated with dwellings and in urban areas. It also ensured their survival as monuments.

Association with women

The step wells were major source of drinking water till the piped supply system was introduced. In olden times, bawdis signified a sense of community, of integrity particularly among women, as it offered momentary freedom to them. Often fetching water from step-wells used to be arduous task, but for women under patriarchy it was a welcome respite, since these structures served as enculturation zones for women to meet and interact with other women. Step-wells thus went beyond being just sources of water. They were public places and congregation points.


The ornamentation on step wells includes mythological figures, geometrical shapes and floral designs. The carvings include scenes from daily life, such as women churning butter, or fighting scenes, and sometimes erotic figures. While these water bodies are no longer in use, the grandeur of the architectural heritage remains untouched.

Water Conservation

These iconic structures served both an aesthetic and utilitarian function. India observes heavy monsoon rains and also intense arid seasons, resulting in inconsistent availability of water. Step wells were constructed to enhance groundwater – the rainwater running off into the bottom of the well permeates into the ground till it reaches an impervious layer of soil. While the soil absorbs the silt, the clear water is left above.

British Intervention

To the British, step-wells were a sanitary fiasco. Aghast by the verity that the unsanitary seeming step-wells were the common source of both drinking and bathing water, the British began establishing pipes, pumps and taps with the objective to keep out the guinea worm, a waterborne parasite, from drinking water. They succeeded all too well, and in doing so, they made step-wells obsolete even for bathing purposes.

Post-independence Ruin

Even after independence, India sustained the British policy of promoting taps instead of step-wells. But to bring water to those taps, the Indian government came up to constructing the colossal dams. Partly by accident and partly by design, those projects have contributed to the obliteration of an essential but uncelebrated division of the medieval water system. While for the step-wells themselves, some became depositories for litter, a few became the basements of new buildings, others became latrines.

A Glance at some of the famous Step-Wells of India

It is not mere chance that some of India's largest, finest and certainly the most numerous step-wells are concentrated in the states of Haryana, Delhi, Rajasthan and Gujarat, extending into parts of Uttar Pradesh and even Madhya Pradesh, and also Karnataka in the south. From time immemorial, long stretches of north-west India have been largely arid. The only time these parts have ample water is in the monsoon season – a period that lasts barely three months. Water storage was thus critical. The step-wells held a great significance then but today they are desolate structures.  There are quiet a few of step wells in India that are famous world over for their enormity and beauty. Step wells were used mostly by women; and it may be observed that a large number of step wells are also named after women.

Agrasen ki Baoli

Constructed in 14th century, Agrasen ki Baoli is known to be one of the most magnificent step-wells ever built in Delhi. Sited in the heart of Central Delhi, this baoli comes as a sweet surprise offering relief to busy Delhites during hot summer afternoon. Flanked by niches, chambers and passageways, this baoli is 60 meter long and 15 meter wide. Built in red sandstone, it consists of three levels and some 103 steep steps. Each level is beautifully carved with small jharokhas. It has striking features and design layout that resembles both the Tughlaq and Lodhi dynasty in style and architecture. 

Chand Baori

Chand Baori situated in the village Abhaneri near Jaipur is one of the deepest and largest step wells in India. Built in 9th century, this step well is 35 m deep and 3500 narrow steps and 13 levels. It is a fine example of the architectural excellence prevalent in the past.

Adalaj Vav

The Adalaj Vav is a step well located 18 kilometers north of Ahmedabad in the Gandhinagar district. The four-level well is dug directly into the water table, divulging freshwater that rose and fell according the seasons and the amount of rainfall. Its deep interior provided cool relief from the harsh Indian sun. Constructed entirely of sandstone, this step well has three entrances. It comprises octagonal landings with carved colonnades and intricately carved niches.



Once the water sanctuaries of India, step wells today are reduced to being little-known master pieces of architecture. Despite the fact that the step wells may not be sources of drinking water, in their subterranean recesses may lay a solution to many water shortage problems. Today, with an increase in the water usage, water tables in many areas have fallen significantly and with the lack of mechanisms to replenish the ground water, the importance of step wells has come to the fore – as good rain harvesting and water storage systems. It is high time; we must understand the significance and utility value of the wells of yesteryears and put in our best to restore these ancient reservoirs. 

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