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A millennium ago, stepwells were fundamental to life in the driest parts of India. Richard Cox travelled to north-western India to document these spectacular monuments from a bygone era
1During the sixth and seventh centuries, the inhabitants of the modern-day states of Gujarat and Rajasthan in north-western India developed a method of gaining access to clean, fresh groundwater during the dry season for drinking, bathing, watering animals and irrigation. 2However, the significance of this invention – the stepwell – goes beyond its utilitarian application.
1Unique to this region, stepwells are often architecturally complex and vary widely in size and shape. 2During their heyday, they were places of gathering, of leisure and relaxation and of worship for villagers of all but the lowest classes. 3Most stepwells are found dotted round the desert areas of Gujarat (where they are called vav) and Rajasthan (where they are called baori), while a few also survive in Delhi. 4Some were located in or near villages as public spaces for the community; others were positioned beside roads as resting places for travellers. 5As their name suggests, stepwells comprise a series of stone steps descending from ground level to the water source (normally an underground aquifer) as it recedes following the rains. 6When the water level was high, the user needed only to descend a few steps to reach it; when it was low, several levels would have to be negotiated.
1Some wells are vast, open craters with hundreds of steps paving each sloping side, often in tiers. 2Others are more elaborate, with long stepped passages leading to the water via several storeys. 3Built from stone and supported by pillars, they also included pavilions that sheltered visitors from the relentless heat. 4But perhaps the most impressive features are the intricate decorative sculptures that embellish many stepwells, showing activities from fighting and dancing to everyday acts such as women combing their hair or churning butter.
1Down the centuries, thousands of wells were constructed throughout northwestern India, but the majority have now fallen into disuse; many are derelict and dry, as groundwater has been diverted for industrial use and the wells no longer reach the water table. 2Their condition hasn’t been helped by recent dry spells: southern Rajasthan suffered an eight-year drought between 1996 and 2004.
1However, some important sites in Gujarat have recently undergone major restoration, and the state government announced in June last year that it plans to restore the stepwells throughout the state. 2In Patan, the state’s ancient capital, the stepwell of Rani Ki Vav (Queen’s Stepwell) is perhaps the finest current example. 3It was built by Queen Udayamati during the late 11th century, but became silted up following a flood during the 13th century. 4But the Archaeological Survey of India began restoring it in the 1960s, and today it is in pristine condition. 5At 65 metres long, 20 metres wide and 27 metres deep, Rani Ki Vav features 500 sculptures carved into niches throughout the monument. 6Incredibly, in January 2001, this ancient structure survived an earthquake that measured 7.6 on the Richter scale.
1Another example is the Surya Kund in Modhera, northern Gujarat, next to the Sun Temple, built by King Bhima I in 1026 to honour the sun god Surya. 2It actually resembles a tank (kund means reservoir or pond) rather than a well, but displays the hallmarks of stepwell architecture, including four sides of steps that descend to the bottom in a stunning geometrical formation. 3The terraces house 108 small, intricately carved shrines between the sets of steps.
1Rajasthan also has a wealth of wells. 2The ancient city of Bundi, 200 kilometres south of Jaipur, is renowned for its architecture, including its stepwells. 3One of the larger examples is Raniji Ki Baori, which was built by the queen of the region, Nathavatji, in 1699. 4At 46 metres deep, 20 metres wide and 40 metres long, the intricately carved monument is one of 21 baoris commissioned in the Bundi area by Nathavatji.
1In the old ruined town of Abhaneri, about 95 kilometres east of Jaipur, is Chand Baori, one of India’s oldest and deepest wells; aesthetically it’s perhaps one of the most dramatic. 2Built in around 850 AD next to the temple of Harshat Mata, the baori comprises hundreds of zigzagging steps that run along three of its sides, steeply descending 11 storeys, resulting in a striking pattern when seen from afar. 3On the fourth side, verandas which are supported by ornate pillars overlook the steps.
1Still in public use is Neemrana Ki Baori, located just off the Jaipur-Delhi highway. 2Constructed in around 1700, it is nine storeys deep, with the last two being underwater. 3At ground level, there are 86 colonnaded openings from where the visitor descends 170 steps to the deepest water source.
1Today, following years of neglect, many of these monuments to medieval engineering have been saved by the Archaeological Survey of India, which has recognised the importance of preserving them as part of the country’s rich history. 2Tourists flock to wells in far-flung corners of northwestern India to gaze in wonder at these architectural marvels from hundreds of years ago, which serve as a reminder of both the ingenuity and artistry of ancient civilisations and of the value of water to human existence.
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1 Examples of ancient stepwells can be found all over the world.
2 Stepwells had a range of functions, in addition to those related to water collection.
3 The few existing stepwells in Delhi are more attractive than those found elsewhere.
4 It took workers many years to build the stone steps characteristic of stepwells.
5 The number of steps above the water level in a stepwell altered during the course of a year.
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6 Which part of some stepwells provided shade for people?
7 What type of serious climatic event, which took place in southern Rajasthan, is mentioned in the article?
8 Who are frequent visitors to stepwells nowadays?
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