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Vavs, the stepwells of Gujarat

Dug deep into the bowels of the earth, the stepwells of Gujarat & Rajasthan are India's wonderful but little-known contribution to architecture. Dancewithshadows enters the caverns.



While working on my first book, I travelled to various places in and around Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Delhi to look at the historic places. In passing, I heard that Vavs, in Gujarat and Rajasthan were repositories of architecture. These were wells - stepped wells in fact. Stepped and moving into the bowels of the earth, some five to six storeys in height. Designed to bring the people and Gods together, these wells attempted to entice Gods to leave their abodes for a cool drink of water - the elixir of life. 
Vavs were Built in the south western region of Gujarat, in the late 6th and 7th centuries. Builders/ masons dug deep trenches into the earth for dependable, year-round groundwater. They lined the walls of these trenches with blocks of stone, without mortar, and created stairs leading up to the water. These were the first stepwells, a 
practical which idea came to adopted even in Rajasthan. Several thousands of these wells were built in western India. The grandest period of the stepwell construction spanned from 11th to 16th century, the most extravagant of which is the Rani ki Vav, at Patan in Gujarat.

Vadtal Vav

I chose to go to Vadtal, a small village in the Kaira district of Gujarat. An out-of-the-way place, but accessible by road -- bus transport or private vehicle. What attracted me there was a mention from a close friend that a well existed there.

I caught a local bus from Baroda and accompanied by a local guide, reached Vadtal at about 11.30. Crossing the highway, we walked into the village/town. Asking people for directions, we reached a murky little village pond close to what seemed like an old-fashioned round well. Close to it was what looked like a buried roof., stretched 30ft across and 15ft wide. I was mistaken. It was no roof, but an opening hidden by creepers and plants that seemed to be growing from within the breaks in the wall. 

The well seemed to be 40 ft deep. I peered from the top. The entrance was to the west with stairs leading into the semi-dark interior of the building. The place as all old places do, smelt of old age and refuse. 

Stepping into the doorway was like entering a time warp. This was a stepped well of Vadtal or Badhthal as called in history books - one of the well-known stepwells that have survived till day. 

The wide steps steadily moved into the interiors and downward, with just four levels in between to break the monotonous descend. The first and the second levels had doors on either side - chained and locked, probably rooms. The doors were made in wood and were just big and wide enough for a single person to pass through. By the third level, the height of the wall had almost reached 25ft - 30ft.

The entire structure was built in stone. It had minimum of latticework, motifs and designs. Though these places were regarded as places of worship too, no idol existed except for a carved image of Lord Vishnu sitting on a serpent on the wall across the water. There was an inscription in Sanskrit written below the image - probably telling people the water came from the Ganges.

The water could not be seen due to the fallen masonry, huge black stones. But anyway, I chucked a small stone through a hole; it took quite a while before I heard a plop. There was a circular walkway built around the well, where one individual easily walk or circumambulate it. Well, the water was there, but now no one accessed it for it could not be. A look skywards gave the impression that I was at least 40 ft below surface level. 

An amazing experience, the step well has become a piece of history. The Archaeological Society of India (ASI) has a board stuck outside, explaining that this is a historical sight. But no effort has been made to clean it or restore it.

Well structure

The vavs or baolis (step-wells) consisted of two parts, a vertical shaft from which water was drawn and the surrounding it were the inclined subterranean passageways, chambers and steps, which provided access to the well. The galleries and chambers surrounding these wells were carved generously, which became cool retreats during summers.

The earliest is the Mata Bhavani's vav at Ahmedabad, built in the 11th century. One could approach water by a long flight of steps above, which are four-storey open pavilions. The ornamentation of the columns, brackets and beams, and motifs all following are of the Solanki School of temple architecture.
The Rani Vav (Queen's well) at Patan was built during the 11th century, and is the most magnificent stepwell in Gujarat, multi-storeyed with colonnades and retaining walls that link the stepped tank to a circular well. Columns, brackets and beams are encrusted with scrollwork and wall niches have carved figures - Hindu deities alternating with maidens flanked on the walls surrounding the staircase. It is massive in construction and the ornate treatment suggests it was a place for rituals, social and ceremonial purpose.
The Dada Hari's vav at Ahmedabad, with the one at Adalaj, belongs to the Muslim period. The Dada Hari's vav was modeled on the Mata Bhavani's vav; it has an additional domed pavilion at the entrance. There is the absence of figures, but motifs and stylised scrollwork adorn the wall niches and can be compared to those that appear in Islamic architecture. Adalaj vav is located 12m north of Ahmedabad, and is octagonal in structure. A long flight of steps descends to the water level; columns and connecting beams create open structures. The receding perspective of the columns and crossbeams is particularly striking. Wall niches incorporate miniature pilasters, eaves and roof-like pediments.

Lost in time

An immensely practical idea, the step well lost out with the advent of British Raj, who were extremely unhappy with the quality of hygiene that existed in these wells, they installed pipes and pumps. The stepwell, other than a source of water, was also a place to socialise and gather for religious ceremonies. Women were usually associated with these wells, for it was they who collected the water, also prayed to the Goddess of the well for her blessings and offered votive gifts. 

The wells fell into disuse with the invasion of the Mughal rulers but even they did not interfere in the rituals connected with these stepwells; in fact, they encouraged the building of many step wells. It was the British rule that forced a complete closure of these places. With it also ended the social and religious aspect of the stepwells and their importance in an individual's life.

Awareness about the importance of water has increased over the past decade particularly now when many villages and towns are facing scarcity of rain and water. Special construction of these wells during those days encouraged percolation of rainwater into it. These have also withstood the earthquakes in the range of 7.6 on the Richter scale - the large flat stones joined superbly are hard to move. Stepwells, India's most unique but little-known contribution to architecture. 


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