India's stepwells — known as vav or baoli, depending on the region — are enormous, sophisticated structures that have been around since approximately A.D. 600. While many of them have fallen into disrepair, there are quite a few that have been well maintained. These remain beautiful, functional relics of a bygone era. Here are just three of the most incredible stepwells in India:
Agrasen ki Baoli (New Delhi)
This impressive well is an excellent place to get a look at how water was collected before the days of plumbing. Although New Delhi is a bustling place, Agrasen ki Baoli is actually quite serene. In fact, it is located in a residential area and hidden behind a stone wall. With that said, this stepwell has become much more of a tourist attraction since 2014, when it was featured in the film PK.
There are very few concrete historical records surrounding the construction of stepwells, so their history is often steeped in mystery and legend. Agrasen ki Baoli, for example, is named for an ancient king who may have never even existed. It was likely built sometime around the late 14th century, but it has recently been restored.
Agrasen ki Baoli is also considered to be one of New Delhi's most haunted areas — so it should be a definite stop on the travel itinerary of any folklorists or ghost hunters out there. There are many stories of curses, ghosts, and demons surrounding this stepwell. And indeed, during its less crowded hours, it's not hard to see why — this beautiful piece of ancient architecture is certainly atmospheric, and it has had hundreds of years to accumulate a backlog of mythology.
Agrasen ki Baoli is listed as a protected monument by the Archaeological Survey of India. It has 108 steps and consists of three levels, each of which is lined with lovely archways. In its heyday, Agrasen ki Baoli likely offered shade, water, and a pleasant social scene for everyone who fetched water from its depths.
Rani ki Vav (Gujarat)
For the art history aficionado, Rani ki Vav ("The Queen's Stepwell") is a definite must-see. This stepwell is located along the banks of Gujarat's Saraswati River, and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This stepwell fulfills two of UNESCO's criteria for designation as a location with Outstanding Universal Value. First, the complex artwork throughout the stepwell makes it a "masterpiece of human creative genius." Second, its impressive and well-maintained architecture means that it is a building that "illustrates a significant stage in human history."
Rani ki Vav was built all the way back in the 11th century, and was actually designed as a memorial site for the region's king. While stepwells have existed for millennia, this particular site was built during the height of stepwell design and craftsmanship. The expertise of its architects is evident as soon as you see Rani ki Vav in person.
This stepwell wasn't simply designed to be utilitarian. Rather, it was designed as an inverted temple that celebrated the importance and sanctity of water. Rani ki Vav goes seven stories into the ground, giving it the unique visual appearance of an entire underground city. But its size isn't the only impressive feature. Throughout its halls and pavilions, Rani ki Vav contains over 1,500 sculptures that have survived the centuries. These artworks feature a dizzying array of subjects. Some are religious, others are secular; some feature folklore and mythological stories; and others reference popular literary works.
Chand Baori (Rajasthan)
Known as a hidden secret of India, Chand Baori is one of the world's largest stepwells. It has a whopping 13 floors that descend approximately 64 feet into the ground. Expect a workout, since to get to the bottom, you'll climb down 3,500 steps.
This awe-inspiring stepwell was built in the 9th century at the behest of King Chand Raja. While some stepwells were built as memorials or monuments, Chand Baori was a particularly functional piece of architecture. The Rajasthan area was incredibly dry and arid, and stepwells like this one greatly improved the lives of everyone who lived there.
Despite the fact that it doesn't have particular religious significance, Chand Baori is nevertheless an incredible sight to behold. Its architecture is fairly unique, consisting of a complex geometric pattern that can be seen throughout the courtyard and various floors. The steps themselves make up a distinctive crisscrossing pattern, surrounding the central courtyard on three sides. The fourth side consists of a multi-story pavilion which features beautiful archways, galleries, and balconies full of sculptures.
Although Chand Baori is an incredible piece of history, it doesn't actually get too many tourists. In part, this is because it isn't in a major metropolitan area, and is therefore a bit of a challenge to access. It is located in the village of Abhaneri, which has no direct bus lines running through it. There are two main ways for visitors to get here: you can either take a taxi from the nearby Sikandra, or you can travel by bus to the town of Gular and then walk for about an hour to reach Abhaneri. Although it's a bit of a trek, it's definitely worth it to see this hidden gem.