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Exploring Buddhist Ruins and Village Stepwells in Rajasthan

On the Road from Neemrana to Bundi

On a warm day in March '18 we set off from Delhi, driving to Bundi, a delightful small town in Rajasthan, searching for stepwells and Buddhist ruins. In the last few years we've had several trips to India to photograph ancient stepwells. They're found all over India, mostly in the dry semi desert states of Rajasthan and Gujarat where the water table is deep below ground.

Our first call was Neemrana, two hours from Delhi if you set off before dawn and just a 20 minute drive from the busy Delhi to Jaipur highway. We'd been to Neemrana before but the intention was to arrive in the early morning while the sun was still low and the parrots were starting to emerge from their nests in the masonry.
Like most stepwells, Neemrana is easily missed. It's surrounded by a low wall and there's not much to see above ground to indicate that an architectural masterpiece is waiting to be discovered.

Neemrana stepwellNeemrana stepwell landscape view from entrance

Neemrana is 9 storeys deep. You can't frame it all in one photo. It was built around the 16th century but little is known about its origins, though it was rumoured to be connected by a tunnel to the nearby Neemrana Fort, now a hotel, 2 miles away. The niches give shade in the hot summer months, the transverse structures are places to rest - they also act as buttresses to stop the sides falling in.

Below is one of several classic photos of Neemrana shown in the Photographs Collection. I've chosen to show some less obvious views in this post. (All the photos in this diary can be ordered as prints and many are already available to buy in the Photographs Collection).

Neemrana stepwell with 11 parrots

The stonework is crumbling away and you need a little nerve to walk along the ledges around the the lower floors. The well is silted up and the bottom scattered with rubbish. I've been there four times and never seen water but it remains a dank home for flying insects. Down at the bottom you feel, and are, a long way below ground. Maybe in the monsoon there is water at the bottom.
The bricked up archways lead through to a huge circular well shaft that is deeper than the bottom steps. To get water you'd either throw a bucket over the well shaft - and maybe use a camel to haul it up - or walk down the steps to the water level, lower in the dry season.
There are two main styles of stepwell: a long stepped trench with passages connecting to an even deeper well shaft behind the rear wall (like this well at Neemrana); or a stepped inverted pyramid that leads down a central pit.

Neemrana stepwell, lower floorsIt's the first day of the Holi festival and by the time we arrive local men have come to the well to get drunk and throw coloured powder at people. They've succeeded and although they're friendly they're still drunk and my travelling companion is a young woman. Tsering, a family friend from Ladakh, can look after herself but we're pretty isolated here and I'm concerned for her safety - and our cameras. We don't stay too long and decide to come back in a couple of weeks on a quieter day. When we leave, the men are pulling up large stone slabs and throwing them down the steps. 

Neemrana stepwell at Holi

From here we spent three days taking mostly minor roads to Bundi. Our first call was at an ancient Buddhist site at Viratnagar, also known as Bhairat, not far from the Delhi to Jaipur highway. We’d tried to find it the previous year but this time came back with better directions.

We don't tend to think that Buddhism reached into Rajasthan but around 2000 years ago, in the era of Emperor Ashoka, a hilltop monastery was built here. Now, the footings of a circular stupa are all that remain. Ashoka sent his stonemasons out across his kingdom - most of India - to inscribe his edicts on stone columns and elephant shaped rocks. Before his adoption of Buddhist teachings he had been an aggressive and ruthless king conquering neighbouring territories. The edicts stated how people should live in harmony with peaceful and tolerant Buddhist teachings.

Stupa at ViratnagarViratnagar stupa

Ajanta Stupa at Viratnagar

It's a dramatic location with strange shaped rocks given names like The Skull, The Salamder, and, as often happens, a Hindu Shiva shrine now dominates the site. On the other side of the valley there's a dry scrubby area with numerous shrines and temples; we searched for an elephant shaped rock inscribed with Ashoka’s edicts. We found the rock but not the edicts that seem to have been lost to the passage of time. The elephant rock features in our blog Buddhist Ruins in Rajasthan.

Hindu Shrine at Viratnagar

The nearby village of Viratnagar has two very different stepwells. The Nasiyaji ki Baoli is in a Jain temple complex. It’s beautifully made from the local sandstone but the interior is inaccessible. I climbed down a narrow stone staircase inside the wall of the well but the bottom exit was blocked with a locked gate. Bats lined the ceiling above my head.

Nasiyaji ki Baoli stepwell, ViratnagarViratnagar Stepwell in Jain Temple

We‘re befriended by a local activist for farm workers’ rights who guides us to the older and very different Viratnagar village stepwell that’s been repainted with imaginative scenes in bold colours. I like the scene below the lion which seems like a pastiche of a Japanese theme with three Mt Fujis. The well's only recently been restored, a photo from the previous year showed it looking better before the paint job, charming though that is. Already it shows signs of neglect and the extreme heat and summer humidity are going to be a challenge for the paintwork.

Village stepwell, ViratnagarViratnagar Village Stepwell

Paintings at Viratnagar village well

We spend the night in the Nahargarh Palace Hotel on the edge of Jaipur. A simple, friendly hotel with a rooftop terrace garden just below the walls of the Nahargarh Fort. In the morning we get a ride on a motorbike up the hill to the Fort gates. Outside the Fort there's one of three Nahargarh Fort stepwells. Built in 1734, it's a water harvesting construction rather than a stepwell in that it collects water that runs down channels from the hills above.

The great Industrial landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky has taken some wonderful photographs of this structure. Which is more than I manage to do. Nonetheless we climb over the wall and are taken to task by the local police who are probably angling for backsheesh. Tsering takes no nonsense and makes them feel ashamed for trying it on. Later I wonder if the motorbike boy was in on the trick. "Sure, encourage them to climb the wall, we'll split the backsheesh with you". A classic Indian start to the day and we leave in good spirits.

Nahargarh stepwellNahargarh Stepwell

Nahargarh Stepwell

Nahargarh Stepwell

Bundi is south east from Jaipur but first there’s a few villages to explore near the busy east-west highway that runs between Jaipur and Agra. We head east to Abhaneri, the site of the deepest stepwell in India, the Chand Baori, built over a thousand years ago and a superb example of the inverted stepped pyramid construction. 

The 3500 steps and thirteen levels were constructed in the 9th and 10th century, though there was a well on this site dating from the 5th century. The pavilions facing the camera are a 17th century Moghul addition. The bottom of the well has Hindu carvings near the water line so the well is unusual in having both Hindu and Muslim decoration. It's one of a handful of stepwells protected by the Architectural Survey of India - which is good for preservation and safety but bad for access, the fences and wardens prevent you going down the steps - and you can't use a camera tripod without a permit from Delhi.

Chand Baori, AbhaneriChand Baori stepwell, Abhaneri

Chand Baori

A few metres away from the stepwell is the ruined Harshat Mata temple and it's possible that the stepwell was built so people could bathe before visiting the temple. Finely detailed carved stone lintels are scattered around the site like an architectural scrap yard.

Harshat Mata temple stonecarving

Harshat Mata temple stonecarving

A few stalls have sprung up in the village and one of the delights is to take chai the traditional way, in clay cups. Throw away plastic is a huge problem in India and there is an attempt to replace disposable plastic tea cups with these old style clay cups. They get broken after use, redissolved, spun and dried out again. 

Traditional tea cups

We retrace our steps heading back west to the small town of Bandarej which has two stepwells experiencing very different fortunes. The delightfully atmospheric Nanag Ram ji ki Baoli is neglected and overgrown, trees have taken root and we have to push aside branches to scramble down the steps. 

Most of the original render has fallen off, the stonework is exposed and we can see the bare structure and appreciate the skill and effort involved in its construction. It's probable that many of the original rendered surfaces were decorated. The square holes in the masonry were for timber joists that may have supported willow and reed branches to provide shelter from the monsoon rain and sun. Looking through the gap in the central arch you can see through to the circular well shaft beyond. A green paper kite is caught in a branch.

Nanag Ram ji ki Baoli, BandarejNanag Stepwell at Bandarej

Nanag Stepwell, Bandarej

Nanag Stepwell at Bandarej

About a mile away is the well maintained Bara Baoli, which contains a couple of small Muslim shrines. It's been freshly painted in salmon pink and is unusual in having symmetrical chattris, or cupolas, in all four corners. At the far end of the well, between the back wall and the well shaft, is a series of corridors and staircases, latticed panels allow you to look out over the steps. There are remnants of the lifting gear at the top of the well shaft.

Of the two wells the Bara Baoli is the more impressive, it's far larger and more ambitious but the Nanag Ram is a more intimate experience. Maybe it's that inexplicable love of ruins, a reminder of impermanence. Neither contain water so it's not clear why one is maintained and the other neglected. Perhaps the Bara Baoli collects water in the monsoon.

Bara Baoli, BandarejBara Baoli stepwell, Bandarej

Bara Baoli stepwell, Bandarej

Bara Baoli stepwell, Bandarej

Bara Baoli stepwell, Bandarej

Bara Baoli stepwell, Bandarej

Bara Baoli stepwell, Bandarej

Most Rajasthani stepwells were mostly built between 300 and 1000 years ago. They're remarkable constructions dug out of the ground and lined with stone, brick and render using only hand tools. Gradually they’ve fallen into disuse. The British thought it was unhygienic to use the same water for drinking and washing. They discouraged their use and installed pumps and as the population and farming have increased the water table has dropped so that most of them are now dry. 
Like many parts of India, Rajasthan has an increasing problem with inadequate water supplies and there are attempts to restore the function of some stepwells.

Dausa is a larger town just down the road from Bandarej but the afternoon is getting late and we only have time to see one stepwell, the Bani das ki Bawari, where we're told that restoration grants were offered in exchange for votes at the local elections. It seems to have worked, restoration has involved painting bucolic scenes of a farming life. People seem pleased with the decorations but I have my doubts whether the paint will survive the wet season and the wells will be kept clear.
The painting is still in progress and I like the simplicity of the outline drawings. On the outside wall it's good to see the Mahatma with his bald head, spectacles and staff. 
While I take photos Tsering, my travelling companion, talks with the women and children resting near the entrance to the well. Tsering is from Ladakh in the northern tip of India and here, in Rajasthan, people think she's not Indian and are always surprised when she speaks in fluent Hindi. 

Bani das ki BawariBani das ki Bawari stepwell, Dausa

Bani das ki Bawari stepwell, Dausa

Bani das ki Bawari stepwell, Dausa

Bani das ki Bawari stepwell, Dausa

Bani das ki Bawari stepwell, Dausa

Bani das ki Bawari stepwell, Dausa

We spend the night in the local Governor's house, now a hotel, in the village of Banksho. As is often the case in these converted country houses, we're the only guests. In the morning I wander out into the village. There are trees full of peacocks, they seem too heavy but the branches are pollarded and sturdy. A new temple is being built in the village and the site is being blessed with water. Water is not only necessary for life, in India it is sacred and is being liberally offered to the whole site.

New Temple Building Site at Banksho

The small village stepwell sits rather forlornly at the side if the road. It seems irrelevant to the village now and the bottom is full of litter. But the upper steps are swept clear and I walk along a narrow ledge to the back where there is a small green Muslim shrine and a garland of flowers.
We’re told a recurrent story, the old men of the village remember swimming in the well when they were boys but the well has been dry for the last 30 years. 

Banksho village stepwellBanksho village stepwell

Banksho village stepwell

Banksho village stepwell

Thanks to the generosity of Victoria Lautmann (The Vanishing Stepwells of India) and Philip Earis (www.stepwells.org) we have map references for some stepwells. Poring over Google Earth and Google maps has helped us find others. And now we're starting to recognise some tell tales signs. As we approach the village of Bas we find the village well just where we hoped - but it's not always like that!

The well is dry and full of leaves from the overhanging trees. The Bawari ki Bas stepwell is one of the most beautiful small village wells we've seen and the village headman seems delighted, though puzzled, that we love it so much. He tells us that the Bas people migrated here from another part of India about 70 years ago, probably at the time of Partition. The village is called Bawdi ki Bas so appears to be named after the stepwell.

​We get a wonderful view up the well shaft and marvel yet again at the ingenuity and skill - not to mention the immense labour - that went into the construction of even a small, modest well like this.

Bawari ki Bas Bawari ki Bas

Bawari ki Bas

A crowd gathers to watch these strangers who've come to see their well.
At one time stepwells were the centre of village life. Women would come twice a day to get water, talk and socialise - and get a break from the in-laws. Designated times were allocated for men and women to bathe. It seems a shame that such a lovely well should not be used and Tsering berates the headman for letting the well fall into disrepair, the upper steps are overgrown and full of litter. We have this idea that, even if they can no longer function as a well, they could be used as a meeting place. An even more fanciful idea is that the steps could be used as theatre seats for the travelling theatres that were so much part of rural life in India. But unfortunately I'm dreaming of earlier time before television killed off the travelling theatres and entertainers.

It's harvest time and pickup trucks are comically overloaded with straw for winter cattle feed.

Bawari ki Bas

Bawari ki Bas

Overloaded pickupThere are numerous small roads and many dozens of stepwells between here and Bundi. We can only see a few. I've chosen a route to take us through Toonga where I'm hoping to see a deep blue painted Kund ke Balaji - but yet again the decorators have been in and gifted us a rich buttercup yellow with rather lovely pale blue niches and red railings. Three sides of lovely descending steps at the bottom of which is a dry square well bottom. Overhanging trees have deposited sticky resin on the steps. The niches would have been used for offerings and lamps, people would have brought gifts of rice and flowers. Festivals sometimes involved ritual bathing and people would leave behind their old clothes and put on new, symbolic of spiritual death and rebirth.

Kund ke Balaji, ToongaKund ke Balaji stepwell at Toonga

Kund ke Balaji stepwell, Toonga

In between shouting on his phone, a very loud man invites us to his son's wedding in Jaipur. Tomorrow! You'll come!! We make our excuses and he resumes shouting on his phone.

Kund ke Balaji stepwell, Toonga

Kund ke Balaji stepwell, Toonga

Country roads in India have no road signs so we have to rely on Tsering's phone for internet connection and google maps - or find someone to ask. I'm trying to find a particular stepwell but we go round in circles, we know it's there but there seem to be no tracks to it and we can't get close. Eventually we find someone who knows it but we're told that it's been "lost to the jungle, only monkeys go there". Although most of this landscape is dry scrub there are large tracts of very dense forest which local people call the jungle.

Travelling like this it's easy to slow down and lose track of time. We drive past the beguiling hilltop fort of Indergarh. It looks like a fascinating place to explore but it's late afternoon and we have a few hours drive ahead. Just south of Indergarh we spot some old chattris near the road and go to investigate. And we find the remains of a small stepwell which for want of a better name gets called the Lalsot Kota Mega Hiway Baoli. It's a lovely little broken down well - no water but still in use as a Hindu shrine. And it doesn't really feel like we're on a Mega Highway!

Lalsot Kota Mega Hiway BaoliLalsot Kota Mega Hiway Baoli

Lalsot Kota Mega Hiway Baoli

Lalsot Kota Mega Hiway Baoli

Lalsot Kota Mega Hiway BaoliOn a hunch we turn back to Indergarh for one last look for the missing well but instead find two delightful small stepwells at opposite sides of the road, already given the unprepossessing names of Indergarh Baoli 2 and Indergarh Community well. Indergarh 2 is being restored, it sits behind a large dried up stepped pond that once acted as an overflow from a larger lake. Indergarh Community Well is a more modest affair with nice stonework in good condition - and with water.

Indergarh Baoli 2Indergarh Baoli stepwell no 2

Indergarh Baoli stepwell no 2

Indergarh Community Well
Indergarh Community Well

Indergarh Community Well

Driving on, we're on rougher roads and progress is slower. We have a puncture, luckily we also have a spare wheel. At Chamawali we're greeted by a friendly group of men and then we meet the delightful Baba, the keeper of the Chamawali ki Baoli, a deep, sheer sided stepwell. The lower final steps that lead down to the water are narrow and greasy and for the first time I decide not to venture too far.

Baba has a big smile and seems to like everyone, especially Tsering! It's a delightful end to this current leg of our journey. 

Chamawali ki BaoliAt Chamawali ki Baoli stepwell

At Chamawali ki Baoli stepwell

At Chamawali ki Baoli stepwell

At Chamawali ki Baoli stepwell

At Chamawali ki Baoli stepwell

At Chamawali ki Baoli stepwell

Driving after dark in India isn't recommended. Drivers have an aversion to headlights. Camel carts, cyclists, dogs and buffalo loom out of the blackness. We let the hotel in Bundi know that we're still driving. We arrive at the Bundi Inn at 9 and eat on the rooftop.

We'll be spending the next few days in Bundi - it has about 50 stepwells and a spectacular palace and fort - before continuing to Pushkar and then back to Jaipur before returning to Delhi.

We've written before about Bundi and here you can watch our video Stepwells of Bundi.

There are over 900 officially recognised languages in India and numerous local dialects. Stepwells are known by several different local words: baori, baoli, bawari, bawdi are common in Rajasthan; further south in Gujarat the terms kund, vav, vaav are more common.

Photos by Peter Bennion and Tsering Dolma.

Any of these images can be ordered as prints, sizes are from A3 to 50x70cm. See the website or contact peterbennion@mac.com  silkroadgallery.co.uk

 


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