In-depth: Victoria Lautman on The Vanishing Stepwells of India
On December 29 last year, the Indian postal service released a new series of stamps on the theme of ancient stepwells in the country, mainly in the north — in Delhi, Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Lucknow, among other cities. The release wasn’t related to the extensive research on the subject conducted by Chicago-based journalist Victoria Lautman, though it presented reason for celebration.
“The attention is long overdue,” admits Victoria, an acknowledged authority in the field. “It’s incredibly heartening to see this growing awareness, and the stamps are a marvellous way to stimulate interest. They were a complete surprise to me, and I plan to buy tons of them,” she said in an email exchange, days before a series of talks that she’s set to host, based on her visually delightful coffee-table book, The Vanishing Stepwells of India.
The driving aspect of her efforts is to generate interest, and possibly facilitate restoration work at the sites. Here's the complete interview over an email exchange:
Is some long-overdue attention finally being bestowed upon the stepwells of India - what with the issue of a new set of postage stamps? How heartening is it to see your efforts - perhaps indirectly - translate into such releases?
Yes, indeed, the attention is long overdue but certainly seems to be ramping up lately. It’s incredibly heartening to see this growing awareness, and those stamps are a marvelous way to stimulate interest. They were a complete surprise to me and I plan to buy tons of them.
The foreword of the book mentions that while stepwells were built primarily in northern, western and central India, they also existed in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka. Could you tell us a little more about the ones in the south, for the benefit of our readers?
Divay Gupta, the Principle Director of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), wrote the informative introduction to my book, and referenced the existence of stepwells in those states.
I’ve visited a handful in Telangana, which have a distinctive style, albeit in the same state of decay as in other places. As for Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and, while we’re at it, Tamil Nadu, I’ve seen some breathtaking temple tanks, but as yet have not gotten to experience actual stepwells. In areas where water is more plentiful, there was clearly less need for accessing a tricky water table.
The case of the stepwells is quite unique - in that they're not necessarily vanishing in a physical sense, as many of them are intact or well-preserved in structure. Rather, they're disappearing from the people's consciousness. How would you explain that fine line of a difference, for the sake of a fading heritage, and restoring some of its lost glory?
That’s an interesting way to put it, but stepwells are beyond a doubt also vanishing physically. Yes, there are a number that have been preserved or restored, but it’s a relative few out the hundreds I’ve seen. Even some of the most significant, ancient, or just beautiful stepwells have drastically degenerated, whether “protected” or not. Vegetation has taken over, others are filled with garbage, bats, bees and the occasional snake, while many are simply caving in from age or natural disasters. As a group, they’re an endangered species.
As for why they’ve disappeared from consciousness, that’s an important and complex question. Stepwells were arguably the most vital, multi-functional structures in their communities, but they became untethered from their original purpose of providing water all year long when progress took over, in the form of village taps, cisterns, and plumbing.
It was obviously much easier to use a pump than go traipsing down flights of steps with water jugs on your head. As they lost their significance and connection to their communities, maintenance was no longer a priority. And the glory of stepwells isn’t just in their former usefulness, but also in their unique history and beauty, which to be honest is of no practical use to an impoverished community. If tour buses started pulling up regularly, that could turn things around.
The idea of being "hidden in plain sight", as with the Mahila Bagh ka Jhalra in Jodhpur, seems to be the general story here. Why do people, and tourists especially, tend to overlook these structures? Is it given the lack of a royal aura around them? Or is it because of their perceived utilitarian nature, even in the case of ones with elaborate ornate designs?
People – whether locals or tourists – will only go look at something if they’re told it’s important in some way. That goes for pretty much everything, like a restraint or film: if a friend says you have to see eat, you will, even if you’ve never heard of it. It’s the same with stepwells, since they rarely appear on itineraries, in guidebooks, in architecture schools, or anywhere at all.
How would anyone know, for instance, that one of the most magnificent of all stepwells, Chand Baori, is just off the Jaipur/Agra highway unless someone tells them? Millions of tourists whiz by each year, and yet the percentage of those stopping is miniscule! It’s not the tourists’ fault but the responsibility of tour operators, guides, the government, universities, it’s everyone’s responsibility to get the word out.
I’ve had to show local guides where spectacular stepwells can be seen in Delhi, there’s one right at the Red Fort. And I’ve met locals who grew up within walking distance of a stepwell they had no idea existed. It drives me insane.
But also, from a physical standpoint, many stepwells have such little above-ground presence they are literally hiding, even when you try to locate them. They're underground, sometimes marked only by a pillar, low wall or, in some cases, nothing at all. So the idea of discovering one by accident is non-existent.
In a general sense, how would you explain why it took so long for a structure like the 11th century Rani ki Vav to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in 2014? How many more such sites do you believe exist in India, which still need to be discovered, or are waiting to gain some manner of recognition?
I was ecstatic when Rani ki Vav finally made it to World Heritage status, it had been shortlisted for over a decade. But even if there’s no question about its international importance, achieving UNESCO’s endorsement is really tough, involving a very complicated application that makes contenders jump through all kinds of hoops. So it can be red tape – not historical importance – that can get in the way.
The number of potential UNESCO sites in India, stepwells or otherwise, is not possible for me to estimate. There are 35 World Heritage locations in India, many of which are natural, rather than built, environments. England is much dinkier but has 31 sites, and I think there can be many more entrants for India. But again, it doesn’t just depend on age, beauty, or significance, there are many other considerations.
When Ahmedabad became India’s first World Heritage city last year, that was a tremendous honor and achievement, but other cities have tried for that too. And don’t forget that in 2013, six forts in Rajasthan were granted “group” UNESCO status, which may lead the way for other categories. In fact, a similar group of stepwells was proposed some years ago, but thus far it hasn’t gotten anywhere.
There’s an enormous number of striking, unique, historical, and seriously overlooked places in India that few tourists are aware of. I’m constantly lecturing about and rewriting itineraries to include a drive from Khajuraho to Orchha, Datia, and Gwalior, with a side-trip to see Bateshwar, Padawali, and Mitawali (which should definitely be proposed as a UNESCO site). I’m always sending folks to Vrinadavan on their way to and from Agra. And how come so few people know about the Shekhawati? It's one of my favorite places in India.
What makes this subject compelling today - is it the relevance to present-day water management concerns, combined with the growing awareness about sustainable architecture? What lessons do you find people taking away from your lectures?
India’s water crisis makes the subject compelling, but for me personally (and for most of the audiences I talk to) it’s the history and beauty of stepwells themselves that’s most captivating. Here’s an entire category of unparalleled architecture few of us have ever heard of, how is that even possible? Water harvesting is a critical topic, and stepwells were extremely efficient, but the sheer visual magnificence and individuality of each structure is what stays in everyone’s mind.
How would you describe the significance of stepwells in Indian history? How would you like their importance to be ascribed in future textbooks, academic journals and school curriculum?
That’s a great question. On the most basic level, if stepwells hadn’t existed in India’s past, large cities and small villages alike simply would not have survived. They were life-giving, sophisticated subterranean marvels that allowed continual access to dramatically-fluctuating water tables. Even if providing water hadn’t been a part of their purpose, stepwells would still be outstanding examples of architecture.
As for other functions, stepwells were active temples, pilgrimage sites, and shrines; they were crucial oases along remote trade routes; they were cooling stations in scorching heat; they were social gathering places for their communities. In other words, they were significant historically, architecturally, artistically, and socially, all at the same time.
All of these aspects, individually or as a whole, warrant in-depth examination everywhere. Textbooks, journals, curricula, sure, but why stop there? Documentaries, guidebooks, tours – every type of attention and study granted to all the other incomparable monuments of India.
Tell us the story of the Chand Baori, near Jaipur - where parts of it are described to be of a Hindu era, and other parts are Muslim. How were these demarcations observed over history? Was there ever such a thing as the dividing of waters, based on religion?
Seeing both Hindu and Islamic styles of architecture merged in a single structure is extraordinary. Chand is a typical “kund” form, defined by a steep geometric funnel surrounded by dazzling pyramidal steps, and it is considered one of the deepest and oldest stepwells in India. The original construction is thought to date from the 9th century, and at the lower levels (which number thirteen), a series of lovely little shrines and carved deities are clearly visible. The engineering, too, is typically Hindu, with low, sturdy pavilions supporting flat roofs.
But there is a series of open, daintier rooms that seem to cascade from the upper level and interrupt the older structure. The fluted columns and cusped arches are Islamic flourishes, unknown in India until centuries later. The combination of the two styles is stunning and, to me, poetic, linking two faiths and two styles across hundreds of years.
What prevents some of these ancient stepwells from being restored, and being brought back into active service today? Is there any way of actually making some of them work, and regain their sense of purpose and functionality?
Yes, stepwells can be brought back to life, even if not fully restored. Silt and trash clogging the well-shaft of derelict stepwells can – and have been – mucked out and reconnected with the water table, even the drastically depleted ones. But it’s not impossible, and some villages have taken this matter into their own hands, along with the government and NGOs.
But it’s important to consider that, in a country with thousands of ancient sites requiring conservation, there will never be enough funding to address even a fraction. Other history-rich countries – Italy, Mexico, Turkey are just a few – face the same impossible prioritizing. How to choose? Who should do the choosing? If a monument is remote and hard to maintain, should it be preserved, versus something that’s accessible? I can’t answer these questions, but I know that the future of stepwells is only assured if a community commits to the upkeep. That’s a far more daunting task than funding.
Give us your estimation of how strenuous and painstaking you imagine the process was, all those years back, of people actually hewing through rock with handheld tools? How much of this aspect adds to the beauty of these structures, for visitors to appreciate today?
I don’t think anyone today can even begin to imagine the time and human cost of constructing any stepwell in the preindustrial age, whether the smallest, or giants like Rani and Neemrana. The engineering seems miraculous, since subterranean structures are subject to far greater stresses than those above ground.
These could take decades to build, no doubt dozens of people died in the process, and were quickly replaced by others. Life was cheap. It wasn’t just the digging of dirt and hewing of rock: in the case of Rani ki Vav, every stone was hauled from over a hundred kilometers away! It’s all just incomprehensible, and even if a stepwell is simple and utilitarian, there is no such thing as an unimpressive stepwell when you consider the labor that went into it.
An itinerary of Victoria Lautman's upcoming lectures:
Sunday, Jan 21, 6 pm In-conversation with Divay Gupta, principal director INTACH Architectural Heritage, CMYK, New Delhi
Monday, Jan 22, 7 pm Talk and presentation, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi
Friday, Jan 26, 3.45-4.45 pm Panel discussion, Durbar Hall, Jaipur Literature Festival, Jaipur
Saturday, Jan 27, 4-6 pm In-conversation with travel writer, Dharmendra Kanwar, Anantaya Decor, Jaipur
Monday, Feb 5, 4.30 pm Talk and presentation, auditorium, INTACH Heritage Academy, New Delhi
Wednesday, Feb 7, 11 am Lecture and presentation, auditorium, School of Architecture, Delhi Technical Campus, Greater Noida
Thursday, Feb 8, 3.30 pm Lecture and presentation, The American Centre, New Delhi