Adalaj ni vav (stepwells are called vavs in the Indian state of Gujarat) is a beautiful structure, descending five stories deep. It was built in 1499 to hold water, provide refuge to travelers and local people, and offer spiritual sustenance. The fifth floor is especially stunning, and from here you can see the deep turquoise waters of the well itself, which seems to glow with inner light, surrounded by astonishing beauty captured forever in stone.
The stepwell’s immense beauty is not the only thing spectacular about it. The tale of its creation is full of love and war, devotion and betrayal.
Hindu King Rana Veer Singh started construction of the Adalaj ni vav to provide relief to his people in this arid region, who had to walk miles for water. However, before it was finished, he entered into a war with neighboring Muslim King Mehmud Begada. King Rana Veer Singh was killed in battle, and King Mehmud Begada fell in love with his widow, the beautiful Queen Roopba (aka Queen Rudabai).
Queen Roopba agreed to marry King Mehmud Begada—but only on the condition that he finish the stepwell her husband had started. King Mehmud Begada agreed, which is why the stepwell design—built in Solanki style of architecture and adorned with Hindu and Jain images—also shows Islamic influences.
When it was finished, Queen Roopba threw herself in to the well, and died. Apparently, she had no intention of marrying King Mehmud—she just wanted to see her husband’s stepwell finished. Luckily for us, King Mehmud did not destroy the structure or the Hindu ornamentation, and it remains intact more than 500 years later.
The entire structure is covered with carvings, sculptures, and ornamentation, combining Indo-Islamic architectural elements and designs. Islamic floral patterns blend seamlessly with Hindu and Jain symbolism, and carved scenes of everyday life, such as women churning butter. Hindu and Jain gods also adorn the walls, and to this day, the stepwell serves as a temple. It’s not uncommon to see flower offerings.
Adalaj ni vav is unique in that it is the only stepwell with three sets of entrance stairs. They all meet on the first level down, at a large square platform. As you continue to descend, down to the fifth story, the air grows noticeably cooler. The stepwell was built to keep the harsh sunlight out, and provide a cool refuge for local people and travelers. There is a lot of room for people to gather on each level, and no doubt travelers would have spent the night here—back in the days before hotels. The small town of Adalaj was on a trade route, and would have seen many travelers pass by.