Infatuation comes in all shapes and sizes; Rohan Kale found it in a stepwell. “It was love at first sight, which slowly became an obsession as I discovered more as I travelled – discovering their architecture, their structures and myriad shapes, and their astonishing history and role in water conservation,” says Kale, 38, who works in human resources in the pharmaceutical industry and discovered his first well in the Indian state of Gujarat. Stepwells (also called baori s or vav s) are deep wells constructed in stone over catchment areas and underground aquifers, accessed by flights of stairs that in some cases descend as deep as 20 metres (66 feet). They are sturdy structures built to withstand earthquakes. They have existed in India since Harappan times (2500BC – 1700BC) and were mentioned in Ashokan inscriptions (made in the second century BC). “The concept was to build an architectural structure around a naturally occurring water source, accessed by a flight of stairs and landings so that water could be [drawn] in any season, with fluctuating [water] levels,” says Rahul Chemburkar, an architect who specialises in heritage conservation for the company Vaastu Vidhaan. Many were built with royal patronage, exquisite architecture adorned with carvings and idols. Others include a maze of galleries and chambers, where people could rest. Stepwells were built along trade and pilgrimage routes and near highways, where travellers and armies would seek respite from the daytime heat, and hydrate, with their animals. “India’s stepwells are unique and an ancient system that helped in storing and using water effectively, especially in arid areas of low rainfall like Gujarat and Rajasthan,” says historian Rana Safvi. Village in Malaysian mangrove hides an industrial past, and present “They also became places of social, cultural and religious significance. Many stepwells had rooms around them which served as serais , or inns, or community centres. People would meet on the stairs, or come to look after strangers in the serais . With the coming of taps and pumps, this meet-and-greet culture and fostering of community spirit, where people from different faiths and classes would meet, has been lost.” Chemburkar calls them “engineering feats of those times. They were naturally air-conditioned and great spaces for people to congregate or rest in the harsh summers,” adding that although they are mostly associated with Rajasthan and Gujarat, most states in India had stepwells. They slowly became redundant with the advent of British colonial rule (from 1858) and many stepwells have since been lost to development and the widening of roads. Others have fallen into disuse and become garbage pits. In a British gazetteer published in 1881, Kale found mention of around 15,000 stepwells in just five districts of Maharashtra state, many of them dating from the Yadava (1187 – 1317) or Chalukya (between the 6th and 12th centuries) dynasties. He extrapolated those numbers to the whole state, judging there must once have been at least 50,000 stepwells in Maharashtra. And thus began his quest to map those that remained in the state’s 44,000 villages and along its highways. “My experience in human resources had taught me the value of data and mapping,” Kale says. “Unless a stepwell is located and mapped, there can be no further action, like conservation. This is what the Maharashtra Stepwell Campaign is about. It’s a community project that largely depends upon the cooperation of local villagers. I have also taken help from historians, archaeologists, Indologists, architects and students, as well as people from government bodies and NGOs. “It’s all teamwork, and interdisciplinary, not led by any one person. Most of our work has to be done in the dry season, when water levels are lowest. During the monsoon season we can only network and make plans.” Between October 2020 and March 2021 Kale found more than 1,650 stepwells and other man-made water storage structures, such as pushkarni s (tanks). Two hundred or so were still used for their intended purpose. He found stepwells in the shapes of the letters Z, L, T, U and N, and those that can be entered from one side only, others with access from all sides. Many are utilitarian but some are ornate, with carvings and idols. Once the mapping of an area is complete, Kale explains, the next step is documentation. Historians and Indologists help detail each stepwell: its structure, number of steps, type of entrance and so on. Then each well has to be photographed, including from above, with drones. Architectural drawings are made, and then comes preservation. “The first step … is cleaning, as something like tree roots can destroy a stepwell or cause it to deteriorate,” Kale says. “Villagers have been enlisted to clean the stepwells in their areas.” Some of these old structures have been put back to their original use. “In the Pune area, NGOs have revived [and help maintain] 12 stepwells, and I am sure more and more people will come forward to restore and revive these important markers,” Kale says. “My main aim is to bring these historical milestones out of anonymity – from misery to glory – and revive them so that they are preserved for posterity,” he adds. Kale has worked with the Maharashtra tourism department to position stepwells as an attraction. The department’s website now includes a section on stepwells in the state. March 1 this year marked Maha Shivratri, an annual Hindu festival in honour of the god Shiva, and on that date, 160 stepwells across the state were illuminated with diya s, or small earthen lamps. “Many of these stepwells have been found near Shiva temples, and therefore we chose this day,” Kale says.