QUEEN'S STEPWELL ( Ranki Vav ) in
About 100km north of Ahmadabad, Gujarat
Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2013



Although usually hardly ever classified as buildings, there are works or structures for public use. Bridges are typical, as also are waterside Ghats, as well as walls and gates surrounding cities, watchtowers, and lighthouses; they can all be counted civil structures. As Islamic architecture developed public works from early times, such as eKulliyef (public building complex around a mosque), Caravanserai (inns for caravans), Hammam (public bath), and so on, Muslims constructed those sorts of public facilities after they settled in India too.

There had naturally been public structures in India before the advent of Islam. They were also concerned mainly with water: cisterns to store rainwater during the rainy season and stepwells to supply water and to provide cool underground space for rest near the water level. A cistern is generally called a eTankf, which was brought into English, and eKundaf in western India. The periphery of a Kunda often forms something like a stepped Ghat along a river or lake, seen most famously in Varanasi. On the other hand a stepwell was referred to as eVapif in Sanskrit, after which it was called eVavf in western India and eBaolif in northern India. They had been produced since ancient times especially in western India and gradually came to be constructed magnificently with contributions from royal families.
Islam, which also had a tradition of providing eSabirf (urban facilities for public water supply) adopted it straight away and Muslim lords maintained them and constructed new ones.
Apart from that there are other interesting civil structures in India, such as Jantar Mantar (astronomical observatory) and houses for birds as an animal welfare.


It was a Japanese architect Junji Shirai who first introduced the Indian stepwell to Japan. His drawings of a stepwell published in an architectural magazine were astonishing, because there is almost nothing on the ground but only a flight of steps going down underground by 17m in depth: a piece of pure subterranean architecture of stone.

Plan and Section of a stepwell by Junji Shirai

Subsequently, an art historian of India, Jutta Jain-Neubauer, published a comprehensive book on the stepwell: hTHE STEPWELLS OF GUJARAT, In Art-Historical Perspectiveh in 1981, thanks to which their existence came to be known all over the world. There still remains more than 100 stepwells in western India, among which the most artistically completed and best preserved is that at the village of Adalaj north of Ahmadabad.

Ruda Stepwell at Adalaj

Since stepwells would have been produced more for public welfare than for displays of power, they were more often donated by queens than by kings. There is an inscription that the stepwell at Adalaj was also constructed by the queen of Vaghela dynasty, Ruda.
Stepping down this Vav, one admires gorgeous carvings on stone columns and beams that support the earth pressure from either side, and the carving style is tantamount to that of temple architecture. It indicates that stepwells must have functioned not only as a utility but also for religious activities.


India has a typical monsoon climate, dividing the year distinctively into two: the dry and rainy seasons. Though there are regions that undergo torrential rain causing floods in the rainy season, there is almost no rain during four months of the dry season. Western India is particularly dry and possesses the vast Thar Desert. Therefore, water is so important that various hydraulic facilities have been contrived since ancient times to support human life during the dry seasons.

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Sahasra Linga Talao in Patan

The principal facility is the reservoir or cistern, which is called Tank (likely derived from Tankh in Gujarati, meaning pond or lake), Talao, Kund, or Saroval (an artificial lake is called a Sagar). The city of Patan in western India also has a 12th century hydraulic facility called the Sahasra Linga Talao in the suburbs. It shows how much the governors in western India had attached importance to hydraulic works. It is said to have been established by Siddharaja Jayasimha (r. 1093-1143), who had lead the Solanki dynasty in prosperity.

This is not only a vast reservoir but also provided a network of waterways drawn from the Saraswati River in various directions, with stone sluices for the irrigation of farmland. These straight waterlines or circular tanks were architecturally embellished with stone steps, platforms, bridges, and pavilions. As the name eSahasra-Linga Tankf indicates, there were numerous small shrines dedicated to Shivafs lingas around the tanks in the past, for water was regarded as sacred in India and its periphery was often treated as a kind of religious locus. This network is a quite interesting artistic work of civil structures oncesanctified with sculptures, though we cannot know those exact functions, since a detailed account has not yet published.

The Gujarat Kingdom, whose capital was Patan, was conquered by the Khilji dynasty of Delhi in 1298 and became a part of its territory. The Sahasra Linga Talao was taken over in the Islamic ages but now the reservoir has dried up and returned to farmland. Only a mausoleum of Shaikh Farid remains by the side, which was constructed with components of dismantled Hindu and Jain temples.

Mausoleum of Sheikh Farid in Patan

Among such formative works around water front, the most interesting is the stepwell. In spite of wells existing everywhere in the world, those in western India, called Vav or Baoli, are not only for simply drawing water but also for providing cool rest spaces near water, where people can approach by underground flights of stone steps.

Although the simplest are composed of only a natural rock crevice in the ground, which embraces an easy made flight of stairs to the bottom, the larger it is, the more artificial and complicated it would become, with stone structures like a high-rise masonry building to support the earth pressure from either side, and moreover the columns and beams become magnificently carved as if it were a temple or palace. Visitors are stuck by its unexpected splendor for a practical well, but those stepwells are esteemed to have been actually used for religious rituals exceeding daily utility, despite the details of the rituals being unknown nowadays.

Ranki Vav
Ranki Vav in Patan


There remain several dozens of splendid stepwells in Gujarat and Rajasthan states in western India, up to several hundred if including all of the simpler ones. Patan, once called Anahillapataka or Anhilwada Pattan as the capital city of the Gujarat Kingdom, retains the largest and most magnificent one. In the 11th century King Bimadeva I, the son of the former king Mularaja, the founder of the Solanki dynasty, died in about 1063, his wife, Udayamati, intended to construct a huge stepwell as a philanthropic work in order to praise the administrative achievement of the deceased. That is why it is referred to as Ranki Vav, or Queenfs Stepwell, which is the abbreviated form of Rani-ki-Vav (Rani means Queen), and it is also called Rani Vav.
Stepwells in a large scale and richly ornamented were mostly donations by royal families, particularly often by queens to pay homage to her late king, so the famous one in Bundi in the Rajasthan region is also called a Queenfs Stepwell for the same reason.

When first visiting the RankiVav in Patan, I was overwhelmed by its grandeur: 20m in width, 70m in length, and 28m in depth. In spite of being an enormous stone structure of seven stories, there was nothing to be seen on the ground, giving an impression as if a colossal Egyptian temple had been embedded underground. Moreover, its high density of sculptures was several times more fertile than that of any temple in Khajurahofs.
While in the stepwells of Adalaj or Dada Harir, only building elements, such as columns, beams, and brackets, are carved in geometric patterns, here in Patan the huge walls are entirely filled with sculptures of gods, humans, and animals just like Hoysala temples; it is, so to speak, a deluge of sculptures, counting about 800 statues in total. The stones are said to have been transported from quarries in Dhrangadhra, 140km from Patan.

Ranki Vav in Patan

The Ranki Vav is overall disposed on an east-west axis, and gets the morning light on the equinox, which falls upon the statue of Vishnu at the innermost wall of the well-shaft through the entrance Torana Arch. There are four pavilions with three lines of columns of seven spans, with each subsequent pavilion built in more tiers in depth, providing cool rest floors to avoid the heat on the ground.

The Solanki, also known as Chaulukya, dynasty was the most culturally flourished period in the history of western India. This was especially the case with the eighth king Kumalapara (r. 1143-72) who converted into Jainism, protected learning and art, and developed greatly the Solanki style (or Maru Gurjara style in nomenclature by A. M. Dakhy), which is particularly observed in the Delwara Temples in Mt. Abu or Jain temples in Kumbhariya. The Queenfs Stepwell of Patan was completed in the same style as those temples, with sculptures as well.

Incidentlly, the Ranki Vav is not composed in the way of Adalaj or Ahmadabad in a straight line of steps but in a complicated manner; repeating one step forward and then several steps on the right and left. Therefore, the total length of the stepwell is rather short despite its large depth, almost the same 70m as at Adalaj and Ahmadabad. This wide composition of steps recalls that of the great Kunda of Abaneri. The Ranki Vav is fundamentally a stepwell but its composition of steps is rather more like a Kunda (stepped cistern).

(From "The Queen's Stepwell at Patan" by Kirit Mankodi, Bombay, 1991)

There is a solitary pedestal on the upper right hand side. It was originally the base of a Torana, or monumental gate, the entrance to the stepwellfs great flight of stairs. The furthest left part is the well-shaft, the water level of which fluctuated through the seasons. Though Burgess and Cousens wrote that the length from the pedestal of the Torana to the end of the well-shaft was 65m in the A.S.I. Report, it is actually about 70m when measured on Mankodifs drawing in his book.


That is almost the same length as those of Ahmadabad and Adalaj, showing how enormously wide the Ranki Vav is. The blue part on the right of the well-shaft on the plan is a cistern of surplus water from the well. It can be said that this stepwell is overall a stepped Kunda descending towards this cistern. The Black arms from the circumference of the well-shaft are the cantilevered stone brackets from which to hang the ropes of buckets.


However, it was only for some decades that this colossal stepwell was of service for the citizens of Patan. During one yearfs rainy season, the Saraswaty River overflowed so tremendously that the earth and sand swept away by the heavy flood buried the stepwell completely. It was so exhaustive that digging up the mud would have been considered impossible. The Ranki Vav was abandoned as it disappeared. Since then one could not see it except for some scattered wreckage of top frames until the late 20th century.

When James Burgess and Henry Cousens researched it in 1886 during British rule, they could see only the topmost part, protruding from the ground, of the well-shaft, a photo of which was published in the A.S.I. Western India Report, vol. 9, 1903, and they could survey nothing but the distance between the spot of the entrance Torana and the furthermost point of the well-shaft.

Ranki Vav in Patan

In 1986, exactly 100 years after that survey, the excavation and restoration of this legendary eQueenfs Stepwellf was commenced by the current Archaeological Survey of India. (When I visited the site for the first time, in 1988, the work was still proceeding, and photographing was strictly prohibited.) In 1991 a comprehensive book, "The Queen's Stepwell at Patan" written by Kirit Mankodi, was published, and we were finally able to grasp the total picture of this Vav at length.

Wall sculpture in Ranki Vav

Although the Vav gives visitors a little dissatisfaction due to the loss of its topmost frames of posts and beams, its lower part (i.e. the vast majority of the Vav) is intact, especially the hundreds of statues on the columns, beams, brackets, and walls, are still, thankfully, almost entirely extant.

Patan was under the rule of the Islamic power of Delhi since the 14th century. Muslims in various parts of the world often used to demolish the faces of statues of other religions, which were found anywhere they conquered, because of their disgust with what they considered to be idol worship, but it scarcely happened here in Patan. This would indicate that the Queenfs Stepwell had been thoroughly buried prior to the conquest by Muslims in the end of the 13th century, and people would not have been able to see its great number of sculptures.

In other words, it was fortunate for the Ranki Vav that it disappeared for 800 years because of the great flood of the Saraswaty River. It saved the Vav from destruction in later ages, and made it possible to be excavated and to recover its original spectacular form, just like the ancient city of Pompeii in Italy, which was once buried by volcanic ashes of Mt. Vesuvius, and consequently we can recognize an ancient Roman city and its architecture.


While the Queenf Stepwell was buried by sand and earth and abandoned for so long period, the topmost stone components of its pavilions would have been scattered on the ground. In the early 19th century (likely 1805) the landowner of the Vav, Bahadursingh Barot, gathered those components to construct a smaller sized new stepwell, of about 40m long, in the city of Patan for public use. It is the still existing Barot Stepwell.
As seen in the photos, it is adroitly constructed with the scrap components; it is possible to treat a stone structure quite freely like a wooden one, however old it is, cutting the stone into parts, rejoining them, and carving their surfaces. It was done anywhere in the world Muslims conquered, dismantling Roman temples, Christian churches, and Hindu temples and constructing mosques with their components.

Here, as those scrap components had been made for a stepwell from the very first, it must have been easier to combine them into a new Vav. Moreover, when looking at the carvings on the columns and beams, the faces of humans and animals are intact. Since Patan was a remote region from the political power of Delhi, it might have been saved from its rigorous rule. @

Barot Stepwell in Patan

The Barot Vav served the citizens of Patan for more than 100 years, but the well dried up in the late 20th century due to falling water levels. When I visited, it had sadly become like a dumping place, and still not able to return back to being part of the Queenfs Stepwell. Fortunately though, at the occasion of the inscription of the Ranki Vav on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the Barot stepwell might have been cleaned up and repaired.

( 2015/ 09/ 04 )


© Takeo Kamiya