3D Scanning the Stepwells of India

@Scan The World

4 months ago

Bringing 3D Scanning to the Stepwells of India

Scan the World India is an initiative to create printable 3D scans of cultural heritage sites and objects in India. Put succinctly, Scan the World India is a para-academic space composed of industrial research outfits and university collaborations. The resulting 3D scans would be easily shareable and printable. Scanning would enable worldwide dissemination and access to these structures and their narratives, through both digital and 3D printable technologies. This would also enable research and archiving of these heritage sites.


A Solid Foundation

Throughout the region of Gujarat, India are thousands of remarkable structures known as stepwells. These stepwell are ancient, subterranean water features that served as community spaces during times of peace and places of refuge in war times. They were meant to serve the public good and while they often feature Hindu depictions, they are considered to be secular structures. In the video above (or below or to the side...), is a particular type of well, known as a kund.



During times of war stepwells, called “Vav” in gujarati, often served as places of refuge and during peacetimes, served as community spaces. Generally, these spaces are associated with women.


   (Image from Shakti Kund)


These structures are characterized by an inverse pyramid shape that steps down into the well. On each layer are intricate sculptures known as niches, which often depict goddesses. Many other stepwells by contrast often feature a more linear and tiered structure.




These subterranean water structures began to emerge in the arid regions of western part of the Indian subcontinent. around the 10th century. Sometimes a grand architectural undertaking, always a sophisticated structural endeavour, these subterranean water-structures celebrated the act of reaching water in a region where water was scarce. As documented in “Kund-Vapi” in the Vistara catalogue edited by Carmen Kagal:

Descending into the earth was analogous to other crucial areas of existence: as for instance, the furrowing of the fields for the planting of seed. And so going down into the well becomes analogous to submersion in water, i.e., to rebirth. It is similar to the dissolving of the germinating seed into nothingness, into the world of unformed matter, before it reappears in the form of a plant.

This subterranean architecture thus has profound metaphysical connotation and suggests a timeless way of being in the world. It is this timeless manifestation of the world that Scan the World-India aims to access through its documentation.


    A Cross-section of Step-wells (7th-16th centuries) In Vistāra - The Architecture of India, Catalogue of the Exhibition, Edited by Carmen Kagal. The Festival of India, 1986.


These structures are of historic and contemporary interest for their role in water management. Gujarat is an arid region of India. These structures provided both shade and naturally filtered ground water. They were both shelters and pleasure gardens. This multiplicity embedded into the experience of being within a stepwell transforms them into spectral sensorium from where ways of being and making are speculatively unpacked. This charged space of the stepwell makes them particularly relevant in the current times – not only because of their sophisticated water management systems, but as provocative centres to produce new senses emerging from their sensory architecture.




The Process

Transforming these detailed structures into digital objects is enabled through photogrammetry. Hundreds of photographs of the structure and its individual parts from all angles are captured. Using software to correlate pixels in individual images together, the 3d objects can be recreated. This can be achieved through specialised 3D scanners or democratised technologies such as smartphone cameras.

Due to the incredibly intricate geometries and large scale of the Shakti Kund and other stepwells, individual features such as niches are processed separately to ensure as much resolution as possible is achieved in the final scan. In parallel to scanning the stepwells and niches are thoroughly researched and each is given a narration for cultural and historical context.


 An example of a 3D scan of a niche at the Shakti Kund.


The Team

Divyarajsinh Rana is the Project Director of Scan the World - India. He earned a Bachelor's in architecture from Indus University, Ahmedabad. He is Assistant Professor at the Sal School of Architecture, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, and has his own architectural practice.

Ishita Jain is the Research Director of Scan the World - India, She is currently based in as Assistant Professor at O. P. Jindal Global University, Haryana. She completed her Masters in Architectural History from Bartlett School of Architecture, London.

Neel Mewada is the Technical Director of Scan the World - India . He is currently a practicing architect based in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. His practice includes a number on-going of architectural and interior projects.

Vishwa Undaviya is a researcher with Scan the World - India . She is currently pursuing her post-graduate studies in Architectural History and Theory at CEPT University, Ahmedabad, Gujarat.










Future Directions

The Shakti Kund is just one example of these stepwells. The group plans to scan many more structures throughout Gujarat and hope to find collaborators to scan other parts of India.

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