“It’s amazing what people do for love. It’s even more amazing what love does to people. It was for this love for her deceased husband Veer Sinh—the chieftain of the Vaghelas of Gujarat—that Rani Roopba consented to marry Mehmud Begada, the slayer of her husband,” said  Bhairon Singh in part Hindi and part Gujarati.

A middle-aged, thin, dark, dhoti-clad man, Bhairon was our guide hired against a bakshish (voluntary fee as decided by us for his services).

After a pause he continued, “But on one precondition: that Mehmud Begada would finish the construction of Adalaj ni Vav, the stepwell at Adalaj that her dead husband had begun before being killed in the war. Again, it was for his love for this beautiful woman, that Mehmud Begada agreed to honour her wish and instead of destroying the Hindu motifs adorning the walls of the magnificent well, added a few Islamic motifs during completion, establishing a great religious tolerance at a time when Muslim kings were defacing, plundering and destroying Hindu temples. And yet again, it was for this very love for her husband that the queen chose to make a false promise, being aware of lack of means for the completion of step-well in the face of defeat at the war. After the completion of the structure, therefore, she chose to kill herself and jumped to her death in the well shaft.”

"Adalaj step well" by Notnarayan - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons
“Adalaj step well” by Notnarayan – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

The guide found a history enthusiast in me who listened to every word patiently, and so he took me around the well, pointing out the images on the stone railings of the octagonal well shaft which hardly had any water. Six grave-like structures atop the roof of the step-well passage roused my curiosity and that prompted the guide to come out with another story.

Image Credit: The Hindu
Image Credit: The Hindu

“These graves belong to the six craftsmen who designed and constructed the stepwell,” he said before continuing, “When Mahmud Begada asked the craftsmen if they could replicate a similar stepwell at a new place, the unsuspecting architects nodded a yes. Since the king wanted the design to be unique, he sent the poor men to the gallows but allowed their bodies to be buried here.”

On an earlier trip to Jaipur, we had visited Chand Baori, the stepwell at Abhaneri and I remember sharing my knowledge with an elderly British couple. I was quite intrigued by the size, architecture and the concept of a step-well as a meeting place for villagers in the evenings and during festivals. The regions of Rajasthan and Gujarat, due to scarcity of water, had many such step wells but the British found these unhygienic as against canals, and as the canal system was introduced by them, these stepwells fell in disuse.

During the last few years I have visited many step-wells and have been fascinated by their beauty and usefulness of a time gone by. But the story I heard at Adlaj stepwell is one of the most fascinating tales of love, sacrifice and retribution seen through the prism of collaborative art—a timeless testament of human civilization.