Water has been one of the sacred elements across cultures of the Indian sub-continent. It defines the lives, myths and rituals of the people. For hundreds of years, stepwells also known as 'vaavs' have been an integral part of life in western India and are indigenous to the semi-arid regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan. In the arid climate of Gujarat, where rivers and natural depressions retain water only for a few months post Monsoon, a step-well was often the only source of water, with freshwater being supplied by underground springs throughout the year. When a stepwell was located within or at the edge of a village, it was mainly used for utilitarian purposes and as a cool place for social gatherings. Step-wells situated outside villages along major trade route were built as resting places for businessmen who carried goods from important ports along the coast of Gujarat to northern India. Stepwells were also used by women to fetch water and for rituals. Stepwells are often referred to as "womens' buildings" and many stepwells in Gujarat were built under the patronage of women. A long stepped corridor leading down five or six stories to a deep well at the far end is an essential feature of a step-well. In this short film, we present to you the stepwells found in and on the outskirts of the city of Ahmedabad with focus on their present condition, their value and issues of heritage in context of the city.
Rudabai ni Vaav, Adalaj
The Rudabai ni Vav at Adalaj is one of the most well known stepwells of Gujarat. This stepwell is built in sandstone. It is five stories deep. From the first story level, three staircases lead to the bottom water level of the well. The temperature within the well is supposed to be five degrees lower than the outside, which is a relief in the hot summers prevelant in this region. The well is octagonal in plan and is supported by intricately carved columns. The Step Well is popular for its architecture, which is a harmonious blend of intricate Islamic floral patterns, which seamlessly fuse into Hindu and Jain motifs symbolising the cultural ethos of that era.
Bai Harir ni Vaav, Asarwa
The Bai Harir ni vaav was built around by Bai Harir, who was the superintendent of the royal harem of Mahmud Begada. From a domed canopy, a descent of eight steps leads to a covered gallery. At each landing a corridor runs along the sides and leads to other galleries. The well bears two inscriptions, one in Sansrkit and the other in Arabic. The inscription suggests that the stepwell was built in 1500 AD. The octagonal well is situated at the western end. Spiral stairs leading to the well are on either side with is covered by two side small cupolas. Close by the well, Bai Harir built a mosque and a tomb in which she was buried.
The Amritvarshini vaav , located in the Paanch Kuva area of the walled city of Ahmedabad, was completed in 1723 as per the Persian and the Devanagri inscription found on the vaav. The famous Panch Kuva darwaza which is one of the original city gates, is situated close to this stepwell. It was built by Raghunathdas, diwan to Haidar Quli Khan, who was the governor of Gujarat during his stay in the city in 1721–1722 for charitable purpose . This vaav is sparsely ornamented. It stands out as it has an L shaped plan and is three stories deep.
Jethabhai ni Vaav
The Jethabhai ni vaav was built by Jethabhai around 1860s. It is one of the more recent stepwells to be built as compared to other structures that are found in this area. It is located in the Isanpur area of Ahmedabad. It has four pavilions and the entrance pavilion is canopied. This stepwell stands out in terms of the proportions of the columns as compared to the other stepwells that are found in this region. The stone work is exquisite. Sculptures depicting various scenes from mythology can be found adorning the walls of this stepwell. This is one of the stepwells which still has water.
Vaav at Vadaj
This stepwell found in the busy Vadaj area of Ahmedabad. This stepwell stands out as well because of the arches that support the structure. Unlike the other stepwells, there is just one bay and a very direct connection to the actual well shaft.
Maata bhavani ni vaav
Mata Bhavani's stepwell was built in the 11th century during Solanki dynasty rule in Gujarat. It is one of the earliest existing exampls of stepwells. A long flight of steps leads to the well below a sequence of multi-story open pavilions. The elaborate ornamentation of the columns, brackets and beams are a prime example of how stepwells were used as a form of art. A much later constructed small shrine of Hindu Goddess Bhavani is located at lower gallery from which the stepwell derived its name.
Ashapura maata ni vaav , Bapunagar
This stepwell now houses a shrine which is dedicated to the Goddess Ashapura Maata, who is the Goddess who fulfills the wishes and desires of all those who trust and believe her. The Ashapura maata ni vaav is located close to the Bapunagar area of Ahmedabad. The remaining part of the stepwell is intact. The stepwell is now surrounded by a settlement around it. The community around shares a unique relationship with this structure and the temple that it now houses.
Gandharva vaav, Saraspur
The Gandharva Vaav is located in the Saraspur area of Ahmedabad. The uniqueness of the stepwell comes from the arches that support the structure. A small shrine to the Goddess Kaali Maata can be found in the main well shaft.
Khodiyar maata ni vaav, Bapunagar
The Khodiyaar maata ni Vaav is a stepwell located in the Bapunagar area of Ahmedabad. This stepwell now houses a temple dedicated to the Goddess Khodiyar Maata. Khodiyaar maata is worshipped in many parts of Gujarat. Only the main well shaft of the original stepwell is intact and the remaining part of the stepwell is greatly modified for the temple purposes.
Ambe maata ni Vaav, Malav Talav
The Ambe maata ni Vaav is now a temple dedicated to the Goddess Amba. It is situated adjoining the lake known as Maalav Talaav. This is yet another example of a stepwell converted into a temple. The walls of the temple have extensive mirror work. The original structure and texture of this stepwell is unknown.
Sindhvai maata ni Vaav, CTM
The Sindhvai Maata ni Vaav is situated near the CTM crossroads in Ahmedabad. Unlike the other examples of the stepwells , the temple dedicated to the Goddess Sindhvai maata, is adjacent to the stepwell and does not occupy the actual stepwell instead. This stepwell unfortunately is in a poor condition and often used a garbage dump.
Khodiyar maata ni vaav, Vasna
The Khodiyar maata ni vaav is situated in a settlement in the Vasna area of Ahmedabad. This stepwell and community that lives around the stepwell share a unique relationship with one another. This stepwell lacks ornamentation and is a narrow structure with a beautiful Banyan tree which has grown over the well.
Vaav at Bhadaj
This stepwell is located in the Bhadaj village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. The stepwell is now in ruins. Smaller shrines dedicated to Goddess Kali surround the stepwell.
We have observed the various stepwells that are integral to our heritage. Some are relatively better preserved, but there is still scope for improvement. Others are inhabited and used in ways that is different from the original function of the stepwell and some are in absolute shambles. This leaves us all with important questions regarding the conservation and heritage of these stepwells for the future.
- 1. An initiative of Anthill Design
- Curation Team: Karan Gajjar, Malay Doshi, Neel Jain, Priyanka Sheth, Riyaz Tayyibji ,Tanvi Jain
- Advisor: Bhavna Ramrakhiani
- Research: Bhavin Shukla, Priyanka Sheth Photos : Karan Gajjar, Malay Doshi
- Design and Execution: Karan Gajjar, Neel Jain, Shalin Bhatt
- Documentation and Drawings: Aashini Sheth, Devashree Dwivedi, Juneza Niyazi, Niyanta Shah, Priyanka Sheth, Purva Bhende, Rony Payuva, Tanvi Jain, Vignesh Raja
- Context Illustrations: Leeza John, Madhu Malukani, Rutvi Patel, Tanvi Jain
- Graphics: Karan Gajjar, Malay Doshi, Neel Jain, Priyanka Sheth, Tanvi Jain
- Film: Chrysalis Communications, Priyanka Sheth
- Construction: Jayesh Mistry, Maneklal Panchal and Sudhir Sharma
Disclaimer: This is to state that all photographic, lm and drawing material in this exhibition is original and is the intellectual property of their individual artist/author. Measured drawings of the stepwells were carried out between November 2015 and February 2016. Base drawings for the Bai Harir’s stepwell and Rudabai’s stepwell at Adalaj were taken from the CEPT Archives and Ekaggrat Singh Kalsi respectively with the required permission. However in both cases the stepwells have been re-drawn for the exhibition format. For the section on Gender and Patronage, the curators have referred extensively to the work of Purnima Mehta-Bhatt. Quotations from her work are used with the author’s permission. This exhibition may not be replicated in part or whole without the permission of Anthill Design.