‘The Forgotten Stepwells of Telangana’ – A fascinating account on the state’s inverted water architecture

Drafted by Hyderabad Design Forum (HDF) and edited by Yeshwant Ramamurthy, a first of its kind pioneering documentation containing a measured sketch of south Indian step wells is sponsored by Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority (HMDA).

The book elucidates text with measured drawings, sketches and over 40 photographs.social life, daily rituals, intangible cultural practices and aesthetic perception interconnect agrarian functions with the spatial topographies of stepwells.

As many as 12 authors locate their essays in architectural methodology and include social, historical, ritual and religious-philosophical levels of understanding.

Recognising the potential of historical study, HMDA facilitated substantial research to power the publication of this meticulously designed narration of its water heritage. Earlier, this year a MoU was signed between the HMDA and the HDF for the same.

In contrast with  ‘inverted temples’ found in Gujarat and Rajasthan, the stepwells of Telangana were simple granite structures that were functional in their purpose and outlook.

Besides being an oasis to rural communities, they were a syncretic representation of the socio-political condition. Facing the decade of neglect Deccan the step wells are resurrected with this illustrative documenting.

Telangana’s medieval dynasties engineered ingenious methods to source, convey, and conserve water for optimal utilization in often hostile climatic conditions. In fact, the advent of these ‘wells with steps’ in the region has been noted by historians as early as 500 BC.

Stepwells were critical to water algorithms, and many are historical and cultural landmarks in Telangana, dating to the time of the Deccani and Kakatiya rulers. While many were built around temple complexes, other baolis started appearing near the tombs of Sufi saints and mosques, as well as at serais (lodges) on major travel routes.

Ramamurthy first  came across the baoli in the village of Kunchanapalli then he started reaching out to various departments—from endowments, archaeology, revenue, and irrigation—and slowly these step wells  started coming up.

Along with seven other designers and architects, the architect formed the Hyderabad Design Forum and worked for almost eight years, discovering over 170 stepwells in Telangana.

The reason, as Ramamurthy notes, is that “The rock here in the Deccan (granite) is harder to carve structures than the sandstone that is prevalent in the north, which is conducive and flexible to carving.”

The iconography, decorative themes, and embellishments in the stepwells were simple and imbibed floral (lotus and brahma kamalam), animal (turtle, eagle, and elephant), and celebratory (weddings) motifs.

As per Ramamurthy, “It is an amalgamation of the Qutb Shahi and Kakatiyan styles, which is a typical representation of Telangana’s syncretic culture. It is around 1,100 years old, and today it is used for everything from concerts to weddings and photoshoots.”

He states, “Charles Correa was so inspired by the vavs of Gujarat that he recreated those courtyards in many of his buildings. In fact, the Institute of Banking & Finance office in Hyderabad designed by him is ethically inspired by the stepwell design node and reinterprets the traditional kund into landscaped open courtyards that function as break-out areas.”

Overall the book captures  the romance of the stepwells and their peculiar relationship with the cultural identity of Telangana in a lively and refreshing manner. 

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