Patan’s Patola – A Weaver’s Perspective

There is an old Gujarati proverb on the Patola that goes something like this – “PADI PATOLE BHAT, FAATE PAN FITE NAHI”. This roughly translates to ‘ The design laid down in patola shall never fade even when the cloth is torn.’

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A Patola Pattern

With a guarantee of lasting close to 100 years and a design that can be worn any side, Patan’s famous Patola are no wonder a prized possession, a wedding trousseau essential, a heirloom and definitely one of the finest silk sarees of our country. It is the only form of the painstaking double ikat weave available in the world!

Some Common Patola Designs

One of the oldest forms of textile weaving is ikat – a dyeing technique used to pattern textiles. The word ‘ikat’ is derived from the Malay-Indonesian word ‘mengikat’ which translates to ‘to tie’. Among the different forms of ikat, the most impressive and tedious to weave is the double ikat. Patola sari of Patan is one such example, which for nine centuries now has remained as a proud icon of Gujarati heritage.

Patola  Making  in  Process

According to a legend, Anhilwad Patan was founded by Vanraj Chavda in 746 CE. It was the capital of medeival Gujarat till early 15th century, until Ahmed Shah decided to shift the capital to Ahmedabad. Kumarpal was a Jain king and always wrapped fresh patola fabric while performing his daily prayer. The patola worn by Kumarpal was specially imported from South India. But one day, he was told that the patolas he draped around his body were impure as these were used by the king of Mugapatnam before sending them to Patan. Kumarpal got annoyed and immediately invited 700 Salvi families to Patan so that he could be assured of fresh fabric.

Geometrical Designs in Rani ni Vav and in Wooden Havelis  

Patola was a major trade item on all the trade routes and was also used as a high denomination currency by few. Historical sources suggest that among the Dutch merchants, Patola was a symbol of aristocracy and power because of its high price and exclusivity and used them during the 17th and 18th centuries AD for establishing trade posts in Surat and Ahmedabad. It is also referred to in the travel accounts of Ibn Batuta (14th century) and Tavernier (17th century). Ibn Batuta mentions that Sultan Ala Ud Din Khilji had received a patola from Deogiri, identified with modern Daulatabad in Maharashtra. Patola is also depicted in the murals at Mattancheri Palace in Kochi in 17th century CE. Indonesia, the birthplace of ikat, was a large importer of Gujarati patola till World War II.

The Salvi familes of Patan are well-known for their contribution to patola weaving. They were Jains originally belonging to the Digambara Sect in South India. After moving to Patan, they converted to Shwetambara sect. Though Patola weaving was exclusive to them, in recent years families from other communities too developed skills and expertise in the fine art of patola weaving. One such family are the Sonis which runs a studio-cum workshop under the brandname of Madhvi Handicrafts. Though a new entrant in the field, Mr. Sunil Soni, its founder has created a niche for himself as a master weaver, in a short span of 25 years. His relentless fight for patola’s revival ended after Patola received geographical indication (GI) for Patan. His work received a shot in the arm when his son Shyam, a software engineer by profession, left his lucrative job to join his father in promoting this exclusive art which is fast fading.

On my recent visit to Patan, I got a chance to interview Shyam. Do watch the video for more on the story of the saree, its varieties and the meaning of the symbols printed on it

 

Author – Jitu Mishra

The author can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

Step – Wells of Gujarat – a Timeless Journey

In 1990s when I was a doctoral student in Pune’s Deccan College, I did not know much about step-wells or vavs (in Gujarati), Gujarat’s incredible subterranean structures that were created for rainwater harvesting. I only knew briefly about Rani ni Vav at Patan, a uniquely embellished and ornamental underground structure for water conservation in the medieval world. However, for the first time I got a chance to visit Rani ni Vav in 2003, thanks to a picnic organised by the organisation I work for. From hereon developed my interest, over time, in step wells of Gujarat owing further to my deep fascination for water and the urge to explore the various interplays between geography and history.

Gujarat is a semi-arid region. Though it receives moderate rainfall during monsoons, the salinity content in the soil does not allow it to hold the monsoon water for long. The water evaporates once the monsoon season is over. To tackle this problem, its ancient inhabitants had invented a variety of water harvesting structures from the time of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

At Dholavira in Kutch, archaeologists have unearthed one of world’s earliest series of water reservoirs. These were scientifically designed to channelize water from two seasonal nullahs into the reservoirs. Dholavira has also yielded a step-well, perhaps the earliest of its kind in the world.

One of the earliest water harvesting structures in the world at Dholavira in Kutch 

From the early medieval time (6th century onwards), step-wells became a common feature across the landscape of North-Central Gujarat and Saurashtra-Kutch.  Says a popular Gujarati proverb (in translation here),

‘On the way to Vagad, I feel thirsty. Build me a step-well for I want to go to Vagad’.

A clear indication of the importance of step-wells in the mundane life of Gujarati people.

Another local belief responsible for the proliferation of building vavs; says: ‘One, who digs a well for the public, has half of sins absolved’. So no wonder vavs dot the Gujarati landscape vigorously.

A prominent feature of Gujarati step-wells is stepped corridors consisting of several storeys, down from entrance pavilions to water level. In some examples we find pavilion towers constructed on supporting structures. While in some cases, step-wells are connected to temples indicating their ritual significance. With relation to their location, some are located either within or at the edge of villages. But most importantly they are located at the sides of overland routes, providing water and shelter in sizzling hot months to pilgrimage and trading caravans. At lower levels, the temperature in a vav, is surprisingly three/four degree lesser compared to the surrounding open ground.

 

Rani ni Vav on the outskirts of Patan, the former capital of Gujarat, is considered as the Queen among step-wells. A world heritage site, the vav, built in 11th century, is located amidst a sprawling garden. It was built by Queen Udayamati as a memorial to her departed husband, following a traditional practice ‘Parvati’s penance’ – goddess separated by death from her consort and practising austerities to win reunion with him were deliberately portrayed to express Udayamati’s own tragic widowed condition. It faces east having a length of 65 m, width of 20 m and height of 29 m. It consists of 7 storeys and 4 pavilions. Originally it had 292 pillars, out of which only 226 have survived. There are 400 exquisitely carved images of Hindu divinities, semi-divine creatures, holy men and women and of common people, all adorning the interior of the vav.

Most of the sculptures in Rani ni Vav are in devotion to Vishnu, in the form of his 10 incarnations, such as Kalki, Rama, Vamana and Varahi. But we also find a number of sculptures representing Brahma and his consort, Shiva in various forms, the prominent being Bhairava, guardian deities, Ganesha, Parvati and Mahisasurmardhini Durga. Depiction of nagkanyas and apsaras in different moods and showcasing 16 different styles of make-up (solah-shringar) is something to look out for. There is little doubt, therefore, that a visit to this UNESCO site will leave the visitors spellbound.

Those having limited time and can’t make a visit to Patan, the other option is a visit to the Rudabai Step-Well in Adalaj, a village in-between Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar. It is the second most important vav in Gujarat. The step-well was built by Queen Rudabai, the wife of the Vaghela Chief Virasimha in the 15th century AD. Like Rani ni Vav, the Rudabai step-well was also built in the memory of the queen’s departed husband.

Adalaj ni Vav

An interesting account goes thus: ‘Sultan Mehmud Begda killed Virasimha in a battle and asked Rudabai to marry him. Queen Rudabai promised to marry, after the well whose construction said to have been commenced by Virasimha is completed. Legend says Mehmud Begada completed the construction of the vav as promised. Queen Rudabai, satisfied with the ornamental vav as a memorial to her slain husband, committed suicide by jumping into the well.’

sculptural details in Adalaj ni Vav

Built in Solanki architectural style, the Adalaj step-well is five storeys deep. One of the prominent features of this vav is the balconies or jharokas, similar to the ones found in contemporary Indo-Islamic monuments of the region. The only difference is however depiction of animals and men, fighting elephants and lions, horses with riders and men attending to their horses that are restricted in Islamic shrines. Another interesting depiction carved from a single block of stone is of the Ami Khumbor (symbolic pot of the water of life).

Similar in plan and contemporary to Adalaj vav is Dada Hari ni vav situated in Asarva locality of Ahmedabad. It was built by Bai Harir, a nobleman in the court of Mehmud Begda. Dada Hari ni Vav is 5 storeys deep. Motifs of flowers and jali patterns in this well blend very well with the Hindu and Jain Gods carved at various levels of the step-well.

An interesting variation among the step-wells of Gujarat is Madhav Vav in Vadhvan in Saurashtra. This little town on the outskirts of the district headquarter, Surendranagar, has layers of history. Among many of Gujarat’s historical treasures, Madhav Vav is most fascinating. This step-well consists of six pavilion towers, but what makes them distinctive, is the pyramidal roofs on each of them with stone finials. This was built by Madhav, a minister of Sarangdev Vaghela in 1294 AD. A local lore relates how Madhav’s son and daughter-in-law sacrificed their lives so that it could have water.

Madav ni Vav at Wadhwan

Step-wells are Gujarat’s USP in heritage tourism. Once, more tourists will visit them and engage with local communities for their upkeep, there is no doubt that these will become one of the most sought after destinations for heritage lovers from all over the world. Their upkeep will also add to the depleting water supply in the region doubling up as storage areas with high aesthetic value.