Rani ki Vav is one of the most unique and exceptional stepwells in the world. Nowhere do we have a stepwell of the kind of monumentality Rani ki Vav has. Rani ki Vav is situated in Patan, in north Gujarat. It is nowadays a small town in northern Gujarat, but in earlier times it was the capital of the Gujarat kings. First it was the kingdom of the Chavdas, then the Chaulukyas. The Chaulukya kings made Patan the capital.
Ran ki Vav was built in the third quarter of the 11th century, around 1065–1070 or so. It was done as a memorial structure by a widow when her husband, the king Bhima Deva died. This was a general practice. Widows of rich men patronised a stepwell or a water monument in the memory of their husband to gain religious merit. Being a source of water, it also served as a public monument. So it does not only give benefit to one’s own life, to one’s own family like maybe a temple would give, but also distributes water to the entire surrounding areas, to many people. This stepwell is built under royal patronage and therefore it is of such a magnitude. It is almost an underground temple.
Rani ki Vav is a monument that is about 65 metres long from the entrance to the well and about 20 metres broad and more than 20 metres deep. Rows and rows of beautiful sculptures are carved on the side walls, on the constructions in between and on the wall of the well. They are of exceptional beauty and in a good stage of preservation because this stepwell was buried underground in mud, slush and water for about 800 years. So when it was excavated in the late 1980s or so by the Archaeological Survey of India, one found that the sculptures were in meticulous state of preservation.
In Gujarat the tradition of making stepwells goes back to a very ancient period. There are stepwells that are cut into rocks, connected with Buddhist caves in Uperkot or so. They might belong to the first or second century BCE. The first structural stepwells might belong to the fifth or sixth centuries of our era. They are also found in Gujarat in the Dhank region. They could belong to the sixth or seventh centuries, that is post-Gupta period. It is early Vallabhi style architecture. The tradition continued up to the 19th and 20th centuries. The 10th and 11th centuries saw a number of stepwells being built. It is a period of high activity. I sometimes jokingly say that every village in Gujarat has a stepwell. It is something so necessary for the people, not only as a source of water, but also as space to spend some time in. Women go to the stepwell for their daily chores. Women sit around this area. It is cool. It is a cool place for retreat.
Many stepwells were built along the trade routes. These routes started from the coast of Gujarat where the ships would come and the cargo would be unloaded, and went all the way to the imperial capitals of Delhi or Agra. Along these trade routes stepwells were built often by the merchants and sometimes by the kings also. They wanted to have a safe and comfortable passage for the caravans and cargos to reach the main places. So stepwells were built at a day’s walk or a day’s travel of a caravan, let’s say something like 20-30 miles.
There are other stepwells of that class or of that period. One is, for example, Ankol Mata ni Vav in Davad which is about 100 km away from Patan. Another comparable structure is Vimala Vasahi in Mount Abu which was also built under the patronage of the Chaulukya kings. Rajasthan also has a number of stepwells. They have more or less the same kind of structure: an entrance, a passage going down to the ground water level etc. But the ones in Rajasthan have a very interesting structure which is a stepped kund or a deep pond. It is a combination of a stepwell and a normal pond where there are many steps going down into the earth. Rajasthan has some of the most beautiful step kunds, for example in Abhaneri. And very similar is the Surya Kund in Modhera which is very near to Patan.
I think the last stepwell was built in about 1935 or so by the Maharaja of Wankaner, which is in the centre of Saurashtra. Maharaja of Wankaner has built a pleasure palace in his own orchard. It is a well about three storeys deep with water at the bottom. Three storeys are there with rooms around the well. These are very nice recreational rooms. It is built in marble. It has arches, sculptures, springs and spouts. I think this was more or less the last stepwell in a traditional sense which was built.
I think the grandeur and the monumentality of Rani ki Vav is simply extraordinary. There is no other stepwell like that in Gujarat or anywhere in the world. The structure is 65 metres long and the stepped passage is divided into four kinds of open spaces which are called anganas in the ancient Sanskrit text on architecture, the Shilpa Shastras. These four open spaces are intercepted by cross constructions. These are open pavilion constructions which are called kuta in the Shilpa Shastras. So, there is a whole sequence of an open space, a cross construction and again an open space. In Rani ki Vav there are four such open spaces connected with these kind of cross constructions. The first one only has one storey, the second one has two storeys, then it goes down, and then the third one has four storeys. The last one has six storeys underground.
At the last level there is a small pond, like a basin, which keeps the surplus water from the well. This is just adjacent to the well. The construction of the passages in the well is very sturdy. It has to be very sturdy because this structure is seven storeys deep. And then the pressure of the side walls is also very strong. So at the bottom there have to be strong buttresses so that the earth does not cave in. What is interesting is that with the small pond the craftsmen or the architects had to make an extra construction or a barrier because they realised that some blocks of stones were moving because the earth underneath was kind of watery. It was wet around water level. So, they had to strengthen this portion with some extra bars. The well itself is strengthened or made strong by a tapering construction. So the well is broader on top. The opening at the surface is much broader than the actual well where the water is.
The most interesting part of Rani ki Vav is the sculpture. This monument is simply fantastic. There are about 400 large-sized sculptures or idols of various Hindu deities. The whole monument is dedicated probably to Vishnu. It was a Vaishnava monument. There are hundreds of images of Vishnu in his various aspects as well as of other Hinduistic deities. Some images of goddesses are also seen. There are many images of Devi Parvati and Devi Mahishasuramardini. About 300 additional sculptures are seen flanking these main idols. So I think this monument has about 700 or 800 sculptures. Originally it had many more, but some of the sculptures were destroyed when the first two storeys of the monument caved in. Architectural portions were also lost. In the 19th century another stepwell was built in Patan itself, Barot ni Vav, using many architectural fragments of Rani ki Vav which were just lying around. So some of the niches in Rani ki Vav are empty and the sculptures are missing.
In addition to images of deities, there are hundreds of images of heavenly beauties, surasundaris or apsaras. It is no wonder. First of all, this stepwell was commissioned by a lady and it is often the case in Gujarat that stepwells or wells for that matter are a feminine space, used and appropriated by women. It is also a religious place. Water is a rare element and necessary for the sustenance of life. It has connection to fertility and creation. The stepwell is considered a sacred place. It is considered to be the abode of certain water goddesses or even mother goddesses, connecting to the idea of fertility and creation. So there is no wonder that a stepwell has a number of images of heavenly beauties connected with water. Apsaras are supposed to be semi-divine girls frolicking around water. The very term apsara is connected with water as ‘ap’ means water in Vedic Sanskrit. In Rani ki Vav these apsaras are found in various erotic or sensuous poses, sometimes naked or half-naked or sometimes frolicking around with monkeys. They are also shown with scorpions or fish which are fertility symbols in Hindu or Indian iconography. Sometimes these girls are holding a bowl with a fish, sometimes a scorpion is crawling up their thigh and they are trying to remove it. Sometimes monkeys or dogs pull their already scanty dresses or scanty scarves. So these are iconographies related to women, related to goddesses and also to water. Many such images are found especially around the wall of the well.
Rani ki Vav is totally covered with rows and rows of sculptures. Often only the side walls and the stepped passages have sculptures in Gujarat. But in Rani ki Vav the well itself is covered with sculptures like an underground temple or like an inverted temple. The main idol again is not surprisingly an image connected with water, and that is Vishnu Sheshashayin where Vishnu is lying on the eternal oceans. It is a metaphor of the idea of water, of creativity and of creation. There are three images of Vishnu Sheshashayin at various levels. The top level is about 14 metres deep, which is probably the level where the water was in the rainy seasons.
The next one is about 17 metres underground. The lowest level is at 20 metres which was probably the water level in the dry season, in perhaps April-May, which is the dry spell before the rainy season starts. The water level would sink down that much. Here again there was a Vishnu Sheshashayin image. This monument is just unique in its magnitude and magnificence of sculptures.
It is said that the Rani ki Vav, which was built in the last few decades of the 11th century, was flooded soon after that. Successive floodings happened from the Saraswati river which is nearby. So it seems that quite soon after it was built, maybe 100 or 200 years later, it was totally submerged in slush and was slowly sinking. In 1304 a Jain scholar, Merutunga, wrote a chronicle of the Gujarat kings. It is called Prabandha- Chintamani. He talks about king Bhimadeva and his widow Udayamati who constructed this stepwell just after his death. He describes it as one of the most wondrous monuments which was ever built. He calls it a vapi. He says that it is even more magnificent than the Sahastraling Talav which was built about 100 years later in the 12th century. So in the 13th-14th centuries these monuments were there. He does not describe them but only mentions them. All these monuments, Sahastraling Talav, Rani ki Vav and other wells which are in the vicinity are part of a whole water network that is being fed by the nearby Saraswati river, at the moment situated north of the city of Patan.
In19th century some British travellers came across and saw some pillars. As I said, the entire stepwell was covered by mud and earth. A couple of sculptures and pillars were strewn around there. There were two entrance pillars and a torana 65 metres away. So people understood that these two points were somehow connected but did not know that such a magnificent monument was underground. When Cousens and Burgess wrote their book on the monuments and antiquities of Gujarat, they described it as a kind of stepwell from hearsay. Only in the 1980s the Archaeological Survey started to dig up the area and found this great monument. And that is how Archaeological Survey decided that they should ask UNESCO to inscribe this as a World Heritage site. In 2014 it was declared a World Heritage site which I think is very well deserved.