Tucked in a remote corner about 19 kms north of Ahmedabad is the small village of Adalaj. It entered the map of Indian history in the late 1400s due to the construction of an iconic stepwell.
As per the local legend, the construction of the ‘vav’ (Gujarati for step well) in Adalaj was started by the local ruler, Rana Veer Singh in 1499 keeping in mind the problem of water in the region. However, before it could be completed, Veer Singh was killed by Sultan Mehmood Begda, who plundered through the region, looking to expand his territory.
Begda was, however, enamoured by the beauty of Veer Singh’s widow, Rani Rudabai. He sent her a proposal and she agreed on the condition that he completed the construction of the stepwell.
Begda was impressed by Rani’s dedication towards her subjects and agreed. He finished construction of the vav in record time. However, instead of marrying Begda, Rudabai committed suicide by jumping in the well.
The Adalaj or Rudabai Vav went on to become one of the most well-known stepwells in Gujarat’s history. It is an excellent example of the fusion of Hindu and Medieval architecture. The top of the stepwell boasts of excellence in medieval art and as one climbs down, the motifs and architecture becomes increasingly Indian…the story of its construction explains the reason. Built in sandstone, it has three entrances (a rarity) leading to a huge platform that rests on 16 pillars with corners marked by shrines. The octagonal well is five storeys deep and is decorated with exquisite stone carvings.
Getting there: Regular buses and taxis from Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar (5 kms from Adalaj) are available.
Also called baolis or baoris, stepwells are unique to the Indian architectural scene. According to historians, rudimentary stepwells appeared in India around the 3rd century CE. Stepwells are basically subterranean water sources that were popular among arid regions of the subcontinent.
For centuries, baolis – which incorporated a cylinder well that extended down to the water table – provided water for drinking, washing, bathing, and irrigation of crops. They also served as cool sanctuaries for caravans, pilgrims, and other travellers during the heat of the day or overnight. They were excavated several storeys down with various flights of stairs reaching down to the water table.
Of the thousands of stepwells that thrived throughout the country, most were abandoned as a result of modernization. Locals neglected their upkeep, allowing them to fill up with silt and garbage and eventually crumble to ruins.
Some famous stepwells,
Chand Baori: One of the oldest and deepest stepwells in the world. It is located in the village of Abhaneri near Jaipur. It was constructed in the 9th century and consists of 3,500 narrow steps going 13 storeys or 100 feet deep.
Rajon ki Baoli: This is one of the most famous ones. Situated in Mehrauli Archaeological Park, it was built in 1516 by Daulat Khan. The baoli is three storeys deep with an additional layer at ground level. The arched halls on all three sides are shaded and coloured and bear calligraphic engravings.
Rani ki vav: Known as the “Queen of step wells”, it was constructed in the 11th century. It is located in Patan in Gujarat. It was built by Rani Udayamati in the memory of her husband King Bhimdev of the Solanki dynasty. It is referred as an ornament of the world’s architectural heritage and legacy of Patan. It is a 64m long, 20m wide and 27 m deep step well. The well was buried for almost 800 years before it was unearthed in the 1980s by the ASI. It has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, which describes it as an “exceptional example of technological development” in utilizing groundwater resources. It is believed that up to 60 years ago, there used to be ayurvedic plants surrounding the Rani ki Vav, which gave the waters of this ancient stepwell some medicinal properties.
Dholavira: A 5,000-year-old stepwell located in one of the largest Harappan cities, Dholavira, in Kutch, which is three times bigger than the Great Bath at Mohenjo Daro. Among all, it’s the largest, grandest, and the best furnished ancient reservoirs discovered so far in the country. It is rectangular and 73.4m long, 29.3m wide and 10m deep. It’s located beneath the eastern reservoir of Dholavira.