The step well of Adalaj

While in Ahmedabad on work, I find a gap of two hours between meetings. This is just long enough to make a quick trip to the closest step well. It is just past the middle of March, but the daytime temperature in Ahmedabad is already in the upper thirties. The sun is bright enough to burn out the delicate earth tones of the local architecture. My tired eyes catch only the splashes of Bougainvillea in bloom, and the bright shades of traditional clothes. As I descend into the step well, called a vav in Gujarati, there is a welcome cool gloom. The heat of the sun does not percolate far down.

The place is bustling. There are the expected few tourists with cameras. But there is an unexpected crowd of young people hanging around, chatting and taking group selfies. Also, there is a constant stream of Ahmedabadi visitors, going up and down the stairs in family groups. In the shade near the upper steps a middle-aged lady sits quietly, occasionally talking to younger people who climb up and down past her. On my last visit here, more than 15 years ago, the surroundings were crowded, and the well was empty. The busy neighbourhood has been cleared away. Around the step well is open space and a park. I expect a ticket booth and an entrance fee, but there is none. A little signboard outside gives the history of the well: it was ordered to be constructed in 1499 by Mohammad Begda for the use of Rani Roopbai, the wife of the local chieftain.

Step wells are found around India, but mainly in Gujarat and Rajasthan. The welcome relief from the heat and sun that I found would have been always been a draw. In the wet plains of eastern India, village ponds are social spaces: places to sit or meet. I imagine that in the past these wells would have served an equal, and perhaps bigger, social function. This seems to be the pattern being re-established here.

From outside one sees a low parapet with a single storied “tower” near one end. There are three entrances to the well: from the east, west and north. These three flights of stairs meet in a central landing which is a riot of decorations, as you can see in the photo above. Interestingly the decorations mix recognizable Islamic motifs such as vines and geometric shapes with Hindu motifs such as elephants on the base of pillars and lintels. Most openings in the roof have been covered over with iron grills. A caretaker told me that’s for protection and against pigeons, and to prevent people from falling.

From this first landing, stairs descend southwards for another four stories. Earlier I had walked all the way to the water. Now there is a barrier two stories above the level of the water. You can look down the first octagonal shaft at the iron grill covering the surface of the water. The second well-shaft is no longer accessible, nor are the side niches which I remember as being beautifully decorated with carved stone.

The garden around the well is a startling green in the middle of sun-baked roads. Mud squelches under my feet as I step on to the grass. Large quantities of water must be needed to keep the thick layer of grass so fresh. The little park is surrounded by trees which provide shade for the few lovers I see, each pair sitting close. A gardener tells me that there has been a lot of water in the well in the last couple of years. Maybe that is why the park is so fresh. Perhaps if I come in the middle of a dry spell of years the lawn will look more parched.

I walk the short path around the lawn wondering about the odd changes. I could quibble about the aesthetics of the ironwork, but overall I like the changes: more people, a nice green park. But what happened to the crowded settlement which I seem to remember? Could I be mistaken? Am I confusing this for some other well? Later I call The Family. She does not remember the surroundings of the well. I talk to my brother, he confirms that the place was crowded earlier.

I get back in my air-conditioned car. The driver is talking into his mobile. He finishes his dispute and we leave.