The ancient stepwells of India represent much more than water reservoirs. They not only created a place for local inhabitants and travelers to escape the heat, but as water plays a special part in Hindu mythology, the stepwells became cool sanctuaries for bathing, prayer, and meditation.
At the edge of the Thar desert, water disappears into the silty soil almost immediately after seasonal monsoons and the summer heat soars well into the 100’s. A solution was desperately needed to bring water to some of the driest northern states of India.
The earliest stepwells date back to 550 A.D., but the most famous were built during medieval times. The shores of major rivers of the 1st century A.D. were quickly transformed and tamed by shallow sets of stairs and landings. This approach quickly became a new type of constructed well. Each stepwell has hundreds of steps showcasing exquisitely carved stone leading to wells of water. It is estimated that over 3,000 stepwells were built in Rajasthan and Gujarat.
The architecture of a stepwell varies by the type, location, and when they were built. The two most common types are a step pond with a large open top, and graduated sides meeting at a shallow depth. The graduated type usually incorporates a narrow shaft protected from direct sunlight by a full or partial roof that ends in a deeper, rounded well-end.
In their prime, many of the stepwells were painted bright colors. Many temples and resting areas were built into stepwells and along the walls were beautiful decorative carvings. Eventually stepwells were considered unsanitary and were outlawed in some places. Although many are in disrepair, hundreds of stepwells still exist. New Delhi alone has more than 30. The remaining stepwells are in various states of preservation. Some are completely dry and some still attract local kids with their cool waters.