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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Rani Ki Vav - Marvel of Underground Sculpture

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.

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  1. Architecture was always the stronghold of ancient and even medieval India. Right from the Harappan civilization. The monuments were inspired by an eclectic mix of various cultures including from Central Asia and Greece. Even today these monuments inspire awe with their strength / durability, splendor, functionality, and location as well as use of materials. Many of them have stood the test of time, like this Rani Ki Vav. It's hard to imagine how the heavy stones must have been transported to great heights or depths without modern machinery. Wondering how the designs were drafted and then explained to illiterate labor.

    The use of gemstones and other precious stones is a testament to the honesty of the people of those times.

    It is a pity that modern India has not been able to sustain the same zest for architecture suited to local conditions and inspired by local traditions / ethos. Most modern architecture is western-inspired, which would not have been a bad thing if it had been suited to our conditions. But facets like glass facades are hardly suited to Indian climes and require tremendous amount of energy to keep the buildings cool in the hot Indian summers. Moreover, all the buildings look the same. And there is very little inclusion, if at all, of artwork in most buildings, which are only intended to be functional but not aesthetically appealing. : (

    1. radhika,
      So nicely summed up.I agree with each word, and especially about the last part, where you have mentioned the use of glass facades in Indian climes..It is more suited to Cold countries, due to Green House Effect there, but not in India..Moreover, the Air Conditioners consume more electricity to cool up the building which has been warmed due to presence of glass facades, thereby resulting in energy wastage..

  2. I have read this in my 10th class History book in chapter Archaeological Heritage of India in 2004.You remembered my Golden School moments.I also wish to visit such a 7 storey deep Vav.It is also called as Baori/Baoli/Bawli in Rajasthan,Haryana,Delhi.Water storage system was marvellous in India in Medieval period.Even in Indus-Valley Civilisation period-latrines,water drainage,water conservation was done nicely 4000BC-1500BC
    I also wish to visit ancient cities Mohenjo-daro,Harappa,Peshawar,Gilgit-Baltistan(Real Jannat),Mehrgarh,
    But today's tense conditions won't allow.

  3. Thanks for sharing the details, Vinay.

  4. Vinay

    There's at least something you like about medieval India :)

    You can visit ancient sites in India. :)

  5. Also you started posting anything extra than Mughals/Jodha Akbar...

  6. This is related to medieval history. It was posted to highlight the treasures of medieval India. Such articles that may interest history buffs are shared here sometimes.