The fascinating subterranean world of ornate ancient stepwells in India are revealed in a new collection of images now on show at a Sheffield gallery.
Underground in India – shows Sheffield photographer, Peter Bennion’s search for the stepwells, at The Silk Road Gallery, Sharrowvale Road in the city.
Stepwells are buildings cut deep into the ground to access water, either as inverted pyramids or long trenches held up with arches and buttresses. Water for drinking, bathing and religious rituals.
Peter said about his current collection: “I saw a photo of a stepwell almost 20 years ago but it’s taken many years to find them. In fact there are hundreds but, because they’re below ground level, they’re hard to find.”
Peter said Stepwells can be modest or palatial – some of them are as beautifully decorated as the palaces for which India is famous.
In the dry season the water table can be deep underground and you may have to descend hundreds of steps to reach it. In the monsoon the water rises and is nearer the surface.
Women are the water gatherers in India and stepwells were often commissioned by women, usually the wives of wealthy maharajas or merchants. Many were designed for shade and became a place to meet and socialise away from the summer heat.
Peter’s photographs show the variety of these astonishing underground buildings, they vary from simple geometric and symmetrical patterns of steps to elaborate gothic chambers with stone elephants and finials.
One large photo – three feet by four feet – shows the nine storey deep Stepwell at Neemrana (pictured), a couple of hours drive from Delhi.
Peter said: “Neemrana is a favourite, I wanted to print it large to give the feel of entering the space. Looking up at the sky from the bottom of the golden sandstone Neemrana stepwell is like being in a large cathedral. There’s a sense of wonder – how did they build them? And remember – they were built between 500 and 1,000 years ago – you’re deep inside an ancient monument.”
The Silk Road Gallery is run by Peter Bennion and Kay Wallace. It sells vintage textiles and objects, art and photographs from India and the Lands of the Silk Road.
Opening hours are 11.30-4.30 Friday and Saturday. The venue is at 364B Sharrowvale Road Sheffield S11 8ZP – behind the main Sharrowvale Road shops on the cobbled lane between the Greek Deli and Porter Pets.
You can see more stepwell photographs and shop online at www.silkroadgallery.co.uk website. Call 0114 267822 to check extra Christmas opening hours.