India's forgotten architecture

Jo Livesey
Thursday 10 Apr 2008

Photographic exhibition brings 1,000 year old structures back to life

Subterranean Architecture, Stepwells in Western India is a photographic touring exhibition by Richard Cox, due to open in September 2008 at Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre, Wales, UK. Richard Cox has been a regular visitor to Western India working as an artist, his last three visits were to document Stepwells, an unusual aspect of traditional architecture little known outside of the Indian Sub Continent. Stepwells were constructed over the last 12 centuries in India to harvest and provide access to water in the arid and desert regions of Rajasthan and Gujarat. In addition to providing water for drinking, irrigation, washing and bathing Stepwells, provided other important functions and facilities such as providing cool areas for resting travellers and a place to socialise and worship their Gods.

As the name suggests water was approached by descending steps to the water level. The combination of groundwater and rainwater would fill the wells during the Monsoon and as the dry season progressed the water level dropped. Wells could be as deep as 9 levels from ground level, as it the case with Neemrani Ki Baori, but most Stepwells were four or five stories deep with sheltered landings at each level. The Hindi structures built through royal patronage are often more elaborate, with sculptures of deities, animals, and other design devices. Patan Queens Well 1100 AD, in Gujarat has over 500 sculptures of Gods and is a very fine example of the Solanki period. Its state of preservation is exceptional because it was buried for 1000 years following a river overflow in 1126. In 1980 The National Archaeological Survey of India restored it to its current state.

The wells fell into disuse in the 19th century being replaced by water pumps. The changing level of groundwater and the unreliable nature of the Monsoon were also factors that led to the wells’ demise and, 150years on, the majority are now dry. Although a great many of these wells are neglected and beyond repair, the decision by the Government to restore some important sites is an important recognition that Stepwells are significant examples of traditional India architecture.

Richard Cox

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