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Hyderabad's stepwells turn into community hubs

In Hyderabad, abandoned and neglected stepwells are being restored for use as a source of water as well as cultural and social hubs for local communities

The 17th century Bansilalpet stepwell in Hyderabad was transformed from a garbage dump into a water source as well as a public space for the community. (Courtesy Rainwater Project)

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A cool breeze fanned guests as they watched dancers perform at the Bansilalpet stepwell, illuminated with strings of lights, at the inauguration of the renovated 17th century monument last month. A year earlier, no one would have given this stepwell in the middle of Hyderabad's bustling locality of Bansilalpet, a second glance. Its transformation from a waste dump to a beautiful destination for both locals and tourists has won it awards at global heritage and tourism events.

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Stepwells are historical and cultural landmarks in Telangana, dating to the time of the Deccani and Kakatiya rulers. Many areas in Hyderabad still go by names that indicate the presence of wells—Rethibowli, Gachibowli, Puthlibowli, Doodhbowli, Gangabowli and Haribowli. In 2021, the government of Telangana began the restoration of dilapidated stepwells of historical significance in and around Hyderabad. The Hyderabad Design Forum, a private group of architects, water conservationists and engineers, identified around 100 stepwells in the state and submitted a list of 16 for restoration to the government.

Stepwells are usually associated with Gujarat, Rajasthan, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh, and Hyderabad’s bowlis are lesser known. Like the ones in the other states, Hyderabad’s stepwells are brilliant pieces of architecture that are also a source of water for washing, drinking and irrigation. The incorporation of steps made them cool sanctuaries for travellers and pilgrims. Over the years—during British rule and in the post-Independence era—these stepwells were abandoned. Across the country, many had caved in or were used as landfills but the country’s worsening water crisis has turned interest to reviving these historical structures and turning them into a local water source again. “The stepwells are our past and our future,” Vishwanath Srikantaiah, a water conservationist and founder of Biome Trust, which works with the government on water management said.

In Hyderabad, a combination of government funding, private initiative and crowdfunding is helping bring the wells back to life. The Bansilalpet stepwell restoration, for instance, was backed by the Telangana government, Rainwater Project, crowdfunding, philanthropy organisation Social Venture Partners, the non-profit Gandipet Welfare Society and the state government. Recently, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in collaboration with the Telangana government completed the restoration of six stepwells in the Qutub Shahi Heritage Park in Hyderabad. Between 2021 and 2022, stepwells in Gachibowli, Kokapet, Kondapur and Goshala were restored by the government in collaboration with the Rainwater Project, a social enterprise headed by architect Kalpana Ramesh.

The Bansilalpet stepwell before the team started work on the clean-up.
The Bansilalpet stepwell before the team started work on the clean-up. (Rainwater Project)

When Ramesh moved to Hyderabad from the US in 2000, she was shocked to see that residents were dependent on tankers for their daily water needs. She created a rainwater harvesting and a greywater recycling system in her house and realised that the region was not water deficient, just one that did not collect and use water effectively. “For 12 years, we have not bought a tanker,” she says. “It’s all about how we improve the groundwater ecosystem with the help of rainwater.” Her experience led her to advocate for rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling in her community and she managed to win over about 100 families.She started the Rainwater Project in 2020 to take up water management techniques and restoration of water bodies.

Among the projects she’s most proud of is the restoration of Baram Bavi, a stepwell in Narayanpet in Telangana along with the government and the Collector Hari Chandana. Trees and plants had overrun the well, leading to cracks in the structure. Over the course of a few months, they worked with the community to clear these, rebuild the well and clean it up. Recently, they celebrated the Bathukamma festival with flowers and cultural activities, after the monsoon when tanks, ponds and the Bavi were filled with water. “Such festivals bring back the cultural connection to heritage structures and create awareness about the importance of saving water,” says Ramesh.

Six stepwells in the historic Qutub Shahi tombs in Hyderabad were restored in September 2022 and won an UNESCO award for conservation in November. These stepwells were restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and now draw huge tourist footfalls.The trust also partially restored the collapsed Badi Baoli and 100 other heritage structures within the Qutub Shahi Tombs.

The government has turned its attention to 10 other stepwellsin and around Hyderabad, including Bhagwandas Bagh stepwell, Shiva Bagh stepwell, Lingojigudem stepwell and Venkatrama stepwell.“Hyderabad has numerous historic and heritage structures. We have taken up the restoration of many heritage buildings and stepwells. Hyderabad is ready to claim the World Heritage City tag,” said minister of municipal and urban development for Telangana K.T. Rama Rao.

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