Patan, in northern Gujarat, has been described as a “living museum” and I agree. Walking through the pols’ narrow lanes gave me a sense of the life in Gujarat my Dad describes when he was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s. The small-town feel came in no small part because of P.S., a now retired doctor who had worked with my dad at a Mehsana hospital in the 1960s. Patan is her hometown; she spends half the year there and she’s an enthusiastic tour guide.
The architecture in this small city is notable. Many of the homes still bear the carved wooden facades and brackets that were common features in Gujarat until concrete began to replace them. Thankfully, modernity has largely eluded Patan’s neighborhood havelis. Its out-of-the-way location and relative obscurity mean the city is definitely on the less-traveled Gujarat tourism path.
We wandered around its pols, a shortened Sanskrit word for community or neighborhood, stopping along the way for the doctor to chat with friends and neighbors – in some cases, more than one generation – she’s known her entire life. Apart from the main artery in and out of town, Patan’s streets are quiet – save for the occasional bovine that always commands the right-of-way in India – and encourage leisurely strolling.
Patan’s most famous export is its Patola saris, once weaved for Solanki emperors 800 years ago. Weavers use a technique called double ikkat that results in the exact same design on both sides and can be worn either way. P.S. took me to see her friends Satish and Parish Salvi, who belong to one of only three families left who weave Patola. In their upstairs studio the two brothers showed me how they create this unique Gujarati art.
It’s a complicated dance between fingers and threads where a single weft thread binds it all together. The threads themselves are painstakingly dyed according to a preset pattern and knots are used to distinguish between each color during the consecutive dying processes. Saris take more than five months to make and can cost as much as $11,000.
India’s new royalty of business tycoons are now the patrons of Patola’s finest weaves. But they must be prepared to wait. If you place an order with the Salvis today, they will deliver it four years from now. That’s their waiting list, and they said they recently turned down a lucrative contract to make wedding saris for a prominent industrialist’s daughter.
The saris could become harder to get. Neither of the brothers have sons to carry on the tradition and they are both divorced. The scion of another weaver family, Rahul Salvi, had given up his architecture career to return to the family business but found that taking up weaving made him less desirable on the matrimonial market. “Educated girls seem to find it below their dignity to marry a weaver,” the then 32-year-old was quoted as saying. “They want me to settle in a city and find a ‘decent’ job.”