Water has played an important role in the architectural heritage of western India from the earliest times. One of the most characteristic features of the early Harappan towns (3000 BC) was the presence of a sophisticated system of drains, wells and tanks. The practice of making wells into an art form was begun by the Hindus but it developed under Muslim rule.
The vavs or baolis (step-wells) of Gujarat consist of two parts: a vertical shaft from which water is drawn and the surrounding inclined subterranean passageways, chambers and steps which provide access to the well. The galleries and chambers surrounding these wells were often carved profusely with elaborate detail and became cool, quiet retreats during the hot summers.
One of the earliest of these step-wells is the Mata Bhavani’s vav at Ahmedabad, built in the eleventh century. The water is approached by a long flight of steps above which rises a sequence of two, three and four storey open pavilions. The elaborate ornamentation of the columns, brackets and beams, and the friezes of motifs are in the Solanki school of temple architecture.
The Rani Vav (Queen’s well) at Patan, built during the late eleventh century, is probably the most magnificent step-well in Gujarat. Multi-storey colonnades and retaining walls link a stepped tank to a deep circular well. Throughout, the ornamentation is sumptuous. Columns, brackets and beams are encrusted with scrollwork and the wall niches are carved with figures. Hindu deities alternate with alluring maidens on the walls flanking the staircase. Its monumental construction and ornate treatment suggest that it also served a ritual ceremonial purpose.
The Dada Harir’s vav at Ahmedabad, together with the vav at Adalaj, is the finest example of the Muslim period. The Dada Harir’s vav is modeled on the earlier Mata Bhavani’s vav, though it has an additional domed pavilion at the entrance. One striking feature of this vav is the complete absence of figural themes. The motifs in stylized scrollwork that adorn the wall niches may be compared with those that appear in Islamic architecture. The vav at Adalaj, located 12 miles north of Ahmedabad, is octagonal. As the long flight of steps descend, columns and connecting beams create open structures of increasing complexity; the receding perspectives of columns and cross-beams are particularly striking. Wall niches incorporate miniature pilasters, eaves and roof-like pediments.
Step-wells are most certainly one of India’s most unique, but little-known, contributions to architecture, and it is uncertain whether they are to be encountered anywhere outside the Indian sub-continent.
Davies, Philip. The Penguin guide to the monuments of India, Vol II. London: Viking, 1989.
Tadgell, Christopher. The History of Architecture in India. London: Phaidon Press, 1990.