The Bartlett School of Architecture


Lecture: Victoria Lautman – India's vanishing stepwells

13 March 2017, 5:30 pm–7:00 pm

Rani Ki Vav, Patan Stepwell, Gujurat. Photo: Murray Fraser

Event Information

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The Bartlett School of Architecture


Room G.12, 22 Gordon Street, London, WC1H 0QB

About the lecture

India’s well-­documented palaces, forts, temples and tombs are on every tourist itinerary. But the subcontinent’s unique subterranean stepwells are largely unknown both within and outside the country, despite their astonishing complexity, beauty, and remarkable efficiency.    

First constructed around the 6th century CE and continuing for well over a millennium, these marvels of architecture, engineering and art were surprisingly multifunctional. Although their primary purpose was to supply and then preserve water year-­round, they were also important civic centres, temples, cool retreats in brutal heat and indispensable oases for caravans along remote trade routes.

Once numbering in the thousands, stepwells proliferated throughout the country and, depending on each community’s water-­table, could plunge over ten stories deep, necessitating flights of stairs to access the bottom-­most level during dry seasons. Some were utilitarian and plain while others were extraordinarily ornate.

Stepwells began to decline with the advent of modern plumbing, and communities were no longer invested in their upkeep. Although some are still in use for irrigation and as shrines, most are disintegrating or have disappeared completely. The preservation of this unique typology requires increased awareness. 

About the speaker

Victoria Lautman is an award-­winning print and broadcast journalist specializing in arts and culture, based in Chicago. With an MA in Art History and a background at the Smithsonian Institution, she has written on a wide range of subjects. Since 1985 she has been visiting and writing on India. Her new book, The Vanishing Stepwells of India, recently published by Merrell Publishers, documents her obsession with these historical structures.

Image: Rani Ki Vav, Patan Stepwell, Gujurat. Phtoto: Murray Fraser