Stepwells are structures unique to India, built at least as early as 600 CE. They are magnificent feats of architectural and engineering ingenuity found most commonly across the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan and stretching to Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Seasonal monsoonal rains in the parched landscape of northwest India necessitated a water-storage system to support populations. These subterranean structures plunge three to thirteen stories into the ground, and stairways transport visitors to the base of a well to retrieve water. Stepwells commissioned by Hindu patrons reflect the incorporation of the post-and-lintel building system, while Muslim-inspired stepwells often result in octagonal-shaped well shafts, majestic domes, and extensive colonnades with repeated archways.
For the past 30 years, Victoria Lautman has visited and photographed more than 200 stepwells. This selection of 48 photographs surveys 16 sites built between the 9th and 18th centuries. Lautman’s photographs evoke aspects of each stepwell’s structure, aesthetics, and atmosphere, whether a bustling site of community gathering, a place of worship, an international tourist attraction, or a neglected, derelict site. This project invites us to ponder the challenges of preserving exceptional built heritage alongside the necessity to identify water-harvesting solutions in the modern era, especially in a nation where the severe depletion of the water table contributes to a lack of safe, clean water for 163 million people every day.
This exhibition is organized by the Fowler Museum at UCLA and curated by Joanna Barrkman, Senior Curator of Southeast Asian and Pacific Arts.
Watch the exhibition trailer:
Photographer Lautman speaks about her discovery of magnificent subterranean structures—found throughout India—known as stepwells. Click here to read or listen to the interview.