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Gujarat - The Adalaj Stepwell



Type of Spiritual Experience


Gujarat was one of the main centres of the Indus Valley Civilization. It contains ancient cities such as Lothal, Dholavira, and Gola Dhoro. We have a number of observations for Dholavira under the section for Shaivism.  The ancient city of Dholavira is one of the largest and most prominent archaeological sites in India, with a stunning site in the Rann of Kutch.  The ancient city of Lothal was where India's first port was established. The most recent discovery was Gola Dhoro. Altogether, about 50 Indus Valley settlement ruins have been discovered in Gujarat.


In contrast the Adalaj Stepwell (Gujarati: અડાલજની વાવ, Hindi: अडालज बावड़ी or Hindi: अडालज बावली, Marathi: अडालज बारव) is barely known as an important monument.  It is a stepwell located in the village of Adalaj, close to Ahmedabad town in Gandhinagar district in the Indian state of Gujarat.    

The well was built in 1499 A.D. by Queen Rudabai, as such it is too late to be part of the Indus valley civilisation, which had ceased to exist 2000 years before, but there is something fascinating about this well – as if the legacy of the Shaivistic step-well lived on in people’s hearts, long after pure Shaivism ceased to exist.

The Adalaj Stepwell or Vav, as it is called in Gujarati, is intricately carved and is several stories deep.

“The carvings on its walls and pillars include leaves, flowers, birds, fish, geometrical patterns, and other breathtaking ornamental designs. In the past, these step wells were frequented by travellers and caravans as stopovers along trade routes.
This vav has five stories and three gates to enter it. On entering, one is greeted by one mandap with an eight-sided dome, which is now damaged. On both sides of steps are balconies with beautiful carvings. Rows of carved elephants mark some of the levels”.

In other words it is an upside palace, as step wells of this sort were.  A temple to the feminine and the sub-conscious, a place for ‘doing the dive’.  And a way to get the view up the tunnel ....

Much of the decoration is Islamic, as the temple was completed by a Moslem ruler, but it was commissioned by Rana Veer Singh of the Vaghela dynasty for his queen, and in the original decorations one can see that this is Shaivistic in original decoration and concept.  Was Rani Roopba his beautiful widow a follower of Shiva?  Everything points to the fact she was – or maybe we are seeing the unity of mystic movements expressed in a building.  The key is the wheel decoration – a key symbol found in numerous sites dedicated to Shiva – wheels of fortune, wheels of change and sometimes just the wheels of the chariot of spiritual experience.

The general description one finds in tourist literature for India states that “Stepwells, also called stepped ponds, built between the 5th and 19th centuries, are common in Western India; over 120 such wells are reported in the semi-arid region of Gujarat alone, of which the well at Adalaj is one of the most popular. Stepwells are also found in more arid regions of the subcontinent, extending into Pakistan, to collect rain water during seasonal monsoons. While many such structures are utilitarian in construction, they sometimes include significant architectural embellishments, as in the Adalaj stepwell, which attracts a large number of tourists”.

And indeed they are utilitarian, but so were the sacred springs of the UK.  Adalaj is a truly beautiful example of an underground temple – a mirror of the feminine and is as sacred as any step well, despite the time it was built.  The Aryans/Scythians may have won in this region, but the memories of those conquered remained and seem to have been passed on in their sacred architecture and symbols.

A description of the experience


The legend of the Adalaj stepwell

In AD 1499, the area around Adalaj was known as Dandai Desh and was ruled by Rana Veer Singh of the Vaghela dynasty. Around this time, Mohammed Begda, a Muslim ruler of a neighbouring state attacked Dandai Desh and killed Rana Veer Singh. The beauty of the slain king's widow, Rani Roopba, enamored Mohammed Begda who sent her a proposal of marriage.
The heartbroken but determined queen agreed to the proposal on the condition that he complete a five-storied step-well (vav) for her. The Muslim ruler, enticed by the charm of the queen, readily agreed. The construction of this well had begun years before under Rana Veer Singh but had had to be stopped.
 Begda resumed this project with great enthusiasm and got the well completed in record time. When this five-storied edifice was finished it was complete but for the dome.
Begda renewed his proposal.
The next day, Roopba took a round of the well and saying a final prayer, flung herself into the water and drowned.

The source of the experience


Concepts, symbols and science items



Activities and commonsteps