There are stepwells and then there are tanks. Tanks do not have a well shaft but they are interesting in their own right. They generally accompany temples or sometimes mosques as in the case of Jami Masjid at Champaner. Tanks come in different shapes, sizes and designs of steps leading to the water level. Perhaps the first tank I have seen is the one at Hanamkonda in Andhra Pradesh. The tank at Modhera is far more elaborate. But stepwells, they are something else altogether.
In modern wells, a brick parapet surrounds the well shaft at ground level. Water is drawn by a pulley system. Modern day bore wells are even simpler. Manual labour is eliminated as water is pumped from below by electricity. In the ancient stepwells, getting water was more a ritual, a sort of a pilgrimage in itself. Water was always seen and revered as the giver of life. The personifications of Ganga and Yamuna so often found at temple doorways are evidences of such a veneration. Women had to walk a long way below ground by a series of steps to the level of water.
Where the well shaft was many feet deep, the stairway too was long and deep, interspersed with landings and pavilions. For the Indian summer, these not only fulfilled the original purpose of giving water but also became cool retreats. Art became a part of stepwells. Walls, cornices, pilasters, pillars and niches were decorated with reliefs and sculptures. Over the years, the medieval architects also experimented with different designs. I learnt in Champaner that according to classical texts there are four types of stepwells but reality shows countless variations of this basic classification:
- Nanda – the simplest and common type with one flight of steps leading to the shaft.
- Bhadra – two flights of steps aligned in line with the shaft in the middle.
- Jaya – three flights of steps perpendicular to the adjacent ones and arranged in three directions around the central shaft.
- Vijaya – similar to Jaya but in four directions.
Stepwells are common in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Ground water was an important source in these arid regions. But there are stepwells in other parts of India as well. The first stepwell I had seen was a 10th century stepwell at Udayagiri in Orissa. The next was a similar well at the Western Group of temples at Khajuraho. Both these are simple with a single entrance to a long narrow stairway descending to the water level. There are no sculptures or pillared pavilions at the landings. There is similar well at Vidisha with a couple of sculpted pillars. Then at Mandu in Madhya Pradesh I came across the wonderful pair of Ujali Baodi and Andheri Baodi; both these are more elaborate stepwells but nothing close to the beautiful wells of Gujarat.
Gebanshah’s Vav, Champaner
Vav is the Gujarati term for a stepwell. Supposed to have been built in the 16th century by a fakir named Gebanshah, this stepwell is of the Nanda type. It might have had a pavilion at the entrance but today such a pavilion doesn’t exist. Pillars and beams exist on three levels but the roofs have not survived.
In general, steps alternate with covered landings which are called kutas. Although the well has three landings before the shaft is reached, no roofing exists above the landings. The well-lit well is completely open to the sky showing me a wonderful view of the beams and pillars crossing one another at angles. This is like looking at the skeleton, the very bare bones of well construction.
Ornamentation is minimal and can be seen in kumbhas below beams lining the well walls. I estimate the well to be 20 meters deep with the shaft having a diameter of 6 meters. The length of the well at ground level is about 50 meters. There is still water in this well.
Helical Stepwell, Champaner
This well is someway out of Champaner. I follow the main road towards Vadodra. I pass a mausoleum on the left. A little further down is a little path to the right. I follow this to the helical stepwell. At the well of Gebanshah, although there is structure above ground level, the well is clearly visible in its long line of beams and the flight of steps that lead to the distant shaft. At the helical stepwell, things are different.
There is no indication of the well except for a meter high brick parapet wall that curves around the shaft. At first it may appear to be circular but it is not. This well does not conform to any of the classical types. A short flight of steps goes down. At the third landing, the steps turn left clinging to the wall of the shaft. They descend in a spiral as if in an attempt to converge to the center of the well. As one would expect, each step is narrower towards the center and wider at the wall. The well wall is of brick and the steps are in stone. This spiralling stairway has its share of landings as well. The 16th century architects clearly did not want to make things difficult for the water bearers.
The water in the well reflects a little patch of the sky. The curving parapet casts its shadow on the still surface. Submerged steps in their slimy textures descend to greater depths. Little plants grow out of crevices in the brickwork. At ground level, the surrounding green lawn leads to shrub cover with some rocky hills of Champaner for background. I linger in this quiet scene for a few minutes until my monopoly of the well is broken by a troupe of bold langurs.
Dada Harir Vav, Ahmedabad
From the entrance of the Calico Museum I hire an auto-rickshaw to get to this well. We go past some narrow roads and dirt tracks to arrive at this well. This appears to be an old residential area. Once I step out of the auto-rickshaw, I know immediately that this is a fantastic stepwell.
It is of the Nanda type with the stairway laid out in the East-West direction. The shaft is at the western end. At the eastern entrance of the well an open octogonal pavilion stands. Steps descend from this point westwards through many landings. Before reaching the well shaft, there is a rectangular tank to provide for water storage. It may have also served other needs such as cleaning or bathing. Little light reaches the tank which is many feet below ground. Above this tank, the well rises in five levels, each level being octogonal in shape. At each level, there are decorated pillars and their voluted capitals, niches of sculpted stonework, parapets of kumbha or geometric friezes and stone ledges for people to sit and relax. For the medieval people, this was their perfect escape from the heat of Indian summers.
At the western end, there is a pair of spiral stairs descending on either side of the octogonal opening. The stairs give access to each level all the way to the tank at the bottom. Each stair is crowned with a square domed kiosk with an overhanging chajja. When view together with the pavilion at the eastern end, the three domes stand perfectly balanced in composition, the pillars of the kiosks framing the pavilion. The pavilion is of course larger since it spans the width of the main stairway.
On the inside, perspectives are wonderful. Vertically, pillars and platforms rise one upon another. Horizontally, the view converges as it deepens from one end to the other. Steps define the horizontals while pillars the verticals. Steps are open to the sky while their counterparts (kutas) are closed with stone slabs. While square kutas are the norm, there are also narrow ones at halfway between two levels. These narrow ones stand on double pillars. They add to the diversity of the interior with half-open views. Such narrow kutas appear between levels three and four, and four and five.
The well shaft is circular as expected. Narrow passageways at all levels connect the shaft to the octogonal space above the tank. The shaft wall is decorated with circular running friezes of geometric patterns. Decorated aedicules rise in a line. Pigeons use the shaft for nesting. Their cooing echoes through the cool and dark spaces of the well. The well itself is dry.
I dare not estimate the length of the well or the depth of the shaft. I am beginning to get the feeling that my earlier estimates of other stepwells are somewhat out of line.
Vav at Adalaj
At 75 meters in length, this stepwell from the end of the 15th century is popular with tourists local and foreign. As I arrive here, I find the place packed with bus loads of school children. I wait awhile for the crowd to clear. I chat with a local caretaker of the place. Apparently, the stepwell has become so popular that they are going to start charging an entry fee of five rupees. It is not clear when this is going to happen but as of today entry is free.
Architecturally, this stepwell is very much similar to the one at Ahmedabad except that it is laid out in the North-South direction. The descending stairway has a low parapet at ground level. Unlike Dada Harir Vav, this parapet wall is at times broken by a couple of steps that give access to the roof. This is because the parapet wall at Dada Harir Vav is not as high.
The well shaft descends in five levels. I cannot clearly recall details of the well shaft but there is an octogonal opening in five levels leading to a square tank at the bottom. The pair of stairs on either side grant access but they lack the domed kiosks found in Dada Harir Vav.
The entrance at the southern end is very interesting. There is no pavilion as in Dada Harir Vav. Essentially this is a well of the Nanda type but the southern end has three access stairways that meet one level below ground in a large octogonal well-lit open space. At the corners of this space are little shrines with projected balconies supported on beautiful brackets.
On the whole, this stepwell is adorned with beautiful stonework in reliefs. It matches all the wonderful perspectives of Dada Harir Vav but exceeds in decoration. No pillar or pilaster is spared. Frieze of lotus half medallions decorate entablatures. Voluted brackets of immaculate craftsmanship rise from capitals. Bells hang from stone chains in relief. In a popular frieze, a king sits under a parasol with attendants bearing fly whisks. Geometric motifs in relief line the walls. Niches are filled with image of gods and goddesses. I leave the stepwell while one of the locals is offering a prayer to one such image.
Vav at Modhera
It is of the Nanda type, even simpler than Gebanshah’s Vav. It is from the about the same period as the Sun Temple, from the 11th century. It stands in three levels. Decoration is minimal. At the shaft end of the well is a square pavilion without a dome. It looks more like a temple sanctum. It is said that this structure is older than the well. It was brought and installed here from elsewhere.
The name is attributed to its patron, Queen Udayamati of the Solankis from the 11th century. But this stepwell is so beautiful that it is truly the queen of all stepwells in India. An information board gives the dimensions – 64 meters long, 20 meters wide and 27 meters deep. It is laid out in the East-West direction with the well shaft at the western end.
Belligerent langurs in the area make it difficult for me to approach the western end to have good look at the shaft and the accompanying tank. The stairway is wide and most of the roofing is lost. Missing pillars stand with their surviving bases. This opens up the view and makes the stepwell look a lot bigger than Dada Harir Vav or the one at Adalaj. Such an open view means that the closed magic and perspectives of Adalaj Vav is not present here.
Most of the stepwell lay buried underground until excavation by ASI in 1958. This isolation has resulted in the magnificent preservation of reliefs and sculptures. The true glory of this stepwell lies in these decorations. It is difficult to name a few good ones. Walls are packed with niches and aedicules filled with gods, goddesses, musicians, dancers and voluptuous women. Motifs of kirtimukhas, overflowing kumbhas and lotuses occur frequently. The reliefs can occupy a visitor for hours but it is the time of sunset. I admire the sculptures for an hour, take some pictures and head out in search of accommodation for the night.
Navghan Kuvo, Junagadh
If Rani-ki-Vav is the queen, then surely this must be the grandfather of all stepwells. Historians have not been able to date this stepwell for lack of art or inscription of any kind. Unlike the stepwells I have seen elsewhere, for the first time I am looking at a well not built from stones but brutally cut into virgin rock. This is early rock-cut architecture excavated with chisel and hammer.
The stepwell is entered through a forecourt built during the 11th century by a certain Ra’ Navghan. This forecourt has a stone wall sculpted with pigeon holes where the birds nest. Through an archway I descend a long flight of stone steps. The stairway is littered with pigeon poo and feathers. The place smells. With each step, light dims. By the time I reach the first landing, I am searching for my torch. Then the steps descend beside the shaft in sharp right turns. The shaft itself is square. It bears chisel marks. At the bottom, there is water covered with modern garbage. It is a dark eerie place. The little light that reaches the bottom seems to be in a hurry to lose itself.
I return to the top wondering, ‘How on earth did they know there is water beneath this rock?’
Adi-Kadi Vav, Junagadh
This is close to Navghan Kuvo and it too is one of the oldest stepwells of the country. Unlike Navghan Kuvo with its unconventional approach, this stepwell has a straight approach to a circular well shaft. In this design, it is perhaps the earliest stepwell of the Nanda type. The shaft joins the approach path without any intermediate tank as in Dada Harir Vav. The shaft therefore looks apsidal at the bottom.
The stepwell does not have any decorative motifs or even beams or pillars. Steps are carved into the rock sloping down to the shaft. The sides of this primitive stairway display the natural form of eroded rock. Steps more modern have been built besides the ancient ones.
An information board gives the dimensions – 81 meters long, 4.75 meters wide and 41 meters deep. It is deeper than any other well I have visited but I think Navghan Kuvo may be deeper if measured from ground level.