Keeping back and letting go: On Stepwell Atlas

-Prakruti Maniar

From the Managing Editor’s Desk: What does it mean for a digital platform aimed at cataloguing heritage architecture to be crowdsourced? What forms of infrastructure are entwined in this cataloguing process? DHARTI’s very own Prakruti Maniar chatted with Philip Earis, the site manager of Stepwell Atlas to think carefully about these questions. At a time, when different forms of water architecture in India are being neglected, what can such renewed forms of engagement with spaces mean for conservation and sustainability? Can they spark policy change? Read on…

Screenshot of the home page of Stepwell Atlas

Digital Humanities Projects are characterized by a virtual look and feel — data visualization, models, graphs, maps, trees, word clouds and word frequencies, sentiment analysis, among other things. Dusty remains of the human and natural past entwined in the shiny new body of binary code. This digital transformation, enabled by the hidden behind-the-scenes of both manual and software labor, is fascinating in two ways.

One, in how the digital lens changes are views of the tangible world and the new kinds of questions, sometimes meta sometimes tangential, it raises. What part of the heritage is conserved digitally? How does one medium marry the other? What is the cultural value of this new adaptation?

The other concerns the hidden work that must be spent to achieve these new goals. What goes on behind the scenes, what is the labor and cost involved, who manages things and how?

To know more about the logical and technical reasons that drive such projects, and the methods and challenges at building and maintaining them, I caught up with Philip Earis, site manager at Stepwell Atlas, a “collaborative map and information resource for stepwells, stepped ponds and other notable stepped water architecture”, not just in India, but globally.

Raison d’être

Why catalogue stepwells? “I was living in Mumbai from 2013–16, and travelled extensively throughout India in this period. I naturally stumbled across a range of stepwells during my travels, and became fascinated by them across a range of dimensions — as amazing architecture, as cultural history, as functional spaces connected with water management, and moreover as heritage sites that were under-appreciated, with low visibility (both within and outside of India), and consequently very much at risk. It puzzled and concerned me that many people in India had little awareness of or respect for these unique cultural assets. Stepwells were being used as trash dumps, encroached on, filled in or damaged by construction and rapid development.

So as a first step to helping safeguard stepwells for future generations, I felt that increasing awareness of stepwells was important, and to help achieve this I felt that documenting accurate locations and taking photos of their condition was required.”

The infrastructure

A large-scale project of this kind, spread across vast distances, is unimaginable without crowdsourcing and reliable technical software.

“I was a bit surprised when starting out the project that there were limited “off the shelf” collaborative mapping resources that we could use. Customizable Google maps have a range of frustrating limitations, and professional GIS software was beyond the resources of what I was looking to do. After some searching, I found a collaborative online mapping portal for sundials, called Sundial Atlas. This was created by a wonderful Italian man, Fabio, and relied on hundreds of volunteers to populate the site. It had the sort of functionality I was looking to emulate, and so I approached Fabio and was very grateful when he agreed that we could launch an analogous Stepwell Atlas using the same backend systems.

Anybody can upload the exact location info (GPS coordinates) of a stepwell, alongside digital resources such as photos, newspaper article links, videos etc. The site admins spend time checking and verifying data where required. Our guiding philosophy is that we try not to make the perfect be the enemy of the good — collating some information — even if somewhat preliminary — is better than waiting for research-grade information.”

But what about collating multiple sources — field research, the community, archives and more? Philip adds, “Indeed, that is a crucial step. Stepwell Atlas combines multi-source inputs, from fragmented mentions in historical records to contemporary blogs, from newspaper archives to new Instagram posts. A lot of research and verification can be done by scouring satellite maps of an area, following clues to ascertain the exact location of a stepwell. But field research is so important, and I’m glad there is a diverse and growing range of stepwell enthusiasts able to help here, including heritage enthusiasts, architects, ASI staff, travel bloggers and photographers, and domestic and international tourists.”

We did not get a chance to dive deep into, but these ideas, as the editor of this blog, Sritama Chatterjee points out, gives rise to more questions about the expansion of the definition of both archives and archivists, what is the role of the editor when it comes to community-gathered knowledge when the two are separated in both time, space and context, and what is the value of such curated knowledge?

Earis speaks to one at least. “The value of the digital counterpart is in bringing increased (and diverse) groups of people into the orbit of the physical heritage asset. There is significant value, but isn’t cultural value per se.”

Into the orbit of the physical heritage asset. I like that phrase, and students and scholars of popular culture will recognize its value too. How Stepwell Atlas, or any digital heritage project has intervened towards it is a proposal for altogether a different branch of research.

Crowdsourcing decentralizes labor to a great extent, but there is still a lot of people, and a lot of work, to simply keep the infrastructure going. How much is it, in labour hours?

“So far the site has documented 3000+ examples of stepped water architecture — this has involved many thousands of person-hours.” And the task does not stop at this alone. DH projects just keep growing. “There are plans both for adding further stepwells to the site, for sharing and utilising the information (the whole ethos is collaborative, and we make all the information available under Creative Commons Attribution), and for broader technical development. One area that interests me very much is harnessing the developments in Machine Learning to scour satellite maps to identify possible stepwell locations, and then follow these up with manual investigation and/or on-site exploration.”

Embedded Culture and Cultural Value

It sounds linear, if not easy. Make the site, get people to contribute. But there are inherent cultural barriers to overcome even within this process. “I have personally visited ~150 stepwells. There can be linguistic barriers to overcome in terms of practicalities visiting remote sites, but the barriers are more often cultural. For example, there is a pervasive habit in India of describing locations in terms of proximity to local landmarks, rather than with fully unique and accurate coordinates. So many written sources might describe a stepwell being located “near the bus stand”, and it can take some effort to ascertain the exact location.”

Cartography enthusiasts will realize how this also raises the questions of the Cartesian system we use. Then there is ownership — the physical site, the domain on the web, the wealth of information even when open source is hosted on at least some platform, which may or may not have proprietary attachments. A network, with hidden nodes. A liminal space where dualities must exist — take the heterogeneity of the world, and represent it in the homogeneous codes of programming and representation.

What’s the cultural tradeoff? How does local knowledge (of directions, of languages) survive and stand in the face of these “new eyes and new minds” that the digital takes it to? What is lost and what is gained? Are these balanced out? Sounds like accounting, doesn’t it?

And it is in a way. Culture is the human civilizations ultimate currency, the ultimate power struggle between peoples — whose voice? Whose statue? Whose design? Whose name? Whose tombstone? Whose heritage — will go into the next generation? In making a DH project, we can also untangle the sum total of our cultural heritage, and see what the parts are, as we decide which ones to keep, and which ones to let go.


Prakruti Maniar is editor and partner of Purple Pencil Project, and hustles as a writer, researcher and more. She is deeply invested in cultural heritage, especially stories, and is committed to working for the promotion and preservation of Indian literature. She is currently pursuing her MA in Digital Humanities from Loyola University Chicago.

Blog of Digital Humanities Alliance for Research and Teaching Innovations(DHARTI), an initiative towards organising and facilitating digital practices in India