Indian officials have recently decided to renovate five ancient step wells in the country. Could this be the solution to the country’s water crisis?
Known as baori or baoli in Hindi, the ancient step wells in India not only used to be architectural marvels, but also a reliable source of water supply in the arid regions of the subcontinent. For hundreds of years, Indian step wells served as water sources for townsfolk, resting places for travellers and pilgrims, and gathering areas for socialising.
How do step wells work?
A step well is dug deep till the water table is reached, in order to draw the water out to the surface. The water table is the level below the ground where it is always saturated with water. Gravity causes the water to seep down into the ground and move downward till it reaches a layer of rock which is not permeable. All the openings of this rock layer are filled with water; this is called the zone of saturation. Just above the zone of saturation lies the water table. Indian step wells were made by excavating the earth till the water table or zone of saturation were reached. They had several flights of stairs leading from the ground to the water level down below.
Thousands of step wells dotting the landscape of India were neglected due to modernization. Most of them silted up and fell into disrepair. The British Raj also destroyed several because they were deemed to be unhygienic and breeding grounds for diseases.
Bringing back the step wells
Today, however, there is a renewed interest in step wells because of India’s burgeoning water crisis. The Indian government has taken steps to renovate and preserve some of them.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has already renovated two medieval step wells in South Delhi, and is now attempting to desilt and preserve five more. While desilting and cleaning the Delhi wells, fresh water seeped up and this gave an impetus to renovating other baoris. The renovation is significant to India both from a heritage perspective and also in terms of providing water for daily use.
The Delhi Water Board still sources water from a step well called Baoliwali Masjid to supply water to some areas. Baolis inside historic forts are used to irrigate the lawns inside and for other purposes. Unfortunately, many of the step wells are just being used as garbage dumps. Cleaning them up will most likely reveal water sources that are still open. Even if half of the step wells in Delhi can be renovated to allow the ground water to come up, it will provide some respite to the water crisis that ails India.
Indian engineers also draw inspiration from the ancient structures to design newer modular tanks for rainwater collection and storage.
Indian step wells are masterpieces of Islamic and Hindu architecture. There may be very little above the ground to prepare you for what you are about to view as you step down. With the renovation and preservation efforts that are currently being undertaken by the Indian government, more and more step wells are expected to be brought back from ruin to serve, once again, as dependable sources of life-giving water.