Rani ki Vav

A queen’s tribute

Print edition : December 26, 2014

A frontal view of Rani ki Vav, showing the various levels of its floors and the well at the far end. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The well at the western end of Rani ki Vav. Photo: Vivek Bendre

The 'entrance' to Rani ki Vav. Photo: Sam Panthanky/AFP

A view of the structure inside. Photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP

Intricate patterns on the walls of Rani ki Vav reminescent of Patola textile designs. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Detail of a sculpture of Vishnu reclining on Seshnag in one of the panels. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Detail showing a sculpture of Kali with skull. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Detail showing sculpture of Mahishasuramardini. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Rani ki Vav, a spectacular 11th-century stepwell in Patan, Gujarat, is now a UNESCO world heritage site.

HARIBHAI THAKUR peers over the edge of the ancient wall. It falls away at about 30 metres, interspersed on the way down with nooks and crannies which are inhabited by pigeons and bats. The sun is at its midday peak but the depths are gloomy. The smell of bats and stagnant water rises. At the bottom, there is a glimmer of water, surrounded by debris. Thakur looks up at the surrounding land and says: “I still can’t believe it sometimes. There I was ploughing the land, walking behind the bullocks and right below me was this work of art and none of us had any idea of its scale or value.” Shaking his head in disbelief, he continues to marvel at the fact that until about 40 years ago the extent of the grandeur of Rani ki Vav, or Queen’s Stepwell, had remained a secret.

It is truly extraordinary when one thinks about it. Just a few metres beneath the fields that Thakur and others had ploughed lay a stepped well measuring 64 x 20 x 27 metres. Built in the 11th century A.D., the well fell into decline when the river that fed it vanished as a result of geo-tectonic changes sometime in the 13th century. The shifting subterranean plates caused a flood and when it subsided, the well was filled up by silt that was left behind. Over the centuries, the entire well, which was 23 metres deep, was filled in until the Rani ki Vav vanished from view. Though its glory was hidden, there was a silver lining here. The silt preserved the structure well, but, ironically, now that it has been excavated, its decline will be faster, exposed as it is to the elements and people.

For the people of Patan, it was, of course, common knowledge that there was a well at this site. Thakur, who now works as a sort of man Friday to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), says: “We knew about it because we used to draw water from it, and as children we would scramble down those steps that are carved into the side. Our parents had forbidden us from doing this because they were crumbling and steep but we thought it was just a simple well and had no idea that more of it lay buried under the sand.”

The excavation of Rani ki Vav has a long history. Work on the site started in the mid-1950s. Initial work must have been daunting. The extent of the debris gave little indication of what lay beneath, but as the work progressed, terraced levels, colonnades, carved pilasters, sculptured galleries, carved niches and the general structure of the stepped well began to emerge. For 50 years, the ASI painstakingly removed debris and chemically cleaned and restored the structure.

After more than 60 years of work, it received the well-deserved accolade of being a world heritage site. It was granted this status by UNESCO in June, making it the 32nd such site in the country. Despite missing pavilion storeys, the well is well preserved, with all its main architectural features and its original form and layout intact. Most of the sculptures and decorative panels remain in situ. Its pavilions were supported by a total of 292 pillars. Today, 226 remain. For a structure that is 900 years old, this is an exceptionally good state of conservation.

Astounding discovery

Rani ki Vav is now an established stop on the archaeological tourist schedule. In typical ASI style, the grounds are manicured lawns studded with flowering trees, mostly non-native species, making the well look almost alien in its own environment. Setting that aside, it is truly one of the more astounding archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. The well is built on grounds measuring 4.68 hectares but is believed to be part of a larger complex comprising bath-like structures and temples surrounded by flowing water. Though currently no excavations are being carried out, it is generally held that the area would yield more structures. The water-dependent features were river fed. The well was constructed on the banks of a now-extinct river in memory of King Bhimdev I (1022-1063) by his wife Rani Udayamati.

In hot and dry climates, stepwells are a water conservation solution and have been in use since the third century B.C. on the subcontinent. Harvesting water in this subterranean manner minimised evaporation. The earliest such wells were little more than deep pits, but their usefulness resulted in more and more elaborate constructions until they became temples of subterranean water architecture, storeyed confections in stone, a tribute to life-giving water and to the skills of the artisans of the time. The well is essentially an inverted temple. Burrowing deep into the earth, its builders saw it as serving many purposes. In a climate where hot summers and hot afternoons were best spent out of the sun, the well was a small heaven, providing not only water but also a cool, shaded community meeting place, especially for women.

By the time the Rani ki Vav was built, stepwell construction was at its acme and this particular one, built in the Maru-Gurjara architectural style, is truly the Rolls-Royce of stepwells. It is the largest and most ornate stepwell in existence. The ASI says: “It illustrates the technological, architectural and artistic mastery achieved at a stage of human development when water was predominantly resourced from groundwater streams and reservoirs through access of communal wells. In the case of Rani ki Vav, the functional aspects of this architectural typology were combined with a temple-like structure celebrating the sanctity of water as a venerated natural element and the depiction of highest-quality Brahmanic deities.”

Vishnu’s incarnations are the central theme of the well, with 24 of his forms and eight of his avatars depicted. Other faiths are also represented, as is seen by a serene Buddha. The sculptors also gave a 360-degree view of life, depicting scenes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and the four stages and the duties of man. There is an abundance of apsaras and other less-benign female figures, holding skull cups and clubs of human bone. Even more striking are the nagakanyas, or serpent maidens, in their artistically erotic poses.

The vav has all the principal features of a stepwell: a stepped corridor at the ground level, a series of pavilions with an increasing number of storeys towards the west, a tank, and the well itself. Oriented in an east-west direction, the vav is set in a plain and the visitor comes upon the well itself with a startling suddenness. Stairs descend steeply, accentuating the drama of perception and heightening the aesthetic impact of its architectural qualities. Seven terraced levels of stairs descend about 20 metres, accessed by steps that are a masterpiece of visual design and practical application. A steep descent is achieved with great safety by the inventiveness of this design, which essentially has sets of steps in a pyramidal structure leading to safe landings, after which there are more such steps. At no point does the user descend facing the bottom of the well. It is always at a right angle. This allowed for safe access without compromising on space that a straightforward step design would have demanded.

As the UNESCO website says, the artwork in the vav is a beautiful balance of sculptured sections and blank spaces. It has more than 500 principal sculptures and over 1,000 minor ones, some of which are placed in more than 400 niches with delicate carvings; all are of high artistic value and done with an eye for detail. Sculptural panels depicting figures from mythological, religious, literary and secular works line the walls and pillars.

The well has four “floors”, with the fourth, the deepest level, at a depth of 23 metres. Here in the cool gloom, there is a large tank measuring about nine square meters. Falling masonry has meant that this section is forbidden to all except the ASI staff, but it is easy to imagine it… looking up the 23 metres of well shaft one would see a patch of sky framed by the 10-metre-diameter shaft. Corbelled brackets built into the wall would have assisted in the drawing of water. Though open to the public, the well is a fragile structure, especially so since it is in an earthquake-prone zone. Recognising that minute shifts keep occurring in the structure, the ASI has erected a simple but effective monitoring device. Glass slides (similar to those used for microscopes) are attached to areas suspected of movement. If the structure does shift, the glass slide falls and the ASI can take conservation action.

From its pavilions to its stone friezes, everything in the vav is a masterpiece of sculpture and the ambience of the past is unmistakable. Here, one can imagine groups of women gathering, seated on the cool stone floor, resting their backs against the sculpted pillars. As the heat intensified, they would move to the lower levels where the stone defied the heat and glare above and it remained cool and dim. Small local bazaars were held here while women went about chatting, sleeping and whiling away the hot hours of the afternoon.

Whoever said stone is cold should visit Rani ki Vav and listen to its stories and be transported to an age when it was a vital part of the landscape.

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