A window into the future of India’s rural stepwells: perspectives from Gujarat

India’s rural stepwells (or vavs, baolis or jhalaras) mark past relationships between communities and local water supply. Today, many are protected by the Archaeological Survey of India as historical sites of heritage. But, in the face of modern-day challenges, this second blog in a two-part series asks, what future lies ahead for these water sources with their intricate architecture, and for their local rural communities? To find out, I went to Adalaj Ni Vav near to Ahmedabad, Gujarat in early 2023.

Gujarat’s rural vavs: under threat from competing demands

More than just a water point, Adalaj Ni Vav is steeped in history with a story of love and tragedy. Yet, as nearby Adalaj village expands to meet the demands of this tourist hotspot, changing surroundings and competing priorities bring new challenges for the future conservation of this stepwell, and others like it. Buses arriving with tourists lack drop off spots. I saw the congestion on the roads leading to the well in the absence of an auto rickshaw stand, with vehicles, pedestrians and street vendors fighting for space.

The water body in the stepwell is also under threat. Local women no longer climb down Adalaj’s steps to collect water. Over time, the water has been polluted due to the influx of visitors dumping plastic into it, contaminating it, and leaving it stagnated, and no longer fit for use[i]. The Urban Management Centre[ii]’s work with the jhalaras of Jodhpur, Rajasthan, has identified challenges of overflowing and flooding during monsoon seasons. As piped water supply reaches every household, water is not collected from the stepwells and they stand neglected. This is despite them being part of a network of natural and artificial reservoirs where upstream water bodies collect the water and transfer it downstream. Lessons can be taken from this work in India’s cities to adopt a renewal approach for the adaptive re-use of rural stepwells such as Adalaj Ni Vav and others.

Sustaining Gujarat’s vavs

At present, there is significant focus on the maintenance and restoration of the sculptural elements of Adalaj Ni Vav, through protective guards that stop the many visitors from directly interacting with the structure, and vigilant caretakers ensuring their upkeep. Coverings over the octagonal well demonstrates the efforts being taken to prevent the water being contaminated by visitors dropping waste from outside the structure into the well.

Covering at the top of the structure to protect the well (Photo: Amita Bhakta)

Protecting and sustaining Gujarat’s vavs for the future also requires interventions from external organisations. Aside from the protection granted for Adalaj by the Archaeological Survey of India, it comes under nearby Ahmedabad’s recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Gujarat’s Directorate of Archaeology and Museums has been pivotal in efforts to clean the stored water in the state’s vavs, and has a role to play in supporting local authorities to conserve stepwells such as Adalaj for the longer term. As heritage sites, there remains a challenging balance to strike in the longer term. Whilst creating a ‘tourism zone’ through public-private partnerships can generate much needed revenue for the local economy, the re-use of the vav as an attraction should not come at a cost of further harm to the vav from pollution. Ensuring public awareness of the need to conserve vavs as markers of India’s water history is key.

Sustaining vavs for the future involves curation. Stepwells could be turned into ‘living’ water ‘museums’ to teach future generations about the importance of water security as climate change takes hold in India. Converting stepwells to water museums can create awareness of the rich history and the role that Adalaj and other vavs played in supplying water, acting as community hubs, and providing livelihoods for well-digging artisans in the past.

Rural stepwells of the past could inspire engineers and architects of today. As we grapple with the challenges of energy security, we should look to vavs for lessons on integrating light and natural ventilation into buildings of the modern era.

Adaptive reuse of rural vavs can be done creatively. The magnificent architecture that strikes tourists as they descend towards the pool of water can provide a temporary backdrop for outdoor concerts and art exhibitions. Water festivals at stepwells, which can provide exhibition spaces, can incorporate traditional music and stories of their rich past, to educate younger generations about their historical roots and recognise the cultural significance of stepwells for their ancestors.

Looking ahead

Gujarat’s rural stepwells may no longer fulfill their traditional purpose of supplying water, but there is no need to consign these beautiful structures to the past. Let’s look forwards towards routes to celebrate and keep India’s rural water history alive. It’s time we worked together to ensure stepwells continue to play a role in our lives in creative ways.


Special thanks to my friend, Mona Iyer, for facilitating this field visit, and to Mahesh Popat for his brilliant support in the field. Thank you  to the secretariat for their moral support for this work and to Temple Oraeki for reviewing drafts of this blog.

About the author: Amita Bhakta is a freelance consultant and co-lead for the leave no-one behind theme at the Rural Water Supply Network. She has specialised in looking at hidden issues to achieve equity and inclusion in WASH and has a keen interest in rural water heritage in India.

Amita Bhakta at Adalaj Ni Vav, Gujarat, India

Photo credits: Amita Bhakta.

[i] Srivapathy, U. and Salasha T. 2021. Adalaj Stepwell: A Magical Resonance of Architectural Ingenuity. Athens Journal of Architecture – Volume 7, Issue 2 pp. 275-304

[ii] Anurag Anthony, Urban Management Centre, personal communication, March 2023

Learning from Gujarat’s past relationship with rural water through its stepwells

India: home to almost a fifth of the global population. Yet, its rural communities continue to face challenges in accessing water, due to overextraction depleting groundwater, poor recharge, and increased demand for water as industries expand and the rural economy grows. Ensuring water security for the future requires us to learn from the past. Across  India, rural populations once met their water needs through ingenious feats of architecture in the form of stepwells (or baolis or vavs). I went to visit Adalaj Ni Vav (Rudabai Stepwell), on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, Gujarat in February 2023. In this two-part blog series, I reflect on the lessons we can learn about the significance of stepwells for India from past uses of Adalaj (part 1) and look ahead the role that stepwells could play in the future (part 2).

What are stepwells?

Stepwells are linear buildings. Steps lead down to landings with pavilions that house two shrines, and columns which make them resemble a room, followed by more steps, until reaching a cylindrical well at the bottom. The roof of one room becomes the floor of the pavilion above. Gujarat’s stepwells range from 60 to 80-feet in depth, with their upper-most landings receiving the most light, screened by walls known as Jalees to provide shade. Stepwell corridors are open to the sky except where it enters a pavilion. The terraces of stepwells are typically marked by noises and splashes as women beat clothes and scour pots, animals drink and children run around. The stepwells are referred to by landmarks (e.g. station vav), goddesses (e.g. Surya Kundi), patrons (e.g. queen) or place (e.g. Adalaj)[i].

Shrine in a pavillion at Adalaj (Photo: Amita Bhakta)

Adalaj Ni Vav: a well with a tragic tale

Adalaj Ni Vav is a 75.3-metre-long stepwell laid out in a north-south direction. On my visit, I made my way down one of the three flights of steps arranged in a cross to enter the vav, which are attached to the main stepped corridor leading to the well at the bottom, with an octagonal opening at the top and a pavilion resting on 16 pillars with 4 built-in shrines. The vav was built between 1498-1505 by Sultan Mahmud Begada in honour of Queen Rudrarani, who he promised to marry after it was completed. When the vav was completed, Rudrarani committed suicide by jumping in to the well. Through his grief, the Sultan killed those who built it to prevent another similar vav from being built, who are buried in the graves in the nearby garden i.

Learning from Gujarat’s past links to Adalaj

Adalaj Ni Vav was once a hub for the local community until the British Raj put it and many other vavs into disuse, deeming it unhygienic and introducing taps, pumps and borewells. Rainwater harvesting enabled the community to wash their clothes and feed their animals. Travellers used the vav, built along trade routes to support India’s economic development, as a resting site[ii].

Whilst it is no longer used as a water point, Adalaj’s long-standing spiritual connections to local people can help to sustain the cultural legacy of the stepwell. There is scope to pave a way for the community to continue its traditional purpose as a place of worship. The shrine on the outer wall has long been used and maintained by local Brahmin women to the present day, who worship local goddesses for fertility, health, and family prosperity.

But, it is not just people who stand to benefit from lessons from Adalaj’s past. Birds and animals used to be attracted to the vav as a cool spot, drawn in by food left over from festivals. In an era of global challenges such as climate change, it is important to recognise that the stepwell was once a place where rich biodiversity could flourish.  

Moving forward: bridging the history of Gujarat’s stepwells to the future

The history of Gujarat’s rural stepwells reflects the cultural significance they held in the past, and show a need to recognise them as previous places of sustenance and of continued spiritual value. Whilst it is unlikely that Adalaj will once again serve as a water point, it can provide a place for biodiversity to flourish, and has the potential to teach and reengage local communities with their own water management systems for future preservation, particularly in these parts of Gujarat where drilling for petroleum is creating depressions in the water table. Let’s recognise the collective memory of Gujarat’s rural stepwells as historical sites of interest and work to preserve these ancient structures for the future.


Special thanks to my friend, Mona Iyer, for facilitating this field visit, and to Mahesh Popat for his brilliant support in the field. Thank you  to the secretariat for their moral support for this work and to Temple Oraeki for reviewing drafts of this blog.

About the author: Amita Bhakta is a freelance consultant and co-lead for the leave no-one behind theme at the Rural Water Supply Network. She has specialised in looking at hidden issues to achieve equity and inclusion in WASH and has a keen interest in rural water heritage in India.

Photo credits: Amita Bhakta.


[i] National Institute of Design (1992) Adalaj village: a course documentation Ahmedabad: National Institute of Design

[ii] Adalaj stepwell exhibition, Adalaj, India

The world isn’t running out of water… it is running low on clean water

by Lalit Bajare, Nixie Engineers, India

Hi! A chemical engineer by education; I have been a water and wastewater treatment professional for last 24 years. Having started career at Ion Exchange (I) ltd; Mumbai in 1996, I moved to Singapore and worked with Hyflux and Chartered Semiconductor Mfg Ltd for around 5 years before moving back to India and starting on my own as “Nixie Engineers Pvt Ltd”.

Continue reading “The world isn’t running out of water… it is running low on clean water”

Srilekha Chakraborty uses art in her activism for women’s health – 2020 Ton Schouten Awardee for WASH Storytelling

re-posting from IRC WASH

Srilekha is a young professional from India with a focus on WASH and Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) advocacy with indigenous tribal women and girls.

Advocacy through art with rural communities

She is driven by her close experience with how in poor, rural areas, discussions on gender, menstrual hygiene and women’s health take a back seat. In many of her activities, she is using art to demystify taboos with adolescents and youth.

An example of what this type of approach can lead to is the story of two young girls – Zeba and Anjum – who made a model of a uterus with Gulmohar flowers during an art session that Srilekha conducted. The red colour symbolizes power, strength and period blood whereas the blooming flower represents good health.

Another art project of Srilekha links to the flagship campaign of the Central Government of India, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which promised to bring ‘Comprehensive Sanitation and Hygiene’ amongst people in rural India. However, the wall writings on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan have been speaking about toilet construction and cleanliness only. There were no wall writings about menstruation to encourage people to challenge the taboo. So, Srilekha mobilised artists and communities for a ‘menstruation matters’ mural project. You can read more about this project in her blog here.

Engaging local government and global platforms in period talk

Whereas engaging with communities is at the heart of her work, she also recognises the importance of government leadership. In 2019, she curated a campaign called Freedom to Bleed during the Independence Day in India. She convinced a local politician to help young girls actually experience freedom and independence from the stigma of blood. They reached out to more than 1000 women and girls in a week. The man speaking in the opening scene of the video below is the first political leader who ever spoke about periods in that constituency.

Srilekha is also dedicated to elevating stories from grassroots levels to as many people and platforms as possible. Through her #PeriodsPeCharcha (Let’s Talk Periods) campaign she addressed issues of indigenous remote communities in Jharkhand, a state in eastern India. In this video, she talks about menstrual hygiene challenges faced by young girls in the area.

About winning the Ton Schouten Award for WASH storytelling

In the words of our selection committee members – Vida Duti, Liduin Schouten, Sean Furey and Dave Trouba – Srilekha seems to do her communications work purely driven by passion and heart to help others, she naturally focuses on social inclusion and uses a wide variety of channels and forms of communication, from social media messages to videos and blogs. 

In the words of Srilekha? See this video or read her response below it. 


It is interesting that I win this award in a time that is technically one of the darkest of all we have seen as a generation. This award comes to me as a hope that there is a lot of work that is left to do and the show must go on! It will help me continue my fight on the ground.

I would like to thank all the organisations and mentors and the community people who supported me throughout my journey and made me someone worthy to receive this award, I am honoured and it will take some time to sink in.

While there’s a lot of fund-crunch that civil society organisations at the grassroots level are going through and projects on women’s health are receiving a severe blow, I wish to use this award money to reach out to the most vulnerable section of adolescents and youth and keep creating more art, storytelling and workshops on menstruation. Because periods don’t stop for pandemics and neither should our activism.
– says Srilekha.

What’s next?

We received a rich and inspiring selection of candidates, whom we’re hoping to continue to be in touch with throughout the year. Keep an eye on this page dedicated to all things Ton Schouten Award for information about the award and updates on the work of talented young communicators in the WASH community. Srilekha has shared some great ideas about what she is planning to invest her award prize in. We will also share updates on her activities on this page. So stay tuned.

In Memoriam: Ken McLeod – India Mark II development lead

en McLeod, who died of cancer in Cairns, Australia, on January 23rd at the age of 88, was recruited by Unicef to support India’s village water supply programme from 1974-1978, and played a pivotal role in the development of the India MK II hand pump.

by Rupert Talbot (former UNICEF and past Chair of HTN/RWSN)

Remembering Ken

Ken McLeod, who died of cancer in Cairns, Australia, on January 23rd at the age of 88, was recruited by Unicef to support India’s village water supply programme from 1974-1978, and played a pivotal role in the development of the India MK II hand pump.

The Government of India’s fourth, five year development plan (1969-1974) envisaged the ambitious goal of providing drinking water in the hard rock, drought prone regions of the country, using innovative down-the-hole-hammer drilling and deep well hand pump technology. Drill rigs were to be imported by Unicef and locally made, cast iron hand pumps, supplied and maintained by Government. In 1974, at the end of the plan period, hand pump surveys concluded that 75% of some 40,000 installations were not working. The viability of drilling and hand pump technology was in question and there was the real prospect of UNICEF, the Government of India’s main partner, withdrawing support. The programme was in serious crisis.

Ken McLeod, his 1942 Jeep, and Myra who designed the first India MK II hand pump poster, New Delhi, 1976 (Photo: Rupert Talbot)

Water well drilling was virgin territory for Unicef in the early 1970s and Unicef’s Executive Board had been divided over the decision to invest in such costly technology in the first place. It was now faced with the hard option of either scrapping the programme or keeping faith. It was a close run thing. Fortunately, the ‘pro’ lobby won with the eminently wise decision to halt the supply of drill rigs until the hand pump problem was fixed. Which is where Ken McLeod comes in.

Ken was a pragmatic, no–nonsense, straight talking, tell-it-as-it-is Australian with a diverse engineering background which ranged from marine and civil engineering to blast hole and water well drilling with down-the-hole-hammers. He had an innate sense of what would probably work and what wouldn’t. Obstinacy was also a hallmark. A serious asset as it turned out. Once he had made up his mind it was difficult to persuade him otherwise. And he had a droll sense of humour. His repertoire of stories and anecdotes are legendary within the water well fraternity. It would seem that seriousness of purpose combined with good humour are prerequisites for successful development enterprises. Ken had both these qualities in spades.

Over the course of the next 4 years it fell to Ken to identify, coordinate, argue with and cajole, myriad organisations and individuals to develop what became known as the India MK II hand pump. This was an extraordinarily complex, collaborative venture, involving pioneering NGOs in Maharashtra, birth place of the fabricated steel Jalna, Jalvad and Sholapur pumps, spearheaded by Raj Kumar Daw and Oscar Carlson (names participants in the RWSN Sustainable Groundwater Development Forum will be familiar with); WHO, who were independently trying to develop their own cast iron ‘Bangalore Pump’; The Government of India, whose programme was in dire straits and who were being prevailed upon by the country-wide hand pump industry to continue with the supply of their cast iron products (‘junk pumps,’ in McLeod Speak); and an engineering enterprise, Richardson and Cruddas, a Government of India undertaking tasked with making prototype and then production pumps. It took a McLeod to handle all of that.

Ken McLeod, Arun Mudgal (Richardson and Cruddas) and Rupert Talbot, MK II test area, Coimbatore, 1975. A ‘what to do ?’ moment after experimental cylinders had failed. (Photo: Rupert Talbot)

It is getting on for 50 years since it was eventually agreed by all parties that the Sholapur pump would form the basis of a new design and we were able to make and test the first dozen prototypes under the deep water table conditions of Coimbatore, Southern India. The fact that the India MK II then went successfully into mass production was largely due to Ken’s clarity of vision, direction, smart technical choices and perseverence.

I spoke with Ken for the last time two weeks before he died. We talked of those heady days of trying to get the MK II programme off the ground, of the internal arguments, external battles and technical problem solving in the field and in the factory.

His voice was strong and his mind as clear as a bell as he recalled people, places and events in great detail and he spoke warmly of those free spirits with their out of the box thinking who strove to make better hand pumps.

He was amazed to learn that there are now several million MK IIs in India alone and that it is exported to 40 or more countries. But hugely disappointed that the third party quality assurance procedures set up in his day and honed over the years to become the corner stone of the MK II programme under Ken Gray, had been allowed to slide back and that MK II look-a-like ‘junk pumps’ are being exported from India to Africa. That, we agreed, is a great tragedy.

There were many brilliant, dedicated people involved in the development of the India MK II. Ken never claimed any credit for it himself, but we all know who led the charge. It wouldn’t have happened without him. He was the right man in the right place at the right time. It needed his force of personality, tough and uncompromising ways, solid understanding of technical issues and absolute determination to get the job done in the face of industrial strength, bureaucratic wranglings. Aussie grit personified.

After Unicef, Ken McLeod worked with Shaul Arlossoroff and his UNDP-World Bank Hand Pumps Project, initially based in Nairobi then out of Australia, spending much of his time in China where I have no doubt he brought the same skills and energy to bear as he did in India.

Pragmatic and stoic to the very end he told me he hadn’t got long and was resigned to being on the ‘home stretch’ as he called it.

No funeral for Ken. No grave, no head stone, no epitaph. He wanted none of that. Instead, he has the lasting legacy of the India Mark II hand pump itself. Millions of them in fact.

Kenneth Robert McLeod, 1932 – 2020


Rupert Talbot

India pledges piped water to every rural home within 5 years

India is turning its back on the handpump and is going full bore for piped water supplies.

India is turning its back on the world’s most popular handpump to which it lent its name (India Mark II) and is going full bore for piped water supplies.

The Times of India report : “With more than 80% rural households yet to get piped water supply, the government on Tuesday announced to roll out a new mission to ensure “Nal se Jal”  ater from the tap) for each house in villages in the next five years as promised in BJP’s election manifesto.” 

This promises to be the most ambitious rural water supply programme in the world and this important transition from point source to piped will be watched with interest by many other countries around the world.

You can read more here:

The most important stories in rural water supply // Les histoires d’approvisionnement en eau en milieu rural les plus importants

Making water work for women – inspiring stories from around the world

The reality in much of the world today is that collecting water for the home is a job done by women – so gender issues are central to everything we do in rural water supply – self-supply, pump design, borehole siting, tariff collection, water resource management, business models or using ICT to improve service delivery.

In this week’s webinar we have brought together more inspiring stories from Nicaragua, India and the World Bank.  We are taking ‘gender’ from being a tokenistic tick-box to a living, vibrant, practical core of every rural water service.

Join the us next Tuesday 23 May – it an opportunity to have your practical and policy questions answered from world class experts.

 Did you miss Part 1? Don’t worry. You can watch and listen to the inspiring experiences from Burkina Faso, India, Ethiopia and Bangladesh on the RWSN video channel:


L’eau au service des femmes – des histoires inspirantes

La réalité dans beaucoup d’endroits dans le monde aujourd’hui est que l’approvisionnement en eau pour les besoins domestiques reste un travail porté par les femmes – donc les questions liées au genre sont au coeur de toutes les activités que nous entreprenons dans le secteur de l’eau rurale: auto-approvisionnement, conception des pompes, emplacement des forages, recouvrement des tariffs, gestion des ressources en eau, ou utiliser les TIC pour améliorer les services.

Le webinaire de la semaine permettra d’entendre des histoires intéressantes du Nicaragua, de l’Inde et de la Banque Mondiale. Nous souhaitons passer d’une compréhension de la notion de genre se bornant à cocher une case, pour mettre en avant les aspects vivants, pratiques et essentiels qui font partie de tous les services d’eau ruraux.

Joignez-vous à nous mardi prochain – ce sera l’occasion de poser vos questions sur la pratique et la politique à des experts du domaine.

Vous n’avez pas pu participer à la première partie de ce wébinaire? Vous pouvez écouter des expériences inspirantes du Burkina Faso, de l’Inde, de l’Ethiopie, et du Bangladesh sur la chaine viméo du RWSN:



#RWSN @ #WWW : the presentations

RWSN co-convened two sessions at last week’s SIWI World Water Week in Stockholm and presentations are available to download:

WASHoholic Anonymous – Confessions of Failure and how to Reform

All presentations: http://programme.worldwaterweek.org/sites/default/files/panzerbeiter_lt_1400.pdf

Build and Run to Last: Advances in Rural Water Services

Continue reading “#RWSN @ #WWW : the presentations”

Beyond the Borehole: what do ecosystem services have to do with rural water supply?

If there were no aquifers what would need to be built instead? That may seem an esoteric question given that groundwater is relied on every day by several billion people, but it is important to consider what useful things aquifers are, what we stand to lose if we mismanage them and what opportunities there are to tackle deep rooted poverty if they are used well. Continue reading “Beyond the Borehole: what do ecosystem services have to do with rural water supply?”

India rural water supply: an orphan of reforms?

water services that last

By V. Kurian Baby, India Country Director, IRC

Community rural water supply (RWS) in India is an orphan of partially implemented demand responsive sector reforms on the one hand and unsuccessful decentralisation on the other. Historically, rural water supply in India has been outside the sphere of governments (NRDWP 2013). The 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment (Act 1992) made drinking water and sanitation a constitutional mandate of the three tier system of Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs). Even after two decades, the decentralisation process is an unaccomplished dream lying between de-concentration and devolution. In many states the progress is either stalled or reversed.

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