Gujarat has attracted a lot of attention of late. The outbreak of plague in Surat in 1994, the earthquake in 2001, the riots following the massacre of 58 Hindu pilgrims at Godhra in 2002, the state’s remarkable development story, and the electoral triumph of India’s new prime minister from Vadnagar have all fixed Gujarat firmly in the Indian and international imagination. An invitation from Amitabh Bachchan in his sonorous voice to visit the state clinches the deal and it is impossible to resist a trip to Gujarat.
For whatever reason, Gujarat has not advertised itself much as a tourist destination until recently. Even now, the promotion of tourism appears halfhearted compared to the glitzy campaigns of Thailand, Turkey, Malaysia, or even Singapore. Awareness of Gujarat’s sights, barring Gir Forest or pilgrimage spots, is very low. I would have suggested that the tourist infrastructure is almost non-existent and that also betrays the state’s apathy towards tourism but I realise this is true for most parts of India and not limited to Gujarat.
My trip started from Amdavad. I reached Amdavad by train in the morning and was ready to hit the road by noon. I am not particularly enamoured by the Mohandas Gandhi story and did not want Sabarmati Ashram on my itinerary. Thankfully, my friend did not insist on making me more closely acquainted with one of Gujarat’s great sons either. Apparently the state has only one great son in the modern era – Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel – and all others are liked only in varying degrees.
Our first stop was Patan, approximately 130 kms north of Amdavad. This was because I had arrived at a fairly fortuitous time, just after the Vibrant Gujarat Summit and the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas but during the annual Uttarardh Mahotsav. My initial thoughts had been to spend the day in and around Amdavad rather than squeeze a visit to a nearby site of interest. That changed even before I arrived in Amdavad because it came to my notice that a classical dance show had been organised in Modhera in front of the Surya Mandir that night. The setting was going to be seductive and I like classical dance – no way was I going to miss it! As we say back home, kmean kar roiam chivut kmean ney – without dance, life has no meaning.
The road to Patan was not bad. After all, Gujarat is famous for the quality of its roads. In a country where potholes are the norm, the western Indian state really stood out as an exception. Our destination in Patan was Rani ki Vav, a 950-year-old stepwell built by Queen Udayamati in the memory of her deceased husband, Bhimdev I of the Solanki dynasty. Also known as Ranki Vav, the structure was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites in June 2014.
I had little expectations from this stepwell – after all, I had seen several such decorated holes in the ground during my travels in Karnataka. Yet Rani ki Vav stunned me with its size and beautiful sculptures. The well is some 65 metres long and well over seven storeys down. Furthermore, it was not decorated with just a few geometric designs but extensively with sculptures of Mahishasuramardini, Parvati, Bhairava, Ganesha, Surya, Kubera, and the several avataras of Vishnu. Interspersed are the ashtadikpalas, yoginis, nagakanyas, and apsaras. I would not be exaggerating if I said that these statues could easily be compared to those at Belur, Khajuraho, or Ellora. I was especially pleased to see vigilant guards chasing away the idiots who wanted to climb or lean on the sculptures; I wish they had the power to levy hefty fines as well.
This comparison makes me wonder about the market for craftsmen in India a thousand years ago. It is obvious that works of exquisite beauty in stone were not the monopoly of just one kingdom or one short, golden period. The talent was widespread, as was the demand. Furthermore, there exists a span of a good five of six centuries between Ellora and the Hoysalas. Throughout this period, there seemed to be enough work for craftsmen to sustain themselves and not let their art die. As a scholar primarily of Europe, I found it an interesting comparative snapshot of the composition of the economies of the kingdoms of the Indian subcontinent ten centuries ago.
I would like to go off on a short tangent at this point about the Solanki kings of Gujarat because I was quite surprised to hear some of the theories of their origins and others might be too. Several theories consider the Solankis to be the descendants of the southern Chalukya dynasty of what is today Karnataka. To begin with the mythological evidence first, one theory suggests that ‘Chalukya’ was the name of a warrior who was born from fire and his descendants became the Chalukyas. The idea of a fiery birth is prevalent across Hindu epics and puranas and very likely fired up the imagination of a few poets in search of new euolgies for their royal patrons too.
The notion of Agnikula Rajputs was probably popularised by Chand Bardai, the 12th century court poet of Rai Pithora, in his poem Prithviraj Raso. Rajput clans are broadly divided into three lineages – those claiming descent from the Sun, suryavanshi, those claiming the Moon as their ancestor, chandravanshi, and those born of fire, agnivanshi. This is drawn from the Bhavishya Purana, where it is stated that the agnikunda Rajputs – Chauhans, Chalukyas, Parmaras, and Pratiharas – were born at Mount Abu. As I said earlier, one of these warriors was called Chalukya.
Another theory, this one from Bilhana’s 11th century eulogy to Vikramaditya VI, the Vikramankdevacharita, is that Brahma took some sacred water of the Ganges into his palm, from which he created a fearsome warrior. Since the word for palm is “chuluk” in Sanskrit, the warrior and his descendants came to be known as the Chalukyas. A third theory, proposed by the 10th century poet Pampa in his Vikramarjuna Vijaya, suggests that the Chalukyas were the descendants of the great Pandava warrior, Arjuna.
Coming to the realm of history, several scholars such as Lt. Col. James Tod, Sir James Campbell, and Gaurishankar Ojha have speculated on the Kalyankataka – a town undisputedly under Chalukya suzerainty – origins of the Solankis. Their sources are inscriptions and chronicles of the period such as Merutunga’s Prabhanda Chintamani, Arisimha’s Sukrita Sankirtana, and Someshwara’s Kirti Kaumudi. Of course, the veracity of these chronicles must be taken with a pinch of salt, but they seem to broadly agree with each other.
No doubt, there are differences between the southern Chalukyas and the northern Solankis, but that is to be expected over a couple of centuries. In keeping with local customs, perhaps, the northern branch of the dynasty underwent changes in their kuladeva, their crest, their gotra, and their name underwent a linguistic as well as language shift. Language experts can tell you more about the shift from “ch” to “s” but away from home, the Chalukyas of Gujarat gradually became the Solankis of Gujarat. In a far less complicated manner, a modern example would be how the Scindias of Madhya Pradesh are the Shindes of Maharashtra.
Anyway. I had expected to spend at most half an hour at Rani ki Vav but ended up spending closer to two hours. What was supposed to be just another hole in the ground ate up much more time than I had expected. With sunset approaching, we headed to Modhera after the promise of song and dance.
The Surya Mandir at Modhera had been lit up in different colours and a stage had been built in front of it, this side of the kalyani, of course. The programme consisted of three segments: it would be an hour of odissi, followed by an hour of bharatnatyam, and concluding with an hour of Gujarat’s own gharba. Sadly, I am no dance connoisseur but I doubt anything on a stage with such a magnificent backdrop could look bad! I was mesmerised by odissi and the bharatnatyam but left before the gharba started – somehow gharba gives off the vibe that it is a participatory activity and not a spectator event. Due to a little logistical snafu, we could not get a hotel room in Mehsana and had to drive back to Amdavad. However, thanks to the good road, we made it home in good time.
The next day, we hit the road early because we wanted to see Modhera during the day and then move on to Dholavira and make it there before the sun set. The Surya Mandir at Modhera was quite beautiful, though heavily eroded. In fact, I was surprised to see the level of erosion the sculptures on the temple walls had endured. Going only by the erosion, had I not known the age of the temple, I would have easily guessed it to be at least 500 years older than it actually was. I suspect part of it is the constant touching and climbing by tourists, not to mention the sacking by Allaudin Khilji, but some of it might also be that the Gujarat air carries a lot of dust – not unthinkable in a semi-arid state.
The Modhera Surya Mandir was built by King Bhimdev in 1026, the same ruler in whose honour Rani ki Vav was posthumously built. It is built such that, on the summer solstice, the first rays of the sun fall on the deity, Surya. Our return to Amdavad the previous night had not been entirely foolish, thankfully: had it been an equinox, we would have missed an opportunity to witness this for ourselves. The temple has three segments: a pushkarini, a sabha mantap, and the garbha griha. The pushkarini is slightly larger than an Olympic-size swimming pool, and its steps contain tiny shrines to 108 deities though I did not count them! Also, I have not noticed such a prominent and stand-alone sabha mantap at any other temple that I recall. Even if such an arrangement exists, it does not seem common.
There was a small museum on site too. It is not really worth a visit unless you want to come away with horror stories of how the Archaeological Survey of India has just collected statues and fragments in there, or how the labels are atrociously vague. When we visited it, there were no guards or attendants there and even the lights were off. The museum, such as it was, stood only marginally above a lost-and-found goods warehouse.
Eroded idols at Surya Mandir, Modhera
We set off for Dholavira well before noon. The distance between us and our destination was approximately 250 kms and pace all the stories about Gujarat’s great roads, I knew that in India, the only sensible thing would be to plan to cover the distance in eight hours. Just the previous month, I had been stuck on a stretch of highway that took four hours to traverse a hundred kilometres! We reached Dholavira in four hours, but it was not all smooth sailing.
I must at this point register my strong distrust of Google Maps. The product is generally good, I will admit, but there have been times when I have also been terribly misled. This was one of them. We had driven north to Radhanpur from where got onto NH 15 as it would take us half way to Dholavira. Theoretically, we were supposed to turn off NH 15 onto Gujarat SH 52 just after Santalpur and towards Ranmalpura. From there, GJSH 52 would take us through a desert patch called Gadkibet and all the way to GJSH 51 near Balasar and on the last stretch to Dholavira. Except that when we left NH 15, we were quickly onto a dirt track to nowhere! We pushed on for a bit but there seemed to be no sign of civilisation. Finally, we came across a couple of people walking by and asked them for directions. For whatever reason, they seemed eager to tell us how to get to Dhoraji rather than Dholavira! I dare not contemplate the possibility that they had not heard of the ancient Harappan site.
Soon, even the bushes failed and we were in the open desert with not a point of reference on the horizon to guide us. Google Maps still showed us to be on the alleged GJSH 52 but I am wondering if that whole road is some sort of NREGA scheme Google cooked up! Life never gets better without getting worse first – in the middle of this nowhere, our car got a flat tyre. I know, oy vey! Common sensical folks that we are, we had serviced the car before leaving on our journey and we had a spare tyre. After changing the wheel, we pressed on with only the sun and our tracks as navigational references. Oddly, I did not feel at all scared to be out of sight of everything; it felt like I had the planet to myself for a few minutes, and that really wasn’t so bad 🙂 Finally, we reached a road and I am not quite sure whether by luck or by our rudimentary navigation. To be fair, we knew we would eventually hit a road somewhere; we just hoped we would not have to deal with another puncture. We reached Dholavira only half an hour later than we had expected, remarkable given our adventures.
There was no town around Dholavira, it was merely a marker on the map. There were two lodges and a shop in the vicinity of the Harappan ruins and that was it. I did not see anything else for a few kilometres. Normally, I review hotels I have stayed in on TripAdvisor to avoid clutter in the travelogue. However, there is an important lesson to be learned about lodging in the Gujarati wilderness – you really cannot call Dholavira anything else – that is best explained here. Both hotels were tolerable for backpackers, students, and budget travellers but there were no luxuries. Both places were somewhat clean though the paint was peeling off the walls at one place and the other place appeared too new for real wear and tear. However, one place had no bathroom infrastructure in terms of a health faucet, bidet, jet spray, or even toilet paper. The difference in price for these otherwise similar places was double for the one that had the facilities. The same was the case in Mehsana – in fact, the porter actually asked us what ‘toilet paper’ was when we asked about the inadequate bathroom! So the lesson here is: always carry a roll of toilet paper in Gujarat!
We had about an hour of sunlight and I could not resist the call of a 5,000-year-old settlement. We rushed to the Harappan ruins to catch a first glimpse of what life was like five millennia ago. Of course, the Indus Valley Civilisation was not the first settlement in South Asia though it was the first clearly urban one: the subcontinent’s history is considerably older if one considers the Mehrgarh discoveries of advanced farming communities. Unfortunately, those sites, or whatever is left of them, are in Balochistan and not quite accessible. After an hour or so on site, we headed back to our hotel for not only was it getting dark but it was difficult to figure out the significance of all but the most obvious structures such as the huge water reservoirs.
We arranged for a guide for Dholavira for the next day at our hotel. For all its primitiveness, the staff was very cooperative and friendly. There was little to do after that except have dinner and retire – there was no television and my phone was off network. It was not quite cold but we still started a small campfire for us to sit around and chat. It turned out to be a great decision – miles from nowhere, in the middle of a desolate salt marsh, the sky was clearer and more wondrous.
The next morning, we set off early to maximise our time at the Harappan ruins. We would have a long drive to Somnath later and the sooner we got out of Dholavira, the better. Our guide had himself spent 13 years assisting archaeologists excavate Dholavira and was quite knowledgeable about the area. The entire archaeological site is about 800 metres in length and 600 metres across. It took us approximately three and a half hours to wander through the citadel, midtown, and lower town. Dholavira thrived for some 1,500 years and at its peak, housed some 15,000 people. Dholavira is one of the five largest Indus Valley cities discovered so far, the others being Mohenjodaro (Sindh), Harappa (Punjab, Pakistan), Kalibangan (Rajasthan), and Surkotada (Gujarat). The city has seven layers so far – meaning that it was inhabited and abandoned seven times. Unfortunately for archaeologists, later layers freely borrowed building material from earlier ones, and separating the different stages without contaminating them is painstaking work.
The most immediate thing you notice about the ancient city are its massive water reservoirs and water filtration system, five out of an estimated sixteen of which have been excavated. In a place like Khadirbet, the reason for this is obvious. The only sources of water for the inhabitants of Dholavira would have been two storm water channels, the Manhar and the Mansar, that flanked the city. Additionally, they would have had to practice some serious rainwater harvesting. Given the shortage of water, it is surprising that the Dholavirans spent so much water in making the bricks for the high walls of the citadel. The only logical answer for such constructions is that they must have feared regular attack from their neighbours, wandering tribes, and bandits. For Dholavira to not just survive but flourish away from a perennial river or the sea, they must have been on some ancient trade crossroad; their fabulous wealth must have attracted unwanted attention.
Another interesting discovery at Dholavira is the famous signboard found there. Of course, there is no piece of wood or placard surviving from 5,000 years ago but the imprint of the gypsum used to make the sign remains. This is, unfortunately for tourists, covered to protect it. The urban planning and sewage systems of Indus Valley settlements is well-known and Dholavira is no exception. There are baths, water reservoirs, drainage channels, wells, and even storage tanks to keep water cool in the citadel. In the dried up river beds of Manhar and Mansar, evidence has been found to suggest that the Dholavirans built dams to divert the monsoon water in the rivers into their reservoirs. If one notices carefully, the slope of Dholavira will be apparent; this aided the flow of water the higher tanks to the lower cisterns to the extent that water was not in particularly short supply throughout the year.
It was just wonderful to let the antiquity of the place to engulf you. Yet it was disappointing to see the neglect of such an important historical place. For instance, Dholavira was discovered around 1967 by Jagat Pati Joshi but the ASI began excavating it only around 1990. Presently, all excavation in the area has stopped. Our guide told us that some portions of the site had been reburied by archaeologists for fear of damaging the artifacts through neglect. There has even been encroachment upon the site from nearby farms and it would be an uphill battle to reclaim those lands for archaeological excavations if they ever started again. Wild grass grows all over the site and no road has been created for tourists to walk around. There are hardly half a dozen placards around the site and even they are completely unhelpful in terms of information or directions. Had it not been for our guide, I am not sure how much we could have gleaned from piles of stone and brick lying around.
We had spent some three and a half hours on site and I was thoroughly shocked to note that we did not bump into a single tourist or official the entire time! The ruins of this city from near the beginnings of civilisation in India was simply not on the map; Belgium, on the other hand, advertises Manneken Pis – a bronze figurine of a small boy urinating – as if it is the greatest piece of sculpture in European history!
There is a small museum as well but most of the artifacts worth seeing have been carted off to Delhi, some to decorate the museums of the capital while most languish unappreciated in ASI warehouses. Other than the eponymous site, there is also a fossil park at Dholavira that we did not visit. Samples of fossilised wood from the park were available at the museum and we were not particularly interested in seeing more.
From Dholavira, we left for the temple town of Somnath. We had decided to skip Dwaraka. For many Hindus, our decision would seem sacrilegious but the fact is that I do not really care about modern temples lending substance to mythology. There are two temples in the area that pilgrims flock to – Dwarkadhish in Dwaraka, and Keshavraiji on Bet Dwaraka, 35 kms away. Admittedly, some of the pillars in Dwarkadhish Temple are close to two thousand years old but this only proves the borrowing of older building material. The finding is still too recent for it to be connected to the mythological Krishna story.
Excavations in the area have found interesting artifacts but most date back only to the Mauryan period. Some discoveries that indicate an earlier date of settlement in the area still do not go much beyond the late Harappan period. Of great interest has been a handful of items that have been carbon-dated to approximately 7,500 BCE. However, the findings are inconclusive at best and may even be natural formations. Suffice it to say that the jury was still out on the whole thing and it was not like we would be able to go scuba diving to see the really cool stuff anyway. Therefore, there was no cause to add Dwaraka to my itinerary.
The journey to Somnath was 450 kms long. In any other state, I would not have dared to start a journey of this length after noon but Gujarat’s roads gave me the confidence that this was doable. The road was iffy until we hit Chitrod, but it got much better from Rajkot on. In fact, we made Somnath in about eight hours, including a stopfor lunch and some shopping. We practically flew until Junagadh but from there, the road was good in spurts only. In the towns, the roads were quite bad. We had to stop in Junagadh for a bit to pick up a mundu for me because I was travelling in cargo shorts and that is not how one goes to meet Lord Shiva! Unfortunately, Gujaratis seem to be a race of midgets, for the mundu I could find was only up to my ankles and that too if I wore it dangerously low!
In Somnath too, the hotels had the same bathroom issue we had bumped into in Mehsana and Dholavira. Thankfully, there are plenty of hotels in Somnath and we could find decent and affordable accommodations quickly.
The trick about Somnath Temple is to visit it at the crack of dawn and avoid particularly holy days or the holidays. As the primary of the twelve jyotirlingas, it can get pretty crowded on Mahashivaratri for example. The next day, we were knocking on the gates around 05 00. The temple opens at 06 00 but the first aarti is at 07 00. To be fair, we got there so early to do a bit of photography. Security is strict around the temple, and cars have to be parked some 500 metres away. No cameras or leather items are allowed inside the temple, and one’s dress should be…modest. We were among the first in line and we could easily go in, get our darshan, and then wait on the side until the aarti started. It got crowded pretty quickly and any doubts I may have had about getting there so early disappeared as the ardha mandapam began filling up.
We observed the aarti in peace and then walked around the temple complex. I was surprised to see so many of my mundu brethren there and a couple of them were eyeing me strangely as if to wonder, Namma oorkaaranga maadiri dress pottuirukkara parasigan yaarappa? Somnath is by the sea and the spot is therefore naturally picturesque. An interesting factoid is that there is no land on the longitude of Somnath Temple south of it until Antarctica, about 10,000 kms away. Behind the temple, there is a covered promenade for devotees to sit and enjoy the view. I can only imagine how nice it must be during the monsoons. Right by the Somnath Temple, is another Shiva temple. That one was built by the Maratha queen Ahilya Holkar in 1783 and stands in the footprint of the original Somnath Temple. Since Somnath had been destroyed so many times, Ahilya Holkar had the garbha griha built in the basement as a security measure.
Everyone knows that the Shiva temple at Somnath was looted by Muslim armies time and again. What I did not know was that the present temple is the seventh one, built in 1951. No one knows precisely when the first temple was built but it is assumed to be around 4CE. The second temple was built by the Yadava kings of Vallabhi around 649. The third temple was built by Gurjara Pratihara King Nagabhata II in 815 after Junayd ibn Abd al-Rahman al-Murri, the Arab governor of Sindh, destroyed it in 725. In 1024, the temple was yet again destroyed in the infamous raid by Mahmud of Ghazni; it was rebuilt by Gujjar Paramara King Bhoj and Solanki King Bhimdev I in 1042. The temple was sacked in 1296 during Allauddin Khilji’s bloody invasion which saw over 50,000 Hindus put to death and over 20,000 sold as slaves. The Chudasama king Mahipala Deva rebuilt the structure in 1308 only for it to be destroyed again by Muzaffar Shah I in 1395, Mahmud Begada in 1451, and Aurangzeb in 1665. Somnath Temple was then rebuilt only after Maratha power waxed in India and the smaller Muslim kings of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh were crushed. In between, Somnath had been sacked several times without the temple being destroyed.
The temple that we see today was constructed through the efforts of India’s first home minister, Vallabhbhai Patel. The ruins were pulled down and a fresh build was undertaken. During Islamic suzerainty over Gujarat, Somnath Temple had been converted into a mosque. This mosque moved a few kilometres away to make room for the new temple. Though Patel was the driving force behind the rebuilding of the Somnath Temple, he did not live to see it open. The temple opened in May 1951, five months after Patel’s death. Interestingly, Gandhi also supported the rebuilding of the Somnath temple as did several Congress leaders such as KM Munshi. Jawaharlal Nehru remained the voice of the tiny minority opposed to the temple project.
A Chalukyan style, or more specifically, the Kailas Mahameru Prasad style, was employed in the reconstruction of Somnath. I am no student of architecture but going by what I saw when I visited Badami and its environs, Somnath does not look similar. Perhaps the skills to produce such ornate pillars with such delicate features has been lost and what was achieved was a poor 20th century imitation. Large parts of the garbha griha and sabha mantap have been plated with gold since 2008. Around the temple, some reclamation work has been done – traditionally, the temple sat on the shore but it is now slightly inland and the beachfront around it has big boulders to break the waves and deter potential attackers. Before the temple, a statue of Patel stands, gazing upon one of Hinduism’s holiest shrines.
I will say that Somnath Temple has been maintained quite well. Temple towns have a reputation for pushing the boundaries of filthiness but Somnath was a pleasant surprise. Even the railway station looked tidy despite handling what must be thousands of pilgrims daily. We came back to our hotel and rested for a bit before driving back to Ahmedabad, a distance of 400 kms. Gujarat is not a small state, and sometimes the distances to be covered are vast. It is only with the network of high quality roads that this trip was possible in so short a time. In fact, we made such good time on our journey that day that we decided to stop by Lothal on the way.
Lothal is another Indus Valley site and is famous for its dry dock (though there has been some debate over this and suggestions that it might just be a large irrigation tank), one of the earliest in the world. The settlement is smaller than Harappa and dates further back. It was also quite prosperous but was subsumed into the Indus Valley fold as waves of migration from the Saraswati-Sindhu basin occurred. The name, ‘Lothal,’ apparently means in Gujarati what ‘Mohenjodaro’ means in Sindhi – mound of the dead – but there is little evidence of burial and lots for cremation at the site. While we do not know much about what the town was like before the Harappans came there, the urban planning and the water management infrastructure mark Lothal as a quintessential Indus Valley settlement. The settlement’s dimensions are roughly 300 metres long by 200 metres wide.
Lothal looked different – less haphazard – from Dholavira, probably because Lothal does not have seven layers of habitation. The town is small yet suited to its purpose, i.e., manufacturing and trade. At Lothal, you see a variety of building materials – the town was built with sun-dried bricks, the water system mainly of kiln-fired bricks, and the wharf and warehouses of mud bricks. Since water was plentiful – too plentiful, in fact – the residents of Lothal could afford to use brick rather than stone and therefore their structures retain a clean and polished finish unlike at Dholavira. The town layout follows a grid, streets and buildings perfectly parallel or perpendicular to others. The superstructures have all vanished due to erosion and theft but the bricks that remain still hold true even after four millennia.
Like its contemporary, Lothal has also been virtually abandoned by the ASI. Grass grows wildly over the site and there did not appear to be anyone guarding it. It would have been very easy for us to pick up and spirit away a few bricks as souvenirs if we so desired. Moss grew over the walls of the dock and several bricks had fallen apart, I would venture from salinity. There is a small museum on site but it was closed when we were there. In terms of accommodation too, there did not appear to be much in the area. Ahmedabad, some 85 kms away, is not particularly well connected to Lothal either – one would have to go to Bagodara or Burkhi and then either catch a local bus or perhaps hitch a ride to Lothal. Thank the gods we were in our own car! There is no food either, the nearest stalls being on the highway some 20 kms away. Sorry, Mr. Bachchan, we would love to breathe in a bit of Gujarat but it is a nuisance to do so.
I should also tell you a little bit about Gujarat’s roads that no one else will. Sure, the roads are broader than they are in India and as smooth as many highways in the developed world. None of that really matters, though – if you are going to have goatherds wantonly cut across the highway with their flocks, people driving on the wrong side of the highway (!!) to avoid 500 m of extra driving to a nearby u-turn, drivers going slow in the fast lane, and an abject disregard for lane discipline, no quality of road will help you! So Gujarat’s roads are good but they also warrant caution, something one tends to forget when a beautiful, black ribbon unfolds to the horizon.
One more thing I found absolutely bonkers about Gujarat is its dogs. Unlike normal creatures that get up and run away when a hominid or a speeding car approaches, these canines do not seem to have a care in the world. I have seen cars slow down for them as they do for cows. The only difference is, drivers are a little less worried about hitting dogs than cows. Naturally. Dogs form the bulk of roadkill on Gujarat’s highways because they also have the habit of leaping at speeding vehicles. That whole thing about puppies and wheels during the 2014 general election campaign is now beginning to take on an entirely different hue – avoiding puppies would require extra care in Gujarat!
After three days of long drives and getting up early, we thought it best to lie in for a day. We stayed in Ahmedabad and explored some of its culinary options as well as a couple of local sights. After some spectacular vadapav in the early afternoon, we headed over to Adalaj to see its famous stepwell, some 20 kms away from Ahmedabad. A quick comment on Gujarati cuisine: I still don’t like it, but it is significantly better than I thought after eating what passes as Gujarati food in Bombay. The dhabelis are a great snack option and the vadapav in Ahmedabad is much better than in its home state of Maharashtra! I did not try all the variants of Gujarati cuisine and honestly, I do not think I regret it. My munching style is far more suited to Iran and the cuisines of the countries around the Mediterranean.
Anyway…Adalaj. The stepwell has an odd history, for starters. It was built by Mahmud Begada, the Sultan of Gujarat, for Queen Roopba, the wife of the Rana Veer Singh of the Vaghela dynasty of Dandai Desh as the territory around Adalaj was known then, after the former had invaded and killed the latter in battle. Begada was apparently overcome by the beauty of the slain king’s wife that he completed the project that Rana Veer Singh had started. Of course, the queen might have preferred that her kingdom not be invaded or her husband killed, but these are minor matters. The stepwell was built in 1499 and once Begada took over the task, in Islamic style. This meant that the well would have no human figurines but instead be decorated only by geometric patterns. Legend has it that the queen agreed to marry Begada only if he finished the well in the memory of her husband but committed suicide in the well as soon as it was completed.
Adalaj is supposed to be beautiful and I can understand that theoretically. Unfortunately, after Rani ki Vav, it was difficult to see Adalaj as much more than a hole in the ground. The well goes down about five storeys and is quite impressive nonetheless. Some Hindu motifs such as the kalpavriksha and Ami Khumbor have survived the Islamic construction and even blended well with Islamic motifs. On the walls of the well and the many pillars can be found carvings of elephants of different sizes, and occasionally, small figurines of women engaged in domestic chores, dancers, and musicians. One can tell that Adalaj was partially built by a Hindu king from its architecture – the trademark prop and lintel system can be seen in the construction around the funnel of the well. I do not wish to take away from Adalaj – it is indeed a beautiful stepwell – but mayhap a bit bland after Rani ki Vav.
We returned to the city and I decided that I wanted to try out the much talked about Bus Rapid Transport System. The system has its plus points and minus points. On the plus side, the buses are all air-conditioned Volvo wagons and the dedicated lanes for the BRTS makes the journey really quick, especially during rush hour. On the minus side, BRTS is not integrated with the older bus systems in Ahmedabad that serve the more crowded localities and have roads narrower than BRTS can navigate. The stealing of two lanes by BRTS from a regular six-lane road also frustrates many motorists. However, the dedicated lanes solve the problem only up to a point – BRTS is vulnerable at traffic junctions. Ticket prices are comparable to similar services in other cities such as Bangalore.
I took the BRTS to visit the famous Hutheesing Jain Temple. Built in 1848, Hutheesing took Rs. 800,000 to build and is dedicated to the 15th thirthankara, Dharmanatha. The temple was built during a famine and its construction gave much-needed employment to hundreds of labourers and craftsmen. I was surprised to see the quality of craftsmanship that had gone into the temple; I did not expect to see a temple built so recently to even attempt to imitate the grandeur of the past. Hutheesing Temple does a decent job, though, and it makes me reflect unfavourably on all the Maratha temple renovations around the country that look amateurish by comparison.
On my last day in Gujarat, I decided to go see the other World Heritage site in the state – Champaner, or more accurately, Champaner-Pavagadh. I had not heard any great reviews of the place from any of my friends or relatives who had visited Gujarat previously but surely, a World Heritage site must have something to it! Champaner is 150 kms from Ahmedabad but a good chunk of that distance can be traversed on the National Expressway 1, perhaps the best stretch of road there is in India presently and running between Ahmedabad and Baroda.
Champaner is no more than a village and a dirty one at that, albeit a 1,200-year-old one, and the points of interest are scattered all over the place. The Heritage Trust of Baroda lists 114 monuments there of which only 39 are being maintained by the ASI. The entire archaeological park contains mosques, temples, forts, wells, tombs, custom houses, and all sorts of interesting structures. Champaner must have been a strategic place because of all the hills surrounding it. Indeed, the Rajputs used the town as a stronghold in the region until they were defeated by Mahmud Begada in 1484. The town went into rapid decline after Mughal emperor Humayun sacked it in 1535.
We did not intend to spend three days in Champaner, sifting through all the monuments. For one, my history of Gujarat is weak and were I to attempt such a comprehensive tour, all monuments would start to blur into each other. I was particularly interested in the Jama Masjid and the Saat Kaman. The Jama Masjid is an interesting construction with several Hindu features incorporated into it. The building is on a plinth, is decorated by motifs such as pots, vines, and even lotuses, and its dome is lifted above the structure on short pillars to allow air to circulate inside. The ASI manages the site and it therefore has the obligatory lawns; however, Jama Masjid and indeed, Champaner itself, had hardly any tourists. I was beginning to wonder if India’s Ministry of Tourism even exists and it is not all just a myth.
Jama Masjid was a beautiful monument, as were a couple of the other mosques we stopped to see on the way to Jama Masjid. There was, nonetheless, a visible qualitative difference between the Jama Masjid and the other mosques. From the mosque, we drove to Saat Kaman, half way up Pavagadh Hill. There is a Kalika Mata temple on top and the route up is called patha, or pilgrim’s route. This path is considered to be the soul of Chamapner and the saat kaman, or seven arches, have become a marker of the town. When I got to there, I was sorely disappointed.
The saat kaman are a very unassuming structure – small, tucked away, and simple. I have no earthly clue what made this one of the favourite subject for tourism posters of Gujarat. So shocked were we that we actually asked a guard nearby if this was indeed the much talked about saat kaman. The seven arches seems to have been a military outpost of some kind for the view from there was quite good and the breeze would be most enjoyable on a hot Gujarati summer’s day. We looked around a bit to see if we had missed anything – we still could not reconcile ourselves to the humbleness of the seven arches – and finally left.
There is much to see and do in Gujarat. One can visit the state as a pilgrim, a wildlife lover, a tourist, or even as a foodie. For me, it was clearly the history that attracted me. One thing that struck me as I readied to go home was that despite the shabby condition of several of the tourist attractions in Gujarat, not one of them sported the traditional Indian defacement of idiotic graffiti such as ‘Jignes loves Nehal’ or ‘Samir wuz here.’ I do not know how they achieved that – perhaps by not promoting tourism at all – but kudos, guys…excellent job.
Something else I noticed was the ubiquitous presence of signs in Gujarati. Everyone understands Hindi, at least in my experience, but signs in Gujarat, from signboards to nameplates, appear mostly in Gujarati. A distant second choice is English, but I saw very little Hindi. Of course, Gujarati is the state language and this should not have surprised me but I took for granted the presence of Hindi alongside English and the local language as I have experienced in Bombay and Bangalore. I suppose this will be an example for the parochially minded elements in other states I shall not mention!
All my travelogues have an ode to the Indian tourist, and this one should not be any different. The good news is that Gujarat’s historical treasures do not seem to suffer from the vandalism and littering other states in India do. The bad news is that the pendulum has swung to the other extreme on this, all the way to neglect and apathy. Dholavira and Lothal appear to be ghost towns in more ways than one but even at Champaner and Modhera, there were few tourists around. At Patan, Rani ki Vav had devolved into a picnic ground thanks to the beautiful lawns provided by the National Gardeners’ Association, also known as the ASI. People were eating, sleeping, and even playing badminton, all things I did not realise were on the agenda at the palaces of Schönbrunn or Versailles. What is more, I suspect many of them had come there with the express purpose of picnicking and not to see the stepwell.
I had a great trip. I already have two itineraries planned for my next visits, one exclusively focusing on the smaller Indus Valley sites that have fallen off the tourist map and another more general one covering the reserve forests, temples, and contemporary history – meaning post 1200 CE. Ahmedabad itself has a lot to offer that I could not avail of this time. This first reconnaissance visit achieved a lot in terms of sight-seeing as well as giving me a feel for the place, its infrastructure, and its logistics that you cannot get from the internet. Here is to hoping that “next time” will come soon 🙂
A few photographs from my travels:
This post appeared on Swarajya on May 03, 2015.