The Adalaj Vav – Ahmedabad’s Treasure of Delight and Detail
By Vernelle A.A. Noel, Assoc. AIA
Entry into Step-well
Photo courtesy: Vernelle A.A. Noel
Hundreds of years ago, step-wells were fundamental to life in the driest parts of India. These structures, hewn from stone, provided year-round access to groundwater, and were a focal point for the community. A step-well comprises a series of steps descending from ground level to the water source (normally an underground aquifer) as it recedes following the rains.1
The Adalaj step-well or Adalaj vav in Ahmedabad was built in 1498 by Ruda, wife of Vaghela chief Virasimha. This is recorded in Sanskrit inscription on a marble slab set into a niche in the first storey on the eastern side of the well.
The step-well served both ritualistic as well as utilitarian needs. People from the nearby villages would use water from the vav for irrigation and considered the water holy. In the semi arid climate of Gujarat, the cool water from the vav also provided a welcome break, during the harsh summer months.
The step-well is situated in the Gandhinagar, Ahmedabad. It sits on a flat, site with lawns and leafy trees. Families relax in the shade of the trees. A parapet wall encloses the vav at ground level, and it is open to the sky, consequently from the ground level you can peer down into the well.
The Adalaj vav constructed from sandstone has three main features - the grand staircase with a colonnade of decorated pillars, the main well at the base, and a smaller round well behind the main one.
The step-well stretches out along a north-south axis on the site. The entrance is on the south-side with stairs from the east, west and south leading down to a spacious landing with the well on the north.
The architectural expression of the interior is complex and sculptural. The carvings on the columns and entablatures are of flowers and geometrical patterns. This is indicative of the Islamic influences. Carvings of animals and humans are from the Hindu and Jain influence.
At each of the four corners of the landing are small rooms with oriel windows and intricately carved brackets. The staircase which links the entry platform with the pool of water contains adorned columns, and entablatures.
Along the eastern and western walls of the vav - which are actually retaining walls – there are niches and carvings of flowers and patterns for the entire length of the wall. It is noticeably cooler the deeper you go into the well. The pool of water at the base of the stair is the main attraction with the voices of on-lookers echoing. The well shaft is octagonal and five storeys high.
The vav’s structural system is a traditional trabeate Indian building style with horizontal beams and lintels instead of arches which lend themselves to an Islamic style. The upper four storeys are entered through spiral staircases on the exterior eastern and western sides. The spiral stair entry makes one very much aware of their body. You become conscious of your height, your width, your ability to bend, and manipulate your body, or not. The stairs are narrow and steep; you are confined in a tight space then emerge into the well shaft open to the sky. It reminds me of the strategies Frank Lloyd Wright employed at Fallingwater.
The most striking thing about the vav is its carvings. For example, there are scores of carvings of elephants along the walls surrounding the well on the upper floors. These elephants are approximately 3 inches high, but each elephant is different. No cookie-cutter carvings here. The corridor railing around the octagonal well shaft, pillars, pilasters, entablatures, lintels, brackets, all are intricately decorated.
It is spectacular when the sunlight enters the well shaft. I think of the skills, the time, the patience, the sweat and the thought that went into creating this masterpiece. They forever reside in the shadows of these carvings and honored in the light of day.
The Adalaj vav dwells in the realm of decoration, darkness, delight, and soaring awesomeness.
Cox, Richard, and Marc Grainger. Step Back in Time.