Monday, June 27, 2011

The Islamic Stepwells of Gujarat, India

The stepwells of the state of Gujarat, India, are part of an architectural tradition that goes back over 1,000 years. The most grandly ornamented stepwells (known as baolis or vavs), including Rani Ki Vav ("India's Underground Water Temples," May/June 2011), were built in the eleventh century.

Construction of them continued, even as control over the area shifted from Hindu dynasties to Muslim kingdoms. The form of the stepwell—a grand staircase leading to the bottom of a well cylinder, with ornamented colonnades and terraces on each level—remained the same, as did its function as a water source, cool gathering place, and site for rituals.

In these later wells, Hindu statuary was replaced with geometric and floral flourishes and inscriptions characteristic of Islamic architecture. Rudabai's Vav, built in 1499, is now part of a public park in the quiet town of Adalaj, 11 miles north of the traditional Muslim capital at Ahmedabad.

Dada Hari Vav was constructed just two years later and lies deep within Ahmedabad's old city. Both still serve as places to socialize, but neither regularly contains water—the water table in Gujarat has long since been drawn down to critically low levels.

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