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Some science behind the scenes

Sacred geography - step wells


Step wells are wells or ponds in which the water may be reached by descending a set of steps.  Architecturally they are like an upside-down ziggurat, dug into the earth - instead of reaching up to the heavens. Some of the larger step wells are more like inverted subterranean temples. 

Generally speaking step wells are utilitarian, but this does not exclude them being part of the sacred architecture of a site.  From the utilitarian perspective, in very dry regions, they were built in the loose, sandy soil, to reach the very low water table, which may fluctuate heavily between periods of severe drought and the summer rains.  


But the very fact there are step wells in the Indus valley area, for example, - reservoirs and tanks that have steps, but are not fed by groundwater wells, - shows that in many cases they were a sacred and not a utilitarian feature. 

Water in general has considerable symbolic meaning – for purification, as spirit input and as a level and layer – an Element.  These wells – if the water is renewed from ground water and is clean and fresh is used as a source of water for ceremonial use, for example, puja ceremonies.  But there is more to them than this, the architecture is key.



Step wells are most common in western India and the other more arid regions of South Asia, extending into Pakistan. A great number are to be found in the area where the Indus valley civilisation once was. 

Examples include:

  • Toor Ji ki Baori -  known also as “Jahlara” in Jodhpur, Rajhastan;
  • Bhoot Baori -  which means “ghost” stepwell and is also in Jodhpur;
  • Rani ki Vav – the Queen’s Stepwell - a major landmark of Patan, in the Eastern part of Gujarat. Patan, is also famous for its intricate patola double icat weaving.  Rani ki Vav, the Queen’s Well, was commissioned by queen Udayamati, in memory of her husband, King Bhimadeva I of the Solanki dynasty, who died in 1064.

The Model of the Mind

In order to understand the sacred geography of a step well one needs to understand the Model of the Mind.  The Mind consists of three parts – the Higher spirit, the Conscious self and the Subconscious

Dante's Inferno - his Subconscious was definitely troubled by demons

The Conscious self is represented in sacred architecture as a pyramid, a ziggurat or an artificial hill having an ascending stair or path.  To reach the Higher spirit [Paradise] one has to symbolically ascend up the stairs or steps of this artificial mountain.  Thus all artificial mountains are symbolic of ascent with an appropriate number of levels and layers.  Symbolically again, this is the masculine – Shiva and not Shakti.  It requires one to Squash the big I am and clean out the memory, questioning and doubting all beliefs.  Memory and Ego are two concepts of the Conscious mind – the symbolic masculine.

Dante's Paradiso and ascension

But an alternative route to the Higher spirit is via the feminine – the Subconscious.  Shiva and Shakti the joining of the masculine and feminine is a favoured approach in Shaivism, using sex and the emotions it produces, for example, to help. 

Emotions and perceptions are feminine concepts – part of the Subconscious.  As such ‘descent’ symbolically to the water of spirit is a valid option and when one descends into a step well, one is symbolically delving into the subconscious – ‘doing the dive’.  The descent is of the feminine and very often the statues are feminine in these wells – Shakti and not Shiva predominates. 


Step wells and Shaivism

The feminine motif is extremely prevalent in all sacred step wells. They are the mirror of the masculine, like a mould for the temples of this area. 


The feminine is by nature not ego driven and as a consequence the symbolism is perfect -  stepwells are not visible from afar – unlike phallic towers and monuments erected by generally male rulers.But they have a very palpable presence.

It is interesting to note that twenty-five percent of the people who commissioned stepwells for the public good were women, and that a very large number of these wells are dedicated to the goddess Durga in her different manifestations.

According to Shaktism, Adi Para Shakti—the Goddess, Devi or Durga—is the Supreme Being and the believers regard Durga as the root cause of creation, sustenance and annihilation. She is pure energy (referred to as "Shakti"). Being innately formless (known as Adi Parashakti), she manifests herself within the gods and demi-gods so that she may fulfill the tasks of the universe via them. At times of distress, such as when Mahishasura terrorised the universe, she manifests herself in divine form to protect the world.

Thoughts on the visceral architecture of stepwells in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Delhi – Rita Mendes-Flohr

Beyond my recognition of the Indian stepwells as visually stunning architectural masterpieces, I sensed that these stairways down into the ground are able to evoke something much deeper. As an erstwhile student of architecture, I have always been less interested in the visual qualities of a building, than in its visceral and kinesthetic dimensions – how you experience it with all your senses, not only your eyes. I ask how a built environment invites you to move; what subtle sensations it arouses as you walk through it; the archetypal images it awakens; how it transforms you, like an initiation rite or a pilgrimage would.

Sets of steps go down - one set to the right and one to the left, descending to the next platform, from where you step down to a new landing that is further in - and the next set of stairs starts to go down on each side. The pattern is repeated horizontally and vertically, so that a continuous, hypnotic rhythm is formed by these large blocks of stone seen in profile, and you are not certain if you are descending or ascending - as in an etching by Escher. 

I stand there in silence, going down a few steps at a time. The water, a luscious blue, deep down the steps, mesmerizes me, beckons me. It is the focal point of the entire structure. It calls you to follow the rhythm of the steps – as if playing the keys of a piano with your feet. You must, inevitably, go down, all the way down, to fulfill the stepwell’s promise.

I do not dare go all the way down. Closer to the water, the steps look slippery, covered with wet, green algae, …. But to come so close to the water, so near its sources, and not to go all the way, leaves me with a sense of missing out on a singular experience.

A sense of quiet, mingled with the coolness of being so close to the water, so deep in the ground overtakes me. It is the pleasure of going all the way down, to swim in the waters of my subconscious. It is an inner sense of completion.



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