Every great civilisation has contributed something special to the pantheon of world architecture. Egypt gave the world pyramids, Greece provided Corinthian columns, and India provided the stepwell, elevating the humble act of collecting water into an extravagant piece of public theatre.
Today, stepwells – whether abandoned or in use – can be found scattered across India, with the highest concentration in the north of the country, often far from the mainstream tourist trail. Here’s our pick of seven of the most spectacular, with details on how to visit them yourself.
1. Chand Baori, Abhaneri, Rajasthan
Perhaps the most striking of all India’s stepwells, Chand Baori has featured as the setting for a string of Bollywood song and dance numbers. Some 3500 steps topple down the sides of the enormous central tank, arranged in an intricate criss-cross pattern that recalls the facets of a cut diamond – albeit one that’s 13-storeys deep and 35m across from side to side.
There’s a hint of M C Escher about the latticework of interlinked stairways, giving the baori a sense of impossible geometry. The lower tiers were constructed by the Hindu king Raja Chanda in the 9th century, but the Mughals embellished the upper levels with pavilions and arcades in the 18th century, making the monument look more Islamic than Hindu. If it looks a little familiar, the stepwell had a cameo in the 2012 Batman flick The Dark Knight Rises.
Getting there: Reaching Abhaneri by public transport involves a 95km bus, shared-taxi and minibus ride from Jaipur, with changes at Sikandra and Gular; it’s easier to charter a taxi in Jaipur for a day trip. For accommodation, Jaipur’s pocket-friendly Hotel Pearl Palace is a long-standing traveller favourite, while visitors with bottomless budgets favour the Taj Hotels-run Rambagh Palace – former pad of Maharaja Man Singh II.
2. Rani-ki-Vav, Patan, Gujarat
The grand-daddy of Indian stepwells, Rani-ki-Vav is one of the few surviving relics from the once-powerful Chaulukya kingdom, which ruled large areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan in the 11th century. Dropping vertiginously into the ground in a series of carving-covered tiers, this monumental stepwell was constructed on the orders of Udayamati, wife of the Chaulukya king Bhimdev I.
The remarkable state of preservation of Rani-ki-Vav is actually the result of a natural disaster – the monument was filled with silt in the 13th century and only re-exposed in the 1940s. Today, the stepwell is UNESCO-listed, both for its super-sized superstructure, and for the intricacy and elegance of the carvings of Vishnu and other deities that cover every spare inch of exposed stone.
Getting there: Patan is around 130km northwest of Ahmedabad, and makes for an easy three-hour trip by chartered taxi, or by bus from Ahmedabad’s ST Bus Station. The best place to stay in Patan is the inviting Apple Residency, with tidy, modern rooms and plasma TVs.
3. Agrasen Ki Baoli, Delhi
This oft-missed Delhi landmark opens up unexpectedly in the middle of a New Delhi street, just minutes from the mercantile chaos of Connaught Place. The stepwell cuts a 60m-long slice through the earth below the Indian capital, faced with niches set under Islamic arches, accessed via a single sweeping stairway. The structure seen today was most likely constructed during the Tughlaq period in the 14th century, when Delhi was ruled by a dynasty of Turkic sultans. It’s said to be haunted – usually by the same people who warn of jinns (Islamic spirits) stalking the ruins of Tughlaqabad and Feroz Shah Kotla. Today, the baoli is a favoured selfie spot thanks to a starring role in the 2015 Aamir Khan blockbuster PK.
Getting there: The baoli is right in the heart of New Delhi, opening up some of the capital’s most appealing accommodation. The pricey but charming Haveli Dharampura serves up Mughal elegance in the alleys of the old city, while Amax Inn keeps backpackers happy in the backlanes of Paharganj.