It is easy to miss the vast, ancient stepwells of India even if you are standing directly in front of one. These structures are sunken into the Earth with stairways that spiral or zigzag as far as nine stories down into the cool, dark depths where a pool of water lies. Once an important part of daily life in India, modern wells have replaced them. Walls, vegetation and neighboring buildings have grown up to hide them. Victoria Lautman, author of The Vanishing Stepwells of India, spent years searching them out. Lautman fell in love with stepwells on her first trip to India.
People began constructing stepwells in western India in around 650 AD. They were intended primarily as a source of clean water but also served as gathering places, temples and refuges from the heat.
While Hindu in origin, the value of stepwells was grasped by Muslim rulers of the Mughal empire beginning in the early 1500’s. Some Hindu religious inscriptions where defaced, but they allowed construction to continue and even built their own wherever they went.
When the British occupied India (succeeding the Mughals) they considered stepwells unsanitary and set about creating new sources of water. Drilled and bored wells became common, along with pumps and pipes that made stepwells obsolete. The vast majority of Indian stepwells fell into disuse. The last one was built in 1903.