A TALE OF TWO STEPWELLS

I miss India’s stepwells. They’re the architectural equivalent of the slot-canyons of the American West: when you first approach one from the surface it’ll appear like little more than a gash in the ground, but then you enter, the sides tower higher and higher, and with each step further in it becomes increasingly magnificent.

Not to belabor the analogy (well…maybe just a tad) since India’s stepwells, like America’s slot-canyons, cut deep into the ground, they are points in the landscape where water collects. This is of course a deliberate feature of stepwells, though also one which threatens the structures. Over the course of my travels in India, I’ve encountered nearly as many stepwells that had fallen into disrepair as were properly maintained.  As sometimes happens with slot canyons, stepwells can fill with silt. For example, the 11th century Rani Ki Vav in Patan, Gujarat, which is one of the very most spectacular bits of historical architecture I’ve ever visited, was for centuries almost entirely clogged with silt and largely forgotten until it was rediscovered in the 1940s and then cleaned out in the 80s.

Gazing up from the depths of Dada Harir Vav, Ahmedabad

Far more depressing are the stepwells in urban areas that have become giant garbage pits. Perhaps where the stepwell/slot canyon comparison breaks down is, though a slot-canyon can get choked with material, eventually this material will be dislodged by flashfloods. But with a stepwell, if something gets stuck in one it’s not coming out unless somebody takes the effort to remove it. This means that when a stepwell goes to seed, it really goes to seed.

As of a few years ago, many of India’s stepwells (known locally as baolis or vavs), were on their way to disappearing. For the reasons listed above, the structures are hard to maintain, and many no longer served a practical function because the water tables in most fast-developing Indian urban areas had dropped, leaving the stepwells dry.

But, as I understand it, there is much more of a push nowadays to maintain at least some of these incredible and unique pieces of Indian heritage. And that’s a good thing, because a visit to an impressive stepwell is one of the most interesting bits of architectural tourism one can do in India.   

(Please bear in mind that I took these photos below around eight years ago with a cheap point and shoot camera that was obsolete even at the time. I wouldn’t share the results if I thought they looked lousy, but, to put it mildly, I had to stretch the technology at my disposal almost to its breaking point!)

Peering down into Dada Harir Vav

The most impressive stepwells tend to be found in the harsh climates of western India, particularly in Rajasthan and Gujarat. In Ahmedabad, the capitol of Gujarat, there is a pair of particularly interesting examples called Dada Harir Vav and Adalaj ni Vav, both built during the late 15th century during the reign of Sultan Mahmud Begada of the Gujarat Sultanate. This was a period of notable cultural mixing between the region’s invading Islamic ruling class and the local Hindu population, and this mingling presents itself to varying degrees in both Dada Harir Vav and Adilaj.   

The two stepwells, being built in the same general area and within 30 years of each other, are quite similar, but the subtle differences between them are noteworthy.

Arabic inscription that reads, according to the 1879 Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency: Ahmedabad: “This holy and wholesome water; the splendid travellers’ rest-house enclosed on four sides by carved and painted walls, and a grove of fruit trees with their fruit, a well, and a pool of water for the use of man and heist, were built in the reign of the Sultan of the Sultans of the age, established by the grace of God and of the faith, Abul Fath Mahmud Shah, son of Muhammad Shah, son of Ahmed Shah, son of Muhammad Shah, son of Muzaffar Shah the Sultan, may God keep his kingdom. Dated the metropolis of the kingdom the 2nd of Jamadi-ul-awwal in the 26th year of the reign.” There is also a Sanskrit inscription elsewhere in Dada Harir Vav that I was unaware of when I visited…shame

Dada Harir Vav, commissioned in 1485 by the mistress of Mahmud Bagada’s harem, is the more obscure and less visited of the two. It’s also less ornate, and not quite as, well…fancy. But only by a very small margin. If one didn’t immediately compare Dada Harir Vav to its slightly younger and moderately fancier neighbor, it would be considered one of the prime architectural wonders of Ahmedabad.

What Dada Harir Vav lacks, perhaps unsurprisingly given that it was a project commission by members of the household of a Muslim sultan, is much in the way of carvings of human figures and animals. As in most Islamic art, highly stylized plants and geometric patterns are allowed, both of which the artisans who crafted the stepwell (many of whom were likely Hindus) leaned on heavily, but gods and goddesses are right out.

Yet, interestingly, if one looks hard enough, one can still find the occasional highly stylized beast deep within the shadows of Dada Harir Vav, perhaps as a nod to the fact that many of the people who would actually be using the well from day to day would be Hindus. While the sultans of Gujarat were defenders of the faith, they weren’t complete iconoclasts.

The fact that Dada Harir Vav was not a very popular tourist attraction (at least back when I visited), meant that when I showed up there was absolutely nobody around, which is a rare thing when you’re a lone foreigner traipsing around historical sites in India. At Dada Harir Vav, I had the opportunity to saunter along every ledge and peer into every nook (and there are many). If I remember correctly, I spent well over an hour under the ground, deep in the shade. And this was a fine way to spend my time when it was a blazing hot Gujarat morning outside.

Niche with floral motifs, flanked by carvings of mythological creatures. This niche is hidden way at the back of the rearmost shaft of Dada Harir Vav. Perhaps this out of the way spot was one of the few places in the stepwell where it was deemed acceptable to include representative art (albeit of highly stylized creatures). You can also ascertain from the graffiti that, at least back when this picture was taken, the Archaeological Survey of India wasn’t exactly doing a bang-up job protecting the monument from idiots

Adalaj ni Vav was constructed about 15 years after Dada Harir Vav and follows a very similar layout. While it seems to have been mostly built under the auspices of Mahmud Begada, interestingly the stepwell was begun by one of the sultan’s local Hindu rivals, Rana Veer Sing. While Mahmud Begada conquered Rana Veer Sing’s territory and killed him in battle, the sultan still recognized the need for a stepwell where the Hindu king had been building one, and so brought his rival’s project to completion.

This niche is one of the first things you encounter when entering Adalaj ni Vav, and already you can see that the ornamentation is more extravagant than at Dada Harir Vav, and that the artisans felt no need to hide their realistic creatures and human figures way in the back

At Adalaj, the Hindu influence on the stonework is more visible than at Dada Harir Vav, and the carvings as a whole are slightly more extravagant. Make no mistake, Adalaj is the more impressive of the two. Hence it sees more visitors. And with more visitors, generally, come more restrictions. When I visited, many of the nooks and crannies of Adalaj ni Vav were closed off, and the guards hired by the Archaeological Survey of India made sure to keep visitors off the most exposed ledges and sketchiest stone walkways. I can’t say I blame the ASI for trying to keep the tourists alive (and from carving stupid graffiti into the precious heritage), but it’s always frustrating when you see an intriguing stairway and can’t climb it. Oh well…that shouldn’t put you off visiting if you have the chance.

Worn down carvings of gods and goddesses on a stone lintel in Adalaj ni Vav
Into Adalaj ni Vav
Looking down into the bottom of Adalaj ni Vav, where there was still a tiny puddle when I visited. I’m honestly not sure what the deal was with the platform of vicious spikes you can see above the puddle.

India, especially western India, has plenty more stepwells where these came from, and I sincerely hope to visit more, and with better equipment, in the coming years. Watch this blog!

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