“A vast sheet of water, covered with lotus flowers, amid which thousands of aquatic birds and animals live, at the shores of which bathers washed, surrounded by jungle greenery.”
Louis Rousselet, 1894.
Visually the stepwells have little presence above ground, a low masonry wall or pavilion. These are excavations that often descend down five to seven stories. An encounter with it generates both a sense of surprise and a feeling of utter displacement, descending into the earth has a particularly powerful impact. Once inside, the mind takes in the intelligent configurations of stairs, landings, galleries, interior balconies and underground chambers; the telescoping views, towering pavilions and the powerful dance of light and shadow is absolutely captivating.
Accustomed to looking up at architecture, rarely do we see structures with sublime engineering, craftsmanship and masonry going downwards. These magnificent structures have been an indispensable part of several Indian civilisations. Built by members of the ruling class, wealthy merchants or landowners, these were designed to store and replenish groundwater. During their glory days there would be peacocks dancing on the walls, noises of laughing children playing in abandon by the steps, and singing women as they went to collect water, creating a beautiful sanctum of happiness away from the scorching heat of the tropical landscapes.