Baolis, or baoris, or vavs, or step-wells, are underground water sources that have been popular in India for a long time, especially in the dry areas of this subcontinent. These step-wells generally consisted of two parts, a rectangular tank or kund, and a circular well that extended down to reach the water table. The well provided potable water for drinking, while the tank or kund was primarily used for bathing, washing, and watering crops. During summers the baolis with attached rooms also served as cool resting places for the pilgrims, passing caravans, and other travellers. These architectural marvels were generally commissioned by members of the royal families or by wealthy patrons, for the benefit of the common people.
While varying in style, where the baolis could vary from a L-shaped structure, to a rectangular one, to a circular form, they showed some common features too, such as a flight of stairs that led from the ground level to the water below. Many baolis built under Hindu patronage also served as temples that had figures of gods, goddesses, and animals; shaded pavilions with trabeate columns; corbelled domes; and elaborate carvings. Baolis under Islamic patronage had less ornamentation, no human or animal forms, and had the true domes and arches. In the later periods, often both styles were fused. Both types had circular wells for potable water, where a pulley system was sometimes used for drawing water.
The earliest step-wells in India were first seen in the 3rd century CE. These were basic in architecture, and were designed more out of necessity to store monsoon rain waters for use during the arid summer months. It was necessary to have a year-round water supply, especially in the dry north-western parts of India. Over the centuries, the basic baoli forms gave way to complex architectural structures. According to the historians, by early 19th century there were several thousand step-wells, built on various scales, thriving in India. However, by the early 2oth century, only few baolis remained in functional condition, as the British viewed these structures as unhygienic. So they were often filled in, or simply destroyed. Besides this, modern technology brought in plumbing lines and the tap water system that made baolis redundant. Currently the government has started with the preservation and conservation of baolis that still remain, marking them as heritage/ancient monuments.
Abhaneri or Chand baoli built in 8th -9 th CE in Rajasthan beside the Harshad Mata temple. The arches seen here in the upper parts are clearly a later addition, as true arches were not in use in India when the baoli was built. Indian architects, before the Islamic invaders came in, used trabeates (lintel and beam) for making arches. Lower parts show the trabeate form of columns and niches that were a part of the orginal structure of the baoli.
Dholpur baoli (Rajasthan)
Hidden behind the Ghazra ka tomb, is this pretty red sandstone 19th centory baoli. The structure, though unknown to most that visit this little town, is unique for its beautiful double pillars and delicate arches that surround its long rectangular tank and a circular well at the back. Hemmed in by buildings on all sides, the structure looks better conserved than the neighbouring Ghazra ka tomb, though in terms of cleanliness much needs to be done. The tank water, as usual, remains dirty, though the well water appeared clean.
the Dholpur baoli- surrounding residences and unclean waters of the tank fail to dim its unique beauty
unique double pillars and delicate arches are the main attractions of the Dholpur baoli
the well at the back, which is double-storied
the circular pattern of the well (the arches show distinct Mughal influence)
the circular well water looks relatively clean
Gwalior fort step-well (Madhya Pradesh)
Inside the Gwalior fort is a step-well, situated on the left side as one enters the palace complex gates. It is a single, circular, deep well, situated beside a many-pillared hall, which earlier held a shiva-lingum that was thrown down the fort walls by Emperor Jahangir, later to be discovered by a peasant tilling his grounds, and is now placed inside a temple outside the fort gates.
entrance gate to the baoli (note the arches) within the Gwalior fort
The circular baoli with its mossy green waters. There is a pillared passage that runs round the well. The entrance to the well is closed, with the steps plastered off to stop people from reaching the waters down below.
Raniji ki baoli at Bundi (Rajasthan)
Raniji ki baoli is a beautiful step-well, situated in Bundi. According to the signboard outside the baoli complex, the story goes that in late 16th century the king of Bundi married Rani Nathavati, as his previous queen failed to produce an heir. Rani Nathavati in due course gave birth to a son, which led to the previous queen turning envious. After placing her son under custody of the elder queen, Rani Nathavati devoted her entire life in caring for her subjects, wherein she built this step-well in 1699. The baoli has beautiful carvings mainly of elephants and is 46 meters deep. It has high-arched gates with niches for various deities. At the entrance is a gate comprising of four tall pillars, joined beautifully at the top by elephant figures on beams and S –shaped (ogee) slender arches (brackets).
The gate as one enters the Raniji ki baoli. Beautiful elephants and S-shaped arches adorn it
the intricately carved arch above the tank water, with two elephants serving as brackets at two corners. The arches are distinctly Mughal influenced
the well wall at the back, with an imposing arch and a small passage in the foreground separating the well from the tank in front
deities carved in niches on the well wall at the back
figures of elephants carved on the passage (balcony) wall that separates tank from well
intricately carved elephant (with a mahout on its back) serving as a bracket in Raniji ki baoli
delicate carvings on the four pillared gate at the entrance
By Monidipa Bose
The author can be contacted at email@example.com or Moni Gatha