Tuesday, August 26, 2014

India’s Haunted Stepwells, Part l

Click to enlarge.

Stepwells are centuries old structures that are unique to India. They were born of necessity in 300 AD.

India has a very erratic climate that is bone dry for most of the year. Torrential rains follow and last for weeks after this dry season. To make matters worse, India’s water table is located 10 stories underground.

Because of this, the Indians had to figure out a way to provide a reliable year-round water supply for drinking, washing, and irrigation. A system was needed to collect and preserve their precious rainwater.

The result was the construction of 1000s of subterranean stepwells in cities, towns and along trade routes. These beautifully designed structures were built with flights of stairs leading down to the water--for easy access.

Click to enlarge

These steps-- generally in the hundreds-- allowed women to carry buckets down to the water level in the dry season. During the monsoon season, all or most of these steps were submerged.

Over one thousand years, these Hindu and Muslim stepwells evolved into impressive feats of engineering, architecture, and art. Their stone reliefs are incredible.

Stone Reliefs--Click to enlarge.

They were often named for the ruler or patron who constructed them. A quarter of these philanthropists were female patrons. This is not surprising considering fetching water was and still is the domain of women in India.

People of both genders and of all faiths were welcome at stepwells. For women, they became a social gathering place. They also provided a cool place to escape the heat.

Most also were used as temples. Many have stone carved deities, and the Indian people used them for ritual bathing, prayers, and offerings.

Their Demise

Over the last century, these stepwells have been in decline. This is the reason why many people today do not know about them.

Their demise came with unregulated pumping and a prolonged drought that drastically lowered the water table.

The Indian government has protected a handful of these ancient stepwells but many more have been demolished or left to deteriorate.

During the British Raj, they were deemed unhygienic and were often filled in.

With the advent of centralized taps, plumbing, and storage tanks, these stepwells, in essence, became obsolete. But this left many communities bereft of an important social and religious meeting place.

Today, most stepwells are in various stages of ruin. Some are used as dumps. Others are overrun with vegetation, and various critters, such as snakes and bats. If they have water pools, they are stagnant.

The Indian government is considering restoring more and using them as possible cisterns, which would return them to their original purpose.

Example of deterioration.
The fear is that these beautiful and unique examples of Indian architecture may be lost for future generations.

Two stepwells that still exist--one in the village of Vadhavan and the other in New Delhi are both seeped in mystery, and haunted tales.

Here is a link to Part ll of India’s Haunted Stepwells where I share these stories.

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