In the name of water :
The mesmerizing Baoris of India.
Nowadays, it is not so much a passion or an admiration that humankind has for water. It is an interest. Without water there's nothing, and it is not a coincidence that the first and very thing that men look for on other planets, is water.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that the main water resources of the world are being fought for, by countries, by companies, by people, or animals, even. For its storage and pumping, the mass and the rich classes have always worked side by side. It is, with air, our most precious resource.
However, somewhere in the world, some time in the history, men and women have literally venerated the precious resource, have considered it the elixir of our life on earth, and even sometimes considered it the mother of everything, they believed it to be sacred. And I am happy to share what I have seen of that story.
I have been traveling to different kind of places in the world, and I loved it each and every time, but when I traveled to India for the first time, I discovered a whole new world.
On my first night in Delhi, it felt like being on a different planet, one that doesn’t have any resemblance with anything I knew. The streets, the people, the smells, the chaos, everything was new – and everything was oh so bloody charming.
I was amazed by the mixed smells of spices, rose incense, and cow poo. And it will sound weird perhaps, but I loved it instantly.
Passed the first surprise though, I should have gotten used to it. But instead, it kept surprising me. Everyday. For two entire months. I could write books about how much grace there is everywhere in the street, how beautiful people are, how poetic the Indian chaos is, or how stunning the ancient architecture is... but hey, one article at a time.
Today, I am pleased to share one of the greatest architectural discoveries of my two-year journey, or should I dare saying, of my entire life : a noble piece of classic architecture, one that I had never seen anywhere else (although it does punctually exist in other parts of the world) and that I promised myself to document and publish, one day.
And well, that day has come, and I wanted to pay my tribute to a style of architecture that has been built in India, since many centuries, In the name of Water.
Now as you read these words, just picture this with me...
Imagine an ancient world, streets full of peasants and spice traders, multicolored fabrics and other silks. Imagine some sort of chaos made of animals, people, noise, smells, and mostly, lots of grace. You can hear the jingling of women's jewelry, you can see their colorful sarees* floating in the breeze, you can appreciate their beautiful postures, their fine shoulders, their bare bellies, and you can plunge into men's dark and deep gaze.
Now imagine a world where people venerate water. A world where people see Water as the Mother of everything, the most necessary and noble resource, or in other words, a sort of goddess. A world where was is sacred.
It isn't hard to do… Indeed, doesn’t water bring about everything? Drinks, food, body washing, soul cleansing, social linking, fresh air, transportation, life… Now imagine that, for the sake of this natural but precious liquid, an entire civilization erects fully dedicated monuments. Imagine that the majority of them is commissioned by the powerful in entire philanthropy, for the use of absolutely everyone.
Imagine then, that these buildings are not just simple reservoirs - though some are - , but true palaces. Public palaces, private palaces, palaces for women to meet when they come fetch water, singing together, for worshipers to come wash their sins away, for the ill to come and get cured, for traders to take a rest on their journey, for the workers to get refreshed throughout the hottest seasons, and overall for water to be preserved in the shade all year long and collected by just anyone. Imagine that these buildings are being built above aquifers (underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock), and linked to them, so they literally auto-fill themselves, but also accumulate and store rain water during the monsoon season.
Imagine that these monuments, somewhere in between a temple and a well, called Stepwells, or Stepponds, were built for over ten centuries, between the fifth and the eighteenth, providing water to the entire population and a quiet haven for women of all religions, in charge of collecting water for the house, to come rest and socialize.
Now in a region as big as the Indian subcontinent and on a time span of as long as thirteen centuries, you can guess that these Stepwells have taken a thousand different shapes, sizes, colors, and looks. Some are graphic, some are romantic, some are plain, some are decorated, some are painted, some are deep, some are shallow, some are steep, some have a roof, some have pools, some are circular, some are square, some are octagonal, some are built entirely underground and some are as big as a small city. It depended on the commissioner, on the region, on the dryness and topology of the area, or on the main purpose of the well.
Imagine that everyone, during this long moment of history, understands that water and air are the most precious resources we are being given by nature. The only two sources that, combined, allow life on earth, and that everyone is living by this simple rule. Air and water.
Imagine that, some of these works of art are just as big, or just as decorated, or just as impressive, as the Parthenon of Athens, the Coliseum of Rome, the Pyramid of Gizeh, or the Temples of Angkor, because water is absolutely worth the tribute, but that you’ve never heard of them before...
Now that you’ve pictured something in your mind, something beautiful, decorated, carved, with pillars, columns, carvings, paintings, staircases, rooms, kiosks and statues - yes, all of this -, imagine that this is not only one, not two, nor ten, or a hundred of such monuments... but thousands of them, tens of thousands of them to discover...
Well - this is exactly the way I discovered the mesmerizing Stepwells of India.
However, despite the many thousands of them, the immense majority of them is dry today, falling into pieces sometimes, and trashed most of the times. Yes. Trashed.
As I visited some of them, I got to understand that what looks like a treasure to some, is just a useless piece of past for others. And today, literally, this treasure is slowly but surely falling apart. I discovered Stepwells that were as trashed as landfills, some that had been destroyed, statues broken or stolen, paints full of graffiti, some that were covered in mud, branches or sand, and some that were not even safe enough to step in because of their unsteady condition...
As incredible as it can seem to the foreign eye, Indians have always known them and started disregarding them in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries after the British colonization, which brought access to water from pipelines, and the magic tap.
The British considered these masterpieces useless, or worse, unhealthy. They despised them, as they would surely bring in diseases. They were seen as archaic.
Instead, the British were bringing modernity, cleanliness, good manners and better ways of thinking… So these water temples were closed, destroyed, abandoned, filled, and slowly, even, many Indians just forgot until their very existence.
And yet, they have been built with faith and detail. They have been used by all. They have been loved and cared for, they have represented the connection between man and water, and with a hint of passion, one can discover these buried treasures that are, even now, mostly unseen, unknown, and unloved, but still and always, magnificent indeed.
Magnificent because as you step in one of them, as you look down at the hundreds of steps going down, at the stairways around you, when you sit in one of the kiosks, or when you slowly walk down to the water, looking at the columns around you, you can sense, you can feel some sort of mysterious connection. A connection with the inner earth, with the water, with the depth of life.
Traveling to India, Frederic and I scouted the internet beforehand looking for great things to see and capture. But the country does not lack masterpieces and we had to make choices.
For the first part of our trip, I had almost forgotten about the only Stepwell I had heard about. I had seen a few pictures but that was it, really. I had been impressed but I had no idea... until we found ourselves in one of these little villages of Rajasthan, and someone told us about a beautiful Baori to visit. So off we went to visit it, without much expectation.
Baori is one of the Indian names used for Stepwells, alongside with Kaori, Bavari, Baodi, Baoli, Bauri, Bavdi, Bawdi, Bawli, Bawadi, Bavadi, Vav, Vavdi, Vavadi, Vapi, Tankas, Jhalaras or Kund which are reservoirs, or Sagar which are more like ponds or lakes, Talab that are sort of irrigation reservoirs, etc.
Anyone who knows me knows I love surprises. I love going somewhere without much research, as it sometimes creates mind-blowing impressions. And this is what happened then and there, when we stepped in our first Baori. It was located in the city center of the village, with thousands of merchants yelling, singing or talking in the street market installed all around the four sides of the Stepwell.
We approached it without seeing it until we were already at its edge. It had a fence that we stepped over.
Then, our eyes couldn’t see it all at once for it was huge in size and our minds couldn’t process the surprise for it was truthfully unadvertised.
We entered it in the late afternoon with only a few minutes left of sun. And as we got down the first step, the chaotic noise of the street quieted down, the degrees dropped, and we found ourselves isolated from everything else, and our hearts stopped for a few seconds, our eyes blinked and got wet of emotion. We just couldn't believe we had never known about it. And we couldn't believe how much trash was lying in the bottom. Such a wasted treasure under our very feet.
In this village, there are twin Baoris in main square. The second one, that we visited by night already, right after the first one, was the exact same one but a bit more damaged in its carvings, but we felt the same emotions, incapable of getting used to so much beauty.
The next day, we visited a third Baori. This one was restored, had an entrance fee, but I don't think we could ever have imagined how beautiful it would be.
Above us was a decorated ceiling, in front of us, a few sets of stairs, with columns on the sides, arches in front of us, and all the way down, statues and quiet water.
This Baori was definitely well restored and kept, and it was a perfect place to make it up for the wasted treasures of the day before. We had seen impressive pieces of architecture by then, but a temple dedicated to water, without connection to one particular religion, any spectacle or some sort of nobility... that was pretty new to us.
Still amazed, I later asked locals, and it is said that there are between 70 and 100 of them just in this little village... but we only visited 7 of them and a reservoir !
Later on during our trip, we spent lots of time looking for more Baoris. They had hypnotized us. For their majesty, for their colors, their number, their way of being so hidden…
I found myself absolutely passionate about the subject, to the point of reading about it nights and days. To the point of zooming in the map anywhere we’d go, to find out empty dark spots that may have hosted yet another unknown Baori.
In our search, we met Caron, a wonderfully dedicated Irish Baori-keeper, we met fantastic policemen who kindly toured us on their motorbikes to some of the most touching places we’d ever been to. We’ve clapped hands when kids dove in a giant Baori, and were invited to dine at a family that showed us their “swimming pool” Baori.
All so many reasons to believe that today, Baoris are still a great place to start if you want to socialize in India... just as it used to.
Now, I hate to admit it, but most of the time, my heart cried seeing their condition. It was truly heartbreaking to see so much beauty and so much grandeur being wasted.
Regardless of it, I tracked them, I learnt about them, I loved them, I photographed them, I categorized them... I dreamed of saving them, of buying them, of cleaning them, of mapping them… but mostly, I built the dream of showing them, because I don’t recall being so amazed, puzzled, and passionate by ancient architecture ever before. I have asked myself many times why it felt that way to me. But I don't find any other answer than because it was built JUST in the name of Water...
Of course I have loved and I have cried visiting old temples of Central Asia or Cambodia, old churches of Europe, old bridges or pyramids… but I mean… I have never had to search for anything like this before. Most of the monuments I saw in the past were available for immediate visit. Just buy a ticket and get in.
Instead, because of their forgotten character, the Stepwells of India are vanishing today**, and therefore, for a lot of them, they are hard to find and often in a really poor condition. You may ask locals but they’ll send you off towards different directions, they’ll tell you they’ve heard of something but don’t remember it clearly, or simply won't say anything because they never really cared about it, so if you want to explore deeper than just the well-known Baoris, you’ll actually need to be a sort of Indiana Jones, and search by yourself within the chaos of India to find and contemplate these giant treasures… But they are so, so, so much worth the effort !
Only recently, thanks to the media and archeological organizations, are the Indians raising awareness on them again, and the closely-linked topics of architecture, cultural heritage, women’s status, environment, and water preservation. With longer and longer droughts every year, experts have even proposed to study the possibility to rehabilitate them, or at the very least, to learn from the water management of the past through them.
As I write, some Baoris are being excavated, restored, opened to the public, and can be admired in full. Hopefully, there will be more examples to come. But until now, the vast majority of them is still quite invisible to the world. And a dump area to most of the locals.
I made a wish to go back to India, and be able to visit more of them, capture thousands of them, perhaps write pages about them, and help, in the tiniest way I can, in their protection, and in paying a tribute I believe we owe to Water.
They talked to me, and I saw in them a crossroad of topics that are dear to me. I found absolutely incredible to find myself in front of a common treasure of Indian architecture that is almost unknown everywhere else in the world, to witness one of the most beautiful homage made to our most precious resource on this planet. To enter monuments that used to be commissioned, utilized and managed by women mostly, where there was a real social life, and a religious life sometimes, and yet, that never won any recognition. Most of us in the world still haven't heard of even the most famous Baoris, while we've all seen pictures of the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, Big Ben or even Disneyworld...
Enough words now... I think it is about time to show you what I found myself crazy about. Let me introduce you to just a few of the Baoris of India.
Most pictures are mine, but a few are Frederic Baron’s as well, because we never had enough of our two pairs of eyes, and for once we felt like taking pictures of each other was meaningful : the size of these works of art can't be admired in full in a picture without having an idea of their scale.
* Pieces of colorful fabric that women wrap around their bodies and heads
NB: the information contained in this article and on the linked pages documenting each Stepwell has been gathered on location, and further on the internet.
It is as accurate as possible but there is no such thing as a certainty when it comes to the history of this rather forgotten architecture. The information contained here may change without notice as I keep digging into the subject, but it can also be wrong sometimes. If you do have additional or conflicting information, please e-mail me using the contact form of the website, and I'll check further into the matter and get back to you. This article is alive and is bound to expand.
Stepwells are wells or ponds in which the water is reached by descending a set of steps to the water level. They may be multi-storied with a bullock turning a water wheel to raise the well water to the first or second floor. They are most common in western India and are also found in the other more arid regions of the Indian subcontinent, extending into Pakistan.
The construction of stepwells is mainly utilitarian, though they may include embellishments of architectural significance, and be temple tanks.
The builders dug deep trenches into the earth for dependable, year-round groundwater. They lined the walls of these trenches with blocks of stone, without mortar, and created stairs leading down to the water.
The majority of surviving stepwells originally served a leisure purpose as well as providing water. This was because the base of the well provided relief from the daytime heat, and this was increased if the well was covered. Stepwells also served as a place for social gatherings and religious ceremonies.
Usually, women were more associated with these wells because they were the ones who collected the water. Also, it was they who prayed and offered gifts to the goddess of the well for her blessings.
This led to the building of some significant ornamental and architectural features, often associated with dwellings and in urban areas. It also ensured their survival as monuments.
Stepwells usually consist of two parts: a vertical shaft from which water is drawn and the surrounding inclined subterranean passageways, chambers and steps which provide access to the well. The galleries and chambers surrounding these wells were often carved profusely with elaborate detail and became cool, quiet retreats during the hot summers.