why bundi’s stepwells will take your breath away

If like me, you were brought up on a travel diet of London and Paris, with Persepolis thrown in for effect, you would wonder what all the hullabaloo about India’s stepwells was for. That is, until you saw them in person.

Since moving back to India, I have time and again read that the stepwells or baoris [as they are known in the local dialect] of Gujarat and Rajasthan were stunning. I was told there was even one in Connaught Place, the heart of New Delhi, which was a complete beauty. I, thus, conjured them in my mind as architectural marvels to be found in the historically grand cities of India. Read—grand.

And as always, India took me by surprise.

Guess where I am finally introduced to their exquisite beauty? In a tiny little town called Bundi in the middle of nowhere in Rajasthan. One.every.200.odd.metres. I stopped counting after a while. They were everywhere. Inside Jain and Hindu temples, behind clumps of gorse, in the lawns of villas designed by European architects, as part of Rajput havelis, and in the middle of both vast squares and lakes.

If that were not enough, they also came in assorted shapes. There was the L-shaped, the Z-shaped, the square-shaped, and the I-shaped. And in varying states of neglect or glory. Whilst some got funding for “conservation” others have been turned into dumping grounds.

So, what exactly is a stepwell, and why were they even built?

An intrinsic part of Indian architecture and culture, they are wells or ponds in which one needs to descend a series of steps, deep into the innards of the earth, to reach the water. There are two types of stepwells in the sub-continent: the linear baoris which served as a catchment for rain-water and square kunds built around a source of ground-water. In a predominantly barren land with erratic rainfall these stepwells ensured a steady source of water supply for those in the vicinity by sheer virtue of architectural design.

But stepwells were not just built to serve utilitarian and pragmatic human needs. They were also considered as sacred sites where the three realms of the universe—the underworld, earth, and the heavens—met, and hence were, and still are an epicentre for religious ceremonies and rites. The direct result of this is the string of gods and goddesses, in particular the trinity comprising Vishnu and his many avatars, Brahma, and Shiva one finds carved into its walls with Ganesh and Saraswati flanking the entrances.

The earliest stepwells in India date back to the 2nd and 4th Centuries AD. They flowered to reach artistic heights between the 11th and 16th Centuries under Muslim rule. Their death and annihilation was carried out by the British Raj who saw them as unhygienic, and thus undesirable, and had them replaced with pipes and pumps. And so, a millennia old tradition in India came to its end.

There are currently 52 stepwells inside Bundi’s city proper. There are very many more outside of it. I must have visited over two dozen of them during my stay. All in all, each took my breath away for its sheer inimitability. No two, I assure you, were alike.

These are 10 of my favourites. If you scroll down this post, you will see why. ❤

Bhoraji ka Kund, steeped in a bygone era. Through the ages, kunds have been a focus for local everyday life—for religious rituals, washing laundry, bathing, collecting water for domestic use, and well, just goofing around.

Abhay Nath ki Baori is still used to collect rain-water and serves Bundi through a series of water pipes.

The baoris or stepwells in India did not just serve as catchments for rain-water but were also deeply religious sites with Ganesh [below image] and Saraswati flanking the entrance as a norm. Dadhi Manthan Baori is no different.

Bundi’s pride, apart from its palaces, is also a royal monument: Raniji ki Baori, built by Rani Nathawatji in 1757. It is a colossal stepwell—260 feet long, 40 feet wide, and with over a hundred steps leading into its deep recesses. It is also exquisitely beautiful with its carved ornate toran gate and sculptures of gods, goddesses, and royal figures.

The Dabhai Kund took my breath away. More so because I least expected it. One moment I was standing in a quiet nondescript lane, and the next moment I walked through a gate, and whoa, this stood in front of me. I got vertigo just looking down at the stone well built by the Chauhan Rajputs some 300 years ago.

Clockwise from top left: Nahar Dhoos ki Baori, Anarkali ki Baori, Stadium ki Baori [because it is near the stadium], and Hiralalji ki Baori. Some of the baoris are in a better state than the others simply for having been appropriated by some religious group or the other, like the top left one in which Nahar Dhoos Baba has his darbar.

Originally christened Ganga Sagar and Yamuna Sagar, the twin stepwells just outside Bundi’s walled city were built by Maharani Chandrabhanu Kumari in 1871–75. They are today referred to as the Nagar-Sagar Kund.

And lastly, you have not been to Bundi, if you have not been to the Bhawaldi Baori plonk in the middle of the old city. L-shaped, it is sheer poetry with its wall murals, decorative toran gate, and pink walls.

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Travel tips:

  • Guide: Kukkiji at Kukki’s World. His passion and knowledge of Bundi’s history and heritage is unmatched. Cell no. +91 98 2840 4527.
  • Staying there: I stayed at Hotel Bundi Haveli, a 300-year-old haveli converted into a hotel, through makemytrip.com. The rooms are gorgeous, the food in the in-house restaurant delicious, and the staff get my 5 stars for professionalism and warmth.
  • Getting to Bundi: I took the train from Delhi to Kotah, and a local bus from Kotah to Bundi.
  • Getting around: Auto rickshaws are plentiful. The city itself, however, is tiny enough to explore on foot. For the excursions, I was ferried around on Kukkiji’s motorbike.

photo essay: in search of bundi’s prehistoric rock paintings

Destination, or the journey? In travel, it is often hard put to distinguish between the two.

When I went to Bundi in Rajasthan a fortnight ago, I had no clue that merely 30 kilometres south of the town were 101 sites of prehistoric rock art painted 15,000 years ago. They were discovered by a one Mr. Kukkiji in 1997, who was to take me to the sites himself. What I knew less of was the charms of the paintings’ backdrop—the insides of caves lining tranquil wide rivers, on whose lush shores the Bhil, an Indian Adivasi tribal had made their homes. Continue reading

global travel shot: the prehistoric rock paintings of bundi


The image above is that of an antelope in a forest, next to a trap waiting to catapult it to its death. Nope. This is not somewhere in the interiors of France or Spain, more commonly associated with prehistoric art, or even in Bhimbetka where India’s prized rock art collection lies.

It is instead on the insides of a cave lining a tributary of the river Chambal in Gararda, Rajasthan, 35 kilometres from Bundi, my base a fortnight ago.

Painted 15,000 years ago in mineral colours, very few people know of it. Just a handful come from the far corners of the world to marvel at its beauty, and timelessness.

And if it were not for a local sweetmeat-shop-owner-turned-archaeologist, we would not know of it either. He discovered the site in 1997 and has passionately been creating awareness of it ever since, unearthing 101 caves festooned with prehistoric art to-date. His name is Kukkiji. Continue reading

8 reasons why golconda fort tops the hyderabad bucket list

Back from Hyderabad, the first thing I am invariably asked is:

“So you saw the Golconda Fort?”

It is almost a precondition to determine the authenticity of one’s journey to the city.

[Note: The other qualifiers are Charminar and Hyderabadi Biryani.]

After spending an entire day at the site, as well as part of the night, I figured it boiled down to 8 things which make the fort the magnum opus of Hyderabad. If you have a 9th, 10th, or 11th, please do share! 🙂

But first, some dates to put things in context:

1143 AD—Golconda Fort is first built as a mud fortification by the Kakatiya kings of Warangal.
1364 AD—The fort passes into the hands of the Bahmani Sultanate as part of a treaty.
1518 AD—Sultan Quli Qutb ul Mulk, founder of the Qutb Shahi dynasty makes the fort his capital. He and his descendants build the present stone structure.
1687 AD—Mughal emperor Aurangzeb annexes the kingdom [and fort] to his empire.
1724 AD—Asaf Jah, the first Nizam moves his capital to Hyderabad. The fort is left to the ravages of time. Continue reading

36 hours in hyderabad old city

My auto rickshaw driver chats away animatedly in impeccable Urdu as he navigates through the narrow by-lanes. We are on our way to the heart and soul of Hyderabad—Charminar and its immediate vicinity. It is 8 am and the old, still drowsy, historical, cultural, and commercial hub lined with shuttered shops is just about yawning itself awake.

Me: Dukaane kitne bajje khulte hai? [When do the shops open?]

Maqsood [the auto rickshaw driver]: Hyderabad nawaabo ka shahar hai. Nawaabi se uthte hai, phursat se kaam pe aate hai. 11 aur 12 ke baad le ke chalo. [Hyderabad is the city of nawaabs (Muslim ruling princes). They wake up at leisure and come to work at leisure. Say post 11 or 12 noon.]

And nope, there was no pun intended.

Despite the decades following its relinquishment of princely status in 1948, the city of Hyderabad, once capital of Hyderabad State and prior to that the Golconda Sultanate, still wears a veil of gentility. Of refined conversations and artistic sensibilities. The people are a little kinder. With all its love for bling and gold, the local lifestyles are a little simpler.

The unusual mix of an imported Islamic culture from Persia and Turkey into a distinctly Deccan geography and indigenous Telegu populace is responsible for Hyderabad’s rather unique identity. Continue reading

the forgotten qutb shahi royal tombs of hyderabad

The first thing I noticed about Hyderabad, a 400-year-old city on the banks of the River Musi in the Deccan, was the colour of its grass. It is a deep shamrock green awash with light. I had not seen such a green elsewhere in my travels.

I wonder if Mohammed Quli Qutb Shah, fifth ruler of the Qutb Shahi dynasty [also known as the Golconda Sultanate], felt the same way when he founded the city of Hyderabad way back in 1591. Did the green charm him as much as it did me?

Avid builders and equally avid poets, the Qutb Shahi dynasty was founded by Sultan Quli Qutb ul Mulk, Governor of Telangana under the Bahamani court. As was the norm back then of setting up sovereign states, once the last Bahamani ruler died followed with the disintegration of his empire, Quli Qutb ul Mulk declared Golconda an independent kingdom and himself its Sultan.

Builders of the gigantic Golconda Fort perched atop a hill, the iconic Charminar in the heart of Hyderabad’s Old City, and the nearby Mecca Masjid said to be built with bricks made of clay all the way from Mecca, the Qutb Shahis were Turkmen from Central Asia. Continue reading