Fatehpur in Rajasthan is known for its architecture, with centuries-old havelis adorned with beautiful frescoes and large waterbodies, known commonly as baolis or stepwells. Many of them lie in a dismal state, often filled with heaps of garbage and surrounded by dilapidated walls.
For Chicago-based journalist Victoria Lautman, however, a derelict baoli in Fatehpur is a favourite, among hundreds of stepwells in the country. “It symbolises how something so important and awe-inspiring could wind up as a trash heap — it was obviously magnificent in its day, and still retains a hint of its former glory,” she says. Lautman has spent the last four years travelling across India, documenting the history and present conditions of 120 such baolis, spread across seven states including Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Madhya Pradesh.
It was nearly three decades ago on a trip to India, when she was accompanying a group of architects, that she had her first glimpse of the structure — the Adalaj stepwell, or Rudabai Vav, near Ahmedabad — and remembers being completely mesmerised. “I had never heard or seen anything like it. From a distance, it’s just a low wall, but when you look over closely, it’s almost like the ground has opened up. We’re used to looking up at buildings but seeing six storeys down was an overwhelming experience,” she says. During her stay in Delhi four years ago, she decided to relive the memory by visiting the stepwells in the city, like the Red Fort baoli and the Agrasen ki Baoli, which was also seen in the film PK. “The engineering, design and artistry were still as impressive,” she says.
Lautman, a graduate in archaeology and artistry with a masters in art history, was surprised at how little was known or written about their architectural significance, despite the fact that stepwells existed only in India and Pakistan. With the oldest among them dating back to the fifth century, stepwells were considered important civic structures during the Mughal era. “They supplied water in an efficient manner, provided shade when it was too hot and were social gathering places. They also functioned as temples, like in Gujarat,” she says. Last year, Rani ki Vav — Queen’s stepwell — in Patan, Gujarat was added to UNESCO’s world heritage sites.
As the 59-year-old explains, their construction was commissioned by rulers of particular areas. “Providing water for their people was considered an act of charity. Interestingly, almost 25 per cent of the stepwells were commissioned by women, in honour of their deceased husbands or sons. Some structures have dedicated planks naming the patron, assuring their immortality,” says Lautman.
Stepwells also spoke for secularism. Initially built by Hindus, they fused elements of Islamic architecture into their detailing. The 15th-century Adalaj stepwell for instance was built by Rudabai, the queen of the Vaghela dynasty. She married a Muslim builder after her husband was killed in war, who completed the construction of the stepwell. “When Muslims took over, they continued to use Hindu carvers, who were very skilled,” she says. The Dada Harir stepwell in Gujarat was also built by a Muslim king.
The deterioration of these structures is said to have started in the 19th century during British rule, when they were deemed unhygienic and a breeding ground for diseases. Rulers began providing pumps and taps in villages, which also increased water access. “There was no reason to keep them clean and communities lost interest. While the government and organisations like INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) have tried to restore them, community involvement is important,” she says. Currently, there are attempts made to reconnect with watertables, and desilt them.
Next month, Lautman will return to Rajasthan. She plans to publish a simple “not scholarly” book on stepwells, with photos and location descriptions. “I can’t stop. They’ve ruined my life,” she quips. She found some of rather inaccessible. “I’ve slid on my behind into filthy, decrepit structures, seen beehives and heard the squeaks of bats, and even a mongoose in the Red Fort baoli. This is not going to make me rich, but it’s very satisfying.”