Adaptive Reuse of Ancient Stepwells in Modern Times

Author – Rajita Mehta

Stepwells, locally called baolis or baoris, are a reminder of how civilizations have flourished in the north by tackling the dry, arid climate.

These water harvesting systems are special form of wells, in which the water can be reached by descending a set of steps. During their days of relevance, these reservoirs tapped into underground water tables and stored clean potable water.

What are Stepwells?

Rani ki Baoli Step Well – Image Wikimedia

A typical stepwell is linear, and comprises of a central stepped corridor, covered on three sides, pavilions, leading to a well. Over time, these simple designs evolved into more elaborate structures.

Typically, a stepwell can be several storeys deep, with lattice work on walls, carved columns, decorated towers, and intricate sculpture work. They are exceptional examples architecture of the time.

The designers also employed a number of anti-earthquake techniques. Pilasters, multiple symmetries, a low centre of gravity, pavilions (both steadying and cross bracing), and careful fitting of rectangular blocks made it nearly impossible to roll a stone out of place.

The magnificence, however, of these structures lies in the sensory experience that is provided by spatial organization of their various architectural elements. The pilasters of the pavilion at the entrance mark the only existence on ground, almost hidden in plain sight.

As one starts to descend down, the process of moving through the space itself becomes an event. The horizontal movement contrasts linear organization of elements, accentuated by inclined movement on the vertical steps, continuously changes the visual frames. The experience is also enhanced due to change in scale and proportion as one descends down this unique spatial arrangement.

This moment on, the senses are engaged in a sublime experience. Soon the cacophony of the outside world becomes hushed, and the bright light begins to darken gradually. The intense summer heat cools down at subterranean levels. The air is filled with mystery and intrigue as one observes the structure rising.

Problem of Irrelevance

Plan and section, Vikia step well, Gujarat. Image source:

For historical communities, the significance of this public utility building has been beyond its utilitarian purpose. For Hindus, for instance, the presence of water invested in these wells carried religious meaning. The micro-climate inside also provided a respite from the heat, making them appropriate resting places for travelers (sarai).

However, with changing times, these structures have lost value, not only as water harvesting systems but also as community buildings. In time of bottled water and perennial taps, use of a stepwell is nothing short of impractical. Also, the structural decay has rendered their use impossible even as water systems. However, despite this functional irrelevance, these architectural marvels continue to intrigue their visitors.

“Adaptive reuse enables a historic building to continuously derive relevance from use, and thus remain dynamically evolving.”

Adaptive Reuse as the Solution

The solution to this problem can be found in the concept of adapting the stepwells for uses that are compatible with the modern community.

One example of such reuse is The Neemrana ki Baoli, which is being converted to a Crafts’ Haat. Built in 1760s by Raja Todar Mal, this 9-storey well was to serve as a guard against famine. But in the last few decades, the baoli stood neglected- mainly because the feeding well, from which the baoli-well draws water through seepage, was ceded to private ownership, and as a result the water was rendered inappropriate for use.

The Rani Ki Baoli at Neemrana – Image source

The project, being undertaken by the Union Ministry of Tourism, involves restoring many roofs, re-doing the brackets, flooring, plastering, and ensuring security through metal gates and katheras (stone parapets). The steps, about 200 in number, will also be given a new birth. Undoubtedly, the interventions in the project are intentional and are meant to be permanent.

Being only 125 kilometres from Delhi and in close proximity to the Neemrana Fort-Palace, the renewal is expected to fetch substantial tourist traffic.

Crafts’ Haat Work in Progress at Neemran ki Baoli – Image Source – Sandeep Subhash

But there is another way of adaptive reuse, where the interventions are not directly intentional and the changes are only temporary. The In 2008, the Agrasen ki baoli, located in central Delhi, was used as the background for an art installation as part of ‘48℃ Public-Art-Ecology Festival’. Thus, for three days, the baoli served the function of an exhibition space.

Temporary Exhibition Space at Agrasen ki Bavdi Image Source

The concept of adaptive reuse can be applied to any public monument or building of historical value. Historic buildings are essentials of cultural heritage, valuable resources with architectural and historic value, and with smart reuse techniques, they can also be economically and practically valuable.

Here are some more arguments:

● Adaptive reuse helps in preserving architectural and cultural heritage, which also serves educational purpose of displaying techniques and lifestyles of bygone days.
● Adaptive reuse also helps in providing job opportunities to the local craftsmen and laborers. Since most of the building is already built, the work needed to fit new function requires less money, making them economical.
● These old building are also environmentally beneficial, as they are designed to include natural light and ventilation, thus conserving energy.
● Water buildings will never return to serve as they did, but it is possible to reuse them for a new use, while still preserving the unique typology.

Rajita Mehta
I am a graduate in architecture, and currently pursuing a career in interior and product design. I am a self confessed conservation enthusiast and most passionate about traditional Indian architecture, particularly the step wells of India. My writings are an attempt to explore different techniques to preserve, conserve and reuse these magnificent structures.