Rani ki Vav: India's Finest Stepwell

A shining example of a great architectural heritage, Rani ki Vav is amongst the finest stepwells in India

At a time when water has become the bone of contention, it does well to hark back to ancient times when building a water body was considered a good deed. That civilizations came to life because of water and ceased to exist without it should serve as a somber reminder for us to get our act together. Stepwells were constructed all over North India, from the middle ages right till the modern era and represented a repository of knowledge about water collection, storage and distribution in arid regions. In Gujarat, the tradition of constructing a stepwell was raised to a fine art, and until today, serves as an example of a great architectural heritage. Known as the ‘Queen of Stepwells,’ Rani ki Vav, or the Ranki stepwell, located within 2km of Patan, in North Gujarat, is an incomparable example of Solanki architecture. Commissioned by Rani Udayamati in memory of her husband King Bhimdev I, it was excavated and discovered in the late 1980s by the Archeological Survey of India, with the carvings intact. The ‘vavs’ of Gujarat were not merely sites for collecting water, but also simultaneously held great spiritual significance. Originally constructed quite simply, they subsequently became more intricate over the years, perhaps to render more clearly the ancient concept of the sanctity of water by carving it out in stone deities. Constructed like a subterranean temple, the steps of the stepwell begin at ground level, leading you down through the cool air through several pillared pavilions to reach the deep well below. There are more than 800 elaborate sculptures among seven galleries. The central theme is the Dasavataras, or ten incarnations of Vishnu, including Buddha, which are accompanied by sadhus, Brahmins, and apsaras or celestial dancers. At water level, there is a carving of Sheshashayi-Vishnu, in which Vishnu reclines on the thousand-hooded serpent Shesha. In 2014, Rani-ki-Vav was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, which recognised it as representing, among other things, as ‘an architectural monument of human creative genius.’