Stepwell at Adalaj

Stepwell at Adalaj

by NICOLE PEARSON

The Adalaj stepwell is considered by many to be the most famous, complex, and classical stepwell ever built. Its otherworldly space invites a sense of spiritual peace in its visitors while acting as a conduit toward that most necessary activity of life: accessing water. These stepwells were first dug into the ground by the ancient Mahavira people around the year 200—around the same time the Egyptians were building pyramids high into the sky. Like all stepwells, Adalaj links India’s aired sky to a pool of water deep within the earth, and as the architectural historian and author Morna Livingston describes in Steps to Water, the “excavation is balanced with construction—one pair of opposites in a series that includes sky and water, solid and liquid, empty and full. [1] Moreover, when compared to ancient building types in Africa and Europe, these stepwells presented an almost inverted—and therefore unusual—condition when they were first rediscovered. Noted French traveler Louis Rousselet (on leaving Gujuarat for Rajasthan in 1864) wrote, “Hitherto I had followed beaten paths, in countries where civilization had made itself felt, and where I had full directions how to proceed; here all was strange to me.” Unfortunately however, these ancient water buildings aren’t well understood and are chronically understudied. The complete lack of records on theses architectural marvels led Livingston herself to lament that “while these underground water monuments comprise one of India’s major building traditions, they are perhaps the most neglected of the world’s great bodies of architecture” (page xix). Yet, unlike many others who have fallen into disrepair or ruin, Adalaj stands as an exception and informs us on what would seem today like an unlikely synergy between Hinduism and Islam.

Stepwells can be best understood as elaborate water wells with stairs. Their predecessor, the stepped pond, was first built as early as the seventh century B.C.E. as an attempt by people to collect groundwater and the monsoon rain. A stepped pond is a rectangular structure lined with steps leading to a central water collection area. A stepwell, on the other hand, is a linear building with stairs that lead down to landings with pavilions, and then to more stairs, and finally to a cylindrical well. Although the differences between the two must have been clear to their original users, stepped ponds and step wells continue to puzzle with subtle distinction: for example, the stepped pond was always constructed near a temple, while the stepwell never was. As Livingston remarks, “why stepwells stayed clear of temples is open to conjecture, but it would have been noisy, troublesome, and polluting to site wells with their animals and travelers too near a temple” (page xix).

Yet, unlike many others who have fallen into disrepair or ruin, Adalaj stands as an exception and informs us on what would seem today like an unlikely synergy between Hinduism and Islam.

Stepwells were an integral part of life in western India for about twelve hundred years. As Livingston argues, “these underground buildings, usually from three to nine stories deep, became community centers; as passages into the subterranean, they were invested with religious meaning.” [4] It has even been estimated that 3,000 water buildings were built between the 7th and mid-19th centuries, predominately found in India’s semi-arid regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan. These are the marks of an invisible, underground landscape: sacred to the people who built them, and storage for life-giving water.

The ancient wells determined life in the region to an extraordinary degree. They provided both the critical life sustaining substance on Earth—water—and a profound sense of spiritual purpose. Livingston describes them as, “the links between underground water and surface life is as rich, colorful, and textured as India itself” (page xix). The water pool, located deep in the earth of the well, reconnected the earth to the heavens. This link that water provided was an integral part of Hindu belief that water is sacred. Devout Hindu’s bathe every day, believing that clean thoughts will follow the experience. And thus, bathing to Hindus is the equivalent of crossing a river on a pilgrimage. Hindus know this threshold as a tirtha—a word that also means “watering hole.” So then all stepwells and stepped ponds may also be called tirthas.

The construction of stepwells was one that was labor intensive and costly to the community: “To Hindus three elemental ideas—water gives life, a daily bath cleans us of sin, and a bath replicates a moment when one is closet to heaven—more than justified the making of pools.” Bathing to wash sin away was also tied to ancient fertility rituals that connected women to water. For this reason, several niche shrines were carved into the stone structures. By that same note, it would be popular female community leaders or figures who would donate the funds to commission the construction of these stepwells. Yet, apart from the stepwell’s spiritual significance, the most evident reason for their construction seems to be as response to Gujurat and Rajasthan’s climatic zone. The regions dry and wet environment makes it a challenging place to live and ways of life in India, to this day, hinge on its weather. Here Livingston points out that “the pattern of the Indian year and its seasons—of trade, ritual, building, and marriage—are directed by climate.” [2] The village where Adalaj is situated experiences only two seasons: a wet and tropical season (during the monsoon months) and a hot semi-arid season (for rest of year). The intensity of heat during the semi-arid months does not affect everyday life, and only during the wet monsoon season is it very difficult. This is due to high humidity, which before and during the monsoon, perspiration alone cannot cool the body. Such realities, along with the vital need for collection of water during non-monsoon months, made step-wells into the community-gathering centers they eventually became. In Livingston’s words, “Indians cool down by splashing water on themselves, resting in shade, and leaning against stone, all of which are possible in a stepwell” (page 15).

For such mixed religious and secular uses, stepwells give a new meaning to our modern term of “multi-purpose buildings.” Not only were step-wells meeting and resting places for village people on hot and humid summer afternoons, they also acted as benchmarks for travelers in the desert. A stepwell on any given day (monsoon or not) would see people praying, collecting water, socializing, and cooling-down.

Unlike western religious building typologies—where building upwards was bridging the Earth to the heavens—stepwells were excavated deep below the surface grade.

The stepwells various uses have shaped also the experience of those inhabiting it. They must be built deep enough to reach ground water, and big enough to hold a villages water supply during non-monsoon months (about 9 months). They were constructed from stone, unlike village huts, which were made from mud brick or pebble, so that they would be permanent and strong enough to withstand natural forces.

Unlike western religious building typologies—where building upwards was bridging the Earth to the heavens—stepwells were excavated deep below the surface grade. Their construction underground creates a descent, which gradually darkens as one travels down the steps. The top landings, where the most light was present, are usually fit with stone screens called jalees to allow light to trickle in. The landings hold columns, which support the structure. Looked at as a section, a stepwell resembles a triangular wedge plunging into the earth.

The descending corridor of a stepwell is always open to the sky, except where pavilions shelter shrines. “The vertical pavilion towers, or kutas, can be as wide as twenty feet, but are never too narrow to not permit a woman with water jars on her head to pass another who prays,” writes Livingston. [5] Linking the pavilions are ledges that in some wells could have been less than fourteen inches wide. The narrowness makes walking the ledges difficult and dangerous. The pavilions and ledges create rhythm in the building, but the main path people would take is by steps down to the cylindrical well.

The feeling inside a stepwell, as Livingston entails, is mesmerizing: “wherever a stepwell links brilliant Indian sun to a clear pool of water, two separate worlds are joined…The pool has an eerie, comforting silence, for the water enters the building with no ripple, bubbles, or sound.” She describes the step-well as a calming space where time is almost forgotten, as she writes “time in a well is so slow, you forget that anything is urgent.” The experience of a stepwell has no comparison to other architectural typologies, “these aspects of time over space lend varied meaning to the same space configuration through its conditioning, rendering architecture ever fresh, interactive and timeless.” [16] In Europe light represented heaven and peace, but in Indian stepwells a gradual decent into darkness to meet water closely mimicked life itself.

The Queen's Stepwell of Patan, a remarkable feat in architectural and structural building construction, gives us insight into how water buildings were built. In the Indian Archaeological Survey of 1980 a closer investigation of construction is provided. A circular trench is used to dig up to the height of one man, or about 5 feet (1.52 m). Then, several villagers lower a ring made of decay-resistant wood via rope. The ring serves as a footing for a brick wall to be constructed upon the footing. Then the soil is dug underneath the footing and another ring is lowered one man’s height where the process is repeated. [6] As the well diggers progress lower into the ground, the brick veneer wall becomes thicker to counteract the centrifugal forces exerted around the section. In doing so, the diameter of the well slightly diminishes the deeper it goes. To equilibrate the balance of pressure towards the center along the circumference of the well, buttresses must be constructed.  They were constructed from the beginning of digging and later reinforced as the long stepped corridor was built and connected to the well.  

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The development of Hinduism in India coincided with the construction of the first stepwells. Water became an integral part of the religion and water buildings began springing up even in the most arid locations. However, since then, the water-centric beliefs have diminished and stepwells’ symbolism is not at first obvious to those who don’t share early Hindu beliefs. Indeed, when new populations happened upon the region they found the meaning of stepwells to be mostly secular—not aware to the deeply religious meaning in which the stepwells were fist constructed. Nevertheless, what may have also confused foreigners was the presence of deities from different pantheons:

The light-skinned Aryans—who made no figures of their gods but invoked them with prayers and smoke from butter burned on open brick altars—found in India a dark-skinned tribal people who were devoted to a mother goddess, highly esteemed water, took ritual baths, went on pilgrimages, and considered a lotus the symbol of the world.
— Morna Livingston [7]

Thus Brahmins descended from the merger of these people, adapting the mother goddess as their God’s (Brahma) wife, and in turn changed the gods previously venerated (They were just one of many religious groups in India during this time along with early Buddhists and Jains). Jutta Jain-Neubaurer, a pioneer in her study of Gujurati stepwell concludes, that the deities popular in Hinduism were separate from those chosen by Brahmins: “The stepwell became a repository for older forms of gods and myriad forms of the mother goddess, away from the oversight and tight control of the Brahmins.” [9] Some argue that stepwells lack of sculpture suggests the buildings were (or at least evolved) to be more secular than religious: “The well’s iconic sculpture was too small, obscure, and archaic to carry an indelible Hindu imprint.” [10] For this reason, as well as for their use in storing water, the wells were not destroyed upon Muslim conquest. Not only did Muslims refrain from destroying them, they constructed stepwells themselves giving them characteristics of Islamic architecture.

This age of fusion stepwells began as Hindu and Islamic architecture merged in the beginning of year 732. They rejected nothing of the established water architecture except for its Hindu symbolism. Just as Aryans obfuscated the original meaning of stepwells, Muslims took the stepwells pragmatic solution to water scarcity as the point of departure. And as mentioned above, were therefore not destroyed and more were built. And as this shift in power took place in India, an enormous cultural void had to be filled. No longer were these water buildings, or any buildings, under the control of Hindus. By contrast, “The Muslims, with their one god, abhorred the numerous Hindu deities and especially the worship of serpents, or nagas.” This is what makes the stepwell at Adalaj so special.

The Adalaj stepwell was built under Muslim rule, in the village of Adalaj in the Indian state of Gujurat by the Muslim King Mohammed Begda for Queen Rani Roopba, wife of Veer Singh, the Vaghela chieftain (the last ruling Hindu dynasty). Under its Muslim builders, Adalaj stepwell was constructed without above ground pavilions to mark its placement. This was common for all wells built under Muslim rule, which merged Hindu and Muslim beliefs gracefully (perhaps unknowingly)—creating a cultural hybrid with spiritual meaning and practical purposes: “The Muslims were not numerous enough, nor was their religion strong enough, to overcome the deepest roots of Hinduism.”

The Adalaj stepwell is also an interesting fusion of Hindu and Islamic architectural styles peculiar to the Sultanate regime in Gujarat that came to be identified as Indo-Saracenic architecture. [11] Although Muslims rejected the use screened jalee’s, pavilions, and Hindu sculpture in most stepwells, Adalaj is the exception. Adalaj is also the first stepwell of its kind to have a longitudinal plan and transverse entryway. The plan faintly resembles that of an early Christian basilica plan that was later adapted by Islamic architecture. The initial descent moves through three entrances, leading to a rectangular decorated pavilion. Further descending deep into the well, one passes three more rectangular pavilions decorated with shrines as well as two sets of large pilasters holding the weight of structure. The tops of the pavilions have an upper platform shielding above light in these spaces. They resemble the tower pavilions of Hindu stepwells, but the pavilion themselves do not rise up out of the Earth marking their existence along the ground plane.

In terms of construction, the numerous cross-constructions built as pillared pavilions above each landing of a flight of steps, reinforce the sidewalls against the underground pressure of the earth. [12] Hindu well diggers constructed the site with direction from the royal family. Their desire to include Hindu ornament is clear as Adalaj has extremely intricate details in the shrines, pillars, and parapets. Although the ruling Muslims favored a sense of simplicity without figures, the Hindu builders incorporated geometric designs that pushed the envelope of acceptable Islamic ornament. This can be seen in a shrine of a horse with an offering of loquat flowers. At the lowest platform, where the rectangular bath pool exists, the squarely-positioned columns transition into an octagonal shape. This dome like structure may be new to Hindu architecture, but it had an established place in Islamic building representing the heavens. Thus, it is interesting such a feature would be built underground as well.

In plan, the descent to the well seems uninteresting, but in section it can create a complex and almost dizzying effect: “Although, a straight linear symmetrical organization of elements along the horizontal axis, the visual references continuously change due to inclined movement (through simultaneous displacement of horizontal and vertical axis) at every step.” [13] Adalaj stepwell also has parapets carved in a pattern that looks like water dripping a ledge or ornamented with spear-like crenels, a telling mark of Islam. [15] Yet, the stepwell is marked by a toda, which was the Queen’s solution to the absence of a Hindu pavilion. The toda would mark the location of the stepwell above ground not unlike how stone lions guard sacred shrines.

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Ultimately, the Adalaj stepwell stands today as a unique specimen that combines both Hindu and Muslim sculpture and architectural features. More broadly, taking the idea of water and exploring it both spiritually and pragmatically, these water buildings addressed pressing daily needs during their time, while exhibiting a deep regard for people and their communities. And, despite they seemingly moved between religious nodes to functional water collection systems and back, the layered histories and cultural palimpsests embedded within these ancient stepwells should not be lost to history. Moreover, there ought to be more discussions of other cultural hybrids that demonstrate the possible fluidity (and cooperations), rather than rigidity, of religious architectures. 

 

References

[1] Livingston, Morna. Steps to Water : The Ancient Stepwells of India. 1st ed. New York, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002. 206. Page i.

[2] Livingston, Morna. Steps to Water : The Ancient Stepwells of India. 1st ed. New York, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002. 206. Page 15

[3] Gupta, V. (n.d.). Indigenous Architecture and Passive Cooling. Energy and Habitat, 8-8. Retrieved from http://www.space-design.com/upload/RS0005.pdf. Page 41.

[4] Livingston, Morna. Steps to Water : The Ancient Stepwells of India. 1st ed. New York, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002. 206. Page xix-2.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mandoki, Kirit. “The Queen’s Stepwell at Patan”. 1st ed. Artibus Asiae Publishers, 1981, 99. Page 13.

[7] Livingston, Morna. Steps to Water : The Ancient Stepwells of India. 1st ed. New York, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002. 206. Page 27.

[8] Mehta Bhatt, Purnima. Her Space, Her Story: Exploring the Stepwells at Gujurat. 1st ed. Online: Zubaan, 2014. 160. Page 10.

[9] Livingston, Morna. Steps to Water : The Ancient Stepwells of India. 1st ed. New York, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002. 206. Page 29.

[10] Spatial Narratives In Traditional Indian Architecture: An Interpretation For Contemporary Relevance. (2010). Cambridge Scholars Publishing in Association with GSE Research, 38-38. Page 4.

[11] Jain-Neubauer, Jutta. The Stepwells of Gujarat. 1st ed. New Delhi: Shakti Malik, 1981. 99. Page 77.

[12] Spatial Narratives In Traditional Indian Architecture: An Interpretation For Contemporary Relevance. (2010). Cambridge Scholars Publishing in Association with GSE Research, 38-38. Page 5.

[13] Livingston, Morna. Steps to Water : The Ancient Stepwells of India. 1st ed. New York, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002. 206. Page 91-94.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Spatial Narratives In Traditional Indian Architecture: An Interpretation For Contemporary Relevanc. (2010). Cambridge Scholars Publishing in Association with GSE Research, 38-38. Page 4.

[16] May, John. "Indian Stepped Ponds and Stepwells."Buildings without Architects: A Global Guide to Everyday Architecture, 192. 1st ed. New York, New York: Rizzoli, 2010. Page 98.

[17] Bender, Tom. "Building with the Breath of Life." Architecture Week, March 1, 2012, 10. Page 15

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