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Rani-ki-Vav Stepwell at Patan, Gujarat

The Rani-ki-Vav or the Queen’s step well at Patan, Gujarat is a magnificent example of functionality blended with aesthetics. This step well is nearly 220 feet long from east to west, 60 feet at the maximum width. It originally had seven floors and four pavilions punctuating its long stepped corridor, making it the largest and grandest step well by far. Its draw well was sunk to a depth of over 100 feet. Not surprisingly, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In the region of Gujarat and Rajasthan, the climate has traditionally been dry. Scarce rainfall, seasonal rivers and a low water table, has made water a significant life force. This is why, during the course of time, the simple village well, pond or reservoir developed into an inventive architectural form – the step well. One quadrant of a circular well was opened up and flights of steps were introduced from the surface of the ground right down to the water below. Sometimes, a pond was provided for between the stairs and the well at the end. To solve the engineering problems in excavating and building an underground structure in the sandy soil, pavilions were inserted at regular intervals in the stepped corridor. Long descending staircases, pavilions, reservoirs, draw wells – all these resulted in a unique structural form.

Step well Rani ki Vav Gujarat
Ornate sculptures adorning transform the functional stepwell to an aesthetic memorial with spiritual overtones

Built by Queen Udayamati in memory of her departed husband, the Solanki King Bhimadeva of Gujarat, in the latter part of the 11th century, the Rani-ki-Vav stepwell is one of the largest in all of India and certainly the most ornate even in its present damaged state. What sets the Rani-ki-Vav apart from all other step wells is the fact that it has been decorated with several hundred large sculptures depicting gods, goddesses and other semi-divine beings all over its walls, not only on the side walls of the corridor but along the inner wall of the circular well too.

A step well consists of a series of solids and voids, or pavilions and corridor stages. In the dry and sandy soil of Western India excavators and builders of step wells faced great constraints. On the one hand, patrons who commissioned such monuments demanded imposing structures that were in keeping with their rich resources and grand ambitions. On the other hand, unstable soil presented its own hazards. After many experiments the builders seem to have ingeniously resolved the problems of building large wells. They dug a series of trenches, separated by balks or solid earth. The trenches, which were successively deeper, accommodated the flights of steps from the ground level down to the well; the solid blocks of earth marked the intermediate stages where pillared pavilions were accommodated. Trench and pavilion alternated with each other.

Sculptures at the Rani-ki-Vav Stepwell

They represent many of the divinities of the Brahmanical pantheon—Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, Ganesha and Devi, or the Great Goddess, in many forms, the Regents (dikpalas) and the Mother Goddesses. Apart from the members of the Hindu pantheon, other mythological beings such as river goddesses, Apsaras, the eight Vasus and Rishis are also represented. This is a memorial step well, and was intended to create religious merit (punya) for the departed. Stepped wells of this nature are India’s unique contribution to the world’s architectural heritage. Even though they are sacred, because the memory of the departed is sacred, they are not considered to be temples of any sort.

Why were these particular sculptures chosen?

There are three distinct ways in which the builders expressed with originality the nature of the monument: first the images of the goddess Parvati performing penance; secondly sculptures that may be called “the images of conjunction”; and thirdly the representations of a class of celestial beings, the eight Vasus. The builders had a clear conception of what they were doing even though to us today their intentions may not be so obvious.

The Pachagnitapasya: Despite the damage, the step well has as many as fifteen images of the goddess Parvati performing the asceticism of the “five fires” (panchagnitapasya), that are still intact. The myth of the divine penance has a poignancy of its own. While Parvati performed her austerities after her death separated her from her husband, Queen Udayamati constructed her step well after she and her husband were separated by his death. The parallel in both cases is provided by the death of a spouse. Just as, in primordial time, Sati undertook austerities to bridge the gap between herself and Shiva, so Udayamati carried out her act of piety, by building a memorial well – to bridge the distance that death had also introduced between her and her departed husband. It is well known that in Puranic Hinduism such purta acts as the digging of wells, reservoirs, watering places are considered as meritorious.

In the Rani-ki-Vav, there are as many as fifteen sculptures of Parvati or Gauri, performing austerities. Some of them show the standard iconography, with the divine virgin standing on her mount, the iguana (godha), in the midst of four fire altars, and looking up at the burning Sun in the sky as the fifth fire. This form of self-mortification is called panchagnitapasya, “penance by the five fires”. Sometimes the fire altars or her mount are not represented; but the attributes indicating someone performing sacred acts or penance are always present: matted hair, rosary, pitcher of purifying water, a bunch of grass. In one rare example, Parvati is even shown as lean, wearing a loin cloth, supporting herself on only one leg, thus mortifying herself even more harshly.

The Conjoint Sculptures: Conjoint sculptures are seen where two structural parts of the step well combine. A step well consists of a series of solids and voids, or pavilions and corridor stages. So, on those parts of the structure where two stages of the descent are joined, are images that combine two or more divinities. The conjunction of the images takes different forms. In its simplest form, a divine couple embraces, or two gods who naturally belong together are also paired together, such as two out of the eight Vasus. Two divine forms are synthesized, such as Hari-Hara. Or again, composite images of Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma and the Sun god are represented. And finally, in a most abstract and imaginative manner, the same idea is also stated in images of Parvati’s penance, in which, though Shiva is not present physically, he is the object of Parvati’s contemplation, he is present as an idea.

Commemorating the departed by the Vasus: The various representations of the Vasus in this monument also seem to serve the very purpose of commemorating the departed by employing the myth and its attending motif to reflect the theme of Moksha or liberation from the cycle of rebirths. Deep down inside Udayamati’s well, where the plain wall ends and the top most and lowest of the seven courses of carvings begin, the eight Vasus are seated among other divinities. They have four arms, one pair of hands folded, heads bent reverentially towards the water, the other pair carrying a rosary and a pitcher. They have bovine heads with horns. This ring of carvings is located at what would be the “normal”, or “formal”, level of water in the well – any excess water would flow out into a tank provided for it in front. By creating such a composition, the builder suggests that the water in Udayamati’s well is as sacred as that of the Ganga itself. The imagery of afterlife, of release, of purifying water, and piety, is transparent here. Thus, at a spot deep in the well, 70 feet below the surface, many a times unapproachable, and which receives hardly any natural light; the builder expressed Udayamati’s intention with utmost clarity.

This step well at Patan embodies living beliefs that lie at the very heart of Hindu tradition. Udayamati’s builder has given physical form to these beliefs as they reflect her experience of life and death, thus expressing, in the process, the larger interplay of the spiritual and temporal. Here, mud, stone and water are aesthetically transformed into a drama of the divine, frozen in time.

Visiting Rani ki Vav

Rani-ki-Vav is a convenient 125 km from Ahmedabad in Gujarat by road. Ahmedabad too is full of historical sites which you can read about here. There are 3 trains daily from Ahmedabad to Patan which run painfully slowly, taking 3 hours or more to cover 125 km.

This blog was initially published as an article by K.L.Mankodi in Heritage India Vol. 3 Issue 1 in February 2010, all photographs are the copyright of K.L. Mankodi and Hemant Patil.

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