This American author is on the haunting trail of India’s stepwells.

American journalist and author Victoria Lautman’s 2017 book, The Vanishing Stepwells of India, explores the ancient and mysterious water-harvesting systems scattered across the country. We catch up with Lautman ahead of her India tour.

It is safe to say that a visit to the Red Fort tops every tourist’s itinerary in Delhi. Yet, few are aware of another architectural gem in the capital: The Red Fort Baoli or stepwell, that lies just a few yards away from the monument. It is one among over a 100 stepwells that can be found across Delhi alone. Yet, these architecture and engineering marvels are rarely visited, and often lie hidden in plain sight. Sadly, compared to India’s forts, palaces and temples, there is relatively very little information available about its stepwells.

Dating back to 600 CE, these subterranean stepwells (also known as baolis, vavs or bawadis) can be found across the country, and are unique to the Indian subcontinent. They stand testimony to traditional water-harvesting systems, and an ancient knowledge of engineering and craftsmanship. Built by rich patrons and considered to be sacred water bodies, they were nevertheless secular in function and fulfilled the socio-economic needs of local communities. However, with the passage of time and the advent of modern technology, they faded into oblivion.

It was the lack of information available, and an “obsession” with Indian stepwells that led American author Victoria Lautman to pen one of the few books on this topic. Released last year, The Vanishing Stepwells of India profiles 75 wells scattered across eight states in north and south India, and provides the GPS coordinates.

“It all began 30 years ago on my first visit to India, when I encountered the Rudabai Vav in Adalaj, Gujarat. I was astounded by that 500-hundred-year-old subterranean structure. I’d never seen or heard of anything like it. The whole experience was extremely powerful, and the memory indelible,” says Lautman.

It took some more trips to India before Lautman decided to research the topic in earnest. She admits that she bagged the book contract in 2017, and finished the book on a mere three-and-a-half-month deadline. The photographs in the book were also taken by Lautman on a point-and-shoot camera. Over January and February, Lautman will be touring various cities to speak about her book.

In The Vanishing Stepwells of India, Lautman describes how the primary purpose of stepwells was to provide water year-round. “But stepwells could also be subterranean Hindu temples or Muslim retreats. They were cool shelters during scorching summers, and vital oases along remote trade routes. Socially, they were of importance for women, who led terribly constrained lives. The task of retrieving water was one of the most congenial and communal experiences available to them,” says Lautman.

Interestingly, a quarter of stepwells built were commissioned by royal or wealthy women, often to honour deceased husbands. They were a philanthropic gesture and bestowed as charitable gifts to communities, shares Lautman.

There is an element of mystery about India’s stepwells, be it the date when they are built or how they were built. “Everything is speculative and even scholars frequently disagree. While we know about the pre-industrial use of manpower, oxen and ramps, the engineers I’ve spoken with have differing opinions about how stepwells were constructed. They do, however, agree that building down into the earth is subject to more stress than building above ground, and is therefore more challenging,” says Lautman.

Despite being useful, it was the passage of time that made stepwells obsolete and neglected. “Stepwells became untethered from their original purpose - providing water – due to the availability of modern amenities like hand pumps, village taps, tanks, and plumbing. Why would anyone negotiate dozens of steps when there was a choice? And as stepwells lost significance, maintenance was no longer a priority,” says Lautman. However, it’s not all bleak. Several stepwells have been restored or are well-preserved, though there are many historically significant ones that are in a state of decay with garbage dumped in them. As examples she cites Rudabai Vav in Ahmedabad and Agrasen ki Baoli in Delhi, that are relatively spotless, while Rani ki Vav in Patan is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

As Lautman aptly sums up in her book, “Wherever they are found, be it in a city, village or remote desert, every stepwell is individual, and I would argue that there is no such thing as a bad stepwell.” Victoria Lautman will attend events at multiple venues between Jan 20 and Feb 12. Lautman is in-conversation with Divay Gupta of INTACH Architectural Heritage, on Jan 21, 6pm at CMYK, New Delhi; giving a presentation on Jan 22, 7pm, at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi; part of a panel discussion on Jan 26, 3.45pm, at Durbar Hall, Jaipur Literature Festival; in-conversation with writer Dharmendra Kanwar on Jan 27, at Anantaya Decor, Jaipur; giving a presentation on Feb 5, 4.30pm at INTACH Heritage Academy, New Delhi; a presentation on Feb 7, 11am, at School of Architecture, Delhi Technical Campus, Greater Noida; a presentation on Feb 8, 3.30pm at The American Centre, New Delhi; a lecture and presentation on Feb 6, 2pm, at Chitkara University, Chandigarh; and a lecture on Feb 6, at Sushant School of Art & Architecture, Ansal University, Gurgaon.