Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


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Stairways to Heaven

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The stunning Rani-Ki-Vav in Gujarat.

While I appreciate the  gift of modern plumbing my gratitude springs from the sheer comfort and convenience of luxuries such as turn-of-the-tap running water and flushing loos.  Beauty is not in the equation.  That wasn’t the story 1000 years ago when stepwells emerged to solve the water woes of India’s desert regions, particularly in Rajastan and Gujarat. No holes in the ground to catch the run off, these stepwells brought glory to their financiers, builders and deities through architectural, engineering and artistic brilliance. Many must have taken years and an army of workers and craftsmen to construct.

IMG_6067 2 The exquisite beauty emerging from centuries of Saraswati River silt.  

Intricate carving decorating the Rani-Ki-Vav

Stepwells –  baori in Hindi and Vav in Gujarati – are unique to the Indian subcontinent. While their primary role was to bring a reliable supply of water to people and animals, the vital life-sustaining properties of water also gave them an important function in the performance of rites and rituals. In Hindu mythology water has a special significance as a boundary between the subterranean, celestial and earthly worlds bestowing the wells with religious significance. Hence their intricate and exquisite artistry.

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Early morning ablutions at the ghat – the inspiration for stepwells. 

Apart from being structures of great beauty the wells were supremely engineered with stone steps in elaborate geometric patterns leading visitors down many levels to the waters edge. The designers drew their inspiration from the structure of ghats – long, shallow stairs and landings along muddy river banks – which allowed locals and trade route travellers to access the water for clothes washing, bathing and religious purposes. The wells were often built within proximity to temples emphasising their spiritual importance.

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Chand Baori in Abhaneri.

Serendipity perhaps, but an Indian travel blogger I follow recently wrote a post devoted to step wells. She was curious, given their beauty and historical status, why so many were in bad states of crumbling decay, full of rubbish and stagnant water. Her research suggested they fell into disrepair during the British Raj because the colonisers regarded them as health hazards and potential sources of infection. So most stepwells, including some we visited, harbour ponds of green, murky liquid floating with discarded carton, plastic bags and assorted detritus.

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Elaborate Sun Temple complex, Modhera, Gujarat, built in 1026. Don’t drink the water!

But all is not lost. The Rani-ki-Vav in Patan in Gujarat, built in the 11 Century for the widowed Queen of Bhimdev in memory of her husband, on the banks of the Saraswati River, was World Heritage listed in 2014 and last year won the title as India’s cleanest iconic place. The extent and beauty of the well was revealed by Archeological Survey of India excavations from the 1960s after being submerged for centuries, the victim of monsoonal mountains of silt which had washed down the river. Another of the Bhimdev dynasty’s stepwells is found at Modhera, also in Gujarat, as part of an elaborate Sun Temple complex built in 1026AD.

The earliest stepwells date to about 550 AD, with over 3000 in Gujarat and Rajasthan. The town of Bundi, roughly midway between Udaipur and Jaipur, alone has over 50. Although many wells have fallen into disrepair, and are boarded off, hundreds remain. We saw examples of various sizes and intricacy, and states of repair, sadly many beyond redemption. Others are in the hands of the archeologists, the Chand Baori in Abhaneri in Rajasthan one of the most impressive and visually spectacular.  A deep, four-sided structure with an commanding temple on one face, its walls step down 13 stories to a depth of over 30 metres. The well and an adjoining temple, dedicated to Hashat Mata, the Goddess of Joy and Happiness, date back to the 10th century.  Both the well and temple have broken sculptures marked and ready to be returned to former glories, a treat in store for both the people of India and overseas travellers to the sub-continent.  Let’s hope the end results could match the description of a stepwell visited by mid-19th Century French world traveller Louis Rousselet: “….water covered with lotuses in flower, amid which thousands of aquatic birds are sporting”.

Stone sculptures waiting for restoration, Chand Baori 

 

 

 

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It’s a wrap

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That big fashion “thing”, zhuzhing a scarf  with panache, has never been my forte.  But having the right touch adjusting a scarf is nothing compared to the artistry of turban tying, a practice executed with ease routinely by millions of Indian men.

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Some of the turban styles found in Gujarat. 

Made from the simplest cottons to the richest brocaded and bejewelled silks, from plain colours to the most dazzling of patterns and hues, turbans can be of religious significance, or reflect identity, origin, status, or culture. Different regions have their own style. In Rajasthan they feature a little peak at the front and a long “tail” at the back. A sheep-herder’s headwear obviously differs markedly from that of a mararajah. Turban colours can signify a purpose: saffron, the colour of bravery, might be worn at a rally; pink signifies spring; navy blue war and service. For the Sikhs the turban has religious significance. While turbans are worn almost exclusively by men, Sikh women can wear them too. IMG_5577

The Royal Palace in Gondal opens a window into the splendour of earlier regal times with fascinating collections including a sumptuous display of turbans from across India’s many former territorial regions. Of particular interest is a replica of the luxuriant headwear of the builder of the magnificent Taj Mahal, renowned Mogul Emperor Shah Jehan, who reigned from 1627 to 1658. As befits such an exalted figure the richly brocaded piece drips with pearls and precious stones.

On our travels through Gujarat we were fortunate to have the cultural services of the delightful Durga Singh-ji, a Thakur, or nobleman in his native Rajasthan. He lamented the gradual loss of the art of turban tying in modern-day India but showed us that he had lost none of his expertise, masterfully twisting and twirling some seven meters of sunny orange and yellow patterned fabric into the top-knot and tailed Rajasthan style. Durga-ji explained that in earlier times some nine metres of fabric would be used, usually beautiful quality cotton, georgette or silk. In the past, for the everyday turban-wearer, the elaborate headpiece was almost like a best friend: it protected from the sun and wind; if the wearer was lost his colourful headpiece made him easy to spot; it could be rolled up into a pillow at night; or could be used as a fly or mosquito  net; a flick over the face would render the wearer incognito; all that fabric was a perfect rope to pull water from a well in dry times; for those wounded in battle it was a bandage; and in a fight it protected like a helmet.

Three cheers for the turban!

 


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Change agent

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The revered Mahatma in peaceful contemplation on the lawns at Sabarmati Ashram. 

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An ashram visitor takes a leaf out of his guru’s book.

It’s not surprising that one of the most serene places in Ahmedabad is the ashram founded by the revered Mohandas Gandhi – the Mahatama (Great Soul) or Bapu (Father). In contrast to the outside hustle and bustle, colour and commotion, the ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati River opens to green lawns, sandy quadrangles, low-slung, simple, airy bungalows and shady trees. Visitors stroll at ease around the grounds and museum, taking in the so-familiar images and props of the Mahatma – his walking staff, spinning wheel and displays illuminating his innumerable familiar exhortations captured in handwriting and print.

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Bapu’s famous staff and spinning wheel. 

 

Gandhi’s desk; the view from the window.

Mohandas Gandhi was a native Gujurati, born to a middle class family. He studied law in the United Kingdom, returned to India a qualified barrister then was offered a job in South Africa. The racial prejudice he encountered in South Africa spurred him not only to return to India but develop his philosophies. Prime among these was the removal of the British from India and the non-violent methods by which this might be achieved. The peaceful atmosphere of Sabarmati Ashram, established on 17 June 1918 – 100 years ago last weekend –  was the perfect place to contemplate peaceful pathways to change. The venerated Father of the Nation and his wife Kasturba stayed at Sabarmati Ashram for over a decade. It was from here that he began his famous march across India, defied the salt tax and urged his countrymen to spin their own simple “khadi” cloth to sideline the need for British  manufactured textiles.

 

India gained its independence from Britain in August 1947 but, within a year, the beloved Gandhi was dead, cruelly assassinated by a Hindu devotee who was wrongly convinced that the Mahatma was to blame for the partition of the new nation into (roughly) Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan. Relations between the neighbours – and once peaceful co-inhabiters of the one country – have grown increasingly hostile with each passing decade. Hardly the kind of change that Gandhi had envisaged.

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Words of the Guru. 

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Ashram signage (left); Gandhi’s signature in numerous languages.


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The city that Ahmed built

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Ahmed Shah I tomb.

The locale suffix abad attaches itself to cities across Iran, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and the Indian sub-continent. It’s a strong reminder of the influence that the ancient superpower of Persia had on its neighbours. -Abad derives from the Persian meaning “cultivated place” and, according to that go-to source Wikipedia, commonly is added to the name of a city’s founder or patron. Such is the case with the old capital, and largest city, of Gujarat State, Ahmedabad. Or Amdavad as it’s known in the local dialect. The suffix emphasises an essential aspect of Ahmedabad’s personality:  it’s Moghul and Muslim roots.

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Ahmed Shah I Mosque. 

Ahmedabad was established in 1411 by an early Muzaffarid Sultan of Gujarat, Ahmed Shah I. He chose a site along the banks of the impressive Sabarmati River which begins life in the hills of Rajasthan then meanders across Gujarat for about 400 kms, feeding on monsoon waters until it reaches the Arabian Gulf. He named the city for himself,  his spiritual advisor, and two other worthy Ahmeds of his acquaintance. During the almost-200-year Muzaffarid reign, Ahmedabad blossomed into one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world, graced with a distinctive architectural style encouraged by the sultans that blended Islamic elements with Gujarat’s indigenous Hindu and Jain traditions. Gujarat’s Islamic style was the forerunner of  elements found in Mughal architecture including ornate mihrabs and minarets, perforated screens  of carved stone and cupola-topped pavilions. Many centuries later the banks of the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad were to become the site of one of the Mahatma Gandhi’s ashrams.

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Ahmedabad’s elegant Stock Exchange, India’s second oldest. 

Ahmedabad assumed  the capital mantle of Gujarat State when the new nation of India was created in 1948. Then in 1970 the honours went to Gandinagar further up the Sabarmati, though the High Court remained in Ahmedabad.  But significant immovable reminders remain including Ahmed Shah’s mosque, built in 1414, the oldest in the city, and his tomb.  The latter also houses the tombs of his son, Muhammed Shah II and grandson Qutub-ud-din.

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From little things…… Ahmedabad is now a city of over 7 million and makes it onto lists of the 20 fastest-growing cities in the world. Being close to Mumbai, the old Bombay, the city benefitted from its early commercial significance. The decorative Stock Exchange, built in the mid-1800s, is India’s second oldest. As India’s sixth largest city it is an important industrial and economic hub, houses many educational and research institutions, and flourishing heavy and chemical industries. The name Adani, as instantly recognised in Ahmedabad as Australia, has its corporate headquarters there.

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For all its bustling modernity one of the most charming parts of Ahmedabad is Ahmed Shah’s old city.  Tourists happily avail themselves of early-morning walks around the area before the tumult of the day overtakes. Reminders of an ornate and more elegant past can be gleaned from the tumble-down backstreets where the influence of British architecture also survives. Happily, as in other cities around the world, past beauty is being restored in many places.

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Young Jain nuns going to early morning devotions. 

Beautiful Jain temple.

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Shaken and stirred

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The Royal Chhatardis site in Bhuj. 

Those who have lived in an earthquake zone know the terror invoked by a sizeable shake.  Even more modest ones – in the four to six Richter Scale range – are unsettling. So imagine the distress of Gujuratis on January 26, 2001 when they were jolted by a quake of almost eight on the Richter scale and lasting for over two minutes. Some 20,000 people died, almost 170,000 were injured and almost a million left homeless. It was one of the worst earthquakes ever in India. The citizens of the city of Bhuj, only about nine  kilometres from the epicentre, were among the hardest hit.

The memory or the earthquake remains strong in Gujarat State. Throughout our travels we listened to countless grim tales of the toll it had taken: loved ones lost, homes destroyed, possessions gone; vital infrastructure shattered. Ahead of our stay in Bhuj we were cautioned about the rawness of grief that remained even after almost two decades. Visiting the house of a renowned textile expert, one of innumerable victims of the seismic catastrophe, his son proudly but sadly pointed out the intricately carved wooden front door frame which they had managed to salvage from the rubble of their previous family home.

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Of course, it’s not just contemporary infrastructure which crumbles under the forces of a quake. Antiquities also suffer. In Bhuj one such casualty was the intricately decorated Royal Chhatardis, or cenotaphs.  The term chhatardis derives from the word for umbrella, because of the umbrella-shaped dome of the structures. They house no bodily remains, as these were cremated, but serve as memorials. The Royal Chhatris were built in the 18th century by Jadeja ruler Rao Lakhpatji who reserved a particularly impressive Turkish-influenced, bejewelled blue-domed structure, for himself.  Walking through the extensive tract of memorials  the visitor notes that rank did not save the ruler from the earthquake’s might, his cenotaph  revealing significant damage among the many other fallen sculptures. But overall this vast sandstone shrine, intricately depicting gods, goddesses and royalty, retains a regal atmosphere of a bygone era of beauty and extravagance.  State finances are being directed into restorations as was funding to get Gujarat back on its feet after the devastation. The resilience of the human spirit still stirs the emotions.

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Completely cowed

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It’s old news that cows get a pretty good deal in India. The term “sacred cow” is a living reality there but seeing the reality is truly believing. To mix metaphors cows are  top dog in India. They casually stroll across two-lane national tollways, move in with their owners in family compounds, are garlanded and bejewelled, pick the best spots in the middle of the road for their afternoon nap (there are fewer flies in the middle of the road), and even have charities at their beck and call across the country.  Talk about bovine bliss!

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Hardworking beasts. 

The cow’s revered place in Indian culture reflects its centrality to traditional life. It is a source of labour; transportation; provides milk for drinking and for making cream, cheese, butter, yoghurt and ghee; dung for fertiliser, fuel, building material, insect repellant and disinfectant; and in the Ayuvedic medicinal system cow urine has many applications. The cow’s gentle nature is said to create a maternal image inspiring affection. Soulful eyes are a definite plus. The combination has given the cow special standing in the Hindu religion leading to its protected status. Best of all for cows Hindus don’t eat beef  and the slaughter of the beasts is prohibited in 24 out of 29 states. Not that that provides complete protection. Beef ends up on many dinner plates and India is a significant exporter of beef. Maybe the male of the species is the one feeling the heat?

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Cow pats lined up and drying in the sun.

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This won’t go to waste!

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Early morning at the cow charity.

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Earning cow charity brownie points. 

So bovines enjoy a charmed existence until they grow old, infirm and beyond use when some crafty owners set them loose around markets or other public places. Even then society comes to the rescue through cow charities, or gaushalas, where they’re fed and cared for. The devout can score good points through donating to the charities or playing their part in caring for the animals. Or by giving safe passage to the many itinerant beasts which meander blissfully across the roads and highways. Sadly, a rise in militant Hinduism is resulting in the murder  of those accused of eating beef or killing cattle. Surely time to remember Mother Cow’s reputation for gentleness.

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No flies on these cows. 

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Move over cars!

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Decorative bird feeder – and cows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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All in the family

“What do you want to do when you grow up?” isn’t a common dilemma for the children of India’s craftspeople. Family businesses are big business and frequently carried out in the family home or compound housing extended family. Not only are prized skills passed down through generations, little ones start learning the techniques with their elders and while their fingers and faculties are at their most nimble. Often, crafts are a village-wide affair.

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The Roopraj family compound – including solar heating.

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Cotton dhurries of finest quality to suit all premises. 

A surgical approach to packaging. 

A perfect example of this is the Roopraj dynasty in the small village of Salawas, not far from Jodhpur in Rajasthan. The extended family makes vibrant, multi-hued dhurries, hardy floor coverings woven in exquisite designs in cotton or silk yarn, or goat or camel hair. The enterprise carries on a 100-year-old tradition taking the sought-after products into palaces, houses, apartments, and all manner of dwellings across India and the world. Mr Roopraj has many international visitors to his well-kept family enclosure including from the US, Canada, South America, Europe, the UK, Hong Kong and Australia. He is proud of his streamlined operation which allows for credit card payments, meticulous packing, and efficient transportation, with goods arriving on a purchaser’s doorstep almost precisely on a given date. My package of two dhurries was so carefully wrapped with finely stitched calico over securely taped inner wrapping that I regretted having to cut its precise sutures. Mr Roopraj would make a fine surgeon!

In the spick-and-span craft village of Bhujodi, just outside the bustling city of Bhuj in Gujarat’s Kutch region, the Vankar Visram Valji clan personifies the concept of “family business”. The partiarch was a veteran weaver who in his early days struggled to make a living from his skills. The turning point came when he won a national award in 1974. Now the weaving enterprise run by him and his six sons from their spotless, expansive family compound is the largest producer and supplier of woollen shawls and blankets in Bhujodi. Four sons are also national awardees and another has a UNESCO Seal of Excellence.

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The family cows join the Valdi clan in their neat Bhujodi compound. 

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The open-air kitchen. 

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A beautifully carved wooden door leads to the compound work area.

Master craftsman Vankar Visram Valji  and son: “this is where we store indigo”.

North-west of Bhuj the quiet town of Patan accommodates more treasures, including of the “living artisan” kind. Master double ikat weaver, in particular of treasured patola silk sarees, Bharat K. Salvi and his family can trace their dynasty and their craft back to the 11th century. Mr Salvi combines an ikat museum, housing beautiful and rare pieces from their precious collection, with his artelier. It’s his mission to preserve and document their cherished craft.

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 Although a trained architect Rahul Salvi couldn’t resist the family double ikat tradition. 

Double ikat involves each warp, or longitudinal thread, and the weft thread crossing the warp, being tied separately. The technique produces a patola with no reverse side: both the sides have equal intensities of colour and design. The painstaking process of tying, untying, retying and dyeing in different colours can take four or more weavers up to 75 days to complete. Vibrant reds, yellows, greens and blues dominate. Basic designs include floral motifs, animals, birds and human figures, but geometrical patterns are becoming sought after. The striking colours, organically sourced, come from turmeric, marigold flowers, onion skin, pomegranate bark, madder root, lac and indigo.

Only four centres in the world make double ikat textiles – Bali (Indonesia), Okinawa island in Japan, and, in India,  Pochampalli in Telangana State, and Patan. Single ikat is woven in Okinawa, Cambodia, Malaysia, Uzbekistan, the Philippines and Holland. The Patan centre flourished after the local ruling dynasty in the 12th century brought in Jain craftspeople, Mr Salvi’s forebears, from Jalna in Maharashtra State.

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Patan patola sarees are highly prized. Royals and aristocrats wear them on auspicious occasions and in south-east Asia they are regarded as a holy cloth. The Indian bride whose wedding trousseau includes such a saree is regarded as a very lucky girl. Not surprisingly a genuine double ikat patola doesn’t come cheaply: it may cost upwards of around $AU3000, yet order books are full.

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Exquisite textiles in the making.