Old Ahmedabad

The Ahmedabad founded by Sultan Ahmed Shah in 1411 was a walled city made up of communities called “pols.” These are self-contained communities with only one or two entrances, gates that could be closed at the first sign of communal trouble. They also feature secret passageways among themselves that are difficult to discover unless someone points them out to you. The pols still follow communal lines: ones for Hindus, Jains, Muslims.

The homes have intricately carved window coverings, doors and balconies, features that don’t exist in modern architecture. “The old city had a concealed drainage system which in parts is still in use,” according to the website of Vaarso, a cultural heritage website. “Key points had wrought iron poles serving as escapes as vents for the subterranean tunnels. Each pole was crowned with a directional arrow indicating a nether bifurcation of the tunnels, this forming a dotted map of the entire system.”

Each home or “haveli” was built on a “tanka,” or water reservoir. “Rainwater harvested from the multi-leveled, jig sawed rooftops, brought down in a series of copper pipes, filtered through a layer of charcoal, lime and pebbles found its way to the storage tank” according to Vaarso. To compensate for felling trees, residents built chabutras, where residents leave grains and water for birds. “The ‘pol’ gradually transmogrified into virtual fortresses of calm and safety as the hold of the Imperial court in Delhi weakened and skirmishes and fiefdoms arose waving banners of defiant revolt and independence in various parts of a fractured kingdom, assailed internally by ambitious and disgruntled warlords and externally by flexing colonial European powers in an elusively notorious search for spices and a controlled amalgamated assimilation of territories,” Vaarso says.

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Patan, carved

Patan was built in 745 as the Solankis solidified their Indian empire, and it was a major center in the kingdom that stretched much beyond Gujarat’s current borders. It remained a capital through Moghul rule until Sultan Ahmed Shah moved the capital to Ahmedabad in 1411. Even as Patan exchanged hands from the Solankis to the Sultanate to the British, Patan has become a major center for Jains and home to nearly 200 temples, both major derasars and neighborhood shrines tucked amid homes in the smallest of pols. P.S. is a Jain and showed me several temples, pointing out the iconography in elaborate mirrorwork and wood and stone carvings.

Patan is also home to the Rani ki Vav, or “Queen’s stepwell,” an elaborately carved stepwell that was built in 1063. It was commissioned by Queen Udayamati, the wife of Solanki King Bhimdev I and has more than 800 carved sandstone images with the 10 incarnations of Vishnu as the central team. P.S. and I spent more than an hour gazing at the various reliefs. She has been coming to the vav since childhood and knew many of the panels by heart. Among her favorites – and now mine – are of the apsaras, the buxom courtiers who are shown bathing, wearing earrings or just from the bath, unknowing that a scorpion has nestled itself onto the robe she is about to wear.

Living amid history in Patan

Peacock brass door handle

Peacock brass door handle

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.

my scarf

my scarf

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.

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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.”

Surya’s temple at Modhera

An hour’s drive north of Ahmedabad’s hustle, amidst agricultural fields, lies the elaborately carved Surya temple at Modhera. Built by a Solanki emperor in 1026, the temple was designed so that the first rays of the sun fell on the image of Surya, the Sun God, at the equinox. Solankis were considered to be descendants of the Sun God, and at the time of the temple’s construction Modhera was part of a thriving Hindu empire based out of Patan, a town to its north.