Authored by Vyjay Rao
It was a hot summer afternoon in Ahmedabad, a historic city in Western India. It was the month of May and the temperature had soared well past 40 degrees centigrade. Hot winds blew across the city and singed my bare arms as I looked for an auto rickshaw (a three wheeler moto taxi) to take me to my destination.
I heaved a sigh of relief as one of the ubiquitous green and yellow vehicles slowed down. I sank into the cooler environs of the auto rickshaw, thankful for some respite from the glaring sun, and instructed the driver about my destination. I was headed towards a small village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, called Adalaj. I had heard about a unique stepwell which was over 500 years old that was located here and wanted to have a look.
I had seen pictures, but pictures never do justice, especially to historic sites. You need to be there in flesh and blood to experience the strange vibrations and aura that one finds in these places. Moreover, I had been fascinated by the legend behind the building of this stepwell and this was one of the prime motivators for heading towards a sleepy village on the outskirts of the Indian city of Ahmedabad.
The Legend Behind the Stunning Architecture of Aadalaj, Ahmedabad
As the auto rickshaw weaved its way through the city traffic, the years fell away from me and I was transported back in time to the 15th century. A small kingdom known as Dandai Desh was once ruled by a Hindu King called Rana Veer Singh, who had a beautiful wife named Rani Roopba. The King had started the construction of a huge stepwell for the welfare of his subjects, though this project was short lived as the army of a neighbouring kingdom invaded.
In the ensuing war, Rana Veer Singh was killed and his kingdom annexed by the invading King. The Muslim King Mahmud Begda was smitten by the beauty of Rani Roopba and proposed marriage to her. The grief stricken queen agreed to the proposal on one condition: That the king would complete the construction of the Stepwell and only then would she marry him.
The king agreed to this condition and the construction of the Stepwell recommenced. Soon the Stepwell was completed. The patient King Mahmud Begda now proceeded to remind his lady love of her part of the proposal. The Queen Rani Roopba who was faithful to her husband in his life as well as his death, proceeded to the newly built Stepwell, jumped in and drowned, giving up her life after having fulfilled her husband’s dream.
Visiting the Stepwell Today
The Auto rickshaw screeched to a halt, the driver looked back and smiled, saying, “We have reached, Sir”.
I stepped out and looked around, we were in a sandy open place and I could see a simple structure with some steps in front of me. There were some small shops around and a group of small boys apparently from the village cooling off under the shade of a solitary tree. The place seemed to be enveloped in a cocoon of lethargic stupor induced by the overwhelming summer heat.
I made my way into the Stepwell which was shaped like an Octagon and descended the first flight of stairs. The Stepwell is five storeys deep and supported on huge pillars intricately carved. The entire structure is built in sandstone. Each floor has huge halls which can accommodate a large number of people. Apparently the place acted as a resting place for caravans and also as a place for local womenfolk to spend time sharing tidbits of gossip as they came to fetch water for their daily chores.
The region was arid and rains scarce, so as the people had to depend on wells and ground water for their needs, these multipurpose stepwells were indeed an ingenuous solution.
It was remarkably cool inside, I felt as if I was in an air-conditioned building compared to the sweltering heat outside. It was said that the temperature inside the Stepwell would be at least 5 to 6 degrees lower than what it was outside. The pillars and walls of the stepwell are replete with intricate carved motifs of elephants, flowers, Hindu and Jain Deities and these amalgamate very well with examples of Islamic architecture which is evident in places. The entire structure is an architectural marvel and blend of Hindu and Islamic styles, and is no less than a palace.
I reached the bottom of the well which is a square stepped floor shaped like a funnel extending to the lowest plane and cut into a circular well. The top part of the well is a vertical space that is open to the sky.
I walked around the different floors of the stepwell marveling at the great architects and masons who had built this wonderful structure. I sat down for a few minutes and closed my eyes, a gush of cool breeze caressed me and I could almost hear the excited chatter of womenfolk as they gossiped some 500 years ago.
I slowly made my way out and the harsh rays of the sun hit me, the sudden light temporarily blinded me, but some tombs nearby caught my attention. On enquiring I found out that these were tombs of six masons who had built the Stepwell.
Legend has it that after completion of the Stepwell, the Muslim King Mahmud Begda, asked the masons if they would be able to build a similar structure again, when they replied in the affirmative, they were sentenced to death. The Kind did not want this beautiful structure to be replicated.
The tombs stand today as a silent testimony to the ingenuity and skill of Man and also to his selfishness
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Photo credits: Featured photo by Vyjay Rao. First four photos by Daniel Mennerich. Inside the stepwell by brotherlywalks. Close up of ornate walls by Ella. Looking down into Stepwell & bit of edging by Tin-Tin Azure. Final photo by Andrea Kirkby.