Victoria Lautman, a journalist and author based in Chicago, spoke to us about her wonderfully well-researched book, The Vanishing Stepwells of India,which chronicles the beauty and history of these architectural marvels through unedited pictures accompanied by simple text. This piece is excerpted from our interaction with her when the book was hot off the press, in 2017. Like the baolis, the book too remains an evergreen treasure.
Q. How many times have you been to India now?
My first visit was over thirty years ago, and I finally stopped counting after a dozen visits. So it’s over twelve, but under twenty, I’m sure.
Q. When did you come across your first stepwell and what finally compelled you to write a book about them?
I encountered a stepwell on that first trip, it was the Rudabai Vav outside Ahmedabad. But I had no intention of writing a book even after becoming obsessed over six years ago. In fact, I actively did not want to write a book, since I knew how difficult it would be. But in the end, my intense desire to raise awareness about these marvels outweighed my reluctance. And now, I’m glad it did.
Q: How can we preserve this slice of our past?
I have a somewhat radical and perhaps unpopular idea about that. There must still be thousands of stepwells visible throughout India (I’ve seen about two-hundred and that’s just a small fraction!), in small towns and cities, remote unpopulated areas which were former trade routes, or just in simple villages. They’re in forts, occasionally in houses, embedded in places we cannot even see.
The attempt to preserve most of these just isn’t worth it. Unless a community wants something preserved – cleaned, repaired, re-attached to a water table – there’s no reason at all for them to care for it into the future. Unless a user is found for these, wherever they are, the time, money, and energy required for conservation make no sense at all. But if a stepwell’s practicality and usefulness can be proven, whether to access water again, or re purposed into something useful, or turned into some sort of tourist attraction (which has happened in several places, to enormous success) why should any community even want to preserve one, no matter it’s age and importance? I’ve totally flip-flopped on this issue over the past six years…
Q. Out of all the stepwells you documented, which one stands out as a favourite, or is it too hard to choose?
Thanks for giving me that excuse of “it’s too hard to choose”! I do hate answering this question, I feel as though I’m insulting the other stepwells if I leave them out. By now, I’ve seen some two-hundred throughout the country, each as unique as a fingerprint, each with specific characteristics setting it apart from the others. But here are a few I like to point out, even if I could easily think of an entirely different list:
Ujala Baoli (c. 1500) at Mandu Fort in Madhya Pradesh. There were many stepwells built in forts, and they’re often extraordinary, although few people see them. Ujala is sitting off by itself, far away from the fort’s main areas, and it just seems so lonely. But this is one of the most serene, mysterious, and beautiful stepwells I’ve seen, and I’m overwhelmed by how lovely it is.
Chand Baori in Abhaneri, Rajasthan (c. 800 and 18th c.) Here is one of the most impressive stepwells in India, easy to locate off the Jaipur/Agra highway, and yet millions of tourists zip by each year with no idea what they’re missing. Chand is among the oldest, largest, and deepest stepwells in India, with a mesmerizing array of 3,500 steps. It’s also fascinating historically, an architectural layer-cake originally built by a Hindu ruler around 800 CE, but with a later Islamic addition from the 18th-century, both merged together and cascading down one side of the structure. It’s an extraordinary visual treat. It was also featured in Batman, The Dark Knight Rises, as a particularly creepy prison.
The Helical Vav (16th century) outside the fortress city of Champaner, Gujarat, is as humble as Chand is overwhelming. It amazes me that such a minimal structure – just an abstract curl in space – can have such power. There’s an utter lack of ornament and the well is barely visible above ground, so it’s such a surprise to peer into it. There are other of these simple, circular stepwells throughout India, but this is by far my favorite.
Neemrana Baori, in the small town of Neemrana, Rajasthan, is where I officially became obsessed with stepwells. It embodies everything that I find compelling: hidden from view, no above-ground presence, a breath-taking scale and alarming depth, disorienting views through space. I still get chills when I visit Neemrana and am astounded that something so massive and magnificent is unknown in the world, omitted from history books and itineraries, there’s nothing like it anywhere. Yet there’s so little factual information available that scholars can’t agree on dates: 15th century, 1570, and 1720. Regardless of the date, the structure is astonishing.
Batris Kotha vav is from around 1120 BCE, in Kapadvanj, Gujarat. The city is densely packed and trying to locate this stepwell was such a pain, there’s absolutely nothing to be seen from the street, and it’s sandwiched tightly between buildings that have been built on top of the walls. It’s very deep, filled with water and draped with vines, which give it a very romantic but terribly sad ambience. Plus, those vines contribute to the stepwell’s slow demise. This was a simple, utilitarian, community well in its day, now in awful shape, and yet Batris Kotha has retained its dignity, so solidly built and still standing.