Drive about 140 kilometres northwest of Ahmedabad in Gujarat and you will find yourself in Patan – the erstwhile capital of the Solanki dynasty that ruled from here. One needs to simply step into the famous Rani Ki Vav to travel back in time, roughly a millennium, when Queen Udaymati built this step-well in memory of her late husband. Rani ki Vav is now a UNESCO world heritage site and attracts visitors from around the world. If you think about it, how many monuments with this distinction were built by women – not many. To me, apart from everything else that it stands for, it also represents the legacy of a woman.
I walked into the sprawling lawns of Rani ki Vav in Patan one fine morning with no monument in site. The pathway led to something that looked like a hole in the floor. As I approached it, broad steps began to make an appearance and when I stood at its edge, that is when I could see the multiple stories that made up this step well. However I still could not see anything remarkable to make it a world heritage. I began to trudge down the triangular steps and that is when the step-well started revealing its grandeur. It appears that it wants its visitors to make an effort before they can see the wonder that it is. As I kept going down, the ornate walls of the step-well surrounded me. Heavily sculpted walls all around gave me the feeling of being at the centre of a celebration. There were the Dashavatars or the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu. There were Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva with all their icons. There were women showing the Solah Shringar or the 16 ways to adorn the body and there was music and dance in stone.
All steps led to a tall well at the end whose circular walls were all sculpted – although a lot of the sculptures have been lost to time, whatever remains still holds a powerful aura. In order to see the wall completely one needs to come up, go around the monument and from the far end look down into the wall of the well. From here I could also see the descending steps leading to the well as it serves as a good vantage point to see the entire monument. The step well worked as a water management system in those days, and the effort put in sculpting the walls only shows the importance of water in the lives of the communities it served. Just behind the Rani ki Vav is an even older and bigger step well called the Sahastralinga Talav. This giant circular step well is a part of a large complex that has remains of an ancient Shiva temple, of which only the pillars remain. There are various water channels connecting the step well to the temple as well as other structures, making it look like a complex water management system. I walked around the complex trying to make sense of the remains here. I gathered that the water from River Saraswati was channelized to this step well and the mechanism could not only store water but also filter and clean it. Incredible – is it not, when and where did we lose these techniques. There are myths and stories that you hear in all such places and you never know if you should take them at face value.
A museum next to the Sahastralings Talav displays the antiquities excavated from in and around Rani Ki Vav. I went looking for the bust of Queen Udayamati, the builder of Rani ki Vav, but I could not locate it and museum officials were clueless about it.
A trip to Patan cannot be complete without a look at the famous Patan weavers – that has enchanted women across the world since time immemorial. Some paintings of Ajanta Caves show a pattern of Ikkat on the garments worn in the scenes of the Jataka Tales, implying a continued existence of these patterns for at least 2,000 years or so. Patan Patola Saris are known for their double Ikkat where both sides of the fabric have a fine pattern and it is impossible to tell the difference. A museum cum heritage centre in the middle of Patan town helps the visitors understand the complex and tedious process of double Ikkat. I was awe struck to see that the process starts right from the time threads are dyed in different colours and goes on till the weaver weaves the fabric one thread at a time. The museum displays many beautiful and exquisite pieces of Patan Patola. We were also reminded of the times when this fabric was considered of medicinal value due to the presence of turmeric in its dye. In fact a popular Gujarati saying claims that the fabric of Ikkat wear off but it will never fade. Having said that, you need deep pockets to afford these saris – after all they are a treasure.
Patan is a cultural hot spot that one can easily spend a full day at.
(Writer is a leading travel blogger from India. You can read her stories at www.IndiTales.com and reach her on twitter @anuradhagoyal)