Vanishing Baolis – The Unique Stepwells Of India

The unique stepwells of India, called Baoli’s (or Vavs in Gujurat), are ornate, complex structures that are legacies of the subcontinent’s ancient hydraulic engineering systems. 

Agrasen ki Baoli - Stepwell in New Delhi
Agrasen ki Baoi, astepwell in New Delhi

Along the way those vital water harvesting and storing skills were abandoned, and the wells dried up and silted over, and ended up as giant garbage dumps. It is astonishing how much wisdom a society culls over centuries, and then gives it all up in the name of progress!

With modern methods of water management not standing us in much good stead, there is a resurgence of interest in these traditional skills. But like all things Indian, reviving them is a painfully slow process, and only a few, closest to tourist attractions, have been restored to some degree of their original splendour. 

Delhi has several stepwells – one right inside the Red Fort – that are beautiful, even if less splendid than their Gujurati and Rajasthani counterparts. I have featured two, the Agrasen ki Baoli that was practically next to our hotel in Janpath, and the Rajon ki Baoli in the Mehrauli archaeological park.

Rajon ki Baoli - Mehrauli Archaeological Park, Delhi
Rajon ki Baoli adjoining Adham Khan’s tomb in Mehrauli Archaeological Park, Delhi
Rajon ki Baoli - Mehrauli Archaeological Park, Delhi
Rajon ki Baoli – Mehrauli Archaeological Park, Delhi

Victoria S Lautman’s insightful article, “India’s Forgotten Stepwells“, features several more stunningly beautiful wells, and explores their architecture and function in fascinating detail. She concludes with: “…gather your friends, get on a plane, and go see them for yourself before they disappear for all time.

I intend to do just that.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

72 thoughts on “Vanishing Baolis – The Unique Stepwells Of India

  1. Fascinating. You are soo lucky getting to see these, India has such a heritage of making an art form of such utilitarian but vital structures of everyday life. I wonder if some of it’s modern edifices will stand the passage of time so well.

  2. Thank you for sharing so much history of India Madhu. I hope one day to see some of your country for myself.

  3. Madhu, these step wells are fascinating – and I knew nothing about them! What an ingenious design. Not only are they practical – they’re gorgeous. Once again, thanks for broadening my horizons. ~Terri

  4. It never ceases to amaze me that ancient structures that were engineered for practical urban use eventually become stunning architectural treasures. I can’t imagine that the design of our modern public water systems will enthrall future generations, as do the beautiful stonewall structures of India. Thank you for sharing this bit of history and wonder!

  5. It’s a shame they’ve ended up as giant garbage dumps. In general there’s too much garbage and decay in India and that’s really a pity…

  6. It looks quite sophisticated and elaborate! Such an astonishing creation and amazing talent and skill that we don’t see much of anymore, unfortunately.

    1. I always wonder when and why we stopped making everyday things beautiful! Thank you for your comment Fergie.

  7. The scope and detail are phenomenal, what fascinating structures but how tragic to see the ruin of others. I am not too sure I could cope with the steepness of some of those stairs . . .. A most fascinating stream of information thank you Madhu!

  8. Holy wow! Very nice find. To think that majestic look are stepwells makes it all really fascinating to see. I really hope they don’t “trash” the place. ‘Cause maybe travel gods might send me there. If that happens, I’m sure they’re going to clear out everything for me. Ahihihi 😀 You continue to impress. You really are the epitome of a topnotch travel blogger.

    1. Ah, thank you!!! Just for that, I shall put in an extra request to the travel Gods on your behalf 🙂

    1. I think each generation feels the need to re-acquire lost skills, while giving up some of their own!! Thank you Judy.

  9. I learn something new every time I visit your world – never heard about those wells neither. I your part of the world … far away you have been so advance in every thing – we here in Europe are very slow starters. *smile
    Somebody told me that China had ice cream before Christs was born.
    Is this not your own photos – because – you are indenting to go there.

    1. These are the ones I visited in Delhi Viveka. I intend to go to all the remote and ornate ones mentioned in that article 🙂 Ice cream before Christ??? Shall have to look that up 😆

      1. Yes, please do … I thought that it didn’t add up with the photos – they had your magic touch all over them. So silly I thought is was all about the same wells.

        1. You will understand if you check out that link Viveka. Some of those wells are like ornate temples!!!

        2. That was me … not doing what I should have done. I saw the links – but I never used them. Going back and become a lot wiser. *smiel

        3. Victoria’s article is massive – when and I can now see the difference in them – some is just massive – the first two links I couldn’t see so much difference between the wells.

    1. It surprises me that so few people have heard about it! Thank you for reading Bronwyn.

  10. Great blog post. I didn’t know about this Indian engineering feat from ancient times.

    1. Thank you Jean. Quite an eye opener for me as well! Appreciate your taking the time to comment 🙂

  11. Like you said, it’s amazing that people spend centuries preserving their culture/working methods for things and then abandon them. Hopefully some of these wells will be preserved. I’d love to see them for myself.

    1. My interest is piqued too Juliann. Trying to get to all of them is going to be a task 🙂

    1. Our bucket lists get ever longer don’t they? And time only shrinks in the other direction 🙂

  12. I remember seeing pictures of that famous stepwell in Rajasthan, and I was completely blown away by its size! However, I guess the reason why it is still very much preserved is because it’s in Rajasthan, one of India’s tourism hotspots. I do hope the other Baolis will survive amid ‘progress’ and modernization.

    1. You are right Bama. Rajasthan is the only state in India that pays attention to its tourist sites. Also the only one with a fairly professional tourist infrastructure. Gujarat might be catching up. The rest of India is the pits sadly. Unless people stand up and protest, not much will be left in the race to build malls and luxury condos, particularly in the cities.

  13. What an engineering marvel and to think that they are just steps away from tourist sites and never mentioned. I would love to see one. I do hope some can be restored and put to their intended use. Thanks for the link to Lautman’s article which was most informative.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the article Lynne. I am sure you can easily include a couple of the nicer ones on your itinerary. Just inform your local travel agents in advance. Failing which, you can always visit these in Delhi 🙂

    1. They are storied structures that did serve as meeting places for the water collectors. Water levels determined which level they needed to access! Delighted to have you back Eliz 🙂

  14. Saw it as a kid and even forgotten about it. But thanks a million for the pictures and the write-up.
    Regards.

    1. I was seeing them for the first time. The South has stepped temple tanks, but nothing quite like these. Thanks Dilip.

  15. Educational and beautiful a post as always, Madhu. Thank you for sharing it. -Max-

  16. I am always transported after a visit here, sometimes to old friends and more often to places I have never been. This is one of the later, amazing and sad so few have heard of these.

  17. Hello Madhu 🙂 I’ve read Lautman’s article now. It was well worth it. I hope they will restore all vavs. It is a disgrace to leave some of them in that deplorable condition. Lautman took as step by step through these fascinating structures and I know the light in them can’t be good for photographing, but your pictures are so much better exposed :). Thank you again for teaching me something.

    1. Even a lot of locals are unaware of these gems in their neighbourhood! Appreciate your reading Frank.

    1. You are most welcome Suzanne. These are the simplest ones. Some have very ornate detailing.

  18. how extraordinary Madhu … we visited several big wells in Rajasthan but did not see anything like this! I do hope that as many as possible will be saved and restored …

    1. I hope so too Christine. You must have not done the Agra to Jaipur stretch by road. Or else you would have surely visited the picturesque Abhaneri stepwell enroute.

  19. I made sure I found as many step wells as I counld during my wandering s in Gugarat. Unfortunately of the 50 or so Baori in the town of Bundi most were derelict, collapsed and over grown. Many to threatened by development. Many have just disappeared.
    They are extraordinary pieces of architecture, like churches upside down, Escher-like. In Bundi I found an identical pair of wells build side by side. One was closed but was opened for me to explore carefully, the other taken over by monkeys allowing me no access. many were destroyes by tree roots of giant trees.
    I was impressed that the fabulous Princess Step well was closed, surrounded with metal cages and watched over by an armed policeman.
    The town was beginning to realise the importance of these dizzying structures.
    As more people seek out and talk about Baori (Baoili’s) the more likely those that still stand might be saved.
    Lovely post, than you.

    1. That must have been a fascinating journey across Gujarat Tony. I need to get my hands on a copy of your book right away. Yes, public interest and pressure, especially pre election, is the only thing that galvanises our authorities into action. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  20. I have never left this blog without learning something. This particular post is extremely interesting to me. Tomorrow I will come back to click on the link of Lautman’s article. THANK YOU, Madhu.

    1. Thank you so much for the lovely compliment Paula 🙂
      That article is truly worth a few minutes of your time. The wells she has featured are mindblowing!

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