Last day in Gujarat!

This morning, Dhanraj (owner & host of Desert Coursers) arranged a car to drive us to Modhera and Patan for Rs.800, which was quite reasonable. The driver was instructed to take us to the famed Sun temple at Modhera and then to Patan’s Rani-ki-Vav (Queen’s stepwell). Dhanraj also mentioned that he personally knew the family that is famous throughout India for their hand-woven Patola saris; the driver was instructed to take us there as well for a visit. So we left Zainabad knowing that we had had a very special time there and that we would be back someday soon.

We were at the gate of Modhera’s Sun temple by 11:30am and were pleasantly surprised to see a nice lawn stretching out beyond the main entrance. As we walked up the road towards the temple, we realized that this place was being given serious attention by the govt. The lawns on either side of the roads were well-maintained with many trees for shade. We also noticed a few men working on some stone carvings; I guess restoration work is still on-going.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen many temples in Gujarat, both Hindu and Jain, but none of them looked as spectacular as Modhera’s 11th century Sun temple as we walked up to it! It’s absolutely stunning. Right in front of it is a fantastically carved kund (tank) with water at the bottom. I’ve never seen anything like it. Steep steps lead down to the water and at the center and corner of every step there were small shrines dedicated to each of the Hindu gods; we loved one of Lord Vishnu lying under the hood of a snake (Anandashayanam). We hired a govt-accredited guide and he informed us that the temple and the kund were made from sand-stone, which is softer and therefore easier to carve on. However, because of the same reason, they erode easily as well. We noticed that the carvings that are more exposed to the elements have eroded quite a bit but those towards the bottom of the kund were better preserved. He also explained to us that both the temple and the kund have been built without any mortar or cement; all the stones are being held together thru an interlocking system of wedging iron strips into slots carved on the stones. In times of earthquake, this system ensures that there is relatively lesser damage to the structure.

The temple complex consists of two structures. In the front, facing the kund is the Sabha Mandap, which is open from all sides and has 52 carved pillars signifying the 52 weeks of the year. The structure behind it is the main temple, which also has some exquisite carvings both inside and out. Our guide told us that the temple complex has been built by the codes of Vastu Shastra, depicting the cycle of life and death against the cycle of time. So the carvings depicted everything from erotic scenes, birth, mythological stories such as Ramayana and Mahabharata and finally death. It was all very interesting. The main temple is built in such a way that on the days of equinox, the rays of the rising and setting sun fell directly on the idol inside. However, the temple was marauded by Mohd Ghazni and he took away the statue of the Sun God as well as all the gold buried beneath the statue. Mercifully, he left a majority of the temple structure standing and the govt has done a good job of restoring the rest. However, the inside of the main temple is infested with bats, which refuse to leave in spite of repeated attempts to get rid of them. The temple stinks and looks dirty because of them; it’s sad.

Every year in January, a free dance festival is held in the lawns of the temple. The stage is propped up in such a way that the temple becomes a fantastic backdrop for the performers. I would love to watch a performance in such a setting … and I would kill to be able to perform in such a setting!!!

We left Modhera around 1pm, stopped briefly for lunch and reached Patan’s Rani-ki-vav around 2:30pm. Since we had seen Ahmedabad’s Adalaj-Vav, we knew what to expect from the stepwell here. But it still exceeded our imagination! Again, the govt has done a great job of maintaining the beauty of the place by building a lot of greenery around the well. From the entrance, it’s a short walk to the well on paved paths carved into a large lawn – there were many families picnicking here along with a bunch of Langoors who were on the lookout for free food .

Built around the same time as the Sun temple in Modhera, Rani-ki-vav is by far the most elegant structure we’ve ever seen. Strangely, nobody knew of its existence right until the 1960s, after which the Archaeological Society of India ensured that it was restored and opened for public view. Even now, much of the bottom stories of the well are still covered with silt. We could walk down two stories and view the incredible carvings on the sides of the well. They were mainly dedicated to Lord Vishnu and his various avatars (Dashavataram). Maybe the ASI repaired the carvings, but most of them were absolutely perfect and showed no signs of damage from the elements – whatever the case, they were a treat to look at! It was wonderful to sit awhile and enjoy the magnitude and beauty of the place.

Later, we were driven thru the narrow lanes of the town to the home of the Salvi family, traditional weavers of Patola. The peculiar technique of Patola weaving is dyeing the threads in the colors of the required design before weaving the sari! The manual effort needed to do this, is unbelievable!

Patola weaving has its origins in Maharashtra. It was introduced in Gujarat sometime in the 12th century. Salvi family is one of the few families that has continued the tradition and preserved it over all these years. We met Sawan Salvi, the new generation of the family; a very warm and friendly person. He explained the Patola process to us and proudly showed his family tree that could be traced back to almost 6 generations of weavers. There were many awards, citations and letters from the govt of India, recognizing the Salvi family’s contributions towards preserving India’s fantastic textile tradition.

The unique features of a Patola sari, are, of course it’s weaving method, the fantastic colors using natural dyes, that they are double-sided and finally their durability. Sawan said that the saris never fade and are tough enough to last for generations; he showed us a couple that were decades old! Each sari takes months to design, draft, dye and weave, so they sell for a minimum of Rs.1 lakh (approx. $2,000) each! This confused me ‘coz I have seen many ‘Patola’ saris in Mumbai that were definitely not this expensive. Sawan grinned and informed me that they were all machine-made imitations, made on a single thread, instead of the hand-woven, multi-thread original. To combat this piracy of their tradition, the Salvi family today makes single-thread (but hand-woven) saris as well. These are cheaper and therefore, more accessible to the general crowd. However, there is still high-demand for the originals because many communities in Gujarat have to have a Patola sari for certain occassions such as weddings. The Salvis make saris based on order and sell directly to the customers; they do not sell to retail stores.

We were overwhelmed by the Salvi family’s grace and warmth; they spent nearly an hour showing us around. It was really nice to get such an intimate look into one of India’s oldest traditional arts. Someday, I would love to have a Patola sari of my own …

As we neared the end of our day, the plan was to be dropped off in the town of Patan where we would stay for the night and then head to Mount Abu the next morning. But to our dismay, once again the good hotels in town were completely booked for some weddings . This wedding season is killing us! Anyway, since we didn’t really want to spend the night in any shady place, we hired another taxi to drive us to Mount Abu the same evening. So today turned out to be our last day in Gujarat! And it had been a fun one at that!

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