The old-world charm of stepwells

The old-world charm of stepwells

All is well in the stepwells of Gujarat

Rani ki vav, Patan, Gujarat

A bunch of weaver bird nests hung from trees that lined the well in my village, and on every summer holiday visit, sitting by the well and watching the nests was a favourite with me. The well was where the aunts would congregate to wash clothes and gossip long after the clothes had been washed. There were also other wells, some for drinking water, some in the middle of fields for channelising water, and so on. Wells continue to be important hubs in villages and even old neighbourhoods in cities, not just for drinking water or washing needs, but also to meet, especially for women. In that sense, the well has traditionally played the role of a social platform for women for centuries. 

Talking about women and wells, two famous stepwells come to mind. Both of them are in Gujarat and are associated with brave queens. Rani ki vav and Adalaj ki vav are two architectural masterpieces that form an important part of Gujarat’s heritage and culture.

Adalaj ki vav

Adalaj is a dusty village near Ahmedabad, and we headed there from the city in a cab. As we got off, the afternoon sun beat down on us, and we made our way to the ‘vav’ or well, carefully avoiding a lazing cow at a roundabout and a huddle of autorickshaws. The moment you descend the steps, you enter a different time zone and place. The weather becomes cool, and you see brilliantly carved pillars, arches and brackets everywhere. You can’t help but stop and stare at the sheer symmetry of this five-storeyed structure.

Legend has it that the stepwell was built towards the end of the 15th century by Rana Veer Singh of the Vaghela dynasty. The king died and the construction of the well was completed by a neighbouring ruler, who invaded the region, and wished to marry Veer Singh’s wife, Rani Roopba. The queen told the invader that she would marry him if the stepwell was completed. The besotted ruler fulfilled her wish, only to see the brave queen say a final prayer and jump into the well. 

Adalaj ki vav
Adalaj ki vav

The stepwell has a nice blend of architectural styles, with some Islamic influences as well. There are also Jain and Buddhist touches in the carvings and sculptures. Stand at the heart of the stepwell, and look up, and you are bound to be taken back in time. Time stops at Adalaj and you can stare endlessly at the intricate poetry in stone. The well must have been a nice place for communities over the centuries to pause and relax. An ideal resting point on a journey in an arid region like Gujarat.

Rani ki vav

The other stepwell that has become an important spot on the tourist map of Gujarat is Rani ki vav or Patan ki vav. The stepwell, located in Patan, is now in the list of UNESCO’s world heritage sites. The stepwell was built by Rani Udayamati in the honour of her husband, Bhimadeva I of Solanki dynasty, towards the end of the 11th century. As you descend the steps, on either side of the walls are intricate carvings depicting mythological heroes and gods. There are seven storeys or galleries and many of the sculptures are dedicated to Lord Vishnu. You can also spot the ‘dashavataras’ or the 10 incarnations of Vishnu on the walls. It is believed that the well was built on the banks of River Saraswati, which then changed course and vanished eventually.

Standing at one of the lower galleries, it feels like you are in the well of time. You imagine the story of the queen who wanted this well built for the love of her husband, you imagine the many sculptors at work, you imagine how the well has buried in its womb tales of centuries.

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