Step-Wells of India

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STEP-WELLS OF INDIA Step-wells are wells with underground flights of stairs leading down to the level of the water. They were built in all parts of South Asia, but in especially great numbers in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, in western India, which have a dry climate and sandy soil. Since it was also considered an act of religious merit to dedicate watering places in memory of the dead, thousands of step-wells, ponds, and tanks came to be built. In its fully developed form, a step-well consists of an ornate entrance gateway at ground level, an underground stepped passage punctuated by a series of pillared pavilions, and a well at the far end. There may even be a small reservoir to collect any surplus water flowing out of the well.


There are step-wells proper (those with a stepped corridor and a well at the far end), and there are others that should be more correctly described as stepped tanks, though sometimes such tanks were also combined with wells. The step-wells proper are laid along one long axis; the staircase usually starts at one end, and there is in most instances only a single entrance. A step-well may have more entrances, but this is the exception rather than the rule; also, the well at the far end may be rectangular or circular. The more evolved examples, however, are always circular.

In addition to the Hindu step-wells, there are others built by Muslim rulers after the thirteenth century. Their character and purpose, however, were altogether different; while the Hindu step-wells were religious undertakings as well as useful watering places for men and for agriculture, those built under Muslim rule were essentially for pleasure, as a retreat from the hot weather.

Many inscriptions record how step-wells were built as pious acts in memory of the dead. A stone slab from Mandasor of a.d. 532 commemorates the deceased relative of a nobleman, Daksha, employing the imagery of the myth of the descent of Gaṅgā (Ganges) from heaven to liberate the spirits of an ancient king's ancestors. Another, of a.d. 1042, from Vasantgarh in Rajasthan, records that a queen, Lahini, repaired the stairs of a step-well which were to provide a stepped ascent to heaven for her husband. The reference to the world of the departed is explicit in the imagery in the records of both Mandasor and Vasantgarh.


Step-wells involve both excavation and construction in the sandy soil. It took their builders a long time to overcome all the engineering problems, but in due course they created a remarkably efficient structural form. The earliest step-wells consisted of a short flight of steps down a pit whose sides were protected only by dressed stone, and the well at the end of the corridor was at right angles to it, that is, the two parts of the step-well formed an L shape. This was decidedly unsatisfactory, since it lacked an impressive facade, and it also involved an awkward sharp turn for someone bearing pitchers of water on the head. By the end of the tenth century, however, the structural constraints had been understood and resolved. Then followed a long series of step-wells in which the architectural potential of their basic form was perfectly realized.

In a "complete" example, a toraṇa (arch) built at the ground level stands at the head of the stepped corridor. At the first landing of the steps there is an open structure or pavilion whose top reaches the ground level. At the second landing, deeper down, another pillared pavilion is introduced, of two, or even three stories, its top again reaching the ground level, and likewise at every stage of the descent. As the depth of the trench increased with the increasing length of the corridor, it became necessary to stabilize the deep walls, which might have collapsed if kept vertical; therefore, terraces were introduced, corresponding to the height of the stories of the pavilions. Finally, in order to further strengthen the walls, a retaining structure of bricks came to be constructed behind the stone facade of the walls.

By far the largest number of step-wells is concentrated in the two western Indian states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, but such watering places were built all over the country. Step-wells dug by Hindu donors, and those by Muslims as well, are in Delhi (Gandhak ki Baoli, Rani ki Bain), in central India (Vidisha), and even in the southern states (Bagali in Karnataka).

The Ranki Vav Step-Well at Patan

By far the most ornate step-well is the seven-storied Ranki Vav, "the Queen's Step-well," at Patan, the capital of the Solankis from the tenth century. It was built by the widowed queen Udayamati in memory of her husband, Bhima I, in the second half of the eleventh century. Two hundred twenty feet (67 m) long, it is 60 feet (18 m) wide, and the well is 100 feet (30 m) deep.

The long stepped corridor commences at ground level and, interrupted at four increasingly deeper levels, leads down to where the well water stayed in the driest period of the year. There are multistoried pillared pavilions on the landings, the number of the stories progressively increasing as the depth increases, to reach the ground level above. In addition to the main steps, supplementary staircases are introduced for quick access to different parts of the step-well. Deep niches and projecting panels, with hundreds of nearly life-size sculptures of gods, goddesses, and apsarās (semidivine female beings, nymphs) decorate the walls. The inner surface of the well is also lined with the same kind of images. The Hindu pantheon is present in force, with Shiva, Vishnu and his incarnations, the Seven Mothers, and other divinities. But images of Pārvatī performing the harsh penance by standing "surrounded by five fires" predominate. For just as the goddess performed austerities in order to win Shiva as a husband, Udayamati by building her well was performing a religious act in order to be reunited with her departed husband in her next life.

Other Important Step-Wells

There is an early seventh-century rock-cut step-well at Mandor, in Rajasthan, that has an L shape. Though quite bare, it is important for its "architecture" because it reproduces the form of the earliest structural step-wells in living rock, before the builders had discovered how to build a corridor and a well on one axis. A more ornate example, at Chhoti Khatu, also in Rajasthan, of the ninth century, also has an L shape, and its statuary of river goddesses and nāgas, or anthropomorphized snakes, clearly evoke its aquatic character.

The tradition that culminated in the Ranki Vav in the eleventh century continued in the later centuries as well, but by then Muslim power had been established in Gujarat, with far-reaching changes. First, hardly any human figures were used in their decorative elements. And, more importantly, the step-wells built by the sultans functioned not as religious structures but as pleasure retreats to escape the heat of summer.

The two step-wells at Ahmedabad and Adalaj, only a few miles apart, were both built at the end of the fifteenth century. Bai Harir, a rich eunuch at the court of Sultan Mahmud Begda, built the first in a suburb of Ahmedabad. It is over 240 feet (73 m) long. A raised pavilion, supported on twelve columns, stands at the head of the long corridor in the east, and by means of graded stairs reaches first an octagonal well, then a circular well at the western end. Balconies with low parapets look down into the octagonal well. In addition to the main stairs, there are two spiral staircases on the sides that provide access to the four stories.

The consort of a local chief built the step-well at Adalaj, called Ruda Bai's Step-Well after her name, about 12 miles (19 km) north of Ahmedabad. It is planned on a south-north axis. In addition to the main approach at the southern end, there are two more stairs at right angles to it, on the two sides, all three meeting at the first landing, in a sort of foyer with elegant balconies and richly crafted columns.

Sacred Tanks

The reservoirs described above are proper step-wells, but the sacred tank, or kuṇḍa, is a monument of comparable character. These are deep pools of water, mostly square or rectangular, which are reached through steps built on three or all four sides, sometimes with a shrine in the middle. Their perfect geometry, the miniature shrines built at intervals along the stairs, and the well-proportioned supplementary stairs create a pleasing appearance.

Such sacred tanks may be of modest size, as is the seventh-century pushkarin (lotus pool) at Mahakuta in Karnataka. Or they may be planned on a more impressive scale, such as those at Osian (eighth century), Abhaneri (ninth century), and Baroli (tenth century), all in Rajasthan; and at Modhera in Gujarat (early eleventh century). The Osian and Abhaneri examples have steps on three sides, while a well placed on the fourth side feeds the tank; that at Modhera has long flights of steps on all four sides. The tank at Baroli is built over a natural spring that flows on a rocky bed; on an elevated natural rock in the center, a holy man in the tenth century built a shrine to Shiva, characterizing the god as Jhareshvara, "lord of the Stream."

Kirit Mankodi

See alsoHinduism (Dharma)


Jain-Neubauer, Jutta. The Stepwells of Gujarat. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1981.

Livingston, Morna. Steps to Water: The Ancient Stepwells ofIndia. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.

Mankodi, Kirit. The Queen's Stepwell at Patan. Mumbai: Project for Indian Cultural Studies, 1991.