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Pardon me for calling them â€˜step-wellsâ€™. When we use the name â€˜wellâ€™ the picture that conjures up in our mind is a circular pit, dug up to an average depth of 40 feet and a diameter of 4 feet, that contains ground water. Then what would you call a many-storey deep, beautifully carved, large enclosure that contains water? Well, (pun not intended) let us call them â€˜Water sanctuaries of Indiaâ€™!
I have read so much of these step-wells that I made time to visit them when I was in Ahmedabad. Just 18 km. from here is the sleepy village of Adalaj and it is here that you find one of the most beautiful of step-wells heaped in history and mystery. The short ride seemed so long as I waited to set eyes on an architectural marvel that is little known to many.
As I stood at the edge of the Adalaj step-well the first thought that crossed my mind was- did Rani Roobha survive the plunge?
Built entirely of sandstone, one can enter this step-well from three sides. It consists of octagonal landings with carved colonnades and intricately carved niches.
Openings in the ceilings above the landing enabled light and air to enter the well.
Each landing has wide space suggesting that people, especially travelers, rested there while on a journey -quenching their thirst with the cool waters before resuming their journey. What a thought!
The same thought crossed my mind once again; did Rani Roobha survive the plunge?
In 1499 AD, Rana Veer Singh ruled the area around Adalaj. He started the construction of the step-well, which he wanted to be the most beautiful one around. Unfortunately he was killed in battle by Mohammed Begda, who coveted the widowed queen, Rani Roobha. Mohammed Begda proposed marriage to the Rani. The Queen agreed on one condition; that he complete the 5-storeyed stepâ€“well at Adalaj first.Â Complete it he did, in style â€“such was Begdaâ€™s lust for the Rani.
The five-storeyed magnificent edifice was completed but for the dome, Begda renewed his proposal. The next day, Rani Roobha flung herself into the water and drowned. Did Rani Roobha survive the plunge?
One of the well kept secret of some of the step wells was that it also had hidden doors and chambers that led royal people, specially the queens to escape from being captured. They would simply fall in toÂ the well and pretend to be drowned but in reality, they would open hidden chambers and escape elsewhere. Well, did Rani Roobha survive the plunge?
I walked round the exquisitely carved chambers, slightly disturbed. What about the six graves that were found near the well?Â It is believed that when Mohammed Begda asked the artisans if it were possible to build another step-well like the one at Adalaj they replied in the affirmative. This proved to be their undoing and they were instantly put to death. Reminds you of Shah Jahan doesnâ€™t it? Perhaps that is why the Adalaj step-well stands unrivalled till today. Beauty, romance and tragedy â€“ well, every well has a story to tell!
There are almost a hundred step-wells in Gujarat and Rajasthan.
The most extravagant of step-wells is the â€˜Rani ki Vavâ€™, at Patan in Gujarat.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Chand Ki Baoli, in RajasthanÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
What artistry! If wells can be so beautiful, what can one say of their palaces?
Step-wells consisted of two parts, a vertical shaft from which water was drawn and surrounding it were the inclined subterranean passageways, chambers and steps, which provided access to the well. The galleries and chambers surrounding these wells were carved generously, which became cool retreats during summers.
Multi-purpose structures, these wells â€“ provided water in the dry arid areas, the surrounding chambers were used to socialize by the women, the secret chambers provided a refuge during invasions â€“ underground bunkers? why didnâ€™t Hitler think of them?
All in all we can call them under-ground palaces! Most of these step-wells were constructed from the 11th to 16th century. The step-wells lost out with the advent of British Raj, who were extremely unhappy with the quality of hygiene that existed in these wells.
Step wells, no water sanctuaries, are most certainly Indiaâ€™s most unique, but little-known, master pieces of architecture- alas the world only knows Taj Mahal.
Adalaj Step â€“well can be reached from either Ahmedabad or Gandhinagar by road. Travelers can take a taxi or hire cars from these cities to reach Adalaj.
When in India step in to see the step-wells! Well, (pun intended) donâ€™t miss it!