In 1990s when I was a doctoral student in Pune’s Deccan College, I did not know much about step-wells or vavs (in Gujarati), Gujarat’s incredible subterranean structures that were created for rainwater harvesting. I only knew briefly about Rani ni Vav at Patan, a uniquely embellished and ornamental underground structure for water conservation in the medieval world. However, for the first time I got a chance to visit Rani ni Vav in 2003, thanks to a picnic organised by the organisation I work for. From hereon developed my interest, over time, in step wells of Gujarat owing further to my deep fascination for water and the urge to explore the various interplays between geography and history.
Gujarat is a semi-arid region. Though it receives moderate rainfall during monsoons, the salinity content in the soil does not allow it to hold the monsoon water for long. The water evaporates once the monsoon season is over. To tackle this problem, its ancient inhabitants had invented a variety of water harvesting structures from the time of the Indus Valley Civilisation.
At Dholavira in Kutch, archaeologists have unearthed one of world’s earliest series of water reservoirs. These were scientifically designed to channelize water from two seasonal nullahs into the reservoirs. Dholavira has also yielded a step-well, perhaps the earliest of its kind in the world.
One of the earliest water harvesting structures in the world at Dholavira in Kutch
From the early medieval time (6th century onwards), step-wells became a common feature across the landscape of North-Central Gujarat and Saurashtra-Kutch. Says a popular Gujarati proverb (in translation here),
‘On the way to Vagad, I feel thirsty. Build me a step-well for I want to go to Vagad’.
A clear indication of the importance of step-wells in the mundane life of Gujarati people.
Another local belief responsible for the proliferation of building vavs; says: ‘One, who digs a well for the public, has half of sins absolved’. So no wonder vavs dot the Gujarati landscape vigorously.
A prominent feature of Gujarati step-wells is stepped corridors consisting of several storeys, down from entrance pavilions to water level. In some examples we find pavilion towers constructed on supporting structures. While in some cases, step-wells are connected to temples indicating their ritual significance. With relation to their location, some are located either within or at the edge of villages. But most importantly they are located at the sides of overland routes, providing water and shelter in sizzling hot months to pilgrimage and trading caravans. At lower levels, the temperature in a vav, is surprisingly three/four degree lesser compared to the surrounding open ground.
Rani ni Vav on the outskirts of Patan, the former capital of Gujarat, is considered as the Queen among step-wells. A world heritage site, the vav, built in 11th century, is located amidst a sprawling garden. It was built by Queen Udayamati as a memorial to her departed husband, following a traditional practice ‘Parvati’s penance’ – goddess separated by death from her consort and practising austerities to win reunion with him were deliberately portrayed to express Udayamati’s own tragic widowed condition. It faces east having a length of 65 m, width of 20 m and height of 29 m. It consists of 7 storeys and 4 pavilions. Originally it had 292 pillars, out of which only 226 have survived. There are 400 exquisitely carved images of Hindu divinities, semi-divine creatures, holy men and women and of common people, all adorning the interior of the vav.
Most of the sculptures in Rani ni Vav are in devotion to Vishnu, in the form of his 10 incarnations, such as Kalki, Rama, Vamana and Varahi. But we also find a number of sculptures representing Brahma and his consort, Shiva in various forms, the prominent being Bhairava, guardian deities, Ganesha, Parvati and Mahisasurmardhini Durga. Depiction of nagkanyas and apsaras in different moods and showcasing 16 different styles of make-up (solah-shringar) is something to look out for. There is little doubt, therefore, that a visit to this UNESCO site will leave the visitors spellbound.
Those having limited time and can’t make a visit to Patan, the other option is a visit to the Rudabai Step-Well in Adalaj, a village in-between Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar. It is the second most important vav in Gujarat. The step-well was built by Queen Rudabai, the wife of the Vaghela Chief Virasimha in the 15th century AD. Like Rani ni Vav, the Rudabai step-well was also built in the memory of the queen’s departed husband.
Adalaj ni Vav
An interesting account goes thus: ‘Sultan Mehmud Begda killed Virasimha in a battle and asked Rudabai to marry him. Queen Rudabai promised to marry, after the well whose construction said to have been commenced by Virasimha is completed. Legend says Mehmud Begada completed the construction of the vav as promised. Queen Rudabai, satisfied with the ornamental vav as a memorial to her slain husband, committed suicide by jumping into the well.’
sculptural details in Adalaj ni Vav
Built in Solanki architectural style, the Adalaj step-well is five storeys deep. One of the prominent features of this vav is the balconies or jharokas, similar to the ones found in contemporary Indo-Islamic monuments of the region. The only difference is however depiction of animals and men, fighting elephants and lions, horses with riders and men attending to their horses that are restricted in Islamic shrines. Another interesting depiction carved from a single block of stone is of the Ami Khumbor (symbolic pot of the water of life).
Similar in plan and contemporary to Adalaj vav is Dada Hari ni vav situated in Asarva locality of Ahmedabad. It was built by Bai Harir, a nobleman in the court of Mehmud Begda. Dada Hari ni Vav is 5 storeys deep. Motifs of flowers and jali patterns in this well blend very well with the Hindu and Jain Gods carved at various levels of the step-well.
An interesting variation among the step-wells of Gujarat is Madhav Vav in Vadhvan in Saurashtra. This little town on the outskirts of the district headquarter, Surendranagar, has layers of history. Among many of Gujarat’s historical treasures, Madhav Vav is most fascinating. This step-well consists of six pavilion towers, but what makes them distinctive, is the pyramidal roofs on each of them with stone finials. This was built by Madhav, a minister of Sarangdev Vaghela in 1294 AD. A local lore relates how Madhav’s son and daughter-in-law sacrificed their lives so that it could have water.
Madav ni Vav at Wadhwan
Step-wells are Gujarat’s USP in heritage tourism. Once, more tourists will visit them and engage with local communities for their upkeep, there is no doubt that these will become one of the most sought after destinations for heritage lovers from all over the world. Their upkeep will also add to the depleting water supply in the region doubling up as storage areas with high aesthetic value.