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The Surya Kund in the Sun Temple

A stepwell of great beauty by a queen

Susheela Nair, Ahmedabad

Published: May. 17, 2016
Updated: Jun. 15, 2017

After a 125-km drive from Ahmedabad, an amazing sight awaited us at the village of Patan. What makes Rani-ki-Vav or the Queen’s stepwell, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so unique is that it was constructed by a queen as a memorial during the 11th century.  The richly sculpted monument is considered a masterpiece dedicated by Udayamati to her deceased husband, Bhimdev, son of Mularaja, the founder of the Solanki dynasty.

Designed as an inverted temple, highlighting the sanctity of water, this distinctive form of subterranean water resource and storage system was constructed in the Maru-Gurjara architectural style, reflecting mastery of this complex technique and great beauty of detail and proportion. As we stepped into it we were bowled over by the striking beauty of the stepped corridor compartmented at regular intervals with pillared multi-storied pavilions, sculptural panels and figurative motifs of superb artistic quality. As we went down the seven levels of stairs, we saw more than 500 principal sculptures and over 1,000 minor ones combining religious, mythological and secular imagery.

The majority of sculptures are devoted to the gods of the Hindu pantheon — Vishnu, Shiva and their various aspects — who appear with or without their consorts. The central level’s theme is the Dasavatars (10 incarnations) of Vishnu and as you reach the water level, you will see a carving of Vishnu reclining on 1,000 snakeheads. Some of the intricate patterns on the walls are reminiscent of Patola textile designs. In some levels we found special friezes and platforms marked out for the kings. These usually had the best natural air-conditioning, from a combination of cleverly built ducts and condensation from the well water.

Everywhere, we found small inviting platforms and ledges, probably for resting and gossiping. The well consists of a shaft 10 m in diameter and 30 m deep.  The ...

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