Rani Ki Vav, a step well in North Gujarat, is a marvel of underground sculpture and splendour
Our Indian sub-continent abounds with above-ground marvels. But there are subterranean wonders too. One among them is Rani ki vav in North Gujarat.
After a drive of two hours (about 130 km), we reach the site that lies two km ahead of Patan, a historic town, redolent of the past. It looks like a landscaped park, but just past a cobbled pathway that snakes through lawns we stop by an ASI plaque that briefs us about the ‘vav.’
Step wells were dug at great depth in India’s arid regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan, and while they were first quite plain, they evolved over time, into underground architectural forms with ornate interiors and long flights of steps interspersed with multi-storeyed mandapams or pavilions. They conform to the traditional belief that water bodies are beau geste — in memory of departed souls.
Rani ki vav (literally Queen's step well) the largest and most magnificent of such edifices in India, was built in the late 11th Century by the dowager Queen Udhayamati in memory of her husband Bhimdev I of the Solanki dynasty(a Rajput Clan).
The sheer dimensions (65m x 20m x 27m) of the monument will leave any visitor dumbfounded. The stepped corridor that leads to the bottom of the well at the far end is partitioned by four mandapams at regular intervals. The side walls, back wall, pillars and every nook and corner of the vav have been sculpted. There are even small steps geometrically designed. All the mandapams are multi-storeyed, the uppermost reaching the ground level. The depth of the well is 100 ft.
The compartmentalized chambers with ornamental pillars are not only a visual treat but also once served as a cool retreat for those who came to draw water. It is said that even the royals took refuge here in summer. Some of the upper storeys are missing (including the torana at the entrance) and many sculptures are dismembered, but the grandeur remains.
In fact, the structure was inundated by river Saraswati, silted up and buried for centuries. Only a few decades ago (in 1987), due to the painstaking efforts of ASI, has it been restored. The acumen of the builder can be seen from the lateral staircases provided in the west. When one enters from the rear, one need not walk all the way around to the front to go down. Moreover, a receptacle provided at the end of the corridor was meant not only to collect the excess water from the well but also to cool down (presumably) the surroundings. The corridor walls have tiered sets of sculptures arrayed in sunken niches and projecting panels. Of the seven levels, only five remain preserved. The perfect view of this stately monument arrives at the third and largest stage of the corridor, where we are overwhelmed by the galleries, colonnades and statuary art. The sculptures are mostly of the Hindu pantheon. The prowess of Solanki’s sculptor is also seen in the exquisite geometric and decorative patterns that are adopted even today by Patan weavers (famous for Patola textiles).
The empyrean forms include the dasavatar of Vishnu, 12 forms of Gauri, Shiva, Ganesha, Hanuman, Parvati , Mahishasuramardhini, Ashtavasus and so on.
There are also bejewelled female figures portrayed in different moods framed by pillars. They carry objects of worship (garlands, lamps, etc.), or stare at a mirror.
There is a tunnel (now closed) beneath the last step of the corridor, running to 30 km joining Siddhupur, a nearby town. This was the escape route for the king during an enemy attack.
This architectural phenomenon could not have been created only to quench parched throats. Not merely for pomp and splendour either, but to impart piety as well.
This article has been sourced from a National Daily. The facts have been verified.