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Steps to Water: The Ancient Stepwells of India

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Steps to Water: The Ancient Stepwells of India By Morna Livingston.Princeton Architectural Press,2002.208pp. £35

It is thought that 3,000 stepwells and stepped ponds were built between the seventh and mid-19th centuries in western India (the semi-arid regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan), some as many as nine storeys deep, writes Andrew Mead. Though a few of the grandest examples have appeared in general architectural histories of India (eg Christopher Tadgell's), Morna Livingston is right to suggest that 'compared to water systems of other cultures - such as Western and Middle Eastern cisterns, aqueducts, and fountains - the stepwells have received scant attention'.

This book aims to correct that omission.Clearly a labour of love in which Livingston is photographer, researcher and cultural historian, it does so admirably, and profits from the readiness of Princeton Architectural Press to find an appropriate format for its various publications, not try to fit everything to a standard template.

Livingston's numerous photographs are well-reproduced, while her text explores not just the primary function but the larger religious/cultural dimension of the wells, and current questions about their preservation; moreover with an architect's eye for detail and appreciation of the spatial sequences that they create - the successive staircases, landings and pavilions descending from the bright sun above to still, dark, subterranean pools.

Many of the images are inhabited, implying that these structures retain a role today (piped water notwithstanding). In others, empty, they become pure pattern. The Chand Baori at Abhaneri in Rajasthan (pictured), dating from the eighth to the 18th century and with sharp, right-angled blocks for stairs, is the largest stepped pond ever built.

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