Adalaj Stepwell (Gujarati: અડાલજની વાવ) is a unique Hindu 'water building' in the village of Adalaj, close to Ahmedabad town in Gandhinagar district in the Indian state of Gujarat. The stepwell was built in 1499 by Muslim king Mohammed Begda for Queen Rani Roopba, wife of Veer Singh, the Vaghela chieftain. The step well or 'Vav', as it is called in Gujarati, is intricately carved and is five stories deep. Such step wells were once integral to the semi-arid regions of Gujarat, as they provided water for drinking, washing and bathing. These wells were also venues for colorful festivals and sacred rituals.
Stepwells, also called stepped ponds, built between the 5th and 19th centuries, are common in Western India; over 120 such wells are reported in the semi-arid region of Gujarat alone, of which the well at Adalaj is one of the most popular. Stepwells are also found in more arid regions of the subcontinent, extending into Pakistan, to collect rain water during seasonal monsoons. While many such structures are utilitarian in construction, they sometimes include significant architectural embellishments, as in the Adalaj stepwell, which attracts a large number of tourists. In the past, these stepwells were frequented by travelers and caravans as stopovers along trade routes.
A research scholar, who studied the history and architecture of the stepwells in Gujarat under a Fulbright Fellowship, has termed these wells as “High Hindu Stepwells” because of the recorded literature of the Brahmins of the period from fifth to ninth centuries, during the “High Hindu period”. While the Brahmins were the architects, the builders were artisans of Sompara sect of low–caste Hindus. A wide unbridgable gulf of religious distinction existed between the two groups, with the former getting all the credit.
Before the history of Adalaj Stepwell is stated, it would be informative to mention that the first rock-cut step wells in India are dated from 200 AD to 400 AD. Subsequently, the wells at Dhank (550-625) and construction of stepped ponds at Bhinmal (850-950) took place.
The city of Mohenjo-daro has wells, which may be the predecessor of the step well; as many as 700 wells have been discovered in just one section of the city leading scholars to believe that 'cylindrical brick lined wells' were invented by the people of the Indus Valley Civilization. Between third and second millineum BC, at the 'Great Bath', at the site of Mohenjodaro of the Harappan civilization, filling of water was achieved from a large well located in one of the rooms in front of the open courtyard of the building–complex.
While early stepwells were made of stone, later step wells were made of mortar, stucco, rubble and laminar stones. The well cylinder was the basic form used to deepen the wells. It is also inferred that the Stepwells in Gujarat have survived so long in view of the builder’s knowledge of the soil conditions and the earthquake proneness of the region.
The well size recommended, based on considerations of stability, was of four to thirteen hasta (‘hasta’ a Sanskrit word, which means “forearm” of size varying from 12–24 inches (300–610 mm)), A size of eight hasta was considered ideal and a 13 hasta well was considered dangerous. However, the well thickness from top to bottom remained generally uniform. By the 11th century, the step well planning and design acquired architectural excellence and the Hindu Stepwells were standardized.
The history of the Adalaj step-well built in 1498 is established by an inscription in Sanskrit found on a marble slab positioned in a recess on the first floor, from the eastern entry to the well. Its construction was started by Rana Veer Singh of the Vaghela dynasty of Dandai Desh. But he was killed in a war, wherefater the Muslim king Mahmud Begada of a neighbouring state built it in Indo-Islamic architectural style, in 1499.
The cultural and architectural depiction in the deep wells at various levels are a tribute to the history of step wells, built initially by Hindus and subsequently ornamented and blended with Islamic architecture during the Muslim rule.
As per legend the 15th century, Rana Veer Singh of the Vaghela dynasty, a Hindu ruler, reigned over this territory, then known as Dandai Desh. His kingdom was attacked by Mohammed Begda, the Muslim ruler of a neighboring kingdom. The Rana king was killed and his territory occupied by the invader. Rana Veer Singh’s widow, a beautiful lady known by the name Rani Roopba, though in deep grief at the death of her husband, agreed to a marriage proposal made by Mahmud Begada on the condition that he would first complete the building of the stepwell. The Muslim king who was deeply enamoured of the queen’s beauty agreed to the proposal and built the well in record time. Once the well was completed, Begda reminded the queen of her promise to marry him. instead the queen who had achieved her objective of completing the stepwell started by her husband, decided to end her life, as mark of devotion to her husband. She circumambulated the stepwell with prayers and jumped into the well, ending the saga of building the well in tragedy. These events are depicted on the walls of the well. Begda however allowed the well to remain without any defacing.
One version which is narrated in the 200 years old scriptures of Swaminarayan sect suggests that before she died, Rani Roopba requested religious saints to take bath in this stepwell so that the water in the stepwell gets purified by these saints thereby delivering her from her sins.
Another is linked to the tombs found near the well. The tombs of six masons who built the well are seen near the Vav. Begda asked the Masons if they could build another similar well and when they agreed Begda sentenced them to death instead. Begda was so impressed by the architectural excellence of the stepwell that he did not want a replica to be built.
looking up the well
Built in sand stone in Solanki architectural style, the Adlaj stepwell is five stories deep. It is octagonal (8-sided polygon) in plan at the top, built on intricately carved large number of pillars. Each floor is spacious enough to provide for people to congregate. It was dug deep to access ground water at that level, accounting for seasonal fluctuations in water level due to rainfall over the year. The air and light vents in the roofs at various floors and at the landing level are in the form of large openings. From the first story level, three staircases lead to the bottom water level of the well, which is considered a unique feature. Built along a North-South axis, entrance is from the South, the three staircases are from the South, West and East directions leading to the landing, which is on the northern side of the well. Four small rooms with oriel windows decorated with minutely carved brackets are provided at the landing level, at the four corners. The structural system is typically Indian style with traditional trabeat with horizontal beams and lintels. At the bottom of the well is a square stepped floor in the shape of a funnel extending to the lowest plane. This is chiseled into a circular well. Above the square floor, columns, beams, wall and arched openings spiral around; a feature that continues to the top. The top part of the well, however, is a vertical space open to the sky. The four corners of the square are strengthened with stone beams, set at 45 degrees angle. The motifs of flowers and graphics of Islamic architecture blend very well with the symbols of Hindu and Jain gods carved at various levels of the well. The dominant carvings on the upper floors are of elephants (3 inches (76 mm) in size, each of different design). The Islamic architectural style could be attributed to the Muslim king Begda who built it. The walls are carved with women performing daily chores such as churning of buttermilk, adorning themselves, scenes of performance of dancers and musicians, and the King overlooking all these activities.
An interesting depiction carved from a single block of stone is of the Ami Khumbor (symbolic pot of the water of life) and the Kalp Vriksha (a tree of life). Also seen is a fresco of navagraha or nine planets. These depictions are said to attract villagers for worship during marriage and other ritualistic ceremonies.
The temperature inside the well is said to be about five degrees lower than the outside hot summer temperatures. This encouraged the women who came to fetch water to spend more time in the cool climes here. They stayed to worship the gods and goddesses and gossip.
A tribute paid to the rich underground structures, which are intricately decorated with sculptures, is that they are said to resemble palaces.