In a quaint village — Adalaj — located 19 km north of India’s first UNESCO World Heritage City Ahmedabad, lies an architectural marvel — Adalaj Ni Vav meaning the stepwell of Adalaj.
The five-storied stepwell has mesmerised for over five centuries. The history of architecture is as old as the existence of humans and reflects the life, spirit, faith and need of the people of the time.
Adalaj stepwell is frequented by tourists both domestic and international. Photographers often flock the area to get spectacular shots of the intricately-carved columns, profusely-decorated lattice-like walls, multi-storeyed edifice, awe-inspiring sculptures, geometrically-designed roofs and deep-green waters that lie at the bottom of the well.
A half-hour drive from Ahmedabad, once you approach Adalaj, the roads get dustier and a rustic scent fills the air. An open chowk leading to the stepwell is peppered with parked tourist cabs, locals atop two-wheelers and in auto-rickshaws, street vendors selling bottled water, cold drinks, snacks and, for the devout, fruits, flowers, coconuts, etc.
The place has a quaintness to it despite the constant buzz of visitors searching for the perfect spot for selfies. The playful squeals of children running about doesn’t make a difference either. There is a distinct calming vibe to the place.
And, why not? After all, the story behind Adalaj Ni Vav isn’t an ordinary one. It depicts the generosity, valour, devotion, love and sacrifice of the ruling family that commissioned its construction.
Built in 1498 by Vaghela dynasty of Dandai Desh, the construction was started by Rana Veer Singh (Virasimha), a Vaghela chief who envisioned the five-storey structure as a place that provided water for drinking, bathing, washing and a sanctuary to local villagers, travellers, caravans and pilgrims from the scorching desert sun. An act of generosity commonly followed by the ruling kings and philanthropists of the time.
Sadly, before Veer Singh could finish building the stepwell, Muslim ruler Mohammed Begda attacked Veer Singh, killed him and took over his territory.
The Vaghela chief’s widow, Rani Roopba or Rudabai wished to perform Sati but wanted to finish what her late husband had started. Begda, enamoured with the queen’s beauty, proposed marriage to her.
The queen agreed on the condition that he would let her complete the stepwell as her late husband had wished. She did complete constructing the exquisite structure but, soon after, gave up her life by jumping into the waters of the stepwell.
A temple quietly ‘guards’ the southern entry point to the stepwell, one of the three and the only open to public. While the temple is frequented by villagers and other regulars, most tourists are oblivious to its presence.
Once you enter the gate and take a flight of steps down, you can see a magnificent structure partially descended into the ground. The golden-brown hues of the columns stand in contrast to the shadows of the detailed carvings creating magic.
A few steps further down, and you’d reach the first floor of the stepwell - a spacious landing area with an octagonal open roof resting on eight pillar, that can be reached through stairs on three sides.
In each of the four corners of the landing platform are small rooms with oriel windows lending balcony-like appearances offering the perfect ‘frame’ to photo-crazed tourists waiting for their turn to be photographed.
The landing space extends into a descending staircase leading to the octagonal well-shaft, in the northern end of the structure where water gets stored.
The octagonal shaft is five storeyed and access to the first four storeys is through spiral staircases on western and eastern sides. An engineering feat, the design of the well allows brief exposure to sunlight thereby keeping the temperatures inside several degrees lower than outside.
A Sanskrit inscription engraved on a marble slab on the first storey of the stepwell describes, apart from the patrons’ names, the expense of building the structure as 5,00,111 tankas or over five lakh rupees.
Other notable architectural features include the fusion of Islamic floral patterns with Hindu and Jain symbolism of the time; the Ami Khumbor (a pot containing water of life) and the Kalp Vriksha (tree of life) made out of a single slab of stone; and the panel showing Navagraha (nine planets) protecting the well from evil spirits.
The walls embody sculptures of female dancers and musicians, erotic scenes, a king seated on a stool with bearers in attendance, scene showing churning of buttermilk, various birds and animals such as elephants, medallions, etc.
Integral to the arid and semi-arid regions of western India (Gujarat, Rajasthan), extending into Pakistan, stepwells were built mainly for utilitarian purposes but often had architectural embellishments and inscriptions in ancient languages like Sanskrit.
They ensured availability of water during dry spells or drought by either storing monsoon water or enabling access to groundwater table. However, their significance extended to the social, cultural and religious aspects of life then.
For hundreds of years, Adalaj Stepwell provided shelter, water and safety to travellers along their trade routes. People also visited it to offer prayers to the deities sculpted on the walls.
Local villagers would also use the place to meet each other and discuss local issues. It continues to be used as a gathering place during festivals and rituals.
The British destroyed several stepwells citing them unhygienic and unfit for use and installed the ‘modern’ water supply systems.
Architecture is synonymous with aesthetic appeal but a stepwell was designed to serve more. It carries stories of yore, is a dome for devotion and an integral part of the social fibre.
Which is why, perhaps, it has time and again been protected as heritage, part of our culture, and did not fade away like several architectural designs of the time.
Emerging and sustained water crises in arid regions of the country and an awareness to preserve heritage has sparked renewed interest in stepwells and will probably help in preserving this piece of culture that some would simply call...a well!