Jodhpur, a city in the state of Rajasthan, was a highlight of my 1.5-month-long trip to India. Jodhpur and its people delighted and astonished me, right up until the final hour before departing. This is about that final hour.
The morning of my departure from Jodhpur, I was rushing to grab my luggage from my hotel in an effort to catch a bus to the next town. I was taking a familiar route through the “Blue City” and passing through familiar streets. But this time, something caught my eye. Or rather, the absence of “something” caught my eye. Real estate and living space were valuable in this historical, touristy part of the city; where there weren’t commercial and residential buildings, there were temples and shrines galore. Yet here was a space, a gap in the urban sprawl, with no low rises or spires piercing upward.
Even more puzzling, stone steps beckoned up to this negative space, as if to a pedestal–but evidently with nothing on display. So, somewhat automatically and unconsciously, I ascended the stone steps, not expecting anything at all. And I gasped out loud.
Beneath my feet opened up a yawning, massive trench, so deep that its darkened bottom could not be discerned from my vantage point, its vastness so shocking that I experienced vertigo. The sound of flowing water, which I had not even registered before, rushed into my ears. Streams poured out from innumerable spouts–some animal-shaped, some seeming to seep from the rock itself–trickling down along dozens of dizzying stories of exquisitely carved tiered levels and stairs and collecting into a pool at the bottom of the trench. This pool sat at the base of a massive, monumental stone archway several stories tall. The stone at the bottom of the structure was dark with discoloration, giving the impression that the watery opening in the earth continued into infinite blackness.
I once described being “surprised” in Thailand, but surprise connotes that you have at least a minimal level of expectation of events to come, which are then contradicted by reality. Here, I could not say I experienced surprise–bewilderment would be more accurate, as I had no reference point for what I was looking at, no expectation for what it could be. Taking in the entire monumental sight of it, in that moment, the only corresponding image my mind could muster was to a Legend of Zelda video game I played as a child–which says something about the mysterious and mystical aura of the place. There was no signage, was no one around to inquire, and my guidebook had made no mention of this massive architectural trench.
Of course, I did not give up, but began exploring, walking along the edge and descending as far down as I could go without being fearful of falling in. My exploration revealed some clues. An old sign requested visitors to “remove shoes,” suggesting religious significance. Yet the place was in a state of abandonment, the grounds were too gravely and dirty to possibly walk on barefoot (even by local standards). At the same time, the water and the structure were not actively dilapidated or polluted with refuse–this fact being quite remarkable as all other negative spaces in the city were filled in with makeshift landfills.
My exploration yielded few answers, just more extreme bewilderment–and twinges of fear, as the deeper I descended into the trench, the more I felt that the inexorably flowing water and vertiginous depths were drawing me down into their subterranean maws. I climbed out and eventually caught my bus, leaving Jodhpur without solving the bewildering architectural mystery. In fact, I did not find what I had seen until long after leaving India and returning to the U.S., when I spotted an article in one of my social media newsfeeds.
Of course, many readers will have known, without my exhaustive narrative, that I had stumbled onto a bawdi, a “stepwell.” They have a long history in India serving dual purposes as water storage and sites of worship, but today they are neglected and under-appreciated in all their functions, even tourism. As photographer Victoria Lautman said, “They could be next to a shopping mall or at a popular tourist spot, and you wouldn’t know about them.”
It is truly unfortunate that stepwells are undervalued by locals, that they are falling into neglect and disrepair, that many visitors leave Jodhpur and India without experiencing the awesomeness of a stepwell. But the one small upside is that, for now, stepwells are capable of truly astonishing and bewildering those who are fortunate to stumble onto them.