Rani ki Vav; A Wonder Discovered in the 60s
Updated: Mar 30
It has long been noted that India has vast historical and heritage based prosperity. India is home to the oldest, deepest and widest step-wells in the World. These go all the way back to the 9th Century. One such prominent name is the Rani ki Vav in Patan, Gujarat.
A Vav is typically a basin or pond containing water. In this concept, we are talking about man-made structures to hold water. While there is a multitude of Vavs in India, it is said that the Rani ki Vav is second only to the Chand Baori step-well located in Bandikui in Rajasthan.
This majestic structure was built back in the 11th century by the widowed wife of King Bhimdeva I of the Chaulukya Dynasty. In remembrance of her late husband, she undertook a 9 year long project to build a 7 storied step-well. The nearby river Saraswati (a minor river named after the famed Goddess) was tapped into with a canal system to feed the well and an adjoining pond.
It features steps going in a sideways fashion as compared to the modern day front leading steps. It has been found that descending or ascending this way reduces the strain on the body and causes far less breathlessness than what would happen in the case of front leading steps. This construction also causes a natural break so should someone fall, they would not descend into the water. Further, at every level, at least one set of steps actually has the steps in 2 heights. This is believed to be to make it easier for women to lift the pots. The pot could be placed at a higher step and the women could thus lift them with more ease.
Upon entering the location, we see a lush garden, well maintained even in the heat and arid-ness of the desert. Following a well tiled path, one can see the Vav coming up. All at once, the beauty of the Vav overwhelms the senses. All 7 stories are visible and every inch is covered in beautiful artwork and statues. If one was to take a new 100 rupee note and examine the back, they would see in print the very scene they witness in front of them.
The entire Vav was constructed with Sandstone and carved to perfection. If one wants to look at the carvings, multitudes of these are available to be seen in the first 4 floors from the top. The next 3 are cordoned off due to structural instability, although the more prominent and important ones of the closed off floors can still be seen. The stories associated with some of the carvings are treats to listen to, as is some of the reasoning behind placing certain carvings at particular locations.
Prominent stories include those relating to modern life and certain scriptures. As we descend to the lowest level allowable, the examination of some of the statues reveal that the ancient women used to practice the art of decorating one’s body with eye accents, lipsticks, etc. using mirrors.
In upper levels, we see beautiful patterns carved into some faces that have been nicknamed ‘Patola Patterns’ after the famous Patola Sarees of the Patan Region.
On the same floors many statues can be seen of Gods in various forms and Avatars, explaining the stories behind them. One statue of a Vishkanya is particularly striking. It shows a Vishkanya or lady with poison. According to the old myths, these women were as beautiful as a peacock, as intelligent as 3 owls, as slimy as a fish and as poisonous as a snake. Effigies of these have been made along with the Vishkanya statue.
The central figurine on the back walls of the 4th, 5th, and 6th floor from the bottom is the exact same. They show Lord Vishnu as he is seen resting on the body of the Great Snake and floating in the cosmos. This signifies that he is the supreme God. The concept of 3 floors is a mention of the fact that he is revered in all three Lok’s or divine worlds: Heaven, Earth and Hell, called the Trilok (Dev-lok, Dharti and Patal-lok).
On the top, the joints of pillars and along the roof, one may see that all of the pillars have a particular figure of a boy, holding up the roof. That is Khichak. According to the Mahabharata, Khichak had pried and seen Draupadi as she bathed and changed. For this sin, she cursed him to hold up all the world’s weight on his shoulders forevermore. This statue is a representation of that.
The canal system that fed the Vav is something of a wonder. If one was to take the time to go see the remnants, he would be quite mystified by the ingenuity of the system. The main canal leads to a circular amphitheatre-like area where the water is churned by the natural centrifuge before it enters the next phase of the canal. Here, most of the suspended impurities are removed. As the water goes into the next phase, it slows down and passes through an aqueduct. The canal then takes multiple turns that dash away most of the impurities and finally, the clean water is made available for storage in the Vav.
Unfortunately, the Vav dried up and was then covered in mud as it became disused, and faded as an old wives’ tale. In 1960s, excavations in the region exposed the Vav, which was fully excavated thereafter, found almost completely preserved. No erosion took place, thus all statuary, etc. was maintained. The ASI conducted a few restorations and it was opened to public. An archaeological marvel here is the stone interlocking system which is based on wooden blocks fit in cavities and watered to expand, thus holding the stones in place. This system allows for a strong and earthquake resistant structural integrity, similar to that in the Modhera Sun Temple.
The Vav was added to the list of the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014 and hosts thousands of visitors every day.
Some Tips to Keep in Mind
· The site opens at 6 a.m. for visitors.
· The location does not have a lot of guides but some of the guards are very knowledgeable and will be able to highlight details you may normally miss out on.
· Plan to spend between 1-2 hours at the Vav to properly understand it’s beauty.
· Adequate parking space is available at the site.
Most importantly, carry a Rs. 100 note from the new series so that you can click a picture with the image of the Stepwell on the note.
All in all, the Rani ka Vav is a must see location that one simply cannot miss if one loves art, architecture, heritage, or just plain old water-channels.
When you're visiting, you could ask the locals about the legend of the Sahastra Linga (thousands of Shiv Lingas) in the area. Legend has it that Ravan took the blessings of Lord Shiva (Vardaan) to remain immortal. Since it was conditional that nobody would be able to kill him in the vicinity of the Shivlinga given to him by Lord Shiva, he decided to carry it and 'establish' it in Lanka. When Brahma realised that this Vardaan could spell disaster, he intercepted Ravan during his return journey by posing himself as a cow stuck in quicksand, looking to be rescued. Ravan, a devout Brahmin, attempted to pull the cow out and in the process ended up dropping the Shivlinga. When he realised that he had been conned, he went back to Lord Shiva requesting him for another Shivlinga. Lord Shiv offered that he could go back to the same site and pick up the Shivlinga and that it would still carry the original blessings. However, by then, Lord Vishnu had covered the area with thousands of identical Shivlings and Ravana could not identify the original one. The 'vardaan' was thus neutralised and that is believed to be how Ravana met his end at the hands of Lord Rama. Though, there are no Shivlingas in the area now, we did meet a Prof who confirmed that his father would often testify having seen scores of Shivlinga like rocks in and around the area when he was a kid. These are said to be have been cleared to make farmland.
In the next post, I will take you through my visit to the Patan Patola House.