The magnificent stepwells of Rani-Ki-Vav

Considered to be one the largest and most elaborate of its kind, Rani-Ka-Vav or the Queen’s Stepwell is revered as the most famed among others found in India. Built in the memory of a husband by his widowed wife, this humungous piece of ancient architecture stands witness to the test of time. Built inside an opening in the ground, this magnificent piece of history is one of the most famous legacies of ancient India.

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Located in the ancient, fortified township of Patan in Gujarat lies an architectural marvel aptly namely Rani-Ki-Vav (or The Queen’s Stepwell). This intricately designed stepwell was built as a homage to King Bhimdeva I (1022–1064) by his widowed queen Udayamati who commissioned this ornate stepwell after his death in the 11th Century. King Bhimdeva I was the son of Mularaja, the founder of the Solanki Dynasty that ruled parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan in North-western India from 940 CE to 1244 CE. Seeped in history, Rani-Ki-Vav was built in the complex ‘Maru-Gurjara’ architectural style of architecture with an inverted temple and seven levels of stairs and holds more than 500 principal sculptures. It is interesting to note that typical to this region is the construction of stepwells that serve as a subterranean source for water storage especially in areas that are typically devoid of water resources like this region. Women and men alike also used these ‘Vavs’ as a common place for socialising and collecting water. It is believed that while stepwells were initially built to store water for use during the dry months, these ‘Vavs’ were gradually built more elaborately and intricately to pay homage to Gods and deities. Thus, when visitors first enter Rani Ki Vav they feel as if it is an inverted temple, where one steps down various levels to the water. Several examples of similar stepwells with its unique architecture and ornate stone carvings have been found in the Indian subcontinent since the third millennium BC.

Rani-Ki-Vav was built on the banks of the holy river Saraswati that finds mention in many of our mythological texts. This beautiful edifice was re-discovered in the 1950s after spending many years in the wilderness. It is believed that the stepwells were flooded by the river many years ago and was silted over by the late 1980s by the Archaeological Survey of India. Interestingly, even after several years of exposure to water erosion and environmental corrosion, the carvings were found in pristine condition for tourists to enjoy today.

Spread over close to 12 acres, this east-facing stepwell constructed in seven storeys, measures about 64 mts long, 20 mts wide and 27 mts deep. The steps begin at ground level, leading you down through the cool air through several pillared pavilions to reach the deep well below. There are more than 800 elaborate sculptures among seven galleries. However, only 400 of those sculptures survive today. Most of the sculptures were built in devotion to Lord Vishnu, in the forms of Dus-Avatars including Buddha namely Kalki, Rama, Krishna, Narsinh, Vaman, Varahi accompanied by Sadhus and Brahmins, representing their return to the universe. Nagkanya, Yogini (beautiful women) and Apsaras showcasing 16 different styles of makeup called Solah-shringar are also represented here in ethereal poses. At water level, one can find a carving of Sheshashayi-Vishnu, in which Vishnu reclines on the thousand-hooded serpent Sheesha, where it is said he rests in the infinity between ages.

Among its ruins one pillar still stands which is an excellent example of this period of design. A part only of the west well is extant from which it appears that the wall had been built of brick and faced with stone. From this wall project vertical brackets in pairs, which supported the different galleries of the well shaft proper. The bracketing is arranged in tiers and is richly carved. The minute and exquisite carving of this Vav is one of the finest specimens of its kind. There is also a small gate below the last step of the step well, with a 30-kilometre tunnel, currently blocked by stones and mud, which leads to the town of Sidhupur near Patan. It was used as an escape gateway for the king, who built the step well in the times of defeat.

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It is believed that about five-six decades ago, there were several ayurvedic plants that grew freely around the area. This made the water in the well very curative for viral diseases, fever etc.

Befitting its name, the Rani-Ki-Vav is now considered to be the queen among step wells of India. It has been recently recognized as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, on 22 June 2014.