Dada Harir ni Vav: A Harem Keeper’s Legacy

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    The Dada Harir ni Vav is a distinctive stepwell in Ahmedabad and a testament to the syncretic culture of medieval Gujarat. This stepwell is often mistaken for a Hindu monument due to its name, which sounds similar to ‘Hari’, one of the names of Lord Vishnu. But the truth is, it was built during the time of the Sultans of Gujarat, by a keeper of the Sultan’s harem.

    Located in the Asarwa neighbourhood of Ahmedabad and almost forgotten by history, the stepwell has a significant place in the development of Indo-Islamic architecture of the Gujarat Sultanate and has features from both Hindu and Islamic architectural and artistic traditions.

    Built during the reign of Sultan Mahmud Begada (1453-1511), construction of the vav is ascribed to Bai Harir Sultani, supervisor of the Sultan’s harem. Since eunuchs were usually given charge of the imperial harems in most Islamic states, it is believed that Bai Harir too was a eunuch.

    The complex itself includes a mosque, a tomb and a stepwell, which is five storeys tall and 32 ft deep. The vav is made of sandstone and shows many influences of Solanki architecture. The central shaft of the well itself is much deeper and octagonal. At the ground level, the vav is 190 feet long and 40 feet wide. The well follows the east-west axis, with its entrance in the east and well shaft in the west.

    Stepwells were a significant part of social life in medieval times in Gujarat. Not only were they important sources of water, they also provided a place for locals and visitors to rest and congregate. At the Dada Harir ni Vav, sandstone steps lead from one level to the next and at each of these levels, there are passages, galleries, corridors and pavilions, which could be used by visitors to pause and mingle. Even the well shaft has a spiral stairwell which opens onto different levels.

    Right opposite the vav are the Dada Harir ni Masjid and the tomb of Bai Harir Sultani, who commissioned both the vav and masjid. The tomb and mosque are small yet exquisitely carved structures. Both of them are surmounted by typical Islamic domes with intricately carved pillars, balconies and ceilings. These use very typical Hindu motifs but, in keeping with Islamic themes, there are no depictions of human or animal forms.

    The stepwell itself has some animal depictions like that of elephants, which dominate its upper levels.

    In Steps To Water: The Ancient Stepwells of India, art historians Milo Beach and Morna Livingston state that four vavs built between 1498 and 1503, during the reign of Mahmud Begada, show a powerful fusion of Hindu and Islamic architectural elements. These vavs are the Dada Harir ni Vav, Adalaj ni Vav, Ambapur Vav and Samp Vav. They add that Dada Harir ni Vav, with its domed pavilion, looks the most Islamic of these four.

    The vav complex has three inscriptions: one in Sanskrit on a wall of the vav, and two in Arabic at the mosque. Many of the details we know about its construction is due to these inscriptions, which provide us with names, dates and titles of the people associated with the stepwell complex. They also give information about the social, cultural and political set-up of those times.

    Prof M A Chaghatai of Deccan College in Pune has translated and interpreted the inscriptions of many Islamic monuments in Ahmedabad, including those at the Dada Harir ni Vav. Interestingly, he points out, the inscriptions in Ahmedabad cover the period from 1035 CE to 1785 CE, which according to him is the longest time frame of any historic city in India.

    The inscriptions at the Dada Harir ni Vav are believed to date back to the time of its construction. They mention the date of construction as 1500 CE and tell us that it cost 3,29,000 Mahmudis (3 lakh rupees) to build. The inscription also mentions an orchard (which no longer exists), Bai Harir, constructed along with the vav, a mosque and tomb.

    The Sanskrit and Arabic inscriptions are all dated to 1500 CE and give identical information, and thank both Bai Harir and Mahmud Begada for constructing the vav. The Sanskrit inscription mentions that the construction was led by a person named Malik Bihamad and the mason was called Gajadhar Vaisya. Interestingly, while the two Arabic inscriptions pay homage to Allah, the Sanskrit inscription invokes Hindu gods like Varuna. This is a testament to the syncretic culture which prevailed in Gujarat at the time.

    Today, the Dada Harir ni Vav sees few visitors but it is located very close to the Mata Bhawani ni Vav, which is believed to go back to the 11th century. The latter stepwell now functions as a temple and presents quite a contrast to the Dada Harir ni Vav.

    The glory days of the Dada Harir ni Vav may be long past but it still has a lot to tell us.

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