From the fifth to the nineteenth centuries, the people of western India built stone cisterns to collect the water of the monsoon rains and keep it accessible for the remaining dry months of the year. These magnificent structures-known as stepwells or stepped ponds-are much more than utilitarian reservoirs. Their lattice-like walls, carved columns, decorated towers, and intricate sculpture make them exceptional architecture., while their very presence tells much about the region's ecology and history. For these past 500 years, stepwells have been an integral part of western Indian communities as sites for drinking, washing, and bathing, as well as for colorful festivals and sacred rituals. Steps to Water traces the fascinating history of stepwells, from their Hindu origins, to their zenith during Muslim rule, and eventual decline under British occupation. It also reflects on their current use, preservation, and place in Indian communities. In stunning color and quadtone photographs and drawings, Steps to Water reveals the depth of the stepwells' beauty and their intricate details, and serves as a lens on these fascinating cultural and architectural monuments.
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Morna Livingston , a documentary photographer specializing in architecture and cultural landscapes, has spent 15 years researching and photographing stepwells. She currently teaches design, drawing, and vernacular architecture at the Philadelphia Universit
Milo Beach is form Director of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
In this broad historical and cultural overview, photographer and scholar Livingston (Philadelphia Univ.) shares her passion for western Indian stepwells and stepped ponds. A distinctive, often highly decorated communal Hindu architecture object, with origins in the seventh century in the semiarid regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan, stepwells reached their peak from 900 to 1300 C.E. as elaborate water buildings that were invested with ritual and social meanings. These passive water collection systems, designed to preserve monsoon rains, were modified by Muslims and Mughals into the mid-19th century, when British colonialism effectively shut them down. The erudite text presents building types, engineering, functions, art, ecology, and changes through the centuries, including sanitation and preservation concerns. Livingston's poignant photographs capture the decayed and neglected condition of many sites. Maps, a chronology, a glossary, and even a bibliography of stepwell literature make this the definitive work in English. Recommended for vernacular architecture and Indian historical collections. Russell T. Clement, Northwestern Univ. Lib., Evanston, IL
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