Art,  Heritage,  History,  Travelogues

Rani ni Vav: The queen among stepwells

Have you had a chance to look at the new lavender-coloured hundred rupee note? Turn it to the reverse side and you will see a motif of Rani ki vav.

Rani ki Vav adorns the reverse side of the new hundred rupee note

Rani ki vav (or Rani ni vav as the locals call it) means “The Queen’s Stepwell”. It is an intricately carved stepwell in Patan in Gujarat. It was built by the river Saraswati.

Stepwells are commonly seen in western India, specially in the south-western parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan where water is hard to access. These architectural masterpieces chronicle the subterranean water storage systems of the past. Stepwells were constructed in large numbers between the 11th and 16th centuries as reservoirs for times of drought. However with the availability of pipe systems and water pumps in the 19th century, they became redundant.

We travelled from Ahmedabad in Gujarat to Patan to see this spectacular UNESCO Heritage Site on a hot afternoon. When you first get to Rani ni Vav all you see are green lawns with shady trees interspersed in between. There is a paved pathway which directs you towards the monument. And suddenly there is a gaping hole in the middle of the earth. But the real surprise is when you climb down into the stepwell. As you descend, not only does the temperature become lower, but you are left with your jaw hanging, as you gaze at some of the most extraordinarily ornate pieces of architecture inside the well.

Rani ni vav is believed to have been constructed by Queen Udaymati in the last quarter of the 11th century (around 1050 AD) in the memory of her husband in Patan. Udaymati was the queen of Bhimadeva I of the Solanki dynasty.

The discovery of Rani ni Vav

It is believed that this stepwell was flooded over by the river Saraswati and eventually, it silted over. After the geotectonic changes in the 13th century, the Saraswati river bed changed, and this well could no longer function. The existence of the vav was forgotten with time. In 1958, the Archeological Survey of India began excavations here. Desilting and scooping out of all the sand was done painstakingly to restore the structure to its original glory. Surprisingly the carvings were found in pristine condition as the silting actually helped in preserving the structures for over seven centuries.

In 2011 a Scottish Ten team was invited to digitally document Rani ki Vav and raise the profile of the royal stepwell, which was little known outside India. The team used high-resolution 3D laser scanning to document all the carvings digitally and explore the stepwell’s construction and iconography. These scans were processed into photorealistic animations to develop virtual tours. Have a look at a short video at the digital reconstruction, though I must say this doesn’t capture the beauty as actually seeing it does.

On 22 June 2014, the UNESCO declared Rani ki Vav as a World Heritage Site.

Why is Rani ni Vav called the Queen of all stepwells?

It is the sheer scale of this stepwell which makes it so stunning. Spread over 12 acres, the vav is 64 metres long, 20 metres wide, and 27 metres deep. It goes almost seven storeys deep and is embellished with more than 400 wall niches that hold over 800 delicate carvings. What we see is only a fraction of what originally existed. A plethora of deities, apsaras, musicians and other sculptures are carved at each level of the stepwell.

The walls of this well are replete with ornate complex sandstone carvings. This Vav showcases the height of the craftsmanship in stepwell construction. Built in the Maru-Gurjara architectural style, it reflects the mastery of this complex technique and great beauty of detail and proportions. Not one single pillar is plain. I was particularly intrigued by the pattern of the steps that led us down, zigzagging away.

The vavs of Gujarat were not merely water reservoirs, but also places for socializing. This stepwell is designed like an inverted temple, and the intricate sandstone carvings symbolize the sanctity of water. There are seven levels of stairs. Each terrace has multiple pillared carved pavilions that are uniquely designed. At each level you can see religious, mythological and secular images, which are often referenced from literature. The fourth level, which is the deepest, leads to a rectangular tank of 9.5 metres by 9.4 metres and it is 23 metres deep. The well is located at the western end of the structure. It consists of a shaft which is 10 metres in diameter and 30 metres deep. It is said that centuries ago, ayurvedic plants lined the wells, giving the waters medicinal properties of healing.

It is said that there is a small gate below the last step of the well. From there a 30 kilometre tunnel leads to the town of Sidhpur in Patan. Though the tunnel is currently blocked with stones and mud, it was then used as an escape route in times of distress.

The exquisite carvings that remain

The galleries of carvings which project from the walls of the step well show statues of Vishnu’s ten incarnations: the Dashavatar. You can find Varaha, Vamana, Rama, Parashuram, Krishna, Narasimha, Buddha and Kalki. Varaha—Vishnu with a boar’s head has Bhudevi perched on his shoulder lovingly rubbing his snout. Look between the pillars in the centre to catch a glimpse of Sheshshayi Vishnu where he reclines on the thousand hooded serpent Sheshnag. There was a belief that if there are Lord Vishnus in this form, water will never dry up here. But it did.

Besides these there are distinctive carvings of Mahishasurmardini and other gods like Ganesh, Indra, Brahma and Kuber.

The interesting pieces are the female sculptures which symbolize water and fertility. Personifications of the water goddesses, yoginis, nayikas and apsaras adorn the walls.

Statues of erotic nagakanyas have sinuous serpents slithering over them. Celestial dancers (apsaras) and yoginis adorned with garlands, bearing lamps, conch shells and bells line the walls.

The lady on the right is called  Karpuramanjari. She is drying her hair after her bath. A swan mistakes the water droplets for pearls swallows them up. Karpuramanjari is the heroine of a play by the poet Rajashekhara, written in the 10th century CE. In folklore, a swan eats only pearls.
The sculpture on the left is a dancing female ascetic, probably a yogini. She probably represents a tantric sect as she carries a skull and a femur in her left hand. Her upraised right hand holds a skullcap with a fish inside. Her hair is tied in a jaṭā; she is adorned with ornaments, animal skin is wrapped around her waist, and she wears sandals on her feet. At her feet, bearded ascetic plays a dumroo.
The apsara on the left is probably chewing a betel leaf. A bearded dwarf tickles her foot. The central idol is that of Kalki avatar. Kalki, the warrior king, sits tall on a horse, one hoof about to crush an enemy’s skull.
On the left is an apsara shooing off a monkey who is climbing on her leg, while her garment accidentally slips off her waist. The central idol is that of Mahishasuramardini. The apsara on the right fixes her earring while looking into the mirror.

The word apsara itself is said to be derived from Sanskrit (अप् + सृ,) which means “going into the water”. The link between water and fecundity is emphasized by these sculptures. Some of the apsaras are seen showcasing solah shringar, sixteen types of make-up techniques. One gazes into a mirror, another puts on an earring or an anklet. Yet another dries her wet hair or chases off a mischievous monkey. Dogs snap at the heels of naked maidens. Several elements show tantric symbols which add to the enigma.

The Ashtadikpalas who guard the eight directions adorn the corners of the structures

I saw some mongoloid faces too among the carvings. Do these depict the Chinese travellers?

The architectural brilliance and the proportionate design of the Rani ki Vav left me awestruck. The heritage that our ancestors left behind speaks volumes about their technological know-how. Think of how this masterpiece survived centuries of wear and tear.

Just behind the Vav you can visit the Sahastralinga talav which is a medieval artificial water tank commissioned during the Chaulukya rule. The tank used to receive water from a canal of the Saraswati River and had spread of about 5 km with good stone masonry embankments. There were thousand Shivalingas on the edge of the tank. It now lies in a dilapidated condition.

Legend has it that the Chaulukya ruler Siddharaj Jaisinh was enamoured by the beauty of Jasma Odan, who belonged to the Odh community of the tank diggers. He proposed marriage to her and when she refused, he got her husband killed. Angered she committed sati by jumping into her husband’s funeral pyre to protect her honour. She cursed the Sahastralinga Tank to run dry and for Siddharaj to die without an heir to his kingdom. As the story goes, the tank remained dry until a low caste Vankar named Jay Vir Maghmaya volunteered to kill himself. The Jasmadevi temple dedicated to Jasma Odan is situated near Sahastralinga Tank.

To plan tours to the Rani ki Vav and other sights in Gujarat, you may contact my friend Deepa Subramanian at Shakti Holidays. Email: deepa@shaktiholidaysindia.in. Phone: +919840236872

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