The Queen of Indian Step-wells
Step – Wells!
Think of history and the first visual that comes to mind is a raging battle on some dusty field with chariots, horses, elephants and thousands of men engaged in combat. This perception is true to a great extent because when we think of the past, it’s impossible to separate the political realities of those times. Monarchies worked through force and hence the brutality of the resulting events forms an essential part of our memory. But there was more to these monarchies and the societies they ruled than just wars. They patronized art that has withstood the test of time and continues to baffle us even today.
Whether it was for displaying their prowess or to win over their subjects, the monarchs patronized art and architecture in a way that cannot be equaled centuries later. Be it rock cut caves, temples or victory pillars, the layers of artistic splendor that defined them also defined the societies where these monuments existed. In the case of some monuments, it’s interesting to note how they were built around the most functional structures that were used by the common and the royal classes. One such example is that of step-wells and if there is one to choose from the hundreds, then it would be undoubtedly the Rani ki Vav or the Queen’s step-well.
Water is a life giving source. Worshipped across cultures and continents for its irreplaceable position in our lives, water continues to remain a reason for conflicts even today with all the sophistication that we have achieved in our political and social systems. It was this very need to control access and distribution of this resource that moved monarchs to indulge their wealth and time in monumental proportions. This phenomenon is distinctly visible in the more arid regions of our country.
Located in the district of Patan, in Gujarat state, the Rani ki Vav was built in the 10th century during the rule of Chalukyan dynasty of Gujarat. This well gets its name from the Chalukyan Queen Udayamati who built it in memory of her deceased husband, Raja Bhimadev I.
The beauty of this monument makes one wonder how their creators came upon such a brilliant idea. But, like any other object of creativity, this did not happen without sufficient evolution. The Chalukyas of Guajrat were a branch of the Badami Chalukyas who ruled almost four hundred years before down south, in Badami, Karnataka. The same Badami Chalukyas branched off into Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and parts of Northern Karnataka. Their first capital, Badami, offers clear evidence of how the step-wells might have evolved. In the town neighbouring Badami, there are some very early step-wells. These were not as much ‘wells’ because they were usually tanks built around a source of water that emerged from an exposed point in the ground water table. But the style of the steps leading to receding levels of water, the lateral steps allowing quicker access to the bottom and the placement of sacred deities in niches, give away these step-wells as the progenitors of the much later and advanced step-wells of Gujarat.
Structures like the Rani ki Vav are called step-wells. Built as subterranean vaults holding the most precious commodity for a population to run their households, water their farm and worship their gods, the step-wells have survived anywhere between six hundred to one thousand years of human and environmental actions. It may not be entirely correct to say survived, because some of these were buried in silt graves, until ecavated by archaeologists in recent times, but once the sand and rubble was cleared, these structures stood just as beautifully as they would have in their heydays of royal patronage.
The step-wells are first water reservoirs. The entire structure is built around the shaft well which would have water from a natural spring or channeled from a nearby river. There were pulleys to draw water from the well. The water that overflowed from the well was stored in tanks built in front of the well shaft. The tanks ensured that water remained available even for the dry season when the rivers would dry up. To access the water as the level receded, there would be steps leading downwards, lending the name step-well to these structures. These steps provided the opportunity for art to compliment architecture.
The landings provided to accommodate the people who would come to fill water, were turned into pavilions held up by pillars. The Rani ki Vav has around four hundred such pillars, each decorated with beautiful carvings of deities who were believed to bless such a monument with their presence. Functioning as a shrine, at every landing, one can find a distinct theme of sculptures on the walls as well. The Dashavtar is represented in the Rani ki Vaav, symbolizing the Vaishnav or faith in Vishnu, which the Gujarat region is known for. These sculptures, beyond just being objects of art, also reveal a lot about the lifestyle of their patrons and worshippers, through the garments, jewellery, weaponry and life-like scenes that are depicted.
In the shade of these pavilions, the step-well also doubled up as a resting place for travelers or an apt place to hold a small classroom. In the scorching summers of Guajrat, these step-wells would have been thronged by the local populace. The step-well hence also served the purpose of a public space where the common people could spend their leisure time. Perhaps, it also functioned as a meeting place for any important decisions or declarations to be made by the king or the citizens.
Surrounded by landscaped gardens, the Rani ki Vaav is maintained very carefully by the archaeologists who attend to this exquisite memorial. The well-shaft is no longer accessible to the visitors owing to the fragile nature of this monument, but most other areas of this structure can be viewed quite easily. Each sculpture has a link with its place in our mythology, so visiting this site with someone possessing at least a basic knowledge of Hindu iconography, is a must.
The thousand year old monument outdoes any public space created in modern times in our country. The lack of vision and aesthetic sense in building public monuments in recent times, becomes only more painfully clear as one stands before this four hundred pillared structure. But it also inspires the artist, architect, administrator or the humble admirer of beauty within us to imagine something as wonderful for our times, that could also perhaps restore the beauty that’s disappearing from our social interaction.
Stories and Photos: Ranjit Pawar