Rani ki Vav: The Queen of Step-wells

Rani Padmini (or Padmavati) has become a national figure since the eruption of controversy over a yet-to-be-released film on the queen. Communities have taken conflicting positions, political leaders have jumped into the fray, and even religious figures have joined issue. She has thus become both a unifying and divisive figure for today’s society. While we can continue to talk about Rani Padmavati, let us not forget another queen, Rani Udayamati — no relation to the Mewar queen — who has left behind a legacy that does our country proud and has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

We are of course talking of the iconic step-well — one of the few step wells in India — called Rani ki Vav, in Patan (Gujarat). When I visited the place this November, there were only a handful of tourists, including a smattering of foreigners. Like me, they too must have come with hazy ideas about the monument which rises not above the ground but goes below, and were likewise left speechless by the magnificence. It may not draw millions of tourists, which the Taj Mahal does, but it is no less impressive in its own way. And we have to thank Rani Udayamati for it.

Queen Udayamati commissioned the step-well in the 11th century in memory of her deceased husband, King Bhimdev I of the Solanki dynasty. The entire structure is 64 metres long, 20 metres wide and 27 metres deep. It could have been just another tank for the conservation of water, located on the banks of the Saraswati river. But queen Udayamati was not to be satisfied by routine construction; it had to be a fitting tribute to her dear husband and ruler from the Solanki dynasty. She decided that the step-well must go beyond its stated need, and serve as an enduring cultural and social landmark as well.

And so, as one descends the steps down to the 27 metres, one encounters exquisite stone carvings all along. There are estimated to be as many as 500 major ones and more than a 1,000 smaller ones across seven galleries from the first steps to the last legs. The central theme of these representations is the 10 incarnations — the Dashavataar — of Lord Vishnu. One of the incarnations, and which has been depicted at Rani ki Vav (The Queen’s Step-well) is that of Lord Buddha.

Surrounded by these carvings in the lap of the underground, not roughly done by in very detailed fashion, I found myself in a different world, separate from the one that existed above. Think: The country — and the world — would never have known of this stupendous construction but for the excavation work begun by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), beginning towards the end of 1950s and completed in the 1980s. Over the centuries since it was made, the Rani ki Vav had been flooded by the river waters and silted over and over again, until it simply vanished from sight. And when it was fully discovered by the ASI just three decades ago, much to the excitement and relief of the archaeological team, nearly all of the stone sculptures were in sound order, though some damage had inevitably been caused to the columns etc over the centuries that it was buried under water and silt.

Rani ki Vav offers an interesting confluence of Shaiva and the Vaishnava beliefs. The ornamental carvings represent Parvati, Mahisasur, Ganesha and others, and there are those incarnations of Lord Vishnu as well. The other interesting aspect of the step-well sculptures is the depiction of various females forms — the emphasis is understandable given that the inspiration for the step-well came from a woman with taste and who was deeply committed to promoting Indian culture. The Apsara, the Naga-Kanya, the Yogini and more — are shown in various poses and states of reflection. Perhaps no other step-well in the country holds within itself such an astounding variety of our civilisational connect as this does. It’s, therefore, not for nothing that Rani ki Vav is considered the Queen of Step-wells.

The world over, people are aware of the Renaissance between the 14th and 17th century when nearly all of Europe saw the rise of an unprecedented creative outburst. Some of the most enduring works in art, craft and literature happened during the period. In India though, such renaissance existed centuries before, and the Rani ki Vav is an excellent example of that. The step-well was a natural progression of the distinctive form of waster storage system that had been adopted in the Indian subcontinent since the third millennium BC. From mere sand pits to more elaborate structures, peaking with the step-well in Patan, Indian craftsmanship evolved by leaps and bounds in a period when Europe was still struggling to find its creative mooring.

The Rani ki Vav is indeed, as the UNESCO website says, an “inverted temple” — besides a water storage system. The temple aspect highlights the sanctity of water — not just for religious purposes but also for common ones, and the need to keep it free from pollutants. That is perhaps why the actual well in the elaborate structure is deep down, at the fourth level of the seven-level step system. This is the deepest and leads inside a rectangular tank at a depth of 23 metres. The well itself consists of a shaft, 10 metres in diameter. And because of the spiritual connotation, Rani ki Vav was to become during its heyday, also the centre of a host of cultural events and get-togethers which bonded the people through a common cultural and civilisation ethos.

Rani ki Vav must surely rank as among the most prominent of legacies left behind by the ruling Solanki family of Gujarat, which governed from Anahilavada — modern-day Patan.  The Solanki clan members were the Chalukyas of Gujarat who ruled regions that today comprise parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan. They were also referred to as the Agnivanshi Rajputs. King Mularaja, the dynasty’s founder, came to power after displacing the Chavdas some time around 940 CE.  King Bhimdev I, in whose memory queen Udayamati commissioned the unique step-well, had to face many challenges, the most traumatic of them being from the invader Mahmud of Ghazni, the eventual plunderer of the Somnath temple. King Bhimdev had to flee his kingdom in the face of the onslaught. He returned after Mahmud had moved on from there on his way to other regions in Gujarat including Somnath. The Patan king had three sons — one died during the King’s reign, a second rejected the throne, and the third (prince Karna) succeeded his father. It was during Karna’s reign and through the initiative taken by the widowed queen that Rani ki Vav became a reality. Perhaps Rani ki Vav would have suffered the fate that the Somnath temple did, had it existed during the invader’s crusade. Fortunately, it came later.

The writer is Visiting Fellow at Vivekananda International Foundation. Views expressed here are personal