6 Abandoned Step Wells with Amazing Architecture in India

  • 01 of 07

    Overview of Step Wells in India

    Indian women carrying water from stepwell near Jaipur.
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    India's abandoned step wells are an important part of the country's history and architecture. Although information about them is scarce, they're believed to have started appearing mostly between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD.  In addition to supplying water from the country's deep water tables, they provided shade and were used as temples, community centers, and layovers on trade routes.

    Most of the step wells can be found in the hot, dry states of northern India -- particularly in Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Haryana. No one knows how many there are, or how many there used to be. Before the British came to India, there were reportedly several thousand. However, they lost their purpose after plumbing and taps were installed, and many were subsequently destroyed.

    The step wells, known as vavs in Gujarat and baolis (or baoris) elsewhere in northern India, are remarkable both in their engineering and architecture. Each is different, with variations in shape (round, square, octagonal, and L-shaped) and number of entrances, depending on their environment.

    Yet, sadly, most step wells are neglected and crumbling.  Read on to discover six that are well maintained and worth visiting.

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  • 02 of 07

    Rani ki Vav, Patan, Gujarat

    Rani ki vav, step well, stone carving, Patan, Gujarat, India
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    Rani ki Vav (the Queen's Step Well) is undoubtedly India's most awe-inspiring step well -- and this UNESCO World Heritage site was only discovered relatively recently.

    The step well dates back to the 11th century AD, during the Solanki dynasty, when it was apparently constructed in memory of ruler Bhimdev I by his widowed wife. Up until the late 1980s, it was flooded by the nearby Saraswati River and silted over. When it was excavated by the Archeological Survey of India, its carvings were found in pristine condition. What a discovery!

    There are more than 500 main sculptures and 1,000 minor ones on the panels of the elaborate and showy step well, which was designed as an inverted temple. Astonishingly, no stone is left uncarved! A highlight are the galleries dedicated to Lord Vishnu, containing hundreds of intricate figurines depicting his 10 avatars. They're accompanied by captivating carvings of other Hindu gods, celestial beings, geometric patterns, and flowers.

    Apparently, there was even an escape route for the royal family on bottom level of the step well, said to connect to the Sun Temple in Modhera.

    • How to Get There: Rani ki Vav is one of the top attractions in Gujarat. It's located in Patan in northern Gujarat, around 130 kilometers from Ahmedabad.
    • Entrance Fee: 15 rupees for Indians, 200 rupees for foreigners.
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  • 03 of 07

    Chand Baori, Abhaneri, Rajasthan

    Chand Baori - Abhaneri
    Picture By Tilak Haria/Getty Images

    Off the beaten track, the magnificent but rather eerie Chand Baori (Moon Step Well) is India's deepest step well. It extends approximately 100 feet into the ground, down 3,500 steps and 13 levels.

    This square step well was built between the 8th and 9th centuries AD by King Chanda of the Nikumbh dynasty of Rajputs. However, locals will tell you a more spookier story of it being constructed in one night by ghosts!

    The well features a series of royal pavilions, with resting rooms for the king and queen, atop each other on the north side. They're surrounded by zigzagging steps on the other three sides. There's also a partially-destroyed temple, dedicated to Harshat Mata (the goddess of happiness), adjoining the step well.

    If you're a movie buff, you might recognized the step well from Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises or lesser-known The Fall by Tarsem Singh.

    An two-day festival takes place every year in September in Abhaneri, against the evocative backdrop of Chand Baori, to promote rural tourism. It features cultural performances from a number of states across India, Rajasthani song and dance, puppet shows, camel cart rides, and a fairground.

    • How to Get There: The step well is located in Abhaneri village, in the Dausa district of Rajasthan, around 95 kilometers from Jaipur on the Jaipur-Agra Road. It's best visited on a day trip due to the absence of accommodations there.
    • Entrance Fee: Free.
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  • 04 of 07

    Adalaj Step Well Gujarat

    Architectural features of Adalaj Stepwell, Solanki architectural style, located in Ahmedabad.
    CamBuff/Getty Images

    The elegant five-story step well at Adalaj near Ahmedabad in Gujarat was completed in 1499, after Muslims made Ahmedabad their first Indian capital. Its history is unfortunately mired in tragedy.

    Rana Veer Singh, of the Vaghela dynasty of Dandai Desh, started constructing the step well in 1498 for his beautiful wife Rani Roopba. However, he was killed in war by invading King Muḥammad Begda (the Muslim ruler of a neighboring kingdom) and the well was left incomplete. King Muḥammad persuaded the widowed Rani Roopba to marry him, on the condition that he'd finish the well. After it was built, she committed suicide by jumping into it.

    The step well's noteworthy Indo-Islamic architecture represents a fusion of Islamic floral patterns with Hindu gods and symbolism.  The walls are adorned with carvings of elephants, mythological scenes, women performing everyday chores, and dancers and musicians. Highlights are the Ami Khumbor (pot containing the water of life) and Kalp Vriksha (tree of life), made out of a single slab of stone.

    • How to Get There: The step well is located 18 kilometers north of Ahmedabad in the Gandhinagar district of Gujarat.
    • Entrance Fee: Free.
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  • 05 of 07

    Dada Hari Step Well, Ahmedabad, Gujarat

    Dada Hari stepwell.
    Malcolm Chapman / Contributor /Getty Images

    Dada Hari is similar in structure to the more famous Adalaj Step Well. It was completed in Ahmedabad a year later, in 1500, by Muḥammad Begda's harem supervisor Sultan Bai Harir (locally known as Dada Hari).

    The step well's spiral stairway leads down seven levels, past ornate pillars and arches, and the deeper you go the better the condition of the sculptures. Both Sanskrit and Arabic inscriptions engraved on the walls are still visible.

    Visit in the late morning when light shines down the shaft.

    • How to Get There: The step well is located on the eastern side of the Ahmedabad Old City in Asarva, a little to the south west of Asarva Lake. It's not well-known or frequently visited, so take an auto rickshaw and get the driver to wait.
    • Entrance Fee: Free.
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  • 06 of 07

    Agrasen ki Baoli, Delhi

    Agrasen ki baoli
    Xavier Arnau Serrat/Getty Images

    Agrasen ki Baoli, Delhi's most popular step well, is flanked by high-rises and tucked away in the unlikely heart of the city near Connaught Place. It's more of a hangout for college kids (and bats and pigeons) than tourist attraction. However, it did get its moment of fame in Bollywood movie PK.

    No one really knows who built the 60 meter long step well. It's commonly said to have been constructed by King Agrasen during the Mahabharata period and then later rebuilt in the 14th century by the Agrawal community, who are descendants of the King. Restoration works have also been undertaken in recent years to maintain the step well.

    The step well's 100-plus stairs used to be submerged in water. These days it's completely dried up and you can walk down, past the chambers and passageways, to the deepest point.

    • How to Get There: The step well is located off Hailey Road, near Kasturba Gandhi Marg. The nearest Metro train station is Barahkhamba Road on the Blue Line.
    • Entrance Fee: Free.
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  • 07 of 07

    Rajon ki Baoli, Delhi

    Rajon Ki Baoli
    Tarun Chopra/Getty Images

    If you're exploring the monuments scattered around lush Mehrauli Archaeological Park, don't miss visiting Rajon Ki Baoli deep inside the park. According to its inscription, it was built in 1512 by Daulat Khan Lodi during the reign of Sikandar Lodi. However, it gets its name from the rajon (masons) that occupied it in the early 1900s.

    Daulat Khan also built an impressive mosque adjacent to the step well and was buried in its courtyard when he died.

    Situated nearby, you'll find another step well -- the comparatively plainer Gandhak Ki Baoli.

    • How to Get There: The step well is located around 700 meters northwest of Jamali Kamali tomb in Mehrauli Archaeological Park, in south Delhi. It's opposite Qutab Minar Metro Station, Anuvrat Marg, Mehrauli.
    • Entrance Fee: Free.