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For the past four years, journalist Victoria Lautman has been photographing an overlooked feature of Indian architectural history: the stepwell. From between the 2nd and 4th centuries CE until the time of the British Raj rule in the 19th century, stepwells functioned as year-round water repositories in a climate marked by episodic drought and heavy rain.
The architectural particulars of each are unique, but all are built around the depth of a constructed well. In times of drought, one would have to climb down to the very bottom to get to the water, but in times of heavy rain, the stepwell’s structure would grant easy and constant access. Visually, there is something Escher-like about the stepwells — a sense that the usual rules of gravity have been inverted. In a conversation with Hyperallergic, Lautman explained her fascination with the form: “They actually subvert the idea of what we think of as architecture: when do we ever experience a building by looking down into it, rather than up at it? It’s a remarkable, startling way to experience space.”
As public sites, the stepwells were more than just reservoirs, possessing a breadth of secondary identities: temples, symbols of state power, emblems of private wealth. Each has a unique history. Lautman shared the story of Rani ki Vav:
Rani ki Vav in Patan is the largest, costliest, most grandiose stepwell ever built. It was built by Queen Udayamati in the mid 11th century (the date varies depending on the source) in memory of her departed husband. It’s monstrously huge, with hundreds of detailed sculptures of Hindu deities crammed onto every surface. It rivals anything built at the same time anywhere in the world. But Udayamati overreached with this enormous love letter to the king; it was built too close to a now-evaporated river that changed course just enough to cause Rani ki Vav to silt up and collapse just before completion. When the British saw it about eight centuries later it was just a dirt depression in the ground with some stunted columns sticking out of it. No one had any idea what was there until excavations started. It was compared to the discovery of Troy. Rani ki Vav was finally granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status last year.
Out-of-use stepwells are now being restored and revived by the Indian government as a possible solution to water crises across the country. Lautman hopes this will also lead to the architectural preservation of more wells: “Rehabilitating stepwells to harvest and preserve water makes a lot of sense; after all, they worked very efficiently for over a thousand years. But by rehabilitating — preserving, conserving, ‘reawakening’ the wells — more locals and tourists will become aware of their existence. And once that happens, their future is far more secure.”