Stepwells or Baoris speak of the rich lineage that prevails in our country but are still very obscure. A few of them are popular throughout India for their architectural form while others have been a thing of past, having their identity buried into the history. These spectacular water edifices have been thriving in the semi-arid regions and only come to recognition when they serve as a tourist interest. Despite being a tourist attraction, people are still unaware of the roles these stepwells played in the past era. Talking about the water source, how can the desert land be left untouched. These structures were not just the water source but carry much more stories which are worth knowing. This article will shed light on some of the famous stepwells of Jaipur. But, before that, let’s dig a little deeper into the history of the stepwells, their architecture and their importance.
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How stepwells emerged as a part of life in the past era
Water is the most necessary element in human life, crucial for survival. The reason all bygone worlds evolved and grew near water bodies. Be it the old cultures of Chinese, Indus, Egyptian, and Mesopotamia or be it prominent cities Lisbon, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and London they all flourished near water banks. The importance of water was not limited to daily necessities; but influenced travel, trade, and transportation by waterways through ships and boats. Not just the industrial revolution we can concur, the water was the major aspect that decided the fate of battles and wars. The battles were put to a halt depending on water availability and the seize continued till months in the possibility of water sources drying up among the enemy camp.
In a state like Rajasthan, there have been instances of scarcity and low rainfall for continuous years. In such a situation the prestige of stored water was highly considerable. The water shortages were either fulfilled by the water bodies or mitigated by building stepwells and wells. Stepwells and wells have sustained to cope with such a situation.
Understand the stepwells and their significance
The well is typically a deep circular pit with a pulley to help fetch water. While a stepwell is an extension of a well having many unique layouts and incredible designs with ornate carvings. Stepwells or Baori is basically a well with a series of cascading terraces. The simple belief of creating a stepwell was to allow people to access water at all levels. These underground water structures are usually between three to eight or nine stories so that the water can be accessed at any level with a flight of stairs. The level of water inside the layout was ever-fluctuating depending on the underground water table. The steps allow one to access this water no matter how low the level goes.
Where wells provide just water, stepwells having been part of our culture for the last 1200 years additionally serve many utility purposes during ancient times. They also served as relaxing shelters for caravans, pilgrims, and other travellers to escape the heat of the day or for overnight stays. Constructing a stepwell was a favoured philanthropic activity of royal families then.
History of the stepwells in Jaipur
Jaipur has a semi-arid landscape where the summers used to be hot with scorching sun and the primary source of water being rainfall. The city did not have any regular source of water like a river and thus it was critical to save the rainwater so that there is no scarcity for the entire year. Jaipur has two old water bodies, Jal Mahal and Talkatora. However, both of these were not used for drinking purposes. People of this region had to rely on stepwells and wells for water before the Piped water supply in Jaipur was made possible. Previously, one could fetch water from one of three Chaupars, wells and stepwells in the city.
Stepwells now in Jaipur
Of the stepwells that proliferated throughout Jaipur, most were abandoned as a result of rapid urbanization and falling water tables. A few historians claim the existence of over 600 wells in the walled city area during the days of the princely state. Many of those structures don’t exist anymore or even if some exist it is not easy to detect them. There are some that survived and are not difficult to witness in a few old areas. However, local communities neglected their upkeep, thus allowing them to silt up, fill with garbage, or crumble into ruin.
Locals share stories of having grown up with Baoris as an integral part of their life; These stepwells were not merely bodies that provided water, rather they were part of routine life. They were the social places where women would catch up and chat. Some were built outside the city limits and functioned as guest houses. When the entry gates of the city close at a particular time, the people arriving beyond this designated time have to halt for the night in Baori. This is evident in Sarai Baori, a stepwell in Jaipur well known among travellers.
A large number of stepwells were also part of temple complexes for bathing and rituals. Some say that structures which were part of temple structures for bathing and rituals were the step ponds and not the step wells. Step ponds are nothing different but a smaller structure and not as deep as a stepwell. One such example that classifies as a step pond in Jaipur is one that exists in the Galta Temple complex.
Architecture of Stepwells in Jaipur
Entrusted by royal, wealthy, or powerful patrons, stepwells in India varied immensely in terms of layout and architecture. Where some states possess stepwells as an element of art others incorporate them as exceptions in distinct ways. Stepwells in Jaipur were not much ornate but more utilitarian in design. Jaipur stepwells are stunning examples of both Hindu and Islamic architecture. A few of the stepwells have magnificent gates carved in vernacular architectural fashion. And some have design elements similar to the old entry gates in Jaipur. Whereas most Baoris tend to be rectangular, stepwells like Chand Baori and Panna Meena Kund are square in shape.
Importance of the stepwells in today’s time
Today, stepwells, whether relinquished or in use, can be found spread across Jaipur. In today’s scenario of a piped water system, it’s really very hard to relate to the struggle of centuries ago. While the stepwells have ceased to provide utility to the people for which they were constructed, many Baoris have become immensely popular among travellers and tourists for their architecture and the legacy they carry. To name a few are Panna Meena Kund, Chand Baori, and Nahargarh Baori.
Some baoris serve as the meeting spots and cultural events. Meetings, traditional events and musical programs are held in these places to attract many new people to explore the charm of these forgotten places.
Another purpose these baoris serve is for raising awareness among people about saving water by organising water Conservation campaigns. The Baoris remain excellent places to convene meetings on water scarcity issues surfacing every now and then. Residents and local bodies collaborate to clean a Baori in Jaipur. Attention is fundamental for the conservancy of these water bodies to utilize them to help us tackle water scarcity.
Famous stepwells in Jaipur
Over the last few years, Stepwells have been attracting a vast number of tourists to Rajasthan. Even in Jaipur, there are many Stepwells or Baoris in and around the city. Of them, Chand Baori in Abhaneri is one of the largest and most popular stepwells in India; on the other hand, Panna Meena Kund in Jaipur is one of the top Instagrammable places in Jaipur. These step-wells are a substantial piece of the heritage of Jaipur.
Jaipur’s Nahargarh fort has two step wells, one is inside the fort and the other one the biggest and most impressive on the outside of the fort, but within its ramparts. This stepwell has appeared in the movie Rang De Basanti. These stepwells are the major tourist attractions of the fort with the steps almost like waves rolling down the hillside. This ancient stepwell not only was a source of water storage but the greatest public monument having amazingly intricate coups of architecture, engineering, and art.
Nahargarh Stepwell is a creation of 17th century under the rule of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II. It was built as part of a water preserving system to provide water to the Nahargarh fort, especially for use during a long siege as it can store a huge amount of water.
Both these stepwells are non-symmetrical in shape and follow the natural terrain of the hill. They’re part of a huge catchment system that has a network of small canals in the surrounding hills to collect rainwater and feed it into the step well. The steps has such an exquisite style of construction that they collect the water from the hillside of the Nahargarh Fort. Its striking stone structure with mathematically accurate steps winding deep into the ground is sure to leave you scatterbrained.
A heritage water walk is conducted in Nahargarh Fort namely Nahargarh Water Walk. This allows one to understand the stepwell and its entire system of collection, distribution, storage and consumption of water in the old days. It is worth embarking on this heritage water walk.
Nahargarh stepwell is also there in the scenes of famous Bollywood movies Rang De Basanti and Shuddh Desi Romance. It gained huge popularity after the song ‘Masti ki pathshala’ in the movie ‘Rang de Basanti’.
Chand Baori – Abhaneri Stepwell
This time-honored stepwell, Chand Baori is in Abhaneri, a small village in the Dausa district of Rajasthan located 95 km away from Jaipur on the Jaipur-Agra Expressway. Chand Baori being the ancientest stepwell in India gives tourists a bewitching experience. The architecture, figures, shrines, and tales of the place will definitely transport you to a time hundreds of years ago when the royals ruled the state.
The stepwell was built under the rule of Raja Chanda in the 9th century and named after him. It was built in the parched land of Abhaneri to deal with the water scarcity. The entrance of the stepwell and its upper stories were accomplished in the 18th century under the Mughal era. It was originally a creation for royal members to relax near the Baori.
You will experience the best architectural beauty from ancient times at this famous tourist spot in Jaipur. The imposing square shaped Baori boasts over 3,500 narrow steps with a 13-floor structure in perfect triangular symmetry. It is around 64 feet deep, making it the largest and deepest stepwell in India! The stairs, designed in a maze-like manner, encircle the stepwell from three sides while the fourth side boasts of a pavilion consisting of carved Jharokahs, sculptures, galleries and corridors. The steps have such a mysterious and interesting design that one has to use different flight of stairs to climb up and down rather than using the same.
There are board games carvings on the floor which indicates that this was a community space for locals to socialize. It was also a favourable hangout in summers to enjoy the natural cooling effect of a stored body of water. The air here remains 5-6 degrees cooler at the bottom of the well.
There is a famous temple, Harshat Mata Mandir located opposite the Chand Baori with a dome roof. Locals believe that the step-well was initially part of the temple as a temple-kund, where devotees would wash their hands and feet before entering the temple.
Every year a two-day fest is held here in September in Abhaneri, against the backdrop of Chand Baori, to promote rural tourism. It features cultural performances, puppet shows, camel cart rides, and a fairground.
Chand Baori is popular as the most photogenic stepwells in the world. It has an appearance in a number of films including Hollywood movies such as The Fall, Dark Knight Rises, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel as well as Bollywood movies like Bhool Bhulaiyaa and Paheli.
Panna Meena Ka Kund
Panna Meena Ka Kund is a stepwell located in the northwest part of Amer near the Anokhi Museum. It’s a square-design step well with eight levels of diamond-shaped, crisscrossing steps leading down to a deep, green pool of water. The place having a resemblance with the pastel-shaded plaster and being in the vicinity of Jaipur is popular for its alluring and photogenic backdrop.
It is a construction of 16th century during Maharaja Jai Singh’s rule. Panna Meena Ka Kund was an inventive technique for preserving rainwater from the seasonal monsoons. This facilitated the residents of Amer to access water during the dry season. Also, the Kund served as a central gathering place for community people.
The design of Panna Meena Ka Kund is remarkable. The architectural brilliance is apparent in its symmetrical structure of stairs in a criss-cross manner, the concave gates and the octagonal belvederes. Although the stepwells feature the same arrays of pyramidic steps and share a very similar archaeological design as Chand Baori, it is a little different from many of the other popular and grandiose stepwells in Rajasthan.
Panna Meena ka Kund is highly popular as the most instagrammable place in Jaipur. The elegance of the layout entices many tourists keen on taking a shot with the stepwell backdrop. The descending and ascending winding zig-zags lure every photographer. This place is also a hot pre-wedding shoot destination in Jaipur.
To conclude, these exquisitely appealing colossal step-wells are sure to lure you if you are a history buff. These stepwells are clear evidence that we were ecologically more responsible in past times and how we need to learn from them. Well, a lot has been done to preserve the heritage and culture of the stepwells, there is still a lot to be done.