Except for the summer monsoons, western India can be dry as a bone. The city of Patan, in the state of Gujarat, goes months without as much as an inch of precipitation. Finding a source of water for year-round use has always been essential. A thousand years ago, when powerful Hindu families ruled Gujarat, a queen named Udayamati, like many Indians did, dug a stone-lined well to tap the underground aquifer. But then Udayamati did something spectacular. She commissioned a magnificent monument to encase her well and protect its precious waters. To reach the water in her well, one descended into the earth itself, negotiating seven stories of terraced steps and covered pavilions. Udayamati’s well was an architectural wonder – an underground monument that not only stored water, but was decorated with so many intricate carvings and sculptures of Hindu deities that it resembled an inverted temple.
Rani ki Vav – translated “The Queen’s Stepwell” – is the grandest of the estimated three thousand stepwells constructed in India from about 600 CE to the 1850s. Indigenous to Gujarat and the neighboring state of Rajasthan, many stepwells have been destroyed or left to decay. The Queen’s Stepwell, however, was inadvertently preserved when a flood along the nearby Saraswati River inundated it with silt-laden waters. When the waters receded, a thick layer of sediment was left behind, leaving Rani ki Vav, like Pompeii, captured and preserved in time. The Queen’s Stepwell, built sometime during the 1060s to the 1080s, lay hidden for hundreds of years until it was excavated, beginning in the 1960s, by the Archaeological Survey of India.