A Monument to a King
Stepwells were an important building tradition in India, just as cisterns, aqueducts, and fountains were traditions in Western and Middle Eastern cultures. Called vavs in the Gujarati language, stepwells were developed in India centuries ago to collect and store water for drinking, bathing, washing clothes, and irrigating crops. Early stepwells were little more than a pit in sandy soil, but they evolved over the years into complex works of engineering, architecture, and art. They not only provided water for villagers and farmers, but also offered a sanctuary for travelers and a place to socialize, pray, and meditate. Victoria S. Lautman writes of stepwells as “the ultimate public monuments,” available to anyone except for the lowest-caste Hindu.
Udayamati commissioned her stepwell as a monument to her husband, King Bhimdev I, who ruled Gujarat and neighboring Rajasthan for more than forty years, from 1022 until his death in 1064. Bhimdev, a member of the Solanki dynasty, ruled during a time of political stability when art and culture flourished in western India. It also was a time of great religious fervor when Hindu patrons commissioned a flurry of temples and stepwells, The Queen’s Stepwell at Patan – then the capital city – among the grandest. Rani ki Vav is enormous – 210 feet long and 65 feet wide. As one descended ever deeper, carved friezes, decorative stone pillars, and hundreds of intricate sculptures met the eye.
A Feat of Engineering – and Art
Approached from ground level, The Queen’s Stepwell first appears as a large chasm in the ground. But then visitors see a corridor of steps and descend into the grandeur below. According to Kirit Mankodi, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Mumbai and author of The Queen’s Stepwell at Patan, the scale of Rani ki Vav “is truly awesome in terms of size, profusion of sculptures and quality of workmanship.” The number of stepped terraces (seven), spacious pavilions (four), carved panels (several hundred), principal sculptures (500 hundred), and minor ones (1,000) sets Rani ki Vav apart, as Mankodi states, as “the most ambitiously conceived stepwell of its time.”
The sidewalls of the stepped terraces are lined with hundreds of carved friezes, each about 3¼ feet tall and exquisitely detailed with religious, mythological, and secular imagery, often referencing literary works. Here is a stone carved to resemble the embroidered textiles of the region and there a voluptuous dancer holding a mango and touching her foot to a tree to symbolize fertility. Covered pavilions with ornately carved stone pillars span the structure at different levels, buttressing the walls and showcasing Hindu art. Here is a ponderous elephant, there a mischievous imp, and there a vessel overflowing with foliage, a celebration of the sanctity of water.
The engineering, perfected over centuries, was ingenious. Water entered through an opening in the well cylinder, the level rising or falling depending on the season. In dry months, people descended many steps to reach water, but during the monsoons, when the water table was high, levels could reach the uppermost steps. The well cylinder, at 88 feet deep, stands at the western end of the monument, its top open to the sky, its interior also exquisitely carved with figures of deities or geometrical designs.
A Place for Hindu Ritual
India is known as a land of religions. Four major faiths were born here (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism), though Hinduism remains dominant, adhered to by three-fourths of Indian people. At 5,000 years old, Hinduism is an ancient religion – and a complex one with many sacred texts and deities, three of whom are said to rule the world: Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver; and Shiva, the destroyer. To protect the world in times of evil or ignorance, Hindus believe that Vishnu descends to earth by incarnating himself in different forms (avatars).
At Rani ki Vav, the Dashavatara – or 10 avatars of Vishnu – parade along a terrace wall at level three. This important frieze underscores the role of stepwells as a place of Hindu ritual – a kind of subterranean temple. The Dashavatara carvings are so exquisite and so significant that the laser scanning team used a sub-millimeter structured light scanner to capture the images (see Panels A and B). Among Vishnu’s avatars is Varaha (the boar), venerated because he killed a mighty demon. Matsya (the fish) is thought to be the first avatar, followed by Kurma (the tortoise). Vamana (the dwarf) can change into a giant, and Narasimha (half man, half lion) cannot be killed by man or beast. Parashurama is a warrior with an axe. Rama, Krishna, and Buddha are heroic figures, while the tenth avatar, Kalki, has yet to appear. He sits on a white horse with his sword drawn, waiting for the end of the present epoch, or kali-yuga, when unrighteousness and evil will be destroyed. Vishnu is attended by apsarās, heavenly female dancers who appear in great numbers at Rani ki Vav. Some apsarās are benign, looking in a mirror or applying lipstick; others, perhaps holding a skull cup or a club made of bone, represent sinister cults, while still others are erotic maidens with serpents crawling over their limbs.
A World Heritage Site
Rani ki Vav is protected as a national monument administered by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The ASI works to protect and maintain the rich cultural heritage of India, where World Heritage Sites such as the Taj Mahal and Chola Temple are famous. The Queen’s Stepwell, on the other hand, is hardly known outside of the country. To aid in the conservation and restoration of Rani ki Vav, the ASI looked to an initiative known as the Scottish Ten, a five-year partnership between Historic Scotland, the Digital Design Studio at The Glasgow School of Art, and non-profit CyArk, to use cutting edge technology in the creation of 3D digital models of heritage sites. The scanning team spent two weeks documenting Rani ki Vav in October 2011. The resulting 3D data, as presented here, bolstered Rani ki Vav’s visibility and created a detailed digital record of the site for posterity. Rani ki Vav was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2014.