1,000-Year-Old Stepwell Design Being Revived in India to Help Droughts

Toorji Ka Jhalra Bavdi, world famous stepwell in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India.

India's ancient stepwells are now seen as supplementing the existing modern irrigation systems. (Image: Dmitry Rukhlenko via Dreamstime)

There is no denying the ancient Indian civilizations achieved stupendous success in the realms of architecture and sculpture, and the ruins of such civilizations leave the viewers amazed. Some of these old-era innovations and mechanisms can be utilized even now to benefit the human race. While stepwells used in ancient Indian civilizations are mostly found as ruins from a distant past, they are still useful. In some such developments that are making headlines, these ancient structures are being revised to resolve drought issues in remote villages of the country. They will be supplementing the existing modern irrigation systems.

Stepwells were used extensively in ancient India and their origin can be traced back to the days of the Indus Valley Civilization. They turned into engineering marvels during the 12th-15th century. The ancient Indian villages had so many stone-lined trenches used for capturing and storing rainwater and also for filling the underground aquifers. The Chand Bawri in Rajasthan is deemed a marvel of ancient Indian architecture. It is a World Heritage Site and the design is like the opposite of a step pyramid, with 3,200 steps of symmetrical staircases. The Chand Bawri is also the deepest and biggest of these structures in India, extending up to 100 feet into the ground. It was made by Raja Chanda, a Rajput ruler in the 8th-9th century.

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Chand Bawri, one of the deepest stepwells in India.
The Chand Bawri is also the deepest and biggest stepwell in India. (Image: Dmitrii Melnikov via Dreamstime)

The nice thing about these ancient stepwells is that they function well if the restoration is done properly. As India grapples with its water crisis, experts are thinking of restoring many of these structures as a viable solution. The Vanishing Stepwells of India’s author Victoria Lautman says: “It’s ironic that stepwells have been ignored, considering how wonderfully efficient they were at providing water for nearly 1,500 years. Now, thanks to the restoration efforts, stepwells will come full circle.”

Over 3,000 stepwells can be renovated and used again

The fact is that over 3,000 stepwells, called bwaris, have been neglected and left to turn into ruins in many places. A noted heritage advocate and writer, Vikramjit Singh Rooprai, says: “When they began clearing what they thought was a garbage dump, they found the structure of a stepwell beneath the garbage. It was one of the deeper stepwells of Delhi. After restoration, the Purana Qila Baoli has so much water that the entire lawns of the [Old Fort in Delhi] are being irrigated by it.” In Delhi alone, 15 wells have been repaired and some others are under renovation. 

In Jodhpur, located on the threshold of the Thar Desert, there sits the Toorji stepwell. It is capable of holding 6.2 million gallons of water. It was restored and the results are impressive. The Gram Bharati Samiti, a Jaipur-based non-profit, has so far restored seven such ancient structures. As a result, 25,000 people are getting water in rural regions. One of these is the Baoli in Shivpura village. A government primary school teacher, Rajkumar Sharma, said the restoration of the stepwell has proved to be immensely helpful for the people. The villagers no longer need to slog it out to fetch water from remote places any time of the year. 

Indian women carrying jars to fill with water walk down into a stepwell.
The villagers no longer need to slog it out to fetch water from remote places. (Image: Muslianshah Masrie via Dreamstime)

There are many advantages to using these stepwells. They serve as excellent ancient architecture specimens, attracting tourists. They can also be used as swimming holes. Owing to the backward pyramid design, water can be accessed even on severe summer days. 

Experts feel restoration of stepwells makes complete sense in India where groundwater level depletion in cities has become a serious problem. The groundwater level in the country reduced by over 60 percent between the years 2007 and 2017. This is also affecting crop production adversely. A large part of the annual rainfall is wasted owing to pollution. In such a situation, making use of the country’s historic water management systems is desirable. Stepwells can be utilized to collect and store a huge amount of water in the monsoon months and later, that water can be used for irrigation easily. 

The overlooked stepwells have been ravaged by time and lack of care for centuries and reviving them can be costly and time-intensive, say the experts. However, the results are worth the time and money spent. The restored stepwells can be used to resolve local water scarcity problems.

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