Built for love

Built for love

Intricate carvings and poetic designs tell a tragic tale of love and heartbreak. Adalaj ‘vav’ in Gujarat is a fine example of a beautiful union of Hindu and Muslim architecture. Susheela Nair explores.

An incredible sight awaited us as we took a 20-km detour to Adalaj, a village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. This obscure village is known for its vav (water tank), a step well built in 1555. At first sight, it looked like any other ordinary well, but we were bowled over by its striking beauty after we stepped into it. What makes it interesting is the tale of unrequited passion revolving around it, and the tragic sequence of events that thwarted its completion.

Of legends

The legend behind the genesis of this vav is as fascinating as its architectural brilliance. On close observation, we found the details of the story inscribed on the walls and pillars in Sanskrit and Pali. Adalaj vav was commissioned by Rani Roopba, the queen of Rana Veersingh, a local chief, who was defeated by the Muslim ruler Mohammed Begda.

The Vaghela queen had already begun the work when her husband was vanquished by Begada. Enamoured by her stunning beauty, Begada proposed to her. Playing it safe, the dejected queen agreed to the proposal, on condition that he completes the five-storied water vav as a sign of devotion. Enticed by her charm, Begada agreed to take up the challenging task. The excavation and construction work, which had stalled abruptly, began again in earnest.

As the years rolled by, an edifice juxtaposing the old Indian architectural ideals with the nobility of Islamic architecture emerged. When the five-storied edifice was complete, minus its dome, Begada proposed to Rani Roopba once again. She went back to her palace overcome by grief. The next day, she chose the same vav for her watery grave. This has sanctified the place, and many rural people carry water back from this well. Every visitor prays for the spirit of Rani Roopba, who is believed to reside within. The enraged ruler halted construction immediately, but did not demolish it.

Passing through the ornate pillars of this naturally air-conditioned vav, I pondered about the intermingling of Indian tradition and mythology here. The rectangular structure is enormous, with strong arches and pillars placed as if guarding the centrally-placed vav full of cool, fresh water. Built using sandstone, the step well at Adalaj consists of octagonal landings, huge carved colonnades, and exquisitely carved niches. As we descended, we found a considerable drop in the temperature — a natural air-conditioning system of sorts.

The temperature is always six degrees cooler than outside. This helped keep the water cold even in the scorching heat of summer. The vav stands as the only major monument of its kind, with the entrance stairs leading to a stepped corridor. These three entrances meet at the first level below ground, in a huge square platform. There are openings in the many ceilings which make way for good ventilation for the octagonal well. However, direct sunlight does not touch the flight of steps or landings except for a brief period at noon. We found the structure’s interplay with light amazing.

A magnificent blend

A combination of Hindu and Muslim architecture reveals the influence of the earlier Solanki rulers. Leafy creepers — typical adornments of Muslim architecture —  co-exist with Hindu symbols such as animal motifs, the bird, the horse and the elephant together with navagrahas and images of Goddess Shakti. The vavs are essentially rectangular structures with the opening to a flight of descending steps at one end and the shaft to the inner well at the far end. We were fascinated by the decorative theme of jousting elephants as a continuous motif on the walls and pillars right from the beginning of the steps until the penultimate level. Juxtaposed with these are motifs in the form of geometric and floral patterns.

Other carvings on the panels include a king sitting in a stool with two chauri bearers, a scene showing the churning of buttermilk, and musicians accompanying dancing women, apart from abstract symbols of gods and goddesses. We observed traces of Buddhist and Jain influences on some of the pillars and walls. Other interesting depictions are the Ami Khumbor (a pot that contains the water of life) and the Kalp Vriksha (a tree of life) carved on a single slab of stone. There is a belief that the small friezes of navagrahas at the edge of the well protect the monument from evil spirits. These depictions are said to attract villagers for worship during marriages and other ritualistic ceremonies.

Built as a resting place for pilgrims and traders, the vav obviously satisfied a ritualistic as well as utilitarian need. The semi-arid climate of the region made water a must for every traveller. These wells supplied water as well as rewarding the effort of reaching the spot with rest for the weary traveller’s bones. In the past, these step wells were frequented by travellers and caravans as stopovers along trade routes to take shelter from heat and rain. Villagers would stop by the vav every morning to collect water, offer prayers to the deities carved into the walls, and interact with each other in the cool shade.

While returning, I marvelled at the foresight, skill, public-spiritedness, and effort taken to create this water conservation structure.

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