Imagine for a while – we as time travellers have flown to Gujarat of thousand years back – suddenly our eyes rest upon amazing wooden and timber made temples, all dotted in its coastline and hinterland. These are splendid, of towering heights and possessing rich sculptural wealth. But at the same time, they are vulnerable to Islamic conquest, especially to the infamous Sultan of Ghazni, Mahmud, whose eyes are deeply centred on the material wealth of these temples. He and his army is not only seizing them but also burning their timbers into ashes.
As we are back to the present, our curiosity drags us to the parlour of history, then what happened?
Being helpless, the Hindu patrons started replacing stone in place of wood and timber for temple construction. In between two/three centuries passed. Now the rulers were the sultans of Gujarat Sultanate who had succeeded the Solanki rulers. The entire focus was now on construction of mosques using stones. But they could not delink their buildings from the earlier tradition of wood carving. They were subtly imitating the wooden patterns of scrolls, jails and window grills in their stone mosques.
The mosque architecture of Gujarat remarkably portrays the hybridisation of Hindu, Jain and Islamic ideas, creating a distinctive identity. But all these constructions had shadowed the wooden tradition, which had a strong footing in Gujarat, prior to the Islamic rule. Only in the Maratha regime the tradition was revived in the form of havelis and haveli temples in major towns and cities, notably, Ahmedabad, Patan, Khambat, Radhanpur and so on.
But a little known town called Vaso beat all these giants in terms of beauty, and aesthetic with relation to construction of wooden havelis.
Vaso does not have an old history. Its little town like character was developed in the 19th century. When I approached Vaso in a post monsoon sunny noon, what I noticed were the narrow stone-paved streets, clean, quite contrast to the pols of Ahmedabad. I kept driving through the streets and gates till I reached to a kind of privileged cul – de – sac. I and my friend Ramjee had arrived at the haveli of Vithaldas Amin. It was under renovation by the Archaeological Survey of India.
While I was completely lost in its outer grandeur, a massive mansion of 4/5 storey, revealing projection of wooden sculptures of kinnaras, flying apsaras and mythical animals, Ramjee was making arrangement for permission to enter the inner space of the haveli.
The history of the haveli and the adjacent Desai haveli is closely related to the story of Vaso itself because the Maratha rulers of Gujarat in the mid-19th century delegated tax collection to the Patel family of Voso, and this family divided into two branches, who took the surnames of Amin and Desai, and built these two glorious wooden mansions in the early 1870s.
The main part of the haveli is its chowk or courtyard surrounded by rooms. This was the place, where family’s mundane activity was carried on daily basis in full privacy. A room for grain storage and a well preserved the family from hazards of famine and drought. The rooms were linked through a parasol. An otlo or front veranda had an intermediary function; in the evening senior members would sit there to greet neighbours, do informal business, or gossip.
We were lucky to get an entry through the various floors of the haveli. Amongst many, what most attracted me was the superb centrepiece of the carved painted ceiling of the first floor divakhanu (reception room) with its flying apsaras and gandharas, celestial dancers and musicians.
The next building is of Mahendra Desai, which arguably is the most dramatic haveli I have ever seen. The family has a deep connection with India’s freedom struggle and had actively participated in Gandhiji’s swadeshi movement. Dozens of slender columns, carved brackets, kinnars, musicians, flying apsaras, birds, mythical beasts and many more, all carved in great detail and painted in red, yellow, orange and green, adorning the four corners of the chowk. Wherever I looked, I was floored watching these priceless treasures. Truly they are poetries in wood.
We left the haveli after spending an hour and strolled through the streets again to look for more havelis. No doubt there were havelies, but none could match the splendour of these two. While communicating with locals we discovered that most of the people are still ignorant about the value of these buildings. Till recently many of these priceless sculptures and even houses were sold at peanut price. But as the social media has grown, now it seems a chunk of young people have awakened. But still a lot more effort is required to prevent the havelis from further damage.