By Feza Tabassum Azmi October 13, 2021 Huge architectural gems built deep in the Earth as well as in the Upside fortresses are scattered all over India - and restoring them may be a solution to aider the parched communities of the country.A
A deliciously sculpted labyrinth of 3,500 steps, arranged in perfect symmetry, descends with geometric precision to reach a well. Crisscrossing steps encircle the water on three sides, while the fourth side is adorned with a pavilion with embellished galleries and balconies. Built by Rajput ruler Raja Chanda during the 8th -9th century, Chand Bawri in Abhaneri, Rajasthan, is India 's largest and deepest stepwell. Stretching 13 stories, or 30m, into the ground, it is a captivating example of inverted architecture.
Plunging into the earth, step wells like Chand Bawri were built in drought-prone areas of India to provide year-round water, ensuring communities have access to vital water storage and irrigation systems.
CenturiesHowever, natural degradation and neglect have pushed these structures into oblivion. Dating back over 1000 years, the step wells (baoli, bawri or vav) fall into obscurity. Their value is largely unnoticed by town planners while modern running water systems have eclipsed their importance. Many step wells are in ruins or have collapsed. Some have completely disappeared.
But in recent years many of these ancient buildings are being restored to help solve India's acute water problem. lem. The country is currently experiencing the worst water crisis in its history, according to a recent government report . It is hoped that the old technology of degree wells could offer a solution.
According to the OrganizationUnited Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization ( UNESCO ), India is the world's largest underground water extractor. The groundwater level in India is estimated to have dropped by 61% between 2007 and 2017. The depletion of this vital resource threatens not only access to drinking water, but also food security by causing a a reduction in food crops up to 68% in severely affected regions.
There are thousands of step wells across India, but like systems from Modern water systems have been installed, many have been neglected (Credit: Victoria Lautman)
India receives about 400 million hectares of meters of rain per year, but close to 70% of surface water is unfit for human consumption due to pollution. India is classified 120th out of 122 countries in the index of water quality. It is estimated that 200,000 people die each year due to insufficient water.
Government emphasizes the need to use India 's historical water management systems to find solutions to these problems. States can take advantage of new technologies to modify traditional water supply systems to suit local needs. In a country where 600 million people - about half of the population - faced with severe water shortages on a daily basis, traditional water harvesting solutions are bearers of hope. "With the water table declining rapidly in India, step wells can help fill ground aquifers and harvest runoff. In three months during the rainy season, millions of liters of water can be collected, "says Rat ish Nanda, conservation architect and project manager at the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, an organization leading restoration efforts.
In 2018, the government of Rajasthan, one of the poorest regions in water in the world , has drawn up a complete framework, with technical assistance from the Banqworld , for the restoration of step wells, including Chand Bawri.
"The government of Rajasthan, through its flagship program Mukhyamantri Jal Swavalamban Abhiyan, has taken initiatives to make water self-sufficient villages by reviving non-functioning rainwater harvesting structures, "says Mohit Dhingra, who teaches at Jindal School of Art and Architecture in Sonepat, India, and is associated with conservation projects in India.
"India has a complete eco-water system, but most of the traditional water bodies are gone. Revive the step wells will allow people to reclaim their traditional resources and community living spaces. Through the retention capacity of step wells like Chand Bawri, a great burden of water scarcity can be alleviated, "he said.
Bansi Devi, who raises cattle for a living in Rajasthan, has already noticed a change. "NoWe had to walk for hours to fetch water, "she said. " Now I can use the water from the baoli in my village for our household use and also to feed and wash the cattle. "
In the city of Jodhpur, Toorji's Stepped Well was restored after a team spent months pumping out the water deer. Decades of poisonous water had transformed the red sandstone in white , with half an inch thick crust covering a large part of the surface Sandblasting was carried out to clean the thick white crust from deposits on the wall, at a cost of approximately 1.5 million Indian rupees (£ 14,784). About 28 million liters (6.2 million gallons) of water per day are supplied to the city by other stepped wells recentlycleaned for irrigation and domestic use.
Gram Bharati Samiti (Society for Rural Development), a non-profit organization in Jaipur district in Rajasthan, carried out restoration work on seven stairwells in the villages of Rajasthan, providing about 25,000 people with a more reliable source of water.
"We have restored seven stairwells where the water underground has been recharged and the storage capacity has increased ", explains Kusum Jain, secretary of Gram Bharati Samiti. " Most step wells can provide enough water for the daily needs of the villagers. He saw a unique arrival of volunteers from different communities, exemplifying the religious harmony of India. "
Rajkumar Sharma, a headmaster of the public primary school, in Shivpura, Rajasthan, is delighted to see the revival. "The Baolis are an integral part of our cultural life," he says. "The step well of our village was the only source of water. Over time, it had dried up and turned into a garbage heap. We now have access to safe drinking water for consumption, home use and for religious ceremonies. The baoli has become the grandeur of our village. "
The proof of the step wells goes back to Indus Valley Civilization between 2500-1700 BC Initially built as raw trenches, they slowly evolved into wonders engineering between the 11th and 15th centuries. In 2016, Stepwell Atlas , mapped the coordinates of about 3,000 existing stepwells in India. Delhi, the capital, alone has a 32 walking wells .
Stairwells usually have cascading galleries and steps leading to a central water basin (Credit: Kim Petersen / Alamy)
Stairwells are multi-storey underground structures with significant ornamental and architectural elements. They typically have two parts : a water well vertical and cascading galleries, bedrooms and an orchestrated flight of steps. "Stairwells are a repository of historical tales from India, used for social gatherings and religious ceremonies," explains the 'historian Rana Safvi. "They served as cool retreats for travelers as the temperature at the bottom was often five to six degrees cooler. Stepwells helped create bonhomie in the common areas besides ovennir water. They constitute an ingenious system for collecting rainwater and serve as water reservoirs. The renaissance of stepped wells could be an important step in our struggle to overcome water scarcity. "
Chicago-based author Victoria Lautman describes them as " doors to the underworld "in her book, The vanishing stepwells of India. " Stepwells are unique in that we usually look at architecture upwards, not downwards, "she says. " When one looks around the parade of steps, tall columns emerge, creating changing views thanks to a powerful play of light and a shadow as beautiful as it is mysterious.
"The notoriety of the stairwells of India has grown exponentially recently. It is ironic that they have been ignored, considering the marvelous effectiveness of stepped wells in providing water for nearly 1500 years. to restaurant effortsration, the stepwells will come full circle. "
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Stepwells were built along natural slopes to collect runoff and acted as rainwater catchment areas, often connected to ponds so that they could channel rai neau. Building these underground fortresses with pre-industrial tools and techniques must have been an enormous task, explains Lautman.
"Built of masonry, rubble or brick, the step cages involved the careful placement of 'un long staircase and on one side of the ledges around a trench which allowed access to water ", she adds. " During the rainy seasons, the trench would turn into a huge water cistern, filling to capacity. Their compact design helped reduce evaporation. "
Stepped wells used for agriculture had drainage systems that carried water into the fields. The Moosi Rani Sagar relaunch project at Rajasthan is such a multi-level plan involving wells, dams and canals from the top of Aravalli hill to the stairwell at the foot of the hills. Restoration work started in 2020 and required a thorough cleaning and de-silting, removal of debris and invasive weeds, and firming of municipal structures.the canal has turned into a fresh waterway, with thriving fish and turtles.
Stairwells aren't just useful for water storage, but are an important focal point of communities and their heritage (Credit: Vishal Bhatnagar /)
Researchers explored the application of fractal geometry in the step wells, which had to both an aesthetic and a functional purpose. This provided stability, supporting the walls against water pressure, thanks to which many stepped wells have survived and have the potential to be restored.
In 2017, the the government has identified 15 step wells at Delhi for catering. In 2019, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture partnered with the German Embassy in India to restore a step well in the Humayun Tomb complex in Delhi. "It meant reclassifying the land and rebuilding the walls," says Nanda. "The efforts have recharged the aquifers with an investment of 4.15 million Indian rupees (£ 40,500 / $ 54,990). This watershed will help conserve 150,000 liters (32,995 gallons) of water of rain. "
The 14th century Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi was restored earlier. Parts of the baoli had collapsed, threatening families living nearby, who were relocated to safer places. "There is a need to reconstruct the collapsed part with traditional materials, to remove 700 years of accumulated debris, to clean and de-sand deep 80 feet below the ground and to remove the layer of epoxy involving 8 000 man-days of workwith the help of volunteers. The efforts have helped recharge the underground aquifers, "says Nanda.
" Dargah baoli is special because people consider it sacred and believe the water has medicinal properties. They carry water for drinking and healing. Locals are excited to see fresh water in the baoli, "says Hafeez.
Unfortunately, there is no universal way to restore a baoli. Restoration has to be done. using traditional materials with skilled craftsmen, architects and structural engineers, according to Nanda.
"Undertaking restoration is not easy. This is a complex project involving a multidisciplinary team, ”explains Nanda. “It requires monitoring the surrounding structures to prevent damage. A baoli needs a suitable watershed through which water can reach underground aquifers. "
MostArt restoration works have been achieved through partnerships between government and non-governmental organizations, local volunteers and donors. "Restoration projects are a lesson in how local communities can be brought closer to their heritage by providing them with a sense of ownership and responsibility, " says Safvi.
But Step wells are not only a source of water, they are also part of the architectural history of India. These are heritage sites, surrounded by native trees and foliage, which must be preserved. They can serve as vibrant social centers and can attract tourists. One approach to fund their maintenance has been to use the patrimonial funds which can be constituted by generation of municipal income and donations for restorationion and maintenance.
"Restoring step wells may not completely solve the country's water problem, but can certainly provide local solutions to combat against water scarcity "says Nanda.
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