1068 - 1628

Endowing Queens - A Reflection of Women's Agency and Power

American Institute of Indian Studies

Endowments of magnificent structures by Women signifies their power and agency in the past. They were not subservient or passive onlookers, rather they certainly were active participants in the making of History. Rani Ki Vav, declared a UNESCO heritage site in 2014 and Itmad-ud-Daula's tomb (Agra) epitomizes the power and dedication of the Queens in the past. 

Stepwells are monuments, of which major parts are underground,in most cases, they are richly carved and ornamented with decorative relief work and sculptures. (Neubauer, 1981:2) The main function of a stepwell was to supply water.

The Rani Ki Vav, or the Queen’s stepwell at Patan, the medieval capital of Gujarat, was built in the last decades of the eleventh century by Queen Udayamati as a memorial to her husband Bhimadeva I(1022-1063) of the Calukya (Solanki) dynasty. (Mankodi, 1991).

Stairway , from well end , north wall between two pavilions.
A distinguishing feature of Rani Ki Vav is that the divines and semi-divines have received equal attention and have been places alternatively each others at the same level. (Rao, 2014).

The dominant theme that emerges seems to be Vaishnavism, however, some scholars have argued that it has Buddhist influences; the panels also depict various forms of Shaktis (Female energy) Parvati, Laxmi, Mahisasurmardini (Durga) and also the prominent Gods of Hindu Pantheon –Shiva, Ganesha, Brahma. The monument does features Buddha, among its many sculptures, but it could be because in Vaishnavism he is considered to be one of the Avtaras (incarnation) of Lord Vishnu. The Panels at Vav depicts all the Dasavtaras (Ten incarnations) of Lord Vishnu. Among Semi-divine beings, sculptures depict Apsaras (Nymphs), Dakinis (Sorceresses), Yoginis (Semi-divine, semi-demonic) and Male Ascetics.

Well end pavilion and north wall of the stairway view
This monument seems to be an amalgam of Rani’s dedication towards spirituality, society and her deceased husband. The scholars suggest that the monument has been treated as a temple, considering the sanctity that the water commanded in the arid zone. 

Many facets of Women - Yogini,Mahisasurmardini and Apsaras/Nymphs


One of the most impressive panels at the Vav, it depicts many aspects and moods of women's power- Fearsome Yogini, Powerful Mahisasurmardini and beautiful playful Apsaras and humble servers.

Three Apsaras/Nymphs. One on extreme right can be seen adjusting her earring. Another is seen looking at a mirror and yet another is standing while holding her griddle, with a monkey climbing on her left leg. The image of Mahisasurmardini is in strike contrast with these beautiful apsaras. She is attacking the Mahisasur with a trident.

The ladies serving the Kalki, the tenth and the final incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who is prophesied to appear at the end of the Kaliyuga. Two ladies can be seen holding an umbrella to cover him, while another one is serving him a drink/water in a bowl.The other two can be seen near the legs of the horse, making preparations for him to get down. In yet another niche on the left, the Buddha as the incarnation of Vishnu can be seen holding a lotus in one hand.

A Fearsome Yogini, dances with a frightening staff in one hand and a fish bowl in the other.(Mankodi,1991:23). A Tantric Yogi can be seen at her feet.

Kal Bhairav/Mahakal

Kal bhairav,an epithet of Lord Shiva, which means – ‘The lord of eternal time and death’. In this form, he is perceived as the destroyer of the world. On the other hand, some scholars argue that he may be the Yidam form of Mahakala, who is revered as a protective deity in Buddhism (Rao, 2014:109). Thus we can see, two contrasting forms of Bhairava emerging here. Bhairava/Mahakala is seen holding a skull bowl filled with blood in his left hand, and in the right hand bottom hand, he holds a damaru , sword and a three hooded Kobra Snake (Rao, 2014:109).He is also considered as the leader of the Yoginis.

He is holding a severed human head in one of his left hand, which symbolically may infer the severing of negative energies like ego, anger etc.A wolf/dog can be seen attacking the head. On his right side is the manifestation of preta- the spirit that is tormented forever by thirst and hunger- who is seen eating his own flesh and blood is dripping. (Rao, 2014:109).

Divine couples and Apsaras. Lord Ganesha and Lord Shiva, seated with their consorts respectively.

Stairway, from well end,north wall between second and third pavilions 
Two Avataras of Vishnu-Varaha (Boar) and Vaman (dwarf) depicted along with Bhairava and apsaras in various poses alongside them. 

A view of the Lowest level of the well.
Lord Vishnu can be seen resting on a Sheshnag. On his left , a Nymph can be seen playing a flute.

A general view of the brackets. There were eight pairs of brackets in two tiers, thick stone slabs would have been placed on these brackets, and water hauled up through the rectangular opening. (Mankodi,1991:81)

Parvati's Penanace

Parvati, can be seen in a penance pose, standing on one leg and holding a rosary in one hand. It is a well known fact that she incurred severe penance in order to please Shiva in marrying her. Some scholars surmise that this may infer that the queen Udyamati, her self was going through a penance after her husband's demise, in order to reunite with her husband in another birth. Along side her are the two Nymphs, with left one touching her breasts, which may infer a tendency of motherhood, as she is offering her breasts.

Apsaras (Nymphs) in various moods and poses.

Two Apsaras, adjusting their earrings. A Tantric Yogi can be seen standing in the corner, crossed legs on lotus pedestal.

The white marble tomb, magnificently crafted and profusely inlaid with semi-precious stones, was completed in about six years- as indicated by the inscriptions dated 1626-27- after the death of Mughal Queen Nur Jahan’s father Itmad-ud-daula and her mother Asmat Begum (both died in C.E. 1621) , who lay buried here. (Asher, 1992:130-31)

The first time use of Pietra Dura technique, are some of the distinctive features of the monument. The tomb of Itmad-ud-Daula, marks a major transition in the history of Mughal architecture as it is the first tomb to be built of White marble rather than the signature red sandstone of earlier Mughal monuments.

The tomb bears testimony to Nur jahan’s (Light of the world) power and prestige at the Mughal court. It also reflects the power she channelized towards her own family members by recruiting them at highest posts at the court.

Mirza Ghiyas Begh, was a Persian noble who came to India to seek greater fortunes. His excellent service made his assume the honorary title of 'Itimad-ud-Daula' meaning, 'The Pillar of the state'. Here we can see some beautiful depiction of Vases and cutlery, perhaps inspired from Persian culture and imagery.

The Tomb, has a garden which was made on the principle of 'Char- Bhagh' i.e Islamic architecture which is considered similar to the Gradens of Haven (Janat). Here we can see a panel depicting the greenery and trees, with a fruit laden basket at the top of the panel.

‘Legend has it that Nur Jahan proposed the erection of a mausoleum of pure silver but was persuaded to adopt the more durable marble’. (Beni Prasad, 1962:299)

A view of the beautiful Mosaic work in the white marble.

A view of the ornate Jalis (screens) and beautiful mosaic work.

Percy Brown, the renowned Art historian, praises the monument as "There is no building like it in the entire range of Mughal architecture, the delicacy of treatment and the chaste quality of its decoration placing it in a class by itself. The tomb of Itimad-ud-Daula was an innovation in many ways. It marked a transition between the Indianised red Sandstone and marble Constructions of Akbar and Jehangir [sic.] and the Persianized pure marble creations of Shahjahan.” Here, we can see the interior of the mausoleum and the two graves.

In the words of the famous art-critic James Fergusson, ‘It is situated on the left bank of the river, in the midst of a garden surrounded by a wall measuring 540 ft. on each side. In the centre of this, on a raised platform, stands the tomb itself. It is two storeys [sic.] in height and at each angle is an octagonal tower, surmounted by an open pavilion. Its real merit consists in being wholly in white marble and being covered throughout with a mosaic in the ‘pietra dura’- the first, apparently, and certainly one of the most splendid, examples of that class of ornamentation in India.’ (Fergusson, 1910:306-7)

The mausoleum ‘bears in every part of it, the imprint of the refined feminism of this remarkable queen. With much of its ornamentation of inlaid semi-precious stones (pietra dura), it conveys the impression of a rich article of jewellery magnified into architecture’ (Percy Brown as quoted by K.S Lal, 1988:75). That is why it has been remarked as ‘mini-jewel box’ by some scholars.

The Junta of Nurjahan, comprised of her father Ghiyas Beg –also known as Itmad-ud-daula-brother Asaf Khan and to be Emperor Shah Jahan. ‘With her usual boldness, she tore the convention which relegated her sex to seclusion… she came out of the purdah, saw things with her own eyes, ruled and commanded in public.’ (Beni Prasad, 1962:171)

The Endowment of the structures by the Queens also reflects the vast resources at their disposal and the power to utilize them in the way they wanted. Nur jahan, had the right to collect Octroi duty at Sikandrabad on the merchantize coming there from the eastern parts of the country. (Mukherjee, 2004:30) The royal ladies had various sources of income and wealth. This provided them immense authority to channelize the wealth in varying forms of patronage of architecture, literature, cultural and religious endowments.

Centre for Art and Archaeology, American Institute of Indian Studies
Credits: Story

Image Credits: American Institute of Indian Studies
Curator: Swati Goel
Courtesy for the Street Views: Archaeological Survey of India

Bibliography :
1. Mankodi, Kirit. (1991) The Queen’s Stepwell at Patan, Bombay: Previous Publishers.
2. Mukherjee, Soma (2001) Royal Mughal ladies and their contributions, New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House.
3. Neubauer, Jutta Jain. (1981) The Stepwells of Gujarat – In Art- Historical Perspective, Delhi: Abhinav Publications.
4. Rao, Rekha.(2014) Rani Ki Vav- The abode of Bodhisattvas and Dakinis, New Delhi : Aditya Prakashan.
5. Prasad, Beni. (1962) History of Jahangir, Fifth edition, Allahabad: Indian Press private LTD.
6. Fergusson James, (1910) History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, Vol II, London :John Murray.
7. Lal, K.S. (1988), The Mughal Harem, New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan.

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