Photographer Documents India's Forgotten Yet Still Remarkable Water Stepwells

Video screen capture. Victoria Lautman/Fowler Museum via Vimeo

India's Subterranean Stepwells: Photographs by Victoria Lautman from Fowler Museum on Vimeo.

India is well-known for monuments like the Taj Mahal. But there's another category of local architecture that might not be as famous, and that is currently being threatened by the growing water crisis in India: the magnificent stepwell. Many of these centuries-old subterranean structures -- originally built as large-scale water cisterns to store monsoon rainwaters for later use -- have fallen into disuse and disrepair, due to water tables being over-pumped to depletion, and the introduction of modern plumbing.

Nevertheless, many of these neglected stepwells are masterpieces of engineering and beauty. Aiming to spread a greater global awareness to help preserve them, Chicago-based journalist Victoria Lautman took several years to travel the country, photographing dozens of these awe-inspiring structures. Lautman, who specializes in art history and archeology, writes passionately about them in a post on ArchDaily, noting their millennia-old cultural and spiritual significance:

By the 19th-century, several thousand stepwells in varying degrees of grandeur are estimated to have been built throughout India, in cities, villages, and eventually also in private gardens where they’re known as “retreat wells”. But stepwells also proliferated along crucial, remote trade routes where travelers and pilgrims could park their animals and take shelter in covered arcades. They were the ultimate public monuments, available to both genders, every religion, seemingly anyone at all but for the lowest-caste Hindu. It was considered extremely meritorious to commission a stepwell, an earthbound bastion against Eternity, and it’s believed that a quarter of these wealthy or powerful philanthropists were female. Considering that fetching water was (and is still) assigned to women, the stepwells would have provided a reprieve in otherwise regimented lives, and gathering down in the village vav was surely an important social activity.
These old bastions of water, once a community hub and a convenient cooling spot, declined during recent times, due to colonization and changing ideas about how water should be delivered, says Lautman:
As for the current state of stepwells, a hand-full are in relatively decent condition, particularly those few where tourists might materialize. But for most, the prevailing condition is simply deplorable due to a host of reasons. For one, under the British Raj, stepwells were deemed unhygienic breeding grounds for disease and parasites and were consequently barricaded, filled in, or otherwise destroyed. “Modern” substitutes like village taps, plumbing, and water tanks also eliminated the physical need for stepwells, if not the social and spiritual aspects. As obsolescence set in, stepwells were ignored by their communities, became garbage dumps and latrines, while others were repurposed as storage areas, mined for their stone, or just left to decay.

Lautman's work not only documents the aging majesty of these stepwells, but also the derelict ones.

Then there are stepwells like this "Queen's Well," (Rani ki vav in Patan, Gujarat) which was buried in mud and silt for almost a thousand years, probably due to its immense size (210 feet long by 65 wide) and recently designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

These remarkable structures are great examples of traditional methods of water conservation, and are an admirable part of India's heritage, and should be preserved somehow. In the future, Lautman hopes to produce a book on stepwells, and is now in the process of finding a publisher. You can find out more or contact her via Victoria Lautman.