Tag Archives: India

The Vanishing Stepwells of India: A New Book by Victoria Lautman Documents the Fading Relics of Subterranean Wells 

Van Talab Baoli. Amer, Rajasthan. c. 1600/19th Century.

Scattered across India’s vast landscape of ancient architecture including temples, mosques, and palaces are an often overlooked relic of historic infrastructure called stepwells. These subterranean buildings, once numbered in the thousands, were originally dug into the landscape so residents could easily access water. Over time, stepwells grew increasingly elaborate in their construction, morphing from modest rock-cut holes into fully functional Hindu temples with ornate columns, stairwells, and shrines. Each well now serves as a fading structural fingerprint, diverse and unique as the communities that designed and built them.

Chicago journalist Victoria Lautman first peeked over the edge of a stepwell some 30 years ago and was immediately transfixed at the idea of staring down into an architectural wonder as opposed to looking up. She has since dedicated much of the last five years criss-crossing India over several years to locate and photograph as many wells as possible. We first mentioned Lautman’s discoveries back in 2015, after which she resumed trips to India to locate an additional 60 wells, bringing the grand total to over 200 sites she’s personally visited and documented.

“Descending into the earth is a profound experience, one in which sweltering heat turns to enveloping cool, and noises become hushed,” she writes about encountering the wells.

After centuries of neglect some stepwells are in perilous condition or have vanished altogether, while others have been thoughtfully maintained by surrounding communities or governments who recognize their significance and possess the will (and funding) to restore them. In an attempt to preserve their legacy, Lautman has gathered a visual tour of 75 of the more unique and interesting wells in a new book titled The Vanishing Stepwells of India. The book includes not only her original photography, but also her impressions about each well and the precise GPS coordinates of their locations.

It remains to be seen if the renewed interest in stepwells, as well as the accompanying tourist dollars, will drive the change to save them. “In the long-run,” Lautman tells Colossal, “I think the most helpful thing for stepwells is simply acknowledging their existence in history and guidebooks, through classes and specialized tours, and finally just seeing them up close, embedded in the landscape.” Another way to explore the wells is through the Atlas of Stepwells, a website where enthusiasts can share their own discoveries.

The Vanishing Stepwells of India with a foreword by Divay Gupta, is published by Merrell and is available now.

Ramkund. Bhuj, Gujarat. Mid-18th Century (c. 700 CE).

Mukundpura Baoli. Mukundpura, Haryana c. 1650.

Ujala Baoli Mandu. Madhya Pradesh. Late 15th/early 16th century.

Chand Baori. Abhaneri, Rajasthan. c. 800 ce/18th Century.

Batris Kotha Vav. Kaoadvanj, Gujarat c. 1120.

Dada Harir Vav. Asarwa. c. 1499

Navghan Kuvo. Junagadh, Gujarat. 4th/6th/Mid-11th Century.


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Lotus Blossoms by Faith47 Sprout on the Streets of Goa, India 

South African street artist Faith47 is attracted to the lotus flower because of its strength. It is a plant that must fight through mud and water before it can blossom on top of its high stalk. This ability to find clarity through the murkiness of its surroundings was the inspiration behind her latest series of murals titled Le Petit Mort which she recently finished in Goa, India. You can see footage from the making of the works in this video, as well as further work by Faith47 on her website and Facebook. (via Colossal Submissions)

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Taxi Fabric Fills Plain Cab Interiors with Vibrant Original Artworks 

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‘A Century of Revolt’ Taxi Fabric interior designed by Kunel Guar.

When thinking of decor inside an American taxicab, your imagination is probably limited to an LED payment screen blaring annoying ads and maybe a pine tree air freshener dangling from a rearview mirror. In India, a new firm is thinking a bit more creatively by helping cab drivers completely transform the interior of their taxis with original art by local designers. Mumbai-based Taxi Fabric creates cloth interiors printed with vibrant designs that cover nearly every inch of a vehicle’s interior from the ceiling to the door panels and even the seats themselves.

Taxi Fabric is an interesting hybrid of interior design, advertising, and promotion of local culture, with a number of benefits both to the cab driver and the artists. Drivers report that after applying the designs to their vehicles, passengers often tip more and remain in the cabs longer. Artists in turn have their work seen by a large new audience and are easily identified by a prominent label on the back of every seat.

From the Taxi Fabric website:

Taxis in India, particularly in Mumbai, are not only the most convenient form of transport but have also become an iconic piece of culture. Although much attention is given to each taxi by its driver – to make it stand out from his competitors – very little thought is given to the fabric used on the seats. The designs that cover the taxi seats are often functional and forgettable and with the outstanding design talent Mumbai has to offer, this shouldn’t be the case.

Design, as a job or even simply something studied at school, is unfortunately not widely recognised in India. Older generations don’t understand it- design to them, just performs a function. Many people don’t know that design can create a real impact. With so few spaces for young people to show off their skills, it’s hard to change that perception.

There are dozens of interior designs currently installed in taxis and rickshaws across Mumbai. You can explore more of them on their Tumblr. (via The Creator’s Project)

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The ‘Birdman’ of Chennai Feeds Up to 4,000 Wild Green Parakeets Daily from His Home 

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Licensed from Barcroft Media

Ten years ago, after a tsunami struck near Chennai, India, a camera repairman named Sekar noticed a pair of displaced green parakeets perched near his back porch. He immediately started to feed them with rice from his home, and the birds soon nested nearby and slowly—and then not so slowly—began to multiply.

The 62-year-old now cares for an estimated 4,000 birds that live near his home, spending almost 40% of his income on their care. He rises around 4am to start cooking giant pots of rice which he services twice daily on a latticework of boards on the roof of his home. This video from Aravind Kumar takes us into Sekar’s home to see what taking care of several thousand exotic birds looks like.

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Licensed from Barcroft Media

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Journalist Spends Four Years Traversing India to Document Crumbling Subterranean Stepwells Before they Disappear 

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Across India an entire category of architecture is slowly crumbling into obscurity, and you’ve probably never even heard it. Such was the case 30 years ago when Chicago journalist Victoria Lautman made her first trip to the country and discovered the impressive structures called stepwells. Like gates to the underworld, the massive subterranean temples were designed as a primary way to access the water table in regions where the climate vacillates between swelteringly dry during most months, with a few weeks of torrential monsoons in the spring.

Thousands of stepwells were built in India starting around the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D. where they first appeared as rudimentary trenches but slowly evolved into much more elaborate feats of engineering and art. By the 11th century some stepwells were commissioned by wealthy or powerful philanthropists (almost a fourth of whom were female) as monumental tributes that would last for eternity. Lautman shares with Arch Daily about the ingenious construction of the giant wells that plunge into the ground up to 10 stories deep:

Construction of stepwells involved not just the sinking of a typical deep cylinder from which water could be hauled, but the careful placement of an adjacent, stone-lined “trench” that, once a long staircase and side ledges were embedded, allowed access to the ever-fluctuating water level which flowed through an opening in the well cylinder. In dry seasons, every step—which could number over a hundred—had to be negotiated to reach the bottom story. But during rainy seasons, a parallel function kicked in and the trench transformed into a large cistern, filling to capacity and submerging the steps sometimes to the surface. This ingenious system for water preservation continued for a millennium.

Because of an increasing drop in India’s water table due to unregulated pumping, most of the wells have long since dried up and are now almost completely neglected. While some stepwells near areas of heavy tourism are well maintained, most are used as garbage dumping grounds and are overgrown with wildlife or caved in completely. Many have fallen completely off the map.

Inspired by an urgency to document the wells before they disappear, Lautman has traveled to India numerous times in the last few years and taken upon herself to locate 120 structures across 7 states. She’s currently seeking a publisher to help bring her discoveries and photographs to a larger audience, and also offers stepwell lectures to architects and universities. If you’re interested, get in touch.

You can read a more comprehensive account of stepwells by Lautman on Arch Daily.

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An Ornate Truck Spot-Welded from Thousands of Reflective Steel Disks by Valay Shende 

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Transit is a 2010 sculpture by Mumbai-based artist Valay Shende depicting a life-size work truck that carries figures of 22 people. Created over a period of 18 months, the piece was constructed from thousands of reflective stainless steel disks that have been individually spot welded together. Shende conceived of Transit as commentary on a dramatic rash of farmer sucides in India over the last decade. The truck’s rearview mirrors display video footage of roadways in London, Mumbai and Dubai, as if the vehicle is moving from the perspective of the driver’s seat but in reality it remains stationary. Transit is currently on view at the Mumbai City Museum, and you can read more about it on Indian Express. Images courtesy Sakshi Gallery. (via Jeremy Mayer)

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