A stepwell is a semi-subterranean well structure with many steps, hence the name composed of well and steps.

Amer Stepwell, Gujarat, India. Public Domain.
Amer Stepwell, Gujarat, India. Public Domain.
Adalaj Stepwell, Gujarat, India. Public Domain.
Adalaj Stepwell, Gujarat, India. Public Domain.

Such well constructions can be found in large numbers in India, especially in Gujarat. Here they are often called waw or vav, but also bawdi, baori, baoli, baudi, bawdi, or bavadi. As India was a British colony, the English term was adopted into the English language as early as the 19th century. The basic principle is a deep, square well shaft, which is made accessible by building stone steps on the four sides. These lead down in zigzags, with deeper steps being offset inwards to avoid complex constructions. In this way, the shaft becomes narrower and narrower, like a pyramid standing on its tip. It can also be seen as four ramps structured into terraces by a system of stairs.

This construction method is very old and statically quite simple. The staircases are straight, each built on solid ground. Due to the large number of stairs, many people can fetch water at the same time. Although the stairs have no railings, the structure is quite safe.

In later times, decorations were added, including elaborate architectural elements. There are rows of columns, overpasses and balconies, this is called Māru-Gurjara architecture and is used typically for temples. Fountains were also built that have a staircase with a variety of ornamentation and therefore do not become narrower, they have the same dimensions over the entire depth. Others have an elaborately designed access staircase with rows of columns and capitals, but also have a shaft that leads directly to the water. It is difficult to say whether a winch with rope and bucket once stood here and allowed the water to be collected without descending.

Of course, the development of step wells was a long process, and so there are not only these final stages, but also all kinds of predecessors. The simplest version is probably a kind of ditch, with steep walls on three sides and a ramp with a long staircase on the fourth. Or the hollow shape is mostly natural, with the water at the lowest point, and a long staircase at a suitable point. A second staircase is a massive improvement, allowing people going down and those going up to use different stairs. So there is no two-way traffic any more.

The oldest step wells are small structures carved into the rock from the 2nd to 4th centuries, usually near Buddhist or Hindu rock monasteries. The first larger structures appear in the 7th century, but these are not well preserved and are only of archaeological interest. The spectacular large and deep ones date from the last thousand years.

The term "well" says little about the origin of the water. As with the profane European wells, it can either be rainwater which is channelled into this depression or a water-storing rock layer, i.e. an aquifer. In individual cases, they can therefore be regarded either as a special case of a cistern or as a special case of a spring. However, in the northern regions of the Indian states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, where these wells are most common, a semi-arid climate is interrupted once a year by heavy monsoon rains. The task here is obviously to keep the water available throughout the year by collecting it in deep wells. There are estimated to be around 3,000 of these wells in northern India alone.

However, the rather large installation also turns the well into a social centre, a kind of marketplace. Of course, special hygiene rules applied so as not to contaminate the water. And yet it was customary to bathe and wash clothes in the drinking water source. And the water was quite popular with plants and animals, insects, amphibians, fish, and birds lived in the pond and polluted it. This shocked the British colonial rulers, so they started building pumps and pipelines to supply water and even banned the use of stepwells in some places. Some of them were even filled in and only recently excavated and restored.


A Nanda is a stepwell with a staircase. This actually results in a rectangular shape, a kind of trench that starts on the surface on one side and then leads down to the water.


A Bhadra is a stepwell with two staircases. These are opposite each other, so the well shaft is in the centre and a staircase leads down from both sides.


A Jaya has three staircases. This usually results in a square shape and a large number of short staircases. In contrast to the first two shapes, the stairs do not lead towards the water, but run perpendicular. The fourth side is usually occupied by a building.

Vaav oder Baoli

A Vaav has staircases on all four sides. This is now the most interesting form for tourists, which with its many stairs almost looks like an Escher painting. The stairs are arranged very symmetrically.

Helical Stepwell

A special kind of stepwell is the so-called Helical Stepwell. Where regular stepwells are rectangular, they are circular. While regular stepwells have straight staircases changing their direction continually, they have only one staircase which goues around like a spiral staircase. Sometimes the staircase gets narrower by its own width every turn, so the shaft is conical. Its also possible that the staircase is built into the opening so the shaft is cylindrical. Quite typical is, like with regular stepwells, that there is no railing.