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Asia travel

Book review: The Vanishing Stepwells of India – ancient feats of engineering documented

Victoria Lautman travelled through the wastelands of western India to document ancient water-harvesting systems – brilliant examples of ancient engineering, now largely forgotten

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 March, 2017, 11:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 March, 2017, 11:00am

The Vanishing Stepwells of India

by Victoria Lautman

Merrell Publishers

4/5 stars

The cover of Victoria Lautman’s book The Vanishing Stepwells of India carries a striking shot of the Mahila Bagh ka Jhalra, a stepwell hidden in plain sight in Jodhpur, one of India’s most popular tourist destinations. Locals and tourists alike walk past this every day, mostly without a clue that an engineering marvel lies in their midst.

Stepwells – as the name suggests – are subterranean structures with several steps leading down to them, usually built in the arid, water-scarce regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan in western India. Although there is poor documentation, the first stepwell in India is believed to have been built around AD300.

In different parts of the country, they are variously known as baoli, bawdi, vav, kalyani or pushkarani. Today, they stand as not just proof of sophisticated water-harvesting systems but also brilliant examples of ancient architecture. Over time, their use as community spaces grew, and along with it, detail to carving and ornamentation.

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Many have been demolished or fallen into disrepair – and even among those which have survived, few are in the public eye. So what prompted a journalist from the US to spend more than five years travelling through the wastelands of western India, finding, photographing and documenting more than 80 stepwells for a book?

Lautman provides a clue in her foreword to the book as she describes the visceral experience of descending into the earth, which must have felt the same a thousand years ago. “Sweltering heat turned to an enveloping cool, and the din above ground became hushed. The glaring sunlight dimmed with each step, but where those steps led was not discernible. Views telescoped into indefinite space, constantly shifting, and I could tell neither the depth nor length of the structure.”

Lautman investigates the past and present of the stepwells she features. While readers get a tantalising glimpse of their former glory, there is no whitewashing the dereliction of some of these structures. The stunning images speak for themselves, lushly illustrating each page.

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The descriptions are redolent of Lautman’s often chatty and sometimes dejected voice; an occasional story about how she came across the stepwell, its known history, the architecture as it would have been then and now.

As she writes about some of these unexpected discoveries – the stepwells were once exquisite and bountiful, but now unloved and forgotten even by locals – her passion for these structures is obvious. Without resorting to criticism, Lautman explores the reasons some have been abandoned or forgotten over the centuries.

Although the book is about a complex and relatively unknown archaeological and engineering phenomenon, it’s never dry or academic but easy reading.

Shining a light on these ancient stepwells hopefully will make the authorities take notice – as a first step, clean them up for tourists, and then reconsider their relevance amid the drought conditions now affecting India.