India can suffer from indefinite water shortages and droughts that may go on for years. Yet despite this, the water table up to thirty meters below may be flowing freely. The huge Indian population makes conventional wells impractical because too few people can access them at a time. A long time ago, Indians hit on the idea of building step wells, of which the Agrasen Ki Baoli Step Well is an exceptionally fine example.
The Sprawling New Delhi Climate
The landscape where New Delhi grew up around the step well of Agrasen Ki Baoli has always been a harsh place. It labours under a humid subtropical climate with long very hot summers, monsoons, relatively dry and mild winters, and dust storms. Mediaeval Agrawal peasants decided to re-excavate a well they believed to be a gift of gods during one particularly prolonged 14th Century drought.
A Short Hisory of the Agrasen Ki Baoli Step Well
Indian step well engineering dates back to the Indus Valley civilisation that flourished during the Bronze Age of 3300–1300 BCE. Water step wells and temple step wells were once a common feature of the landscape. Many smaller ones may lie beneath the urban sprawl of India’s capital city.
The portion of the Agrasen Ki Baoli visible above the water table comprises three levels, each embellished with arched niches. On one side, 104 steps descend into the dark depths of the earth. As one follows them, one can look up at a stupendous contrast, the tall white skyscrapers and hotels of New Delhi.
I am indebted to the American archaeologist Victoria Lautmen for this quote. “The contrasts were so pronounced, all my senses were activated. Bright light became murky dark, intense heat became cool surrounding air, and the incessant din above ground became hushed. The deeper I went the more everything transformed.”