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Stepwells, also called bawdi (Hindi: बावड़ी) or baoli (Hindi: बावली), barav (Marathi: बारव) or vaav (Gujarati: વાવ) 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 also may be multi-storied having a bullock which turns the water wheel ("rehat") to raise the water in the well to the first or second floor.
They are most common in western India. They may be also found in the other more arid regions of the subcontinent, extending into Pakistan. The construction may be utilitarian, but sometimes includes significant architectural embellishments.
A number of distinct names, sometimes local, exist for stepwells. In Hindi-speaking regions, they include names based on baudi (including bawdi, bawri, baoli, bavadi, bavdi). In Gujarati and Marwari language, they are usually called vav or vaav.
All forms of the stepwell may be considered to be particular examples of the many types of storage and irrigation tanks that were developed in India, mainly to cope with seasonal fluctuations in water availability. A basic difference between stepwells on the one hand, and tanks and wells on the other, was to make it easier for people to reach the ground water, and to maintain and manage the well.
In some related types of structure (johara wells), ramps were built to allow cattle to reach the water.
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 stepwells 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. Stepwells 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. Stepwells 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.
Water in the architecture of India could be found since the earliest times and had played an important role in the culture. Stepwells were first used as an art form by the Hindus and then popularized under Muslim rule.
Stepwell construction is known to have gone on from at least 600 AD in the south western region of Gujarat, India. The practical idea even spread north to the state of Rajasthan, along the western border of India where several thousands of these wells were built. The construction of these stepwells hit its peak from the 11th to 16th century. Most existing stepwells date from the last 800 years. There are suggestions that they may have originated much earlier, and there are some suggestions that precursors to them can be seen in the Indus Valley civilisation.
The first rock-cut step wells in India date from 200-400 AD. Subsequently, the wells at Dhank (550-625 AD) and construction of stepped ponds at Bhinmal (850-950 AD) takes place. The city of Mohenjo-daro has wells which may be the predecessors of the step well; as many as 700 wells have been discovered in just one section of the city leading scholars to believe that 'cylindrical brick lined wells' were invented by the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation.
One of the earliest existing stepwells was built in the 11th century in Gujarat and is known as the Mata Bhavani's vav. A long flight of steps leads to the water below a sequence of multi-story open pavilions positioned along the east/west axis. The elaborate ornamentation of the columns, brackets and beams are a prime example of how stepwells were used as a form of art.
The British rule of the Indian subcontinent of that time was not satisfied with the quality of hygiene that existed in these stepwells and instead installed pipes and pumps to replace their purpose. In fact, even the invasion by Mughal rulers did disrupt in the culture practiced in these stepwells. As a matter of fact, they encouraged the building of many stepwells. It was strictly the British that forced abandonment of the wells. Consequentially, the social and religious activity taken place in these places were lost to the authority of the British.
The importance of water to the locations in which they were found have been realized in the past decade now that many communities in the area are scarcity of rain and water. The construction of these wells encouraged the incorporation of water into the culture where they were popular. These stepwells were even proven to be well built after withstanding earthquakes in the range of 7.6 on the Richter scale.
Many stepwells have ornamentation and details as elaborate as those of Hindu temples. Proportions in relationship to the human body were used in their design, as they were in many other structures in Indian architecture.
Stepped ponds are very similar to stepwells in terms of purpose but it is important to recognize the difference between these two types of structures. For example, stepped ponds were always built to accompany a nearby temple while stepwells were positioned away from noisy sites and future tourist attractions. While stepwells are dark and barely visible from the surface, stepped ponds are illuminated with the light from the sun. Also, stepwells are quite linear in design compared to the rectangular shape of stepped ponds.
Stepwells are certainly one of India's most unique, but little-known, contributions to architecture. They influenced many other structures in Indian architecture, especially many that incorporate water into their design. Interestingly, Ram Bagh in Agra was the first Mughal garden in India. It was designed by Mughal emperor Babur and reflected his notion of paradise not only through water and landscaping, but also through symmetry by including a reflecting pool in the design. Naturally, he was also very entranced by stepwells and felt that one would complement the garden of his palace and built a baoli in Agra Fort. Many other Mughal gardens include reflecting pools to enhance the landscape or as an elegant entrance. Additional famous gardens that incorporate water into their design include:
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