- Stepwells are a distinctive form of subterranean water resource and storage systems on the Indian subcontinent, and have been constructed since the third millennium BC. They also may be multi-storied, having a bullock to turn the water wheel (“rehat”) to raise the water in the well to the first or second floor.
- A basic difference between stepwells on the one hand, and tanks and wells on the other, was to make it easier for people to reach the ground water, and to maintain and manage the well.
- The majority of surviving stepwells originally served a leisure purpose as well as coping with seasonal fluctuations in water availability. This was because the base of the well provided relief from daytime heat, and this was increased if the well was covered. Stepwells also served as a place for social gatherings and religious ceremonies.
- Stepwells usually consist of two parts: a vertical shaft from which water is drawn and the surrounding inclined subterranean passageways, chambers and steps which provide access to the well.
- Artificially construed reservoirs can be found in the sites of Indus Valley Civilization such as Dholavira and Mohenjo-daro. Mohenjo-daro has cylindrical brick lined wells which may be the predecessors of the stepwell. The first rock-cut stepwells in India date from 200-400 AD.
- Stepwells have influenced many other structures in Indian architecture, especially many that incorporate water into their design.
- Stepped ponds are very similar to stepwells in terms of purpose but it is important to recognize the difference between these two types of structures.
- For example, stepped ponds were always built to accompany a nearby temple while stepwells were positioned away from noisy sites and future tourist attractions.
- While stepwells are dark and barely visible from the surface, stepped ponds are illuminated by the light from the sun. Also, stepwells are quite linear in design compared to the rectangular shape of stepped ponds.