the edges of the patterns are slightly blurred, the colours are shimmering, the silk flows. i am holding this darkly lovely saree at a boutique in mumbai and quietly falling in love. the fabric is soft as it falls languidly to the floor, the base is black with a mesh of yellow and magenta and purple and red and on it, the borders are ganga jamna… one red, the other magenta, not too wide, not too narrow. everything about the saree is sort of perfect. but how will i justify the price?

something told me even then though, i should not let this saree remain on the rack. a dear friend of mine was hauled along to the shop. i had seen another pretty saree at a neighbouring boutique. that was a jamdani in cotton, this a patola in silk. my friend gave sound advice. buy the patola, she said, it will last for years and you’ll be able to wear it more often.

it’s been eleven years since then, and to this day every time i pull out the patola i marvel at the work, the whole structure and feel of the fabric. patola, also known as patolu, is the ikat weave of gujarat. ikat is a tie and dye weaving technique. usually, tie and dye means you create a pattern, then tie the fabric where you don’t want a particular colour and dip it in dye. you may do that several times depending on the number of colours involved and the intricacy of the pattern. complicated enough, but in ikat, you take it a step further.

you don’t colour the fabric, you colour the yarn. you think of your design, then work out what the colour of the thread must be at a particular spot on the finished fabric, then you tie the yarn accordingly and dye it. and you repeat the tie-dye process as many times as you need to. later, during weaving, you must make sure, each thread is in its place, creating that pattern. i get dizzy just thinking of this whole thing.

ikat has existed for thousands of years, (an aside from my mind: don’t even ask me why we human beings keep finding new ways to challenge ourselves, as if it’s not difficult enough as it is… this must be that creative instinct we keep talking of…); the technique has been used by people from central asia, south east asia, japan, even south america, beside india. apart from gujarat, ikat is woven in odissa, telengana, and andhra pradesh. these states too have wonderful ikat traditions, but a patola is, well, a patola.

i’d heard of the saree of course, but hadn’t realised how prized it was till i met this friend of mine in jamshedpur. it must have been 1986 or ’87. she was from mangalore but had grown up in gujarat. she showed me a beautiful subtle pink and many hued saree and said it was a patan patola, her mother had given it to her during her wedding. i wanted to reach out and touch the smooth fluid surface.

patan patola?

i’d never heard of that. she said, gujarati girls always got one of those when they got married. the saree stayed in my mind. it was when i fell for the patola in mumbai that i started reading about the fabric and its history. patan is a place in gujarat. the story of the patola is rich with references to kings and conquest and trade. patola was considered not just unique and beautiful, but also almost sacred.

patola is a double ikat, i read. there are only three places in the world, i believe, where double ikats are woven. in a village in bali, parts of japan, and in patan. a few years after writing this, i discovered, double ikats are woven, though not abundantly, in odisha, telengana, and andhra pradesh as well. originally, i think, the word patola meant double ikat. later came the less challenging, and also easier to afford, single ikat. rajkot in gujarat is known for its single ikat patolas.

in a single ikat, either the weft or the warp threads are dyed. the weft thread ikat is usually more complex and prettier than the warp thread one. single ikat is difficult enough, but in the patan patola, both warp and weft yarns are tied and coloured. the extent of imagination, skill, and dedication required to conceptualize and weave a patan patola has me getting lost in thought each time. to get back to the patola story…

patan was once the capital of gujarat, from where three rajput clans ruled. the chavadas, the solankis, and the vaghelas. it was during the solanki era that the patola weavers came to gujarat. story goes, king kumarpal, who reigned from 1145 to 1173, was very particular as to what he wore to attend daily prayers. he had converted to jainism and had great reverence for the traditions and rituals of his faith. the fine silk woven in jalna in the south of india would be imported for him and some accounts say he wore only new patolas when he visited the temple every day (now why can’t i be politically correct and frown severely at this excess, why is my errant heart saying, i understand, i completely understand). a priest one day stopped him from entering the temple, claiming the attire he wore was impure. the king was furious, investigations were made, and it was revealed that the king of jalna had played foul.

he was exporting the silks to patan after first using them as bedspreads. “heathen, sacrilege, off to the gallows,” mutters my mind.

they say, women go far for a saree, but seems kumarpal waged war over the slighting of his silks. yes, war. jalna was defeated, the weavers were brought to patan and so it was that the patola as we know it came into being. i have no idea if this tale is even remotely accurate, there is some truth to it no doubt. absolute accuracy is a hallmark of the patola though. seven hundred or so weavers from both karnataka and maharashtra came to patan in that initial phase as patan grew into a major weaving centre. patola was not only the king’s favourite, in time it started being traded and sold in south east asia, indonesia, and other places. it was considered to be more than mere material, it was auspicious, blessed. the rich and famous and devout wanted this precious fabric. as dress material, shawls, bridal wear, sarees, hopefully not bedspreads.

seasons and kingdoms came and went, the patola held its place and then inevitably, things changed. the outbreak of the second world war disrupted trade, post that the indonesian market was gone. the clientele just didn’t have that kind of money any more, or maybe their tastes changed; in the newly independent and riven by partition india, there couldn’t have been many who could pick up a patola at will. the patola weavers had to find a way to survive… and so started the single ikat patola.

my mumbai saree was one such. even though extremely well made, it is a double ikat, alas, not. i stare at it at times hoping it will suddenly somehow prove otherwise. today, there are just two salvi families (some say three) in patan that make the original patola. and the price tag is serious; ten to twenty or even fifty times more than what the darkly beauteous patola had cost. the makers stick to traditional designs and palettes. it’s only vegetable dyes, if i am not wrong. takes a while to weave the sarees… a year, maybe more.

some day, yes surely, i will get one of these deadly patolas. they say, the colours just get richer over time and the fabric lasts at least a hundred years. maybe my daughter will wear the saree… i am falling into dream state. the black and white patola you see here was bought by my husband on a trip to bangalore, a very dear friend of mine took him to the shop; and a gujarati friend (thanks to her, i had my first frolic with kutchhi bandhani sarees), picked up the green and red one. i called her the other day and again sighed about the patan patola. i’ve never been to gujarat, one day i will… and see the rann of kutch, the national school of design in ahmedabad, the diamond cutters of surat, the tribal silver jewellery of desert country… and then casually stop over at one of the two salvis’ in patan and order a double ikat patola. just as the patola has no reverse side, there’s no downside to this dreaming.

chhelaji re mare hatu patan thi patola,

mongha lavjo ema ruda re moraliya chitravjo patan thi patola

lines from a gujarati poem by well known poet avinash vyas written many moons ago. a wife is telling her husband, who’s going to patan, to bring for her the coveted patola.

if you’d like to find out more:

wore the black and white the other day with a blouse in a contrasting shade.


sarees tell stories | the black/red/magenta patola from neeru kumar, mumbai, 2005/6; black and white patola from bandhej, bangalore, 2008 or so; green patola from ratansi kheraj, mumbai, 2011.

indrani’s index