Architect Kalpana Ramesh was part of a monumental project to restore the 17th century Bansilalpet stepwell, alongside IAS Arvind Kumar and the Telangana government. She shares how this award-winning project took shape.
The Bansilalpet stepwell, which lay covered in debris and ruins for more than four decades, has been given a fresh lease of life. The stepwell has been revived and renovated thanks to the efforts of Kalpana Ramesh of The Rainwater Project, Kshetra Consultants, along with the support of Municipal Administration and Urban Development (MAUD) department of Telangana.
The revival and restoration of the 17th century baoli at Bansilalpet in Secunderabad took more than 500 days, involving 100 professionals and 1,000 workers. The MoU for this mammoth project was signed by The Rain Water Project with the Telangana government sometime in October 2021. It was inaugurated by Telangana Municipal Administration Minister K T Rama Rao on 5 December.
The Bansilalpet stepwell and precinct restoration project received the Big 5 Construction Impact Award in Dubai for ‘sustainable revitalisation’.
This project is the brainchild of Kalpana Ramesh, Hyderabad’s water warrior and founder of Rain Water Project, who has restored eight wells before this in the city.
Steeped in history
Stepwells help manage groundwater levels and ensure a year-round supply of water. According to archival information, this baoli has existed since the 17th century. Locally called Naganna Kunta, it was seen in an 1854 map, says Kalpana.
“A model village was developed around this stepwell by TH Keyes in 1933 and was funded by Bansilal Seth. I got the Munn maps, which talk about this village, and found it extremely interesting. It was like a gated community, with a lot of space and amenities. My immediate thought was that we should restore it to something spectacular again,” Kalpana tells The Better India.
Recalling her visit to the baoli, Kalpana says that it was “filled with sewage, bandicoots and rats”.
“I couldn’t even find the stepwell and took my son-in-law’s help for it. I was shocked to see this historical beauty covered in garbage. It had been completely encroached and used to dump garbage. But I decided that day that I would protect every wall of this well, and restore it to its original state,” adds the architect.
The six-level stepwell was covered with 2,000 tonnes of waste, she notes.
“The first step was removing this waste. This is 1/3rd of the waste generated in one day in Hyderabad. This waste had accumulated over the past 40-42 years,” says Kalpana.
They had to clean and desilt the stepwell, as well as strengthen the walls and mandapams, and rebuild the ones which were broken. She enlisted the help of GSV Suryanarayana Murthy of Kshetra Consultants for the architectural restoration.
Reports state that the government spent about Rs 2 crore on the project. Alongside, Kalpana raised an additional Rs 2 crore. Gandipet Welfare Society also played a huge role by their support and donations, she adds.
“These ancient stepwells had such a far sighted approach. They are great sources to indirectly recharge groundwater, and a great solution for urban flooding. I wanted to ensure that complete justice is done for this well. We have built water channels across the well for rainwater harvesting. These channels will collect water and drain through the pits we’ve built. The pits go into an aquifer,” explains the water warrior.
The stepwell has a capacity to hold 22 lakh litres of water.
Since several people lived near the well and the encroachments, some of the families had to be relocated. “A few families who had to be relocated were provided houses in the government’s Dignity Housing Colony. The government played a huge role in this,” says Kalpana.
While the project began initially with an intent of restoration of the stepwell, it has become much more than that. It is an initiative to boost the local economy and make it a “people’s project”, noted Arvind Kumar in an Indian Express report.
Once tourists start coming in, locals can set up shops and sell goods. Property values will go up and existing shops will also get a boost, according to Kalpana. “We hope this brings a behaviour change in people. They should not throw garbage. Maintaining this is in the hands of locals and I’m sure they’ll do it,” adds the architect.
The stepwell is surrounded by a cobblestone-paved pathway with gorgeous electrical light poles fitted by the government. An old building has been converted into a tourist plaza with a viewing gallery. It also has a history interpretation centre. There is also an amphitheatre, jogging track and garden. Kalpana hopes to open a cafe there too.
“The idea is that if people feel economic value and benefit in the whole effort, it will become a people’s project and they will preserve it,” Arvind Kumar told The Indian Express.
He also announced on Twitter that the government would be taking up the restoration of 10 more stepwells in the next four months.
Edited by Divya Sethu, Images Courtesy Kalpana Ramesh