Trapped between the polarity of depending on agriculture and animal husbandry on one hand while being cradled in immense climatic variations and erratic monsoons on the other, water conservation emerged as the preponderant architectural obsession in ancient India. Water has served as an indispensable part of religious rituals and has been axiomatic in shaping the settlement patterns, customs and traditions of the people. Consequently, every region in the sub-continent developed traditional water conservation structures in tune with their geographical needs and embodying their myriad cultural idiosyncrasies. Among the various types of traditional water structures, stepwells are an indigenous and divergent phenomenon found extensively in regions of Gujarat, Rajasthan and North-Western India. Stepwells span across ten centuries of the cultural heritage of India and stand apart as a superlative expression of their time.
The ‘Stepwells of Ahmedabad’ exhibit is a self-directed initiative of a group of students and architects from India. Set within the framework of a non-Western context and an unforgiving climate, it presents extensive data on structure, size and construction of the stepwells built in and around Ahmedabad. The content on display is the culmination of two years of on-going research, laid out in the form of architectural drawings, diagrams and comparative analysis alongside photographs of the splendour and decay. Now on display for a third time, the objective of this edition has evolved into garnering interest and raising discussions not only about the structures themselves but also larger issues of water, settlement patterns and the social relationships to which they are connected. It is important to recognize, not only the structures included in this exhibition, but all traditional structures, as valuable expressions of indigenous knowledge and perspectives as we tackle a growing global water crisis.
The Region of North Gujarat
The state of Gujarat is situated in Western India. It is bordered by mountains of the Aravalli Range to the North and by Thar Desert to the North West. It has an extensive coastline with the Arabian Sea to the West and the South West. The region of North Gujarat experiences a semi-arid and extremely dry climate with scanty rainfall where the temperatures can soar up to 45 degrees Celsius (113 F) in summer.
Majority of rainfall is received during the monsoon months from July to September. As rivers in this landscape are seasonal, the region is dependant on a network of surface water bodies such as lakes and ponds formed from natural depressions on the ground. A relationship between surface water, groundwater and the settlement can be observed in big cities like Ahmedabad, towns like Patan and Vadnagar, to small villages like Meta.
The city of Ahmedabad
Ahmedabad is situated in north-central Gujarat and covers an area of four hundred and sixty-four square kilometers of mostly flat ground. It is currently the largest city of the state of Gujarat and the seventh largest and fifth most populated city in India. It has a population of approximately seven million people comprising a majority of Hindus followed by Muslims and Jains. Sabarmati is one of the major rivers of the state and it slices the city into two distinct regions with the old city to the east and the relatively recent expansion to the west.
The earliest historical record of the region of Ahmedabad can be traced back to the 12th century as a prosperous trade and manufacturing settlement on the banks of Sabarmati. It was known as Karnavati under the rule of the Chaulukyas and Ashapalli under the brief rule of the Vaghelas and the Delhi Sultanate. During the reign of the Gujarat Sultanate that followed, it was named Ahmedabad by Ahmad Shah I who established it as his capital in 1412.
Western India carried out trade on a large scale due to the entry points and maritime docks on its west coast where the import and export of goods took place. The transport of goods to the hinterlands lead to the development of many trade routes and channels. Ahmedabad was situated on a strategic trade route and soon became an economic powerhouse in the region. As a result of this, it fostered a large community of affluent merchants and traders throughout history.
For many centuries after its formation, the city organized itself within the fortified walls around the citadel of Bhadra built in the early 15th century. The walled-city is densely populated, compact, characterized by gated residential clusters called pols, mansion with intricate woodwork known as havelis and religious structures of the Hindu, Muslims and Jain communities with a numerous bustling chowks (squares) and dense bazaars (open markets). The city on the eastern embankment gradually expanded haphazardly outside the walled area, arbitrarily extending from the Shahibaug palace to the industrial belt that mushroomed during the late 19th century.
The construction of the Ellis bridge in 1875 during the British rule paved the way for expansion and growth on the western embankment. The western parts of the city, as of today, harbor the new business districts, planned residential areas, major educational institutions and a large swath of Ahmedabad’s modernist legacy which includes the works of Kahn, Doshi and Corbusier.
Surface Water, Ground Water and Settlement
Water attained paramount importance in the undulating plains of North Gujarat due to its semi-arid climatic conditions. On account of this, the collection, preservation and use of water became one of the defining characteristics to trace human settlements in the region. From the smallest village to the largest city, one finds a consistent pattern in the relationship between depressions of land where water gets collected to form small lakes (talav) or ponds (talavadi) and the higher ground or mound (tekro) that is inhabited by people. This relationship between water and settlement has consistently dictated the organization and character of the built form. Often, the highest point of the mound is occupied by a temple that marks the centre of the settlement while the streets snake along the flow of water to drain it out from high ground into surrounding agricultural areas supporting the settlement. These manmade lines of the street connect with the natural flow and mark the movement of people and water through the landscape.
Characteristically, the talavadi adjacent to the settlement is located outside it for reasons of health and hygiene. Also, this stagnant surface water is associated with deities and kept outside the settlement alluding to religious and symbolic reasons. One such reason is that the last rites of deceased individuals were carried out at the cremation areas placed on the edges of such water bodies. Though essential for agriculture, animal husbandry, animal rearing and washing clothes; this water was not considered fit for drinking. Drinking water, instead, was obtained from a ground water source like a dug well, or from a stepwell as documented.
A strong pattern and proximity can be observed in the location of stepwells suggesting that they were intentionally built along historical trade routes prevalent in the region. Subsequently, these stepwells which also served as resting places for merchant caravans became magnets for life and incentivized the formation of settlements around them. At the same time, they acted as markers of an underground aquifer as their source was a hidden water table. The talav and stepwells became central pillars essential to this settlement pattern and bound them to the surface and depth of the earth.
Architectural typologies in Ahmedabad
The fortified town of Ahmedabad is an irregular semi-circular city on the eastern bank of the river. Up until British colonial rule, the predominant architectural typologies that one can find within and beyond the walls of the old city in Ahmedabad, include mosques, tombs, temples, havelis, pols and stepwells.
The Bhadra Fort (Citadel)
The Bhadra Fort was built by Ahmad Shah when he established the city of Ahmedabad and declared it as his captial in 1411 on the eastern embankment of Sabarmati. It sprawled over forty three acres and housed the royal palaces, Ahmed Shah's mosque, open spaces and a triple gateway (Teen Darwaza) leading to the royal square; all within a fortified wall with several gates and watch towers. Another wall was added later and urban development flourished in its ten kilometer circumference. This area is often referred to as the walled city.
Mosques and Tombs
Islamic architecture in Ahmedabad spans from pre-Sultanate times to the Mughal era, manifest in the form of mosques, tombs and striking mosque-tomb complexes found on both sides of the Sabarmati river. Medieval mosques were mainly rectangular in plan with columnar structures built in the indigenous trabeated style. They had an open prayer hall held up by intricately carved columns to the east and a mihrab1 to the west. The mosque diagram is composed of the qibla2 wall on the western side facing Mecca and the porous, columnar space adjacent to it on the east.
The Muslim tombs were burial chambers built to house the graves of saints, royals other revered figures. These structures show bilateral symmetry accentuating the center with a strong vertical axis capped by a central dome. This exaggeration of the central dome skyward reflects the tenet of the Muslim belief that the deceased were connected to heaven. The square plans of tombs display columnar structures similar to the mosques and are built in heavy masonry construction systems. Larger complexes which combine mosque and tomb alongside palaces like Sarkhej Roza were built as summer retreats for royals and can be found on both sides of the river.
Hindu and Jain Temple
Hindu and Jain temples constitute another dominant religious architectural typology of the city. These two affluent mercantile communities were responsible for commissioning numerous temples within and outside the walled city in various artistic traditions over the centuries. They are found in a variety of orientations but share plan forms and are governed by common organizational principles of Vastu-Shastra3 (Garbagriha) where the idol resides. The Garbagriha marks the vertical axis accentuated by the built form of the Shikara (the spiral tower).
Pols and Havelis (residential units)
Pols are small dead-end streets with compact housing clusters on both sides which form a small residential unit. Found exclusively within the walled city on the east side of the river, pols are protected by a large entrance gate and governed by community identity which forms distinct residential patterns throughout the old city. The prosperous and influential community of Jain and Hindu merchants resided in dwellings situated within the pols known as havelis. Havelis are relatively larger mansions or houses made out of wood with elaborate carvings that have a significant footprint in the fabric of the pols.
A vaav or a stepwell is a linear building that represents a peculiar architecture of subtraction. It consists of a square, circular or octagonal dug well accessible by stairs that penetrate the earth. The top most landing has a shaded roof held up by columns. Each ensuing flight of stairs leads to a landing with an open structure in the form of pavilions, colonnades or porches until one reaches the well at the very bottom. Each landing pavilion is supported by columns and becomes the roof of the pavilion below. In many cases, the walls of the well are adorned with brackets, niches and other sculpted ornamentation.
A linear longitudinal section of a stepwell yields a triangle, with one horizontal line at ground level, one tracing the diagonal formed by the stairs and the third cutting into the main well, perpendicular to the ground. The variety of orientations of the linear axis of stepwells is governed by the exact location of the aquifer and not any form of religious use. Though some stepwells had shrines and religious depictions in their sculptures, they were largely secular structures.
- 1. mihrab - a semi-circular niche in the wall that indicates it is the qibla
- 2. qibla - the direction of Mecca to which Muslims turn at during prayer
- 3. Vaastu Shastra - The canonical texts describing design theories and the Hindu systems of architecture which integrates. These plans are multi-layered with various thresholds demarcating each layer leading up to the innermost sanctum
Types of Traditional Water Structures in North Gujarat
Every region in the Indian sub-continent developed unique water conservation traditions and structures in tune with their geographical needs and embodying their myriad cultural idiosyncrasies. Ranging from the still functional Grand Anicut (Kallanai dam) built of the river Cauvery in the 2nd century to the thirteen story deep subterranean Abhaneri stepwell in Rajasthan built in the 8th century, these systems helped the population cope with regional fluctuations of water availability throughout the year. Below are the four main types of water structures commonly found in Northern Gujarat:
Talav (Lake or Ponds):
Talav were reservoirs that could be natural or manmade, varying from small ponds to large lakes. The smaller ones were called talavadis in Gujarat but names vary from region to region. Water from talavs and talavdis was used for by locals for animal husbandry, washing clothes and other activities. Many of the man-made talavs had well carved supply sluices, a water purification system and punctured openings between the buttresses for inflow of water. These lakes were built with central islands replete with gardens, a summer palace and a bridge that connected it to the bank. One such example is the Kankaria lake (formerly Hauj-e-Qutb) in Ahmedabad city which has a radius of 1.4 miles and was completed in 1451 by Sultan Ahmad Shah II.
The Sarkhej Roza (originally called Ahmed Sar) was designed by Azzam and Muzzam Khan and commissioned by Muzaffar II in 1514. This mosque and tomb complex alongside a massive reservoir forms its own sub-category because of its religious milieu and royal connection. The complex integrates a pavilion, connecting portico, tombs and palaces alongside a gargantuan tank with inlets, sluices, filters and complex water control systems to handle its enormous storage capacity. Four ramps on the east and west side allow for drawing water and the circular sluice is an exemplary water structure in itself. The tomb is believed to be the largest of its type and the palace contains numerous pleasure pavilions, projecting balconies and landings that served as viewing platforms for royals to enjoy a scenic view of the water.
Kund (Stepped Pond) -
Kund is used in Gujarat to refer to the stepped ponds mottled across its parched expanse. These ceremonial ponds were commonly found adjacent to temples. Kunds are typically square or rectangular-shaped ponds with tiered steps to access the water. The four walls of kunds are made exclusively from short stairs that meet at intersections or landings and continue downward. Two flat stairs placed back-to-back form triangles parallel to the wall and this zigzag pattern loops as they descend at a steep angle with no sight line interrupted. Shrines are often carved in to the triangles that face the water. Besides the stunning visual effect this creates, the serrated lateral stairs form countless pathways to access the pond. This complex geometrical design allows it to engage with and accommodate multiple people performing activities like bathing and worshiping simultaneously, without hindering each other. In the absence of columns or covered spaces, kunds are well lit and their narrowed depth deterred water evaporation in harsh summers. Their affiliation to temples ensured elaborate budgets and cleaner water since they were used for religious rituals and royal ceremonies and not day to day activities. The 11th century Suryakund at the Modhera Sun Temple (Mehsana) and the smaller and simpler version of it at Kapadwanj (Kheda) built in the 12th century are prime examples of these types of structures in Gujarat.
Vaav (Stepwell) -
In a stepwell or a ‘vaav’, the vertical well shaft (also present in ordinary draw wells) is approached on one side by a long-stepped corridor which leads one from the ground level down to the water. This stepped corridor is engulfed between two parallel linear walls. At the surface of the earth, which defines the ground level, all that is visible is an unassuming entrance pavilion but as one descends the stairs the increasing complexity of its architecture unfolds.
While many stepwells are simple and utilitarian, a handful of them commissioned by patrons display significant embellishments and architectural features in varying degrees of complexity. Stepwells flourished under the Hindu kings of the Solanki era in the 11th century and continued to evolve as a type under Muslim rule of the Gujarat Sultanate from the 15th century onwards. The most recent construction can be traced back to the 19th century in Ahmedabad. Though some stepwells had shrines for Goddesses and religious depictions in their sculptures, they had no direct association to religion. Apart from providing potable groundwater year-round, the other functions of a stepwell included serving as a place for social gathering (especially for women who came there to fetch water), celebrating festivals and as a resting place for locals and travelers by providing relief in hot weather.
Gender and Patronage
In the Indian sub-continent, the panch-maha-bhutas (five great elements) - earth, water, fire, air and ether - are considered to be the source of creation, sustenance of life and the crux of civilization. While fire, air and ether have been attributed masculine traits, earth and water have historically manifested themselves in language, mythology and religion as feminine forms, venerated as celestial nymphs and Goddesses. Given the role water played in agriculture and the upkeep of animal, it was also associated with fertility. In the semi-arid landscape of western India, where most rivers remain dry except for monsoon, this literal and symbolic association found between water, feminity and fertility grew even stronger. Structures made for water in this region embody and celebrate this latent feminity and association; and none more so than the well and the stepwell.
At a time when offering water to a thirsty person was considered good karma of the highest order, building a stepwell would no doubt have been an incalculable act of philanthropy. Furthermore, the act of benevolence and shades of female solidarity is evident in that fact that many of these stepwells were built by women for women. About a fifth of them were either commissioned by queens or wives of rich merchants while in other cases women emerge as the central character or muse (mistresses, courtesans etc.) in the romanticized historic tales of what that led to their construction. The others commissioned by men were often built in honor of a wife, mother or local goddess. The articulation and embellishment in many of these structures have sculptures of female deities and women engaging in daily activities like drawing water, adorning themselves or dancing; lending a feminine character to the delicate spatial filigree.
The traditional duties relegated to women included fetching water which established a direct link between their everyday routine and the stepwells. The stepwell was one of the few, if not only, socially legitimate spaces for women to move freely outside the domestic realm in an otherwise conservative society. If one takes into consideration that most stepwells are up to five degree Celsius cooler than their surroundings and situated away from the primarily male-dominated social domains of the ‘chowk’ (town square) or ‘darbar’ (court), it is easy to imagine how they doubled up as a space of recreation for women to socialize and enjoy the uninhibited company of each other on a daily basis. As of today, the link between women and stepwells has faded out in most urban areas since the advent of pumps and piped water supply. However, many of these structures have been modified over a period of time by local residents to accommodate temples dedicated to localized avatars of the Mother Goddess (Mata), evolving and ushering in a new relationship observed today.
The present-day condition of Ahmedabad stepwells displays a huge disparity ranging from social integration to complete disintegration. As water pumps and pipes outmoded the utilitarian function they served, the social functions built around them withered away as well. Many of them capitulated to the slow erasure while the more extravagant of the lot gained attention and recognition. The Rudabai’s stepwell (Adalaj), for example, has been declared a protected heritage site by the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) and now sports gardens, tour guides, parking facilities and other amenities. The Bai Harir’s stepwell (Asarwa) also enjoys popularity due to a similar status and proper infrastructure to enhance its accessibility. In the case of these buildings, the intervention of public agencies ensures upkeep and sustenance that consequently attracts a large amount of tourist interest.
In other cases, small shrines alongside minor alterations have been added to the stepwells by local residents to help them function as a temple for the surrounding communities. One such example is the Bapunagar stepwell where the first pavilion has been converted into a temple of Goddess Ashapura. At the Gandharva stepwell, more substantial changes have been made with a slab covering the filled in well shaft (to prevent accidents) and the remaining structure has been converted into a shrine for Goddess Kali. An extreme example of this is the heavily altered Ambe Mata stepwell where all levels have been flattened with nearly no trace of the original structure. Even the interiors of the temple standing on top of it have been uncharacteristically decorated with mirror and tile work. In all these cases, the inhabitation (living use) and integration of the buildings by the community has enabled them to evolve and thrive as active spaces within the urban fabric.
At the other end of the spectrum, one can find stepwells completely dried out because their sources have been filled up or buried by locals. Apart from these, some lie uncared for on private property like the one in shambles at Doshiwada ni Pol, while others like the Bhadaj stepwell have only been partially excavated. The apathy, however, is more apparent in stepwells such as the one at Vasna (Khodiyar Mata) which despite being in the middle of an informal settlement remains squalid and polluted. The common factor in these decaying stepwells is that they have neither been adopted by the locals or public agencies nor found useful integration into the social fabric. Some of these dilapidated, garbage strewn structures bear the brunt of time and are on the brink of extinction, with no recognition and restoration in sight. These stepwells were the part of a larger network, parts of which may not even have been discovered yet, but the loss of some and the celebration of others may not allow the future generations to view the true meaning of what they represent.
- Curation Team: Priyanka Sheth, Tanvi Jain, Riyaz Tayyibji
- Exhibition Design: Malay Doshi, Neel Jain, Priyanka Sheth, Tanvi Jain
- Research: Priyanka Sheth
- Text: Vineet Kaul
- Measure Drawings: Aashini Sheth, Rony Payuva, Priyanka Sheth
- Context Drawings: Tanvi Jain
- Photography: Malay Doshi, Karan Gajjar
- Promotions: Vineet Kaul
- Videos: Shot by Malay Doshi, Karan Gajjar, Priyanka Sheth. Edited by Ishan Shah
Stepwells of Ahmedabad is sponsored by the Asian American Cultural Center (AACC), Yale School of Architecture Exhibitions Fund and Anthill Design. The research on these stepwells was initiated in 2015 as an initiative of Anthill Design.