Stepping into Tradition

Photography proves a fantastic tool to take us back into times and traditions which we may have forgotten and abandoned. British photographer Richard Cox is indeed a magician who brings a fantastic collection of images through a touring exhibition titled Subterranean Architecture, Stepwells in Western India. Due to open in September 2008 at Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre, Wales, UK, the exhibition documents step wells and their significance and contribution to the subcontinent’s unique architectural heritage.

Known as vavs or baoris, these stepwells were built about twelve hundred years ago in the dry and arid western regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan. According to Morna Livingston, author of Steps to Water: The Ancient Stepwells of India

“The grandest period of stepwell construction spanned half a millennium–from the late eleventh through the sixteenth century–dotting the countryside with exquisitely embellished public monuments, the most extravagant of which is the Rani ki Vav, or Queen’s Stepwell, at Patan, Gujarat.”

Featured in the above image is the Chand Baori located in Abhaneri, Rajasthan. One of the oldest and deepest wells in India; the Chand Baori sits next to Harshat Mata Temple, comprises of several hundred zigzagging steps steeply descending 11 storeys deep. The result is an impression of geometric friezes carved out of yellowish brown stone laid out against the horizon. On one side of the well, constructed are covered verandas supported by ornate pillars overlooking the steps.

These stepwells provided water storage facilities for drinking, irrigation, washing and bathing purposes. Apart from these primary facilities, these stepwells became areas where passers by could cool. Stepwells also became places where people worshipped the Hindu Gods.

Richard Cox describes their use, “During their heyday, they were a place of gathering, of leisure, of relaxation and of worship for villages of all but the lowest castes. Men gained respite from the heat in the covered pavilions, while the women had a rare chance to chat amongst themselves while drawing water for their families.”

Morna Livingston explains about stepwells in a socio-architectural context, “Owing to its delightful qualities and lucid design, the stone stepwell remained the state of the art in Indian water management for more than a thousand years.”