The wondrous well

The wondrous well

heritage site

The wondrous well

Who would have thought that a mundane, quotidian act like fetching water from a well could be elevated to an excursion into realms of high art, architecture, religion, mythology and folklore? In Patan, Gujarat, it’s most definitely possible.

It’s been over a year since Patan’s Rani-ki-Vav, the Queen’s Stepwell, was declared a World Heritage Site. Unlike other monuments that advertise themselves by towering over their surroundings, Rani-ki-Vav is built into the bowels of the earth. This makes it one of the few sites where, after you buy your tickets to see it, you spend a few moments looking for the world-famous monument. A short distance in, you come upon a slight mound with broad steps leading downward. And it is only when you are in the stepwell that you actually see it.

My first impulse was to march briskly down the broad steps, making straight for the well shaft at the western end. But I didn’t get there until much later. I got distracted by the mesmerising sculptures along the walls. The sandstone carvings cover the gamut from religious and mythical sculptures to geometric patterns akin to those on the famous patola sarees of Patan.

Architectural trick

It was late in the afternoon when we arrived and it grew later still as we wandered about the stepwell. And as the sun came out from behind the clouds, we were treated to an unexpected spectacle. Each sculpture was caught in a flash of golden light, illuminating the sharp nose of a stone maiden here, the fingers of an upturned hand there. The rays of the sun and the handiwork of the stone masons together played tricks on our eyes, making it difficult to tell if we were looking at shadows or cleverly cut stone, or both.

Though stepwells have been built in India for more than 2,000 years, techniques and styles seem to have evolved to a peak around the 11th century.

Rani-ki-Vav was built in AD 1063 by Queen Udaymati in memory of her husband Bhimdev I, of the Solanki dynasty. About a 100 years after this masterpiece was completed, a flood in the nearby River Saraswati led to the stepwell silting up. Rani-ki-Vav fell into disuse and was gradually almost completely buried.

Photographs taken in the late 1800s show that only a portion of the well at the western end was visible. The rest of the stepwell, including the steps, corridor and the sculptures along the walls, all remained hidden. The burial was actually a blessing in disguise, at least from the point of view of today’s visitors. Conservation efforts began here in the 1930s, but it was in the 1980s that much of the stepwell was excavated, and centuries of silt removed.

SVP Halakatti, an archaeologist who was part of the clean-up and excavations here in the 1980s, explained that the layers of silt protected the sculptures from erosion. He recalls how as each layer was uncovered, the sculptures emerged “in mint condition. So sharp were the features.” More than 500 sculptures were recovered during the excavation.

Vishnu seems to be the predominant deity. Another  unusual sculpture is of Kalki, the future avatar of Vishnu. He is shown here astride a horse, wielding a sword, while his horse subdues an enemy underfoot.

Of course, there are other gods and goddesses. Not far from Kalki is a many-armed Mahishasuramardhini, driving her spear through the buffalo demon with incomparable grace. There are also apsaras and other nubile women aplenty, about 300 of them, to be slightly more precise.

Drowned & rescued

When the stepwell was originally built, it probably contained more sculptures. Some were carried away to adorn another stepwell in Patan itself. The rest seem to have been lost when the well fell into disuse. Also lost to us are some parts of the stepwell itself. It comprises a corridor that leads to the well, with three pavilions along the way, each with an increasing number of floors.

The first pavilion had two storeys but only the pillar bases remain to indicate what was once there. The second pavilion had four storeys, of which only one remains. The three-storey third pavilion was once six storeys high. The last was a seven-storeyed pavilion of which only five now remain. The well at the end of the corridor is 30m deep, and has beautiful carvings around the walls. At the top are eight embellished brackets that would have been used to draw up water.

It is no easy matter to build a stepwell which at its deepest end goes 30m down, and that too in sandy soil. Halakatti explains that as each layer was being built, the builders used a wooden frame rather like a cartwheel to prevent the portion that had already been dug from caving in. Such a frame was found below the last level in the well. There are also strong compressive forces acting on the wall from the earth behind it. In order to resist these, the well is actually built of bricks; the sandstone sculptures are merely a cladding, as Halakatti informs us.

Additionally, a recent study of Rani-ki-Vav by architecture students Kaushik Kumar and others from the Centre for Environmental Planning & Technology in Ahmedabad touches on the seismic resistance of the construction. For example, ‘the pavilions both steady and cross-brace the well against motion. The multiple symmetries also help since regular forms vibrate and damp themselves more effectively than asymmetrical buildings,’ says their report.

But for now, sitting on the steps along with many other visitors, I was content to imagine myself a lady from a distant past who had come to draw water from the well, and had taken a moment or two to fall under the spell of the stepwell.