By Monidipa Dey
Baolis, also known as baoris or vavs, are man-made step-wells that were constructed to serve as underground water resources. These structures have always been popular in India, primarily in the arid areas, and played a significant role in water conservation. More commonly seen in the western parts of India, the baolis provided villages with water for drinking, washing, bathing, and also for irrigation, especially during periods of water shortages in seasonal fluctuations.
People living in the subcontinent have always been involved in water harvesting, and that is evident from the advanced and elaborate water management that were created by the Harappans. The oldest example of water management in India is found from the proto-historic era in different Harappan sites. The various tanks, interconnected chains of reservoirs, cisterns, drainage channels, public and private wells, baths, dams, and dock (in Lothal) seen in various sites, such as Dholavira, Banawali, Kalibangan, Mohenjo-Daro (now in Pakistan), etc., exemplify the excellence of the water management system of those times. The Harappans were experts builders of raised hydraulic structures of various types, and were also the first to start using the ground water resources by sinking a well. As R.S. Bist, a reputed archaeologist, had said “This kind of efficient system of Harappans of Dholavira, developed for conservation, harvesting and storage of water speaks eloquently about their advanced hydraulic engineering, given the state of technology in the third millennium B.C.E.”
The early step-wells in India were more of the functional types; hence basic in architecture. They were built as a necessity to store monsoon rain waters that would provide a year-round supply of water, especially during the dry months. Over the centuries the basic functional baolis gave way to complex and heavily ornamented architectural structures, eg., Rani ki Vav in Gujarat and Abhaneri baoli in Rajasthan. With various designs and styles being opted, a medieval to modern era baoli could vary from being a L-shaped structure, to a rectangular one, or sometimes even circular in form.
The common features for all types of baolis would generally be colonnaded levels or storeys, and a flight of stairs that led from the topmost level to the water below. The baolis were mostly built as public utility structures, and often commissioned by wealthy patrons or by members of the royal families. The baolis built under Hindu patronage also served as temples with intricate carvings and figures of various deities and animals. Architecturally they showed corbelled domes along with ornamented trabeate columns, and the pillared passages formed shaded pavilions that ran around the water tank. These baolis were used for different ceremonial and religious purposes too, and the shaded pavilions functioned as rooms during such occasions. Baolis built under Islamic patronage were typically with arches, plain columns, austere with little ornamentation, and no human and animal carvings. Mixed styles were also noted during the later periods.
Step-wells, besides having storied galleries and chambers, often showed two distinct parts: a rectangular tank in front, and a circular well at the back that extended deep down to access the water table. The circular well held potable water, where a pulley system was sometimes used for drawing water; while the front tank was primarily used for bathing, washing, and watering crops. During summers the baolis with their attached rooms also served as cool resting places for pilgrims, passing caravans, and other travellers. It is believed that by early 19th century there were thousands of step-wells, of varying designs and shapes, thriving in India.
However, by early 20th century, only few remained in a functional state because the British viewed these structures as unhygienic, and many baolis were filled in or destroyed. Furthermore, modern technology brought in plumbing lines and tap water system that made baolis redundant. The Indian baolis or stepwells beautifully showcase the changing of a utilitarian art (basic functional structures) to fine arts (heavily ornamented structures with temples) from proto historic era to the modern times. This unique structure of water harvesting continued unchanged for many centuries in India, preserving the culture of water conservation from the pre historic era. With a time-proven record, baolis show how the ancients conserved water that benefitted all citizens. In the current context of acute water shortage faced in many parts of India, perhaps attempts can be made to revive this ancient water management system and make them functional once again across the country.
(The author is a well-known travel writer on historical places. Views expressed are personal.)