In the second edition of this series on Indian monuments by Sahapedia, we look at Rani ki Vav, the stepwell that has been featured on the latest Rs 100 currency note. Did you know that the Queen’s Stepwell was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014?
By Kirit Mankodi
(Photos courtesy Kirit Mankodi/Sahapedia)
Rani ki Vav is one of the most unique and exceptional stepwells in the world. No wonder then that this 11th century monument has been incorporated in the recent Rs 100 currency note unveiled by the Reserve Bank of India in July 2018, replacing a picture of Mount Kanchenjunga that had previously adorned the note.
Located on the banks of the river Saraswati in Patan, Gujarat, the medieval capital of the Solanki empire (between the 11th and the 12th centuries CE), 125 km north of Ahmedabad, the monument is actually called ‘Ran ki Vav’ (Queen’s Stepwell) by the locals. It was a documentation mistake in the official Archaeological Survey of India records, where it was called ‘Rani’ instead of ‘Ran’, which led to it gaining popularity as ‘Rani ki Vav’. Due to its uniqueness and the excellent level of preserves sculptures, the stepwell was also recognised as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2014.
It was also declared the cleanest heritage site in India at the Indian Sanitation Conference in 2016. This was quite a feat since the site was covered with mud and slush owing to being flooded by the river Saraswati for around 800 years.
It was a chance discovery by a couple of 19th century British travellers who apparently came across some pillars and two Torans (ornamental arches), 65 metres apart, along with a couple of sculptures strewn across in the middle of arid land. At the time, though, it was assumed that the two Torans were connected, however, it was only in the late 1980s that the Archaeological Survey of India started excavating the site to unearth this spectacular stepwell with its breathtaking and intricate carvings. Up until then, stories of the stepwell were just part of local folklore and a mention by the medieval chronicler Merutunga in his Prabandha-Chintamani (‘Wishing Stone of Narratives’, 1306 CE).
Mertunga wrote about how Queen Udayamati had built the stepwell as a memorial to her husband, King Bhimadeva I, who had built the great Sun-Shiva temple at Modhera. This is plausible since the construction of watering places was considered to be a meritorious act, especially to commemorate the dead, which is why innumerable stepwells were built over the centuries in western India. In the barren and featureless landscape, these subterranean structures with their ornate interiors make a strong impact on the mind of the visitor who chances upon them.
THE STRUCTURE OF THE STEPWELL
Rani ki Vav is a monument that is about 65 metres long from the entrance to the well, about 20 metres broad and more than 30 metres deep. Rows and rows of beautiful sculptures are carved on the side walls, on the constructions in between and on the walls of the well. They are in an exceptional state of preservation thanks to being underground for around 800 years, says art historian Jutta Jain-Neubauer in an interview to Sahapedia.
The grandeur and monumentality of Rani ki Vav are extraordinary. There is probably no other stepwell like that in Gujarat or anywhere in the world. The Vav faces the east and possesses all the four principal components of a fully developed structure of its type: a stepped corridor beginning at ground level and leading down to the underground masonry reservoir (kunda), compartmented at regular intervals by multi-storeyed pillared pavilions; a draw well at the rear end; and a large reservoir, for collecting the well’s surplus water, located between the stepped corridor and the well.
The sheer scale of the seven-storeyed stepwell is remarkable in terms of size, profusion of sculpture and quality of workmanship. The sculptures enhance the corridor’s walls, the pavilions and, exceptionally, even the inner circumference of the well itself. The large images alone, even in the stepwell’s present ruined state, number some 400.
WHY IS THIS STEPWELL SO STRONG AND UNIQUE?
It is said that the first stepwell would have been constructed during the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE, so by the 11th century, architects had perfected a design and a simple but efficient method for constructing these underground structures. The architects included various measures to make the monument strong, such as the introduction of a buffer structure of bricks behind the walls to withstand the pressure of the soil. Thus, the visible stonewall of the monument is only 45 cm thick and is actually a veneer that is secured by the hidden brick support.
The builders broke up the deep walls on the two long sides to create a series of stepped terraces and provided for baulks or buttresses at regular intervals, which were later converted into the pillared pavilions. In this way, a deep terraced trench, rectangular in shape, with internal divisions of four smaller interconnected compartments was constructed. The advantage of this ‘stepping down’ was that it effectively reduced the height of the wall, thus minimising the risk of collapse. Also, the steps provided a foothold and working space for the builders.
An interesting feature of this monument as a whole is the presence of hundreds of masons’ marks on various parts of the stepwell. These marks, which are found on some other monuments as well, served the practical purpose of helping identify the artisans or their guilds, in order to settle their dues at the completion of work.
THE STUNNING SCULPTURES
For anyone visiting the monument, it’s the hundreds of sculptures on the walls, pillars and steps that leave them awestruck. Originally, there could have been as many as 800 large sculptures. Now, though, there are around 400 of them, and the total number would be 700 to 800. The major sculptures are broadly of two kinds, one comprising deities in niches and the other consisting of figures such as apsaras and the regents of the four cardinal directions (dikpalas) carved on the upright posts.
The monument boasts of nearly 400 sculptures of Vishnu and Parvati, given the fact that this is a Vaishnavite structure; Vishnu is intimately associated in mythology with cosmic waters, thus, wells, tanks and reservoirs used to be consecrated to him. The reason for Parvati or Gauri’s dominant presence is because Queen Udayamati sees herself as a grieving widow like Parvati, who does penance (in this case, builds this stepwell) to be reunited with her husband (Bhimadeva) in another realm. This is symbolic of the commemorative nature of the monument.
The central niches of the monument depict Vishnu sleeping on Sesha, the mythical serpent, installed in such a way that the surface of the reservoir’s water became a part of the theme and indicated the primal substance in which Vishnu reposes at the beginning of Creation. Depending on the rise or fall in the water level in the well, one or more of the three sculptures would have been visible always—this seems to have been the idea behind placing as many as three images one above the other. Particular attention is usually drawn on these sculptures by local guides when visiting the stepwell. There are also depictions of Vishnu in other forms, including his avataras (incarnations) and his 24 forms (Caturvimsatimurtis).
In Puranic mythology, God Vishnu assumes avataras for the good of humankind. Here, seven of the 10 known Vishnu avataras are found: Varaha (Boar), Vamana (Dwarf), Rama, Balarama, Parasurama, the Buddha and Kalki. The niche for Narasimha (the Man-Lion) avatara is empty. Independent sculptures of the Matsya (Fish) and Kurma (Tortoise) incarnations were not represented during this period in Gujarat, therefore their absence here is hardly surprising.
As you can see, the monument of Rani ki Vav is not just another stepwell that was a source of water in the arid regions of Gujarat, but an important example of the excellent masonry standards at the time, as well as a monument of love and devotion of a wife for her husband. So, the next time you visit Patan, be sure to make a note of all these symbolisms carved into the walls of the resplendent Rani ki Vav, instead of another tick in your travel itinerary.
DID YOU KNOW?
— The stepped well, or stepwell, is India’s unique contribution to the architectural world.
— Many stepwells were also built along the trade routes as resting places for merchants from Gujarat’s coasts—where the cargo would be unloaded—to the imperial capitals of Delhi or Agra. They also proved to be community areas for women of the nearby village(s) to do their water-related chores, group work or just relax.
— It is possible that last stepwell was built in about 1935 by the Maharaja of Wankaner, in Saurashtra. The Maharaja had built a pleasure palace in his own orchard, which was about three storeys deep with water at the bottom. There are also three storeys of recreational rooms built in marble around the well. This was more or less the last stepwell, in the traditional sense of the term, to be built.
— At the Rani ki Vav, it is interesting to note that the Rama sculpture unusually has four arms instead of two. This is an unusual four-armed figure of Rama, hero of the Ramayana, holding in his hands an arrow, a sword, a shield and a bow. Four-armed sculptures of Rama are rare, and none is known with attributes similar to this sculpture. There is a slight change in the Balarama statue as well, which are also rare across India. Usually seen with a flask of wine since ancient times, here it has been replaced with a citron fruit.
— The series of Vishnu’s avataras, all rendered in strikingly original forms, begins with Varaha on the wall facing the south, and ends with Kalki on the opposite wall. Can you spot them all?
(Kirit Mankodi is the author of ‘The Queen’s Stepwell at Patan’. This article is based on his module Rani ki Vav on www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. Sahapedia offers encyclopedic content on India’s vast and diverse heritage in multimedia format, authored by scholars and curated by experts to creatively engage with culture and history to reveal connections for a wide public using digital media.)