Step wells of Maharashtra

  • We associate step wells with Gujarat and Rajasthan. Thanks to the Maharashtra Stepwell Campaign by Rohan Kale & Team now know the state has atleast 1,750 step wells across regions. They can address water shortage and are part of our national heritage.

Excuse me, is there any Ancient Well nearby..? Well with steps.  Ammmm….not actually well but there is an old tank that might have some broken steps… there it is under that big Mango tree...this way goes straight to the tree…wait come with me. Road is not clear and goes through the forest. You cannot find it easily…

Wow Awesome.  Too Big. Oh four Entrances and Niche also Amazing… Why don’t you use it? It has enough water in the summer season also… you should use it … otherwise it will be history.  This is not just a Tank…It is our Heritage. It is our duty to preserve it. 

There are more than 1500 stepwells in Maharashtra. If we revive and Preserve each Step Well then the Problem of Water Shortage in Maharashtra will be solved permanently. If we start it now then only our Rich Heritage will remain for further generations.

The conversation is between Rohan Kale, Manoj Sinkar and an ordinary villager in Maharashtra. They searched for several abandoned Step Wells and mapped them publicly on Google Map. Rohan Kale quit his Corporate Job for his passion to Revive Stepwells. For six months he rode all over Maharashtra clocking almost 14000 Km. He searched and visited 400 stepwells and recorded/noted their exact GPS locations on Google Map. Importantly, he convinced many people about the need for conservation of Stepwells and involved many more in this conservation project. 

This is how the “Maharashtra Stepwell Campaign” started. Rohan always says, “This is not my personal Campaign, the campaign belongs to the people of Maharashtra.”

To date more than 1,750 stepwells are mapped under this campaign. The campaign started with several objectives

1. Creating the largest and most reliable database of Stepwells in Maharashtra for research and conservation purposes.

2. Identify thousands of Stepwells (capturing gps coordinates and mapping them on custom google map for public view).

3. Capturing Photographs/ Drone Shots of Stepwells.

4. Collaborating with colleges for study of architectural designs of stepwells.

5. Organizing cleanliness drives.

6. Collaborating with people and government for conservation of stepwells.

7. Encouraging villagers / local heritage explorers to identify unique stepwells as tourist attractions.

8. Organizing free study tours for students.

9. Sharing good work done by respective village locals/authorities in conserving stepwells through social and print media to motivate other villages/states.

10. Developing ecological water purification system for stepwells.

11. Solving the water shortage problem of Maharashtra and Heritage Conservation are the Primary Visions of Maharashtra Stepwell Campaign.

Revival, preservation of these stepwells is everybody’s duty and not only of the volunteers working for this campaign. Volunteers are working hard for this. It is due to their efforts that Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) has created a separate page for Stepwells on their website, many stepwells in different districts have been revived and youth are coming forward and showing interest in this work. Social and print media are helping to increase the reach of this campaign. They regularly publish how people and administration help revive a random stepwell.

Last Mahashivratri, Maharashtra Barav Dipotsav arranged for almost 160 stepwells, across Maharashtra, to be decorated with lamps. This Dipotsav will continue forever. On the birth anniversary of Rani Ahilyadevi Holkar people from village Shirpur, Dhule decorated a five storey stepwell with lights. They also organized a lecture and cultural programs.

 Maharashtra Barav Dipotsav.

A stepwell is not only a source of water. It has a different sort of architecture. Some stepwells are small enough to fit in a bedroom whilst others can accomodate a whole building inside. Plenty of designs…. Some stepwells are rough, some are finished. We can find 125 years to 1200 years stepwell in Maharashtra. It is like a separate branch of study for both architecture and civil engineering also for the history students as well as for the historians. Tourist guides or Tour arrangers can expand their business as Stepwell Tourism. This will help local people and heritage explorers. This would give a fillip to tourism and generate employment.

Oh, but what does Stepwell exactly mean? Sorry I forgot to explain. I must explain what a stepwell is? How to identify it? How many are its types?

Stepwell means a well or a water tank which has stairs to reach the water. We can find proof of wells in the Indus Valley Civilization. In the days before the invention of electric or diesel water pump, people used Rahat (a hand operated wooden winch to pull water bucket), Paay Rahat (a foot operated wooden winch to pull water bucket), Bail Rahat (a bullock driven wheel winch to pull a chain of water buckets). Step wells were useful to travelers, villagers, traders and for agriculture. That might be a major cause for the birth of stepwells. One can directly reach the water with less energy.

Step Wells were built by many ruling dynasties. The monarchs from Satavahanas to Chalukyas, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj, the Peshwas, Rani Ahilyadevi Holkar and many philanthropic rich people built these stepwells. Some stepwells have the Inscriptions engraved on it so we can know their age and history.

In Marathi there are different names for every style like Barav, Kund, Pushkarini, Pokhran, Ghodebav, Pandav Kalin / Shivkalin Vihir, Katlkhod vihir etc. In English they are known as Step wells and Step Tanks.

How to identify a step well? Every region has a different style of architecture. Let’s have a look through every region.

I would like to start from my native region of Konkan. In Konkan you can find three types of designs. Ghodebav means a well carved down into a laterite rocky land surface with one side staircase entrance. They are found throughout the region. Second type is a Kund (step tank) which is found near old temples. And third, Pokhran or Pushkarani is a central water reservoir created for public water supply.

Step-wells in Konkan region.         

From the top left. First stepwell is near Ganpatipule Temple. It has three entrances. Presently only the main big entrance is in use. This step tank is regularly kept clean by the temple authority. The temple is almost 500 years old so the step tank might be of the same age. In Konkan there are 120 to 500 years old temples in many villages and almost every temple has its own well or step tank.

Main purpose of these tanks is to provide water for religious rituals and worship. There are many Kunds in Ratnagiri, Raigad, Thane and Sindhudurg districts; most of which belong to the temples and hence they are still alive and protected or brought in use.

The second one in the picture is dug into the plain laterite surface. Local name for this type is Ghodebav means a horse can descend to the water. Some of these wells are rough and some are finished, some of these are protected by walls built of big laterite stones. These stepwells are just along the road. (see image below) In earlier times, before the invention of vehicles, people used waterways, walked or sailed. And trade routes connected harbours and dwellings. Journeys were lengthy, most people would walk, a few travelled in carts. Therefore stepwells were built along the way which would provide relief to thirsty men and animals.

It is very clear that those ways were used as major roads. 'Cattle walks develop into human paths and grew to be highways.' These apparently simple things can throw light on an aspect of human evolution.  

Wells seen in the third and fourth (right side of middle row) images are also small kunds. The Kund in the third picture might be the youngest stepwell (125-130 years old). Image to the left in the middle row is the rare type found in Konkan. It is a specially built central water reservoir and used for farming.

The style to build stepwells also changes with the geographical conditions. One can find every type of stepwell in every district of Maharashtra but the size, material used and storage capacity differ.

In Ratnagiri you find mostly Ghodebav dug into rocky plains. In Sindhudurg there are more Kunds. In Thane there are both types but material used is different. Stepwell in the first picture is located at Badlapur, has walls built to the bottom. The other pic below is near Sapteshwar temple, Sangameshwar and symbolizes the glory of the region in the old times.

Badlapur Stepwell.

Sapteshwar Stepwell.

Now let’s move to Western Maharashtra. It covers modern day districts of Ahmednagar, Pune, Sangli, Satara and Kolhapur. These districts have a long history, being the centers of power of many dynasties. So you can find here every type i.e. L , Z , U , T shaped stepwells, Pokhran, Pushkarini, Kund which are more attractive to see and having more finished structures.

Stepwells in Western Maharashtra 

Take a look at the top and far right stepwell in the below line. A man standing at its edge signifies the hugeness of the stepwell. Everywhere in Maharashtra except Konkan steps of the wells seem to have been descended very deep (except Ghodebav.)

Far right in the below line- this stepwell belongs to the Jejuri area, beside Ballaleshewar temple. See how attractive and finished it is. In spite of the major objective of water supply, magnificence and fineness are a characteristic of wells in this area. The size of these wells is likely to be large enough to meet the water needs of many people, the army, the old ancient pilgrimage site and the devotees visiting the places.

In the middle photo in the lower row is the most beautiful type of stepwell - Pushkarini. Just sit on its banks for hours and observe the beauty. A pushkarini mostly has Niches on its side walls. Sometimes there are some beautiful murtis of Gods-Goddess or the niche is left empty for the Brahman (the priest) for performing rites. You can see beautiful artifacts on the Pushkarini. On the stepwell of Manchar there is an Inscription engraved which tells us that it was constructed in the 14th century. As these districts were the power centers of many dynasties for a long time, many artists stayed there, so you can find stepwells of different shapes like L, Z, U, T. Picture in the far left block shows an L shaped stepwell.

There is a beautiful Z shaped stepwell in Kolhapur city, unfortunately I don't have its photo. As well as stepwells with 2 or 3 or more entrances are commonly seen here. Stepwell near Limb Bara Motechi Vihir is a beautiful example of architecture. You can step into the water, can also see 12 Mot (roped bucket pulled by bullocks) to pull out water and if you just need a calm place, get down in the well. Wonderfully, there is a tiny mansion built in with natural air conditioning. This was constructed in 1719-1724 (source wikipedia) to supply water to some nearby 300 mango plantations. As am a resident of a mango city I know that 300 mango trees never need such a big well. A symbol of royal wealth, it was built by Virubai Bhosale (secondary wife of Chhatrapati. Shahu Maharaj) 

One of the reasons behind such big, magnificent wells is who built it and how much money could he/she spend?

Stepwells in Marathwada: This covers districts of Aurangabad, Jalna, Parbhani, Hingoli, Nanded, Beed, Latur and Osmanabad. There are number of step wells here. Stepwells of Shiva linga or Horse well shape are a few in this region. Wells with artistically constructed steps on all sides, convenient to walk into are seen in large numbers.

Stepwells in Marathwada 

Irrespective of the actual depth the actual pond is very small, while the surrounding work occupies more space and looks very finished. Stones of different colours are used for their construction. The large size ofcould be attributed to the influence of the neighboring states of Karnataka and Telangana.  

Water scarcity in the Marathwada region might be the reason for such huge steps well, all for public benefit. They are generally built with repeated sets of four or five steps followed by spacious platforms. Gates vary in numbers and style. Pictures in the article ably depict the variety of the structures.

Stepwell seen in top left photo displays several kinds of steps. One with circular stairs in the picture beside it is the only of its kind in Maharashtra. Located at Valur, dist. Parbhani it had been laying buried under ground for several years. Local people excavated it thus a beautiful structure was revealed. The step well in the lowest right photo has eight little shrines at its bottom. This is teerth, the well with space left for the priests and hermits to perform rituals like yagya. Water in such wells is believed to be pious.

The whole of the Marathwada region has expressed wide public participation in the campaign. Youth in the region cleaned and resurrected several stepwells which were simply used as dumping spots for years. They are important symbols of our heritage. We also noticed the influence of different architecture and culture.

Step wells Vidharbha: Let us now move to the phenomenal world of multi storied stepwells. They are so beautiful that one can mistake them for well-turned buildings.

Stepwells in Vidharbha

Stepwells in Vidharbha. 

Stepwell Tourism has huge potential. Almost every type of stepwell is found in Maharashtra, with proportionately larger shape. The horse wells, usually a Konkan form is seen here as a three storied structure. If in earlier times there was a guard he must have asked passersby to drink water and have rest on the upper floor.

These huge stepwells are built of bricks, sometimes of red or black stones. Pictures of lotus are carved on arch, entrances (are on three sides) and two storied niches. We can trace their period, year of carving and the creator's name, sometimes found in a verse. 

Stepwells in the Marathwada and Vidarbha regions go back to the times of the Chalukyas or the reign of Ahilyadevi Holkar in the 18th century. Stepwells of this time are found in the Khandesh region too. See pictures below of the huge step well. They are from Vidarbha (i.e. modern day districts of Buldana, Vashi, Akola, Amarawati Yavatmal, Varsha, Nagpur, Bhandara, Gondiya, Gadchiroli, Chandrapur etc.)

Stepwells in Khandesh 

The condition of stepwells in the region could be much better. However, thanks to our campaign their cleaning and restoration has picked up. After facing years of water scarcity locals are realizing the importance and benefit of step wells. The youth are more involved in this campaign today. In a way it symbolizes the campaign’s success.

Besides Vidarbha, Khandesh (districts of Nashik, Dhule, Jalgaon, Nandurbar) too have multi storied stepwells. A five storied stepwell was discovered in the district of Dhule (in Khandesh pic above, it is stepwell on left of pic). It is probably the highest known multi storied stepwell in Maharashtra. On the occasion of Ahilyadevi Holkar's birth anniversary last May, it was decorated with peerless lighting. A palanquin procession and a lecture was organized. 

Suggestions: Participating in this campaign does not require one to leave one’s job. What is required is to clean and conserve the wells in our villages and towns. We must, during restoration, avoid destruction of the original structure and unwanted beautification. It is better to consult with the archeological department or one who knows the method of ancient structures. Attempts for implementing projects under schemes such as Shivkalin water supply and Well Conservation with the help of administrative agencies is recommended.

Promoting stepwell tourism with 'zero waste' may be a goal. This will spread the idea of the Stepwell Conservation Campaign, and might be one way to solve the problem of water scarcity in the state.

Author Shreerang is a key part of the Maharashtra Stepwell campaign. eSamskriti is grateful to him for writing this article and sharing pictures. We wish to thank Shri Rohan Kale as well. To know more about Maharashtra stepwells visit their site 

See albums of step wells across India 

1. Chand Baori Jaipur     

2. Hampi Water system, Karnataka

3. Baoris Bundi, Rajasthan

4. Rani-ka-vav Patan, Gujarat 

5. Adalaj-vav Amdavad, Gujarat

6. Kannur, Kerala

7. Panna Meena-ka-kund Jaipur

8. Step-well Penukonda Fort, Andhra Pradesh

9. Water tank or Kalyani at Melukote, Karnataka  

Adopt modern technology to solve water scarcity problem by all means. At the same time, be open and willing to learn from our ancestors. There is a lot we can learn as Team Rohan Kale have shown.

Also read

1. Why temples/tanks have stepwells

2. Rise and Fall of Traditional Forms of Water Harvesting in India

3. Water from stepwell in Orchha used for irrigation

4. Eris, a system of cascading tanks

5. How ancient India preserved the heritage of water resources – Good read. 

6. India’s profound kinship with water

7. TED talk by Anupam Mishra – the ingenuity of water harvesting 18 minutes VG.

8. Naul and Dhar – A Cultural Heritage of the Himalayas

9. Traditional Forms of Water Harvesting and applicability

Some pics of famous step wells / water tanks / kunds. These are invariably found close to temples.

Kund Verinag, J&K is the source of the river Jhelum. 

Rani-ki-vav, Patan, Gujarat

Melukote, Karnataka.

Chand Baori near Jaipur.

Penukonda Fort, Andhra Pradesh.

Adalaj-vav near Amdavad, Gujarat  

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