Looking Down to Plan Ahead

In India, cities are restoring ancient stepwells to build climate resilience.

Walking across the parched, amber ground through rural Barmer, a village in western India, Devi, a local community-member, recounts how water has shaped much of her life. “I used to help my mother carry water back from the wells to our house. When I was younger, this used to be full now it’s gone dry,” says Devi, who didn’t want to give her last name, pointing at a derelict stepwell. We walk down the steps until they start to blur into sand and debris. “When the water reached the elephant’s foot, we all celebrated because that meant we had enough water for the year,” Devi adds, gesturing at a faded carving of a trumpeting elephant.

stepwell with water in Rajasthan

​From rudimentary wells to ornately carved monuments, stepwells traditionally served multiple purposes, including access to ground water, community building, and cultural expression. Photo by Chethan.

Stepwells — subterranean structures that typically include several levels of tiered corridors leading down to an aquifer — dotted the Indian landscape between the fifth and nineteenth centuries. From rudimentary wells to the ornately carved monuments that persist even today, the stepwells, or baolis as they are referred to locally, served multiple purposes, including access to ground water, community building, and cultural expression. They played a particularly important role in western and north-western India due to the arid climate, tapping into natural aquifers and serving as catchments in the rainy seasons to tide through drought periods.

Beyond providing potable water, these wells frequently served as resting spots for travelers and traders, and as social gathering spaces for women, as the task of fetching water and domestic acts associated with it — such as washing clothes and bathing children — were within the female domain. What’s more, baolis brought people together from different religions, communities, and in some select cases even caste, making them thriving centers of cultural exchange.

As years passed and the Indian subcontinent was subjected to colonization, many baolis fell into disuse, becoming crumbling symbols of a yesteryear’s rainwater harvesting tradition. At the same time, unplanned urban growth, and the miles and miles of asphalt that came with it, reduced opportunities to recharge water-tables with rainwater, while deep bore-wells allowed communities to deplete aquifers, leaving cities facing acute water shortages.

Now, recognizing their value for recharging aquifers and building community, groups across western India are looking to bring baolis back. One such group in the Aga Khan Trust (AKT).

In 2017, the trust set out to restore Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah stepwell, constructed in the fourteenth century and still fed by an active spring. After nearly 8,000 cumulative hours spent de-silting, cleaning, and removing debris, the mammoth effort yielded results: A stepwell that can once again help recharge the local aquifer.

Ratish Nanda, a conservation architect and projects director at AKT, believes such stepwell restoration could play a crucial role in refilling ground aquifers and tackling urban surface runoff throughout the city. “With India’s water table rapidly declining, stepwells can help refill ground aquifers and harvest runoffs,” Nanda told the BBC.

Stepwells could also help communities tackle pressing issues like migration, crop failure, and climate change, as shown by a restoration project in Maharajpura in the region of Karauli, Rajasthan. Maharajpura receives an average of just 26 inches of rainfall annually. Increasingly frequent droughts and declining ground water levels in the region have led to declining soil fertility and increasing rates of crop failure.

During the onset of the pandemic in 2020, the village saw a return of people who had previously migrated to cities for work. With their future in cities uncertain, they didn’t want to leave their villages again. But in order to stay, they needed agricultural opportunities to provide livelihoods, for which they needed water. And for water, they turned to the stepwell.

Community members pooled their funds and collaborated with the NGO The Flow Partnership to rebuild the local well in time for the monsoons. To allow for greater percolation, they also dug channels flanking fields so that any excess run-off would be diverted into the stepwell. This time, when the rains came, water filled the newly restored stepwell, which in turn helped recharge the deep aquifers, raising the water tables and facilitating crop irrigation. Given the renewed agricultural prospects, many people who had returned in the early days of the pandemic decided to stay. In gratitude, the headman commissioned a small temple thanking the stepwell for reviving the village.

Speaking of the Majarajpura project, Rajendra Singh, a water conservationist often referred to as the waterman of India, says “making a culture with water” goes a long way in preserving it.

Stepwell near Hindu Rao, India

Over time, many baolis fell into disuse, becoming crumbling symbols of a yesteryear’s rainwater harvesting tradition. Photo by Prayash Giria / Wikimedia.

f Varadarajar Perumal Temple tank

​“The revivals have proven that [stepwells] don’t just balance the water cycle of the community but also restore balance within its people,” says Minni Jain, the director of Flow Partnership. Photo of Varadarajar Perumal Temple tank by Ben Piven.

Minni Jain, the director of Flow Partnership emphasizes how stepwells can also build community. “The revivals have proven that [stepwells] don’t just balance the water cycle of the community but also restore balance within its people. In a country where cast has drawn lines in sand, water might dissolve those lines”

Another revival project, this one in Tarsali in the north-western state of Gujarat, did just that, helping to dissolve caste and religious boundaries. There, once residents of the village cleaned and started maintaining the 300-year-old Piparwali ni Vaav baoli, it began to provide water year-round, and became a flourishing space for people from different casts, creeds, religions, and genders to gather, much as it had in the past.

“My grandmother used to visit the temple built atop this stepwell. She would offer jaggery before each harvest because they believed stepwells to be life giving,” recalls Mansi Parekh, whose grandmother was a former resident of the village.

In Chennai, experts are collaborating on even larger stepwell restoration projects in an effort to combat the impacts of climate change. In the recent past, Chennai has been plagued by both water shortage and flooding, both of which are becoming more frequent as global temperatures rise. Through the City of 1000 Tanks project, architectural groups, water experts, social welfare groups, and more have come together to revive the city’s 53 ancient wells to channel waters into the city’s deep-water aquifers.

The group is using a variety of strategies to divert water to the stepwells. For example, a pilot project uses a rain garden to collect wastewater that will then be “treated” by reeds and used for non-potable reuse and recharging aquifers. Another project in Chennai’s Koyambedu district is utilizing nature-based solutions and the city’s wastewater storage and treatment tanks to divert water to stepwells. City of 1000 Tanks also hopes to revive the social aspects of stepwells by creating gardens around the wells where people can gather.

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Collaboration, Not Control

Understanding what water wants can help protect built environments from floods and droughts, store carbon, and restore homes for other-than-human life.

Elsewhere, too, experts are similarly looking to the past to improve modern-day water collection and storage. Chinese landscape architect Kongjian Yu, for example, leans on ancient wisdom to build “sponge cities,” bringing traditional irrigation and farming techniques to urban environments to slow water drainage and improve water absorption in cities. He suggests the way to prevent flooding and the adverse effects of climate change is to “make friends with water.”

Similarly, the African Sand Dam foundation (ASDF) takes inspiration from sand dams, first invented in Rome in 400 BC. Today, these structures are made by building a concrete wall across seasonal streams — as the river flows, it deposits sand on the barrier. Over time the sand forms a reservoir for water, which remains in the sand when the river water level recedes, well protected from evaporation. The sand also acts like a natural filter, preserving clean potable water below. The ASDF has been facilitating the building of these dams, which in turn has facilitated the coming together of village communities to build agricultural-based businesses centred around the dams.

When I visited Adalaj — an iconic stepwell was commissioned by Queen Rudabai in 1499 in the heart of Dandai Desh, which is modern day Gandhinagar, Gujarat — I walked to the bottom to feel the cool I was promised by every book about stepwells. Along with two degrees of cool on a hot summer day, I was steeped in history. The words of Manvati Baradi, director of Gujrat’s Urban Management Center, were ringing in my ears: “The idea is not to freeze these stepwells in time but to encourage a sensitive adaptive reuse.” Perhaps the way forward in an age of increasing water insecurity is to look down.

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