The stepwells of Bundi

This post is dedicated to Kukkiji without whom, it would probably never have been written.


It was past 8 in the evening and our OLTT travel group had just returned to our hotel in Bundi after a day’s exploration of temples and palaces. It had been a wonderful, but long, day and I was tired in the best possible way.

It was also the last day of our Bundi trip and we would all be returning home the next day — most would head off to Delhi in the morning, while Niti (my friend and co-traveller for the Hadoti Trip) would leave for Mumbai in the afternoon.

Saraswati

As I was getting out of the vehicle, Kukkiji, our guide stopped me. [1]

“Sister, one minute. Don’t go for I want to show you something.” Saying this he passed his cell phone to me which had a picture (left) on its screen.

“Where is this?” I asked in wonder.

“Here. In Bundi only. Just a couple of kilometres from your hotel.”

“Which temple is it in?”

The response was broad smile and a “It is not in a temple; this is at the entrance to a baori (stepwell).”

Baori? You mean there are more baoris in Bundi? More than the four you showed us?

“Sister, Bundi city alone has around 52 baoris and there are more outside the city limits. I knew you would be interested in them; that is why I showed this photograph to you.”

“I want to see this, Kukkiji. I have to see this. I want to see all the baoris.”

“Meet me outside your hotel at 9 am tomorrow. You can’t see all, but you can see some of the baoris before you leave,” said Kukkiji.

Kukkiji had no idea that he had put forth an offer that I could not resist. I love stepwells, can’t pass by one without stopping by to explore it.

The first time I saw a stepwell was at Hampi — the Pushkarni — though the word ‘saw’ is a bit incorrect for it was filled with water and I just about got an idea of its characteristic step-like feature. I didn’t have better luck the second stepwell either — this time it was at Champaner and both the stepwells I saw were filled with water. I was third time lucky, though, with the Rani ni Vav at Patan and what a grand introduction to this unique architecture it turned out to be.

It was love at first sight for me. Since then I’ve seen quite a few stepwells and my obsession fascination for them has only grown over the years. Everything about stepwells — their unique architecture, their geometry, the sculptures and shrines within, that mysterious and strange feeling when descending into them, the reflection thrown on the walls by the water… everything.

Though I was aware that Bundi had stepwells, I didn’t know there so many of them. I was quite happy to have seen 4 stepwells there: Rani ji ki Baori, Dabhai Kund, Kota-Bundi Baori and a fourth baori-that-didn’t-have-a-name. That is, till Kukkiji mentioned the 50+ stepwells in Bundi, after which I just had to see more of them!

Next morning, after breakfast and goodbyes to other members of the group, Niti and I set off to see more stepwells in Bundi with Kukkiji. Our first halt was the Dadhi Manthan Devi Baori, which had the Saraswati sculpture that Kukkiji had shown me the previous day. It was even more exquisite in real and I was delighted to see an equally beautiful sculpture of Ganesha at the entrance. The baori, in itself, was unimpressive, but the water looked far cleaner here than in any other stepwell we saw in Bundi.

The rest of the morning went in visiting five more stepwells — Vyas Baori, Damra Baori, Bhawal di Baori, Naruji ki Baori and Shukla Baori. Kukkiji wasn’t able to come with us, but he gave directions for all and told us to hire a rickshaw that would take us around. And that is exactly what we did and when we finished, we had seen 10 baoris in Bundi, the city of stepwells.

Stepwells of Bundi, Indigenous architecture, Art and Architecture, Baoris, Stepwells of India, Rajastham Bundi, Hadoti Trip, Hadoti, Vernacular architecture
O.P. Sharma alias Kukkiji 🙂

The stepwells of Bundi that I saw were a mixed bag in every possible way. Be it their shape (‘I’, ‘T’ or ‘L’); size (the biggest was Rani ji ki Baori and the smallest was Shukla Baori); decoration and embellishment (ornate to minimal); information available (only one had a detailed information board, some just had a board with the baori’s name, and most were without any form of identification) — one got to see it all.

However, there were some common features for the stepwells — poor to negligible maintenance; stagnant and dirty water in all of them; and a general air of neglect surrounding them all (some more than the others). This was true for even the best known stepwells like the Rani ji ki Baori and the Dabhai Kund, which also happen to be protected monuments. A couple of the stepwells, like the Bhawal di Baori, appeared to be under private ownership and was under lock and key.

Presenting the stepwells of Bundi I saw — just about one-fifth of the total number of stepwells reported to exist in Bundi today. Click on any photograph to enlarge it; you can then navigate through the set using the left or right arrow keys. Do come back to read the rest of the post, once done.

Stepwells are the most refined of water architecture and are unique to the Indian sub-continent with most of the stepwells found in the driest regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan to ensure year-round supply of water to people and animals. At the same time, the baoris are sacred places for their life sustaining properties and, therefore, a site for rites and rituals. Stepwells were believed to be the place where the three realms of the subterranean, the earthly, and the celestial were linked. They were also places that gave those who commissioned these structures religious merit. [2]

But why did Bundi have so many stepwells? According to this newspaper report, Bundi once had 107 baoris, which had drastically reduced to the 50 odd ones that existed today in recent years. Now Bundi is not exactly in a dry region and receives fairly good rainfall. The water table is high and even in summer in the past, there is water. It took me a while to understand that religious merit aside, the planners had used them for groundwater recharge and conservation. Bundi, being at the foothills of the Aravallis, was perfect to store all the run off.

This led me to the question as to why and when the baoris stopped being used and fell into disuse. I found a possible explanation in a fabulous read on stepwells by Purnima Mehta Bhatt, who said that they stopped being used and fell into disrepair after the establishment of British rule in India. [2]

The British administration viewed the stepwells with horror and disdain. They regarded the waters in these wells as unclean, unhygienic and a source of potentially hazardous infections. Regulations imposed by the British prohibited the use of the stepwells for drinking water… Many were sealed and declared off-limits while others crumbled to the ground, victims of neglect and disuse.

Stepwells of Bundi, Indigenous architecture, Art and Architecture, Baoris, Stepwells of India, Rajastham Bundi, Hadoti Trip, Hadoti, Vernacular architectureAs I recall the dank odour in the wells and rubbish floating in the waters of the stepwell, I wonder if we are any different from the British. It has been 70 years since our Independence and instead of reviving an age-old water conservation method, and also repairing and maintaining existing water bodies, borewells, dams, canals and interlinking projects are being heavily invested in.

All these are projects that have long-term environmental impact that are detrimental to nature and something as precious as a natural resource like water. Bhatt quotes the Gujarati poet, Dayaram Dalpatram who in 1986 had said:

Resettle the abandoned villages.
Seek out the stepwells, wells, rivers, streams and
Revive the old traditions.
Make this your sacred dharma.

I can’t agree with this more, or emphasise on the need for water conservation. I enjoyed visiting the baoris in Bundi, not just because of what I saw but also because of the questions they raised. For the first time, perhaps because of the sheer numbers and varieties I saw in such a small area, I went beyond admiring the architecture and actively sought out information on stepwells in general and the ones in Bundi in particular — books, papers, articles, etc — in an attempt to answer the many questions I had. [3]

This search has been most satisfying; with every question answered, other questions have been raised  making this journey of a seeker an ongoing one.


Notes:

[1] O.P. Sharma or Kukkiji as he is better known is, hands down, the most interesting guide I have ever met. A garrulous man, he became interested in the history of the region during the course of his wanderings there. He is entirely self-taught with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, which he is willing to share if you show the interest. I feel fortunate that he shared so much on the stepwells and other aspects of Bundi’s fascinating history. If you have been to Bundi, chances are that he was your guide; if not you have missed out on knowing him.

[2] Purnima Mehta Bhatt (2014): Her Space, Her Story – Exploring the Stepwells of Gujarat, New Delhi: Zubaan Books.

[3] There is book by INTACH called Baolis of Bundi: The Ancient Stepwells that I desperately wanted to buy. One look at the price and I gave up the idea.


Disclaimer: This part of my Hadoti Trip was done with One Life to Travel, and it was NOT a free, sponsored or discounted trip.


The Hadoti Trip Series: Dear Hadoti | Discovering Jhalawar | The painted rooms of Garh Mahal in Jhalawar | Bhawani Natyashala: The Opera House of Jhalawar | An evening in Jhalrapatan | The Buddhist rock-cut caves at Kolvi | The Gagron Fort at Jhalawar | An impact crater, a temple ruin and some discoveries | A fun evening in KotaA safari on Chambal River | The painted rooms of Kota Garh Palace The Shiva temples of Bijolia | The temples at Badoli | That and this in Bundi | The painted rooms of Bundi Palace | The Stepwells of Bundi | The Hadoti Trip Planner |


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41 thoughts on “The stepwells of Bundi

  1. Reading your post was like a rewind. I visited Bundi last year. I haven’t posted anything on Bundi yet….time crunch as always.

    Stepwell have always interested me. We have many stepwell here in Jaipur too. But only one​ of them is restored. Rest all have same fate as shown in your​ post here.

    I started exploring and locating many such baoris here in Jaipur. Yet to write a post on them. I have just written a post on Panna Meena kund.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great post! If you’re not aware, do see our ‘Stepwell Atlas’ collaborative map of 1500+ stepwells. We map stepwells with exact location info (GPS coordinates) and pics and links, with a view to increasing visibility of stepwells and helping to preserve them for future generations. Search for ‘Stepwell Atlas’ android app or see the website at http://www.stepwells.org

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you, Stepwell Atlas. I found out about your work after my return from Bundi. When I visit Bundi next, I will take your map with me before I visit the stepwells in Bundi.

        Like

    2. It is very important that these stepwells are documented and written about, not just by the experts and professionals, but also by travellers like us. I feel that we take water for granted in India, even in a relatively water deficient state like Rajasthan; this extends to water architecture. Combine this with our idea of large dams, canals and more recently, river inter-linking, as development and we are going to pay a price for neglecting our stepwells.

      I was shocked to find that Mumbai has a couple of stepwells or rather stepped tanks. I found out about them only recently and am yet to see them. I hope to visit them sooner, rather than later.

      Looking forward to reading about your explorations of the stepwells of Jaipur. More things to see when I visit Jaipur 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are so right. Today itself I posted a picture on Instagram. The story revolved around the land mafia killing a huge artificial water dam.

        I think linking rivers will be a great ecological disaster. The authorities are unable to address the issue directly and are looking at alternative way to sort out. Playing with nature is always disastrous. Its sometimes we have never been able to master.

        You are right. Documenting at individual level is much more important. And so is spreading a word about it.
        I never knew that information on kund in Mumbai. Will look forward to your post. Great going, Sudhagee.

        Did you read my post on Panna Meena kund?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes I did and I look forward to visiting it when I’m in Jaipur next. Somehow, Jaipur (like Chennai and Delhi) has eluded a proper exploration. I always seem to be visiting it on my way to some other place. This has to be remedied soon.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Ha ha! I know it happens to all of us… Like writers block…there’s travelers block to specific places/sites! Let me know if you need any info or help, whenever you are visiting pink city!

            Like

  2. ‘Dadhi Manthan Devi Baori’ Interesting! Is there a story behind the name linked to Goddess Saraswati?
    Both Sarawati and Ganesh chariots have fixes like shock-absorbers! Those toranams in stone are amazing! They seem to be free hanging.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Locally, Dadhi Manthan Devi means Yashoda or Krishna’s mother. But I feel that she is also used to refer to any Devi. The temple next to this stepwell, which is called Dadhi Manthan Devi, is actually a Durga temple. The main idil in the garbha griha is a huge Durga mounted on a lion and facing the devotee. The Durga here is not like the Sherewali Maa where the lion is a profile and Devi is seated rather demurely on the lion. I found the temple and the stepwell most intriguing, but unfortunately didn’t get more information and have shared all the information I know here on the blog.

      Regarding your query about the name and its possible link to Saraswati, I din’t think so. Sarawari and Ganesha are a standard icinography outside all stepwells, The details vary though and the one that I have shown here is is the most beautiful.

      Thanks for pointing out about the fixes like shock-absorbers! I didn’t notice them at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The apathy of looking after these heritage structures is criminal. We should learn to protect our heritage and to take pride in it from the rest of the world. Sad to see this condition of the step-wells.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No heritage structure can survive if the locals are not invested in it; especially something like the stepwells. The government or the caretakers can only do so much. Most of the stepwells are not the property of the Bundi municipality, but is privately owned by those who may or may not have the means to look after the stepwells or maintain it.

      It is more important to educate the locals and make them realise of the treasure and worth of the stepwells. A large part of the issues pertaining to them can be resolved this way, for the government, any government for that, can only do so much.

      Like

  4. Sudhagee – I’m really hoping your photos are geotagged – please can you confirm exact location info (GPS coordinates) of these photos for me?

    Kota Bundi ki Baori
    Dadhi Manthani Devi Baori
    Vyas Baori
    Damra Baori
    Shukla Baori

    I am really keen to hear from you, to cross-reference the info on our Stepwell Atlas (www.stepwells.org)

    Many thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m very sorry, but my photos aren’t geo tagged. I didn’t think of it then. However, let me try and get them for you from the guide who told me about these stepwells.

      Like

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