Stepwell in Osian, India made in the 9th century
Stepwell in Osian, India, that was constructed in the 9th century (Photo: vil.sandi/Flickr)

From reservoirs and aqueducts to pressurized pipe systems and simple rain barrels, humans have spent countless centuries perfecting the science of collecting, storing and transporting one of our most precious resources: water.

One of the most fascinating and aesthetically pleasing examples of this is the ancient stepwells of India, which are, as the name implies, man-made wells or ponds that are equipped with steps that lead down to the water table.

You'll find many of these unique water sources in northwestern Indian regions like Gujarat and Rajasthan, which are extremely hot and dry for half of the year and filled with monsoon rains the other half. The stepwells allowed towns and cities to maintain a constant water supply even in the face of months-long droughts.

Rudimentary stepwells began popping up in great numbers around India between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D., and only became more elaborate and grandiose over the centuries.

Stepwells in Mehrauli Archaeological park, Delhi and Kamakhya Temple, Assam.
(L-R) Stepwells at the Mehrauli Archaeological park in Delhi and Kamakhya Temple in Assam (Photo: Ronit Bhattacharjee/carol mitchell)

Stepwells are more than just functional water sources housed within grand architectural structures. In addition to providing water for drinking and bathing, they were also important sites for socializing between women, as well as peaceful places for meditation and prayer.

Stepwells declined in use during the rise of British rule in the mid-1800s as more modern piped water systems were installed across the empire. As relics of the past, many stepwells are now tourist attractions, while many others have deteriorated due to neglect.
Chand Baori, one of the deepest stepwells in India
Chand Baori stepwell in Abhaneri near Jaipur, Rajasthan (Photo: javarman/Shutterstock)

Want to learn more about stepwells? In the video below, journalist Victoria Lautman gives viewers a crash course in the fascinating world of these ancient architectural wonders:

Continue below to see more photos of stepwells in India, including some of the most famous examples like Chand Baori (above) and Adalaj (below).

Adalaj Stepwell architecture
Adalaj Stepwell in Ahmedabad, Gujarat (Photo: Rafal Cichawa/Shutterstock)
Birds fly over Chand Baori stepwell
Chand Baori stepwell in Abhaneri near Jaipur, Rajasthan (Photo: Carroll Apiez/Shutterstock)
Gandhak Bauli stepwell
Gandhak Ki Baoli stepwell in Mehrauli, Delhi (Photo: Sunny-s/Shutterstock)
Chand Baori architecture
Chand Baori (Photo: Brandon/Flickr)
Adalaj Stepwell from above
Adalaj Stepwell in Ahmedabad, Gujarat (Photo: Tin-Tin Azure/Flickr)
Nahargarh Fort stepwell in Jaipur, Rajasthan
Nahargarh Fort stepwell in Jaipur, Rajasthan (Photo: VetraKori/Shutterstock)
Rani Ki Vav stepwell in Patan, Gujarat
Rani Ki Vav stepwell in Patan, Gujarat (Photo: Jeremy Richards/Shutterstock)
Queen's stepwell in Bundi, India
Raniji ki Baori stepwell in Bundi, India (Photo: Radiokafka/Shutterstock)
Narlai stepwell
Rawla Narlai stepwell in Desuri, Rajasthan (Photo: richard evea/Flickr)
Corridor at Chand Baori stepwell
Chand Baori stepwell in Abhaneri near Jaipur, Rajasthan (Photo: Tappasan Phurisamrit/Shutterstock)

Catie Leary ( @catieleary ) writes about science, travel, animals and the arts.