From Venice to Gujarat

I NEVER IMAGINED THAT I WOULD SEE THE VENETIAN WINGED LION of St Mark in Bhuj (Kutch, western India), but I did. A carving of this well known symbol of a once powerful European empire stands at the entrance to the Aina Mahal (Palace of Mirrors) in Bhuj, which was built during the reign of Maharao Lakhpatji that lasted from 1752 to 1761.

In 1742, Ram Singh Malam, aged about 16 left his native town of Okhi in Saurashtra (Kathiawad), now a part of Gujarat, and set out to sea. His boat was shipwrecked and he was rescued by passing Dutch vessel, which took him to Holland. Ram Singh remained in the Netherlands until about 1760.

During his stay in Holland, Ram Singh Malam learnt various skills including: clockmaking, mirror making, glass making, ship building, cannon manufacturing, tile making, enamelling, tool making, and more. When he returned to Saurashtra, he offered his skills to various local rulers, but to no avail. Then, he travelled to the Kingdom of Kutch, where his knowledge was recognised and employed by its ruler, Lakhpatji. The latter was so pleased with the technical advances that Ram Singh had imported from Holland that he was sent back to that country two more times. During his trips to Europe, Ram Singh also visited Austria and the Republic of Venice. No doubt the Lion of Venice sculpted in Kutch and placed at the Aina Mahal was designed after Ram Singh had been to Venice.

The Aina Mahal contains tiles and mirrors that were made using the knowledge acquired by Ram Singh. Statues that decorate both the inside and the outside of the Aina Mahal and the adjoining Rani Mahal depict men wearing European clothes, such as Ram Singh would have seen people wearing in 18th century Europe.

In 2001, Bhuj was struck by a huge earthquake, which caused much damage to both the Aina Mahal and the Rani Mahal. Their neighbour, the 19th century Victorian Gothic Prag Mahal, suffered considerably less damage.

The former curator and archivist at the Prag Mahal, a keen researcher of the history of Kutch, is Mr Pramod Jethi. He told us that after the earthquake the Dutch government were apparently considering assisting in the restoration of the damaged Aina Mahal palace, provided that documentary evidence was provided to prove that Ram Singh Malam had really been staying in Holland. Apparently, despite many accounts by various writers that he did spend years in Holland, this did not constitute evidence that would satisfy the Dutch.

Anyone, who arrived in Holland on a Dutch ship in the 18th century must surely be recorded in a ship’s records or registered in the books kept by Dutch port authorities. However, it is likely that quite a few ships arrived in Holland at the time that Ram Singh disembarked there. Dutch ships sailing in the vicinity of Gujarat were most probably connected with the Dutch East India Company. If someone has the enthusiasm and energy to search through the Company’s records, maybe the evidence that the Dutch government requires will be found. Regardless of whether or not the Dutch government can be satisfied, it is clear that Ram Singh was a very remarkable man who greatly advanced technology in Kutch and brought the winged lion of St Mark to India.

Weaving in Patan

Many people visit Patan in Gujarat to see the spectacular pre 14th century Rani ki Vav, one of the largest stepwells in the state. It was built by the Solanki dynasty.

Patan is also the home of a very special form of weaving called ‘Double Ikat Patola’. The fabrics produced are extremely durable, very colourfast, and display the pattern equally on the front and reverse.

When finished, even the experienced weaver cannot tell which surface of the material is front, and which is back. The textiles are woven to form saris. These are very costly and take many months to manufacture. The method of fabricating this kind of cloth is so complicated that, despite much research, no one has been able to produce a machine to replicate the process that has been done by hand for many centuries in the workshops in Patan.

We were very fortunate to have been shown around one of Patan’s three Patola factories by a member of the Salvi caste, who specialise in Patola making. Although we were given lengthy explanations and demonstrations, I cannot say that I fully understand the complicated process of making a piece of Patola material. However, I will try to explain what I understood of it.

Patola fabrics are woven using the best quality silk thread. That from Japan is preferred, but silk from China, Korea, and Brazil is also considered of sufficiently high quality.

The design for the fabric is chosen and transferred onto graph paper. This coloured diagram will guide the workers towards the desired end product.

Sari length arrays of silk threads are stretched onto frames. These parallel lengths of white or slightly yellow undyed silk are marked with a fine washable black marker to create a grid pattern like graph paper. This will allow the workers to transfer the colour scheme from the coloured diagram to the silk threads.

Next, using the master plan, sections of each thread are wrapped tightly with another thread, which will prevent dye from reaching the covered section. When this laborious task is complete, the whole lattice of parallel threads is dipped into a dye of one colour, say for example red.

After the first dyeing, the lattice is restretched, and all of the dye restricting threads are removed, resulting in a lattice work of threads coloured with stretches of red and white. Let us assume that the next colour on the master pattern is to be green. The stretched silk fibres are then tied with dye restricting threads in all places except where the master pattern dictates there should be green. After dyeing in green dye, the restricters are removed and the process repeated to add yet another colour to the silk. The end result is a set of silk threads with sequences of different colours, a bit like a single strand of DNA or the amino acids in a strand of protein.

A single thread of silk displaying areas dyed in different colours

The weaving takes place on looms that hang at an angle. Both the warp and the weft fibres have been tie dyed as described already. When stretched on the loom the as yet unwoven warp threads, when viewed together, display part of the final pattern.

The weft threads pass between the warp threads in a sequence that is dictated by the master pattern. As the weavers press the woven weft fibres together, the sequences of different colours on each thread begin to reveal the required design of the fabric. The prescribed pattern develops gradually, thread by thread.

How the correct sequence of the dyed threads is maintained during the many stages prior to weaving must involve miraculous organization.

Because of the fastness of the dyes used, the Patola fabric does not fade. The method of weaving results in a fully reversible fabric, which is very durable . The other advantages of such a labour intensive and complicated fabrication process elude my comprehension.Nevertheless, Double Ikat Patola saris are greatly prized and highly priced.