India is perhaps the only country in the world where one gets to see the unique Stepwell-architecture. a testimony to water management systems in the ancient times. An estimated 3000 stepwells have been built in India, though today only a handful exist today. Of these, the Rani Ki Vav is easily the Queen of Stepwells. In 2014, this stepwell in Patan (Gujarat) became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yet, only in 2018, with the its inclusion on the 100-rupee note, have people really begun to dig deep into it’s significance and history.
So what’s so special about the Rani Ki Vav?
Stepwells not only chronicle the expansion of human settlement, but also highlight the relationship between water and society. Back in the 11th century, most monuments were commissioned by men, but not this one! The Queen Udayamati had the stepwell built in memory of her husband, the Solanki King Bhimdev I. What is striking though, is the scale of this stepwell. Spread across almost 12 acres, this east-facing Stepwell goes 7 storeys deep and is intricately embellished with more than 800 relief-sculptures of all possible gods and goddesses! It is the story of these sculptures that make the stepwell, one of its kind!
Read on for a visual guide to the Rani Ki Vav
As you descend the steps of the vav, a variety of Gods, Goddesses, demi gods and deities, water nymphs and celestial musicians greet you. In the centre, you’d find Vishnu in his famous reclining pose, sleeping after having provided for the world.
The stepwell is known to represent the 10 avatars of Vishnu; popularly known as “Dashavatara” in art vocabulary. The main image of Vishnu resting on the hooded serpent is the focal point of the Vav.
Vishnu, the second god of the trinity is the ‘Preserver’, representing mercy and goodness. He is also known as “Narayan” – meaning the one who lives in water. The ‘vav’ thus highlights nourishing attribute of water and it’s relationship with the world; for before anything existed, there was water.
Try to spot these sculptures of 5 Vishnu-avatars as you stroll through the stepwell : Varaha, the Boar (picture above), Narsimha (man-lion), Parashurama, Buddha, Kalki.
One can also see sculptures of Brahma (the Creator) and Shiva (the Destroyer) with their respective consorts.
At The Rani Ki Vav though, it is the women , that really take your breath away. Here’s a look:
Among the many goddess / devi figures at the step well, perhaps the most beautiful sculptural relief of the Goddess Durga in her Mahisasurmardini avatar. In this image though, the goddess is depicted with 20 arms and weapons in each. There are also others such as Saraswati, Chamunda, and Parvati. Interestingly, scholars have widely equated Parvati’s penance for Shiva with Queen Udaymati’s creation of the step well as penance for her husband.
In stark contrast with the powerful image of Mahisasurmardini is that that of the Apsaras. You can spot dozens of Apsaras (celestial dancers from the court of Indra) adorning themselves or generally being playful.
It is said that each of the 8 Matrikas (Mother Goddesses) have 8 further forms of Yoginis. In Indian art, these 64 yoginis often appear often in wild-trance with Bhairav (a form of Shiva). Bhairav is known to teach the art of Mrityunjaya – or the Conquest of Death. The Yoginis in a way are a balance – between the creative and destructive forces
Nagkanyas or serpent-maidens are fascinating. Even as they pose with snakes and cobras, it is not in an intimidating fashion. Rather, the maidens seem to co-exist happily with these water-dwellers. The Nagkanyas are companions of Vishnu and are known to be symbols of purification.
One cannot help but miss the underlying theme of maternal love amidst the sculptures. But what is also interesting to observe is the depiction of Hindu cosmology. Each of the women depict a particular realm – the Apsaras represent the heavens; the Nagkanyas, the underworld and the earthly Yoginis strike a balance between the two. Perhaps the Queen Udayamati, in memory of her husband had decided to construct a cosmic world for him (while also seeking blessings for his soul to be reborn)!
The Rani Ki Vav is also an ode to Craftsmanship
While you’d definitely marvel at the enterprise and agency of the Queen Udayamati, the craftsmanship of the time is also something that holds you spellbound. Patan is known for it’s Patola sarees, and spotting Patola-patterns in the Vav is almost surreal. Here’s a look:
The Queen’s stepwell transports you to a different realm altogether and offers a poetic look into the world of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. What we love is how women, their moods, their sexuality, their dark side, their maternal side – everything is celebrated to give life to this depiction of the cosmos!