Stepping back in time
An ASI-curated walk through a well-landscaped garden takes you to the Rani-ki-Vav, or the Queen’s Stepwell, on the banks of the Saraswati river in Gujarat
As busloads of tourists reach Rani-ki-Vav in Patan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Gujarat, almost everyone pulls out their wallets and picks out new `100 notes. No, not to buy the entry tickets or purchase souvenirs. The visitors are eager to compare the notes with the real deal. In 2018, the RBI chose to use a picture of this magnificent stepwell as a motif on the reverse of the lavender-coloured pieces of the legal tender.
Come June, this heritage structure will celebrate eight years as a Monument of National Importance and an ASI ward. The ASI-curated walk through a well-landscaped garden takes you to the Rani-ki-Vav (the Queen’s Stepwell), located on the banks of the Saraswati River. Legend says Rani Udayamati, wife of Solanki dynasty king Bhimdev I, built it to honour the memory of her late husband. Patan was the capital of Gujarat at that time.
The first stepwells in India were built as part of the sophisticated water system of the Indus Valley Civilisation and can be found in southwest Gujarat. Rani-ki-Vav’s design is that of an inverted temple representing the sanctity of water because the preciousness of water made it an object of divine veneration. Hence, the stepwell had both functional and religious significance. It was also a stopover for itinerant traders. Built in the Maru-Gurjara north Indian temple architecture style that originated in Gujarat and Rajasthan from the 11th to 13th centuries, under the Chaulukya dynasty, the well’s shaft is 10 metres wide and 30 metres deep. Rani-ki-Vav has seven levels.
Visitors can descend the levels to observe the sculptural panels sporting perfectly proportioned and detailed figures created by nameless craftsmen centuries ago. The panels have around 500 large sculptures and over a thousand small ones of gods and apsaras—there are Varaha, Rama, Vamana, Balaram, Parashuram, Kalabhairav and Mahishasuramardini. Time has been unkind to some of them, which are missing parts but strangely add to their beauty.
The stepwell, which was submerged in the Saraswati’s waters, presumably after a flood, lay hidden until the 1940s, when excavators bared its secrets. The ASI carried out further excavations and restoration in the 1980s. Archaeologists have dated the stepwells of North India to around 600 AD. Built in great numbers by the Chaulukya and Vaghela dynasties in Gujarat, the introduction of modern water systems by the British in the 20th century turned a part of ancient history into Instagram relics.
✥ After geotectonic changes in the 13th century, it is no longer a water-well.
✥ Timings: Every day 8 am to 6 pm.
✥ Entry fee: Rs 40.