Watch your step, please!
In India, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, wells were built for ceremonial purposes. Water raised mechanically to the people at ground level was not seen to be as pure as if the people went down to the water. The problem in Western India was that the water table was very far under the ground, and therefore, deep open wells had to be constructed so the people could make their way down to the water's natural level.
But getting some 50 or 80 meters down there was a problem. There were no mechanical elevators or escalators, so steps had to be built.
Stepwells, also called bawdi (Hindi:??????) or baoli ([[Hindi:?????), are in essence wells in which the water can be reached by descending a set of steps. They may be covered and protected, and are often of architectural significance.
They are most common in the west of India. They may be also found in the other more arid regions of the subcontinent, extending into Pakistan.
The construction can also be utilitarian, and involve city stepwells which have ramps for taking cattle into the well to carry water out.
All forms of the stepwell may be considered to be particular examples of the many types of storage and irrigation tanks that were developed in India, mainly to cope with seasonal fluctuations in water availability. A basic difference between stepwells on the one hand, and tanks and wells on the other, was to make it easier for people to reach the ground water, and to maintain and manage the well.
The majority of surviving stepwells originally also served a leisure purpose, as well as providing water. This was because the base of the well provided relief from daytime heat. So, the stepwell often took on the equivalent of the modern city pool or the country swimming hole. More such relief could be obtained if the well was covered. This led to the building of some significant ornamental and architectural features, often associated with dwellings and in urban areas. It also ensured their survival as monuments. Many provencial rulers built stepwells for the cities, and provided them with highly ornate carvings, much like those found in temples.
Stepwells were not new in the 16th & 17th centuries, though. Stepwell construction is known to have gone on from at least 600 CE. Most existing stepwells date from the last 800 years. There are suggestions that they may have originated much earlier, and there are some suggestions that precursors to them can be seen in the Indus Valley civilisation.
The stepwell shown at top is located in the city of Chand, in Western India.