Stepping Back In Time : Adalaj Ni Vaav

Pics by: Dr. P. K. Pai

The glitz and glamour of the malls and multiplexes of Ahmedabad fade away as we step into the architectural space of the step-well of Adalaj. Eighteen kilometres from the commercial heart of Gujarat, we travel along the Sarkhej-Gandhinagar Highway and take a detour to the little village of Adalaj. The architectural marvel resembles a subterranean temple dedicated to the beauty and mystery of natural water.

Water-the elixir of life-has sustained mankind from time immemorial. Access to water has determined the development of various civilizations. Myths and legends flowed from the fertile imagination of a people who deified water as the mother goddess-Ganga, Saraswati, Narmada, Kaveri-who nourished their bodies and cleansed their souls.           

Water played an important role in the architectural heritage of India. The water reservoirs of Indus valley towns such as Mohenjodaro and Dholavira are testimony to this. Even in the arid western regions, villages and towns flourished due to an imaginative system of water management and rainwater harvesting which mitigated the absence of perennial rivers. Traditional societies came together to build and preserve water resources in the form of wells, tanks, artificial lakes and check-dams.
The nomadic Maldharis dug shallow wells called virdhas to harvest rainwater in the Great Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. The rural communities of Maharashtra constructed bandharas or check-dams across rivers for the purpose of irrigation. The johads (check-dams) and jhalaras (man-made tanks) formed an efficient water storage system in the parched lands of Rajasthan.

Himachal Pradesh had kuhls — surface channels to divert water from streams and khatris — water harvesting structures carved out in mountains. The zings of Ladakh are small tanks for collecting water from the glaciers. The hot regions of South India depended on tank irrigation – the ooranis of Travancore, the eris of Tamil Nadu and the keres of Karnataka. The cheruvus of Andhra Pradesh were embankments for water storage.

Stepwells are a unique Indian contribution to traditional architecture. They are known as baolis or baodis in northern India and vavdis or vavs in Gujarat. Chand baodi in Abhaneri(Rajasthan), Agrasen ki baoli in Delhi and Rani ki vav in Patan(Gujarat) are examples of stepwells built on a grand scale. The abundance of step-wells in Bundi, Rajasthan has earned it the sobriquet, ‘the city of step-wells.? In Gujarat alone, hundreds of stepwells were constructed over the centuries.

Many years ago, I was fascinated by the the ingenious architecture of the Shahi baoli in the precincts of the Bada Imambara in Lucknow. This was a five storeyed structure built by Nawab Asaf-ud-daula which also acted as a security surveillance system! As one descended the two storeys which remained above water, one could watch the entrance of the baoli in the reflection of the water below.

Adalaj ni vav is an interesting assimilation of Hindu, Jain and Islamic influences. A Sanskrit inscription on the wall of the first storey commemorates a tale shrouded in romance and tragedy. The construction of the step-well began in the 15th century during the reign of Rana Veer Singh of the Vaghela dynasty.  The neighbouring ruler, Sultan Mohammed Begada attacked the kingdom of Dandai desh and killed Veer Singh. Enamored by the beauty of the queen Ruda, Begada sent her a matrimonial proposal. She laid down the condition that he should complete the construction of the step-well for her. When the enormous edifice neared completion in 1498 AD, the queen flung herself into the vav to meet her watery grave. The jal samadhi also suggests the ritual of human sacrifice to appease the jal devi who ensured the perpetual flow of water for the community.
Five lakh tankas(silver coins) were spent on the vav which remained  incomplete as evident from the missing canopy. The masons who erected this structure are also buried in the vicinity of the vav. It is believed that they were sent to their graves by Begada who did not want them to replicate this magnificent monument! 

As we enter the shadowy interiors of the step-well, a refreshing coolness offers respite from the merciless midday sun. The glare of the outside world is transformed into a twilight world of light and darkness, accentuated by a continuum of deepening shadows. The reverberation of echoes in the labyrinthine interiors only accentuate the silence. The passage into the earth is a realisation of the symbiotic relationship between light and darkness, between sound and silence.

Adalaj was located on the trade route from the Solanki capital of Patan to the sea coast of Saurashtra. The step-well provided a cool retreat for weary travellers who traversed the semi-arid landscape and a resting place for their caravans. It served as a social and cultural hub, a place of relaxation and leisure in the hot summer months. It fulfilled the utilitarian needs of the local community where women came to collect water and unburden their souls to their friends.

The unimposing entrance does not prepare us for the spacious water shrine which stretches to a length of 75.3 metres. This is no Stygian world with dark, gloomy recesses. No claustrophobia invades us as we begin our descent. The mammoth five-storied structure is laid out along a north-south axis. As my eyes follow the rise of the vertical columns to the top, I see an azure sky framed by an octagonal opening.

The step-well has three distinctive features. The Mandapa is the entrance pavilion at the ground level. The Kuta is the the flight of steps which lead to the Kund or the tank at the bottom which connects to an underground aquifer. The steep descent of steps is punctuated by platforms and balconies at each level.  It is built in the traditional trabeate system, with horizontal beams resting on sturdy columns. It is a ‘Jaya? type step-well, one of its kind, with ‘trivaktra? or three entrance stairs to the south, east and west. The three entrance stairs meet in a spacious platform.

The huge platform rests on magnificently carved pillars. The four corners of the platform are marked by small rooms which can be entered from the side. I feel like a queen looking through the oriel windows which are supported by intricately carved brackets. As we descend the stairs, we gaze in wonder at the spectacular beams and columns with stylized scrollwork.

Colonnades supporting elaborately carved lintels recede in the distance, creating a three-dimensional perspective. The sharp contours of the columns meet beams embellished with friezes of geometrical motifs, forming an exquisite framework. The labyrinthine passageways resemble spacious galleries, making us oblivious of the fact that we are descending into the bowels of the earth!

The pillars are square with recesses and richly ornamented. The kumbhi or the base is visually divided into layers with bands of floral designs and blocks of repetitive geometric patterns. The bharni or the capital of the pillar is flanked by curvaceous ‘S? shaped brackets on four sides enriched with delicate carvings. The monotony of the shaft of the pillar is relieved at intervals by geometric motifs. The entablature is decorated with horizontal panels of half-medallions incorporating flowers, and bands of cusped leaves alternating with ornate darts. The innovation and craftsmanship of the sculptors is astonishing.

Niches framed by miniature pilasters incorporate sinuous floral designs where flowers and foliage interweave in a celebration of creativity and fecundity. The walls of the vav are adorned with horizontal rows of elephant and horses, each one carved with care and precision. Scenes from daily life such as women churning buttermilk and dancing women accompanied by musicians are depicted. Delicate bands of floral patterns, typical of Islamic architecture, undulating on the walls blend harmoniously with images of Hindu gods and goddesses. Niches with symbolic representation of the mother-goddess become places of ritual worship.

The octagonal shaft ends in a pool of water which taps into an underground source. Spiral staircases lead to the upper storeys. The well became defunct with the advent of the British and piped water. A niche which houses an ‘ami khumb?(pot that contains the water of life) and a ‘kalpavriksha?(the tree of life) suggests that this place had religious significance. Villagers from nearby places congregate here on special occasions to perform rituals and invoke the gods with various offerings. The sacred and the secular coalesce in the serene environs of the step-well.

I remember the words of Marcel Proust-?The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

I step out into the world of the harsh sun above, ‘seeing? in new light the shadowy world below. In an age of water wars and corporatisation of natural resources, I marvel at the far-sightedness of traditional communities which venerated their sources of water and preserved them. I am humbled by the cultural richness of the past which created a water?shrine of immense beauty from a mundane well. Adalaj ni vav stands as a mute testimony to the architectural and aesthetic tradition which exemplifies ‘architecture as history arrested in stone.?

Author: Sucheta Pai- Shimoga