STAIRWAY TO HISTORY
Chicago-based journalist-photographer Victoria Lautman’s obsessive affair with stepwells or baolis started in Rajasthan. Her passion eventually found expression in her book, The Vanishing Stepwells of India.
Chicago-based journalist-photographer Victoria Lautman’s obsessive affair with step wells or baolis started in Rajasthan. Her passion eventually found expression in her book, The Vanishing Step wells of India.
ALMOST THREE DECADES AGO, CHICAGO-based journalist-photographer Victoria Lautman travelled to India’s Golden Triangle—Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. It was her first trip to India. She stopped a dozen times a day to drink roadside chai, and as she soaked in the intriguing history of the states she was passing through, she stumbled upon an unanticipated obsession: baolis or stepwells. The fascination grew over time and she has now authored a book on stepwells, titled The Vanishing Stepwells of India, which has been published by Merrell Publishers. “Everyone who loves India will describe the usual things— colours, people, aroma, architecture… all of these did overwhelm me in a tangible way, but something beyond all of that stayed with me. I thought I’d gotten India out of my system, but it turned out I’d never be able to. I kept going back. Rajasthan started it all,” says Lautman.
Steeped in history
In her book, Lautman documents over 120 stepwells across India and their intricate histories. A major impetus for this came in 2014, when Gujarat’s opulent baoli, Rani Ki Vav in Patan, made it to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
Lautman vividly remembers feeling “clobbered” by the scale and grandeur of the baolis she had seen. “The first stepwell I saw was in Gujarat: Rudabai Vav. I visited several in Delhi too before reaching the one at Neemrana, which stunned me. In fact, I remember the particular spot where I was clobbered, like love at first sight. I suddenly thought, ‘Now I have to see every one of these’. Neemrana still gives me goosebumps,” she says.
Since her first trip, the journalist-photographer has visited Rajasthan several times, registering changes, big and small, on each visit. Among the noticeable changes, she says, were the number of tourists visiting the sites and the amount of development that has taken place— some sites are complete and some are at a standstill, causing encroachment.
However, she is deeply impressed by the efforts being undertaken to protect
the historical monuments. In Jodhpur, the JDH Urban Regeneration Project, for example, has resurrected the 18th century Toorji Ka Jhalra, next to the magnificent Raas Jodhpur hotel. It has turned the splendid stepwell into a thriving tourist destination. Environmentalist Rajesh Joshi has “adopted” the Mahila Baag Jhalra, cleaning it of muck and restoring it with clean water.
Meanwhile, the Rawla Narlai hotel offers guests a breathtaking candlelit dinner overlooking an ancient stepwell on their grounds. “These investments will guarantee each structure’s preservation for years to come. Rajasthan has a huge number of these gorgeous and important subterranean structures. I strongly feel the incomparable Chand Baori in Abhaneri should be next included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, after Rani Ki Vav,” says Lautman.
Ask her why she thought the baolis would make for brilliant photographs, and she credits the novelty factor of something unheard of. “It is always compelling to see anything remarkable that you’ve never heard of, like a particular animal or a discovery from outer space. We’re all visually-oriented and curious, so these photographs hit on both levels. Stepwells don’t look like anything that we’ve seen before architecturally, and considering their age, and given that they are complex feats of engineering and art, they are both beautiful and astounding. For all these reasons, the images can’t help but be enthralling,” she explains.
More than what meets the eye
It’s not only the baoli though that keeps bringing Lautman back to the country, especially to the desert state. She has a penchant for history and imposing architecture. The journalist-photographer says she will never tire of Rajasthan’s traditional crafts and musical sensibilities. However, there are certain things she cannot ignore. She says, “While Rajasthan has taken important steps to lower poverty and expand industry, the status of women is terrible. The literacy gap of women in comparison to men is the biggest in India, and the state has among the most number of female infanticides. It’s the largest state in India, filled with such wonders and so many brilliant people. Surely they can improve these statistics.”
From top: Author Victoria Lautman; the Chand Baori in Abhaneri Facing page: Inside the Neemrana baoli in Alwar
Clockwise from top left: Toorji Ka Jhalra in Jodhpur; Ujala baoli in Madhya Pradesh; the exterior of the Neemrana baoli in Alwar