Patan, a bustling town of North Gujarat, was once the capital of the state for as long as 650 years. Between the 10th and 13th century AD, when the Solanki kings were at the helm, the town reached the peak of its glory and became the site of heritage sites like stepped wells, forts and temples.
In course of time, as the capital shifted to Ahmedabad, Patan’s importance began to decline. However, a tradition for which the town was equally famous for, the ancient and unique handicraft of weaving a special kind of pure silk sarees, has lived through. Patola sarees, as they are called, have become synonymous with Patan and it’s few families who have been instrumental in preserving and practicing the traditional art.
With its origin dating back to 11th century, the unique art of weaving patola sarees is indeed an age-old handicraft. Made from the highest quality of pure silk threads, it was regarded to be a holy and religious fabric worn while worshipping deities. In fact, during the 12th century, King Kumarpal was known to have used a new patola saree for the gods every day. In order to maintain an uninhibited supply and ensure the purest form of the fabric, the king undertook the task of bringing 700 families of patola craftsmen from the neighboring state of Maharashtra to Patan.
These craftsmen belonged to Salvi families for whom weaving patola sarees was a family tradition handed down through generations. Over the centuries, with the demand for the product seeing a downward trend, the Salvis diverted their attention to other fields. Today, only three families are said to be practicing this art. But the process and value have still been maintained. Vinayak Salvi, along with his brothers and family members, are some of the few dedicated craftsmen of Patan who still contribute to the production of patola sarees in the country.
The making of patola is an intricate process. According to Nipul Salvi, in the normal weaving process, silk fabrics are woven and the dyes applied. Conversely, the threads may be dyed first and then woven into a fabric. Either the threads that run vertically, called warps, or the horizontal threads called wefts, are dyed and woven together to get the design on the saree.
This method of dyeing either the warp or the weft is known as the single ikat method. But the uniqueness of the patola saree is that both warps and wefts are dyed and woven. This double ikat method, as it is called, ensures perfect blending of the design, and will not fade away. An advantage of this method is that both sides of the saree are attractive and can be worn either way. The whole process of making a patola saree, which goes through at least 20 stages, is laborious and long-drawn as one can weave only about 8-9 inches of fabric a day. The sarees are usually 45-54 inches wide and run 6-9 yards long. As such, a saree takes at least 6-8 months to weave.
The designs of patola sarees are also unique and meaningful. There are several designs that one can choose from. Most basic designs are traditional motifs like flowers, birds, animals and humans. Intricate patterns like narikunj, phulwadi and navaratna are also utilised. The dyes that are used are plant-based like turmeric, marigold flowers, onion skin and pomegranate bark. The advantages of these colours is that they are natural and also rich in appearance. For many centuries, plant-based natural colours were used. But nowadays, chemical dyes which are fast to bleach and easy to dye are replacing vegetable colours. To substantiate the long-lasting quality of the design and colour of a patola saree, a Gujarati poet has sung, “Padi patole bhat faatey pan phitey nahin”, which means the saree may get old, but the colour of a patola will never fade. It is no small wonder that a patola saree can last as long as 80-100 years. “This aspect,” Nipul says, “ is what has made patola sarees an investment, the value of which appreciates with time, like an ornament.” More than that, it is also a symbol of status, pride and royalty.
Patola sarees were usually given to brides and daughters during marriages or special occasions. However, the labour-intensive process and the hardwork involved has also made it a not-too-easily affordable fabric. The cost of a patola can be anything from one to a few lakh rupees. Patola weaving is not restricted to sarees alone. Several other products like table cloths, scarves and handkerchiefs can also be woven. This ancient art is surely an intangible aspect of our cultural heritage that needs to be preserved.
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