The ancient wells of India were as large as ponds. In Hindi, wells are known by different names – baori, bawdi, boali, or bavadi. The earliest ones were constructed around 550 AD, and many prominent ones were built during the medieval period. Most step wells are situated in the north Indian states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, evidently because of the profound water problem as they are in close proximity to the Thar desert. There are more than 3000 step wells in these two states. A small city called Bundi in Rajasthan is called the “City of Step Wells” because it has more than 50 wells.
During the years of the British Raj, step wells began to be used less and less with the installation of pipes and pumps. Many of the wells have gone dry, but some still remain.
Situated in Rajasthan, Chand Baori is one of the largest and most visually appealing among all step wells. The terraced steps remind you of Escher’s tessellations. 3500 steps lead to the water which is at a depth of 100 feet. A huge temple dedicated to the goddess of happiness, Harshat Mata, flanks one of the four sides of the well.
Image: Chand Baori, Wikimedia Creative Commons
This 75 feet well is located in Gujarat and is notable for the love story surrounding its creation. In the 15th century, the area (Dandai Desh) was conquered by a Muslim ruler called Mohammed Begda. The king of Dandai Desh was killed, and Begda fell in love with the beautiful widowed queen. For her hand in marriage, the queen demanded that Begda complete the construction of the step well that her husband had started. When the well was completed, the queen threw herself into the water rather than become the wife of Begda.
Image: Adalaj Vav, Wikimedia Creative Commons
Agrasen Ki Baoli
Located near Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, the well was renovated in 2002. It was likely to be constructed during the mid-1300s. The rectangular well is about 60 m long and has 103 steps leading to the water.
Image: Agrasen Ki Baoli, Wikimedia Creative Commons
Rani Ji Ki Baori
Translated into “the step well of the queen,” Rani Ji Ki Baori is one of the most famous step wells in Bundi, Rajasthan. It was built during the end of the 17th century by the Queen who was devoted to social welfare. The well is 40 m wide with 200 steps leading to the water.
Image: Rani Ji Ki Baori, Wikimedia Creative Commons
The ancient step wells played a significant role in collecting and storing rainwater in the harsh desert climates. These tiered stone structures were beautifully accented with sculptures, columns, arches, and beautiful geometric patterns. Not only did they provide water for daily use, but they also served as a gathering place for the people.
With the current water crisis in India, there is a renewed sense of appreciation for the innovativeness of ancient rulers. Though India may not go back to using step wells, valuable lessons about water conservation can be learnt from them.