A 4-week trip around Gujarat at Christmas 2012 and the New Year





Siddi Sayyed Mosque

A soft arrival at the House of MG, a massive boutique operation in the old town of Ahmedabad and the home of a 19th century dynasty of textile entrepreneurs. The building is decorated with exactly the same tiles as our hall at home. We stay in the massive room use for confinement in the ladies’ quarter. Not cheap but the essential place to stay in India’s 5th largest city. The taxi drive from the airport is the culture jolt you need; past the suburban colonies of bureaucratic and military India, through the slum settlements with homebuilt wedding carts and fairground rides, past the bird feeding stations, an old colonial church, elaborate roundabout sculptures, the Gandhi murals in the underpass and into traffic hell.

Directly across from the hotel is the Siddi Sayyed mosque. Dating from 1573 the carved stone windows are the unofficial symbol of the city.


A thali at the House of MG

Sprawling across the roof of the hotel is a wonderful restaurant, Agashiye, which specialises in massive and good quality thalis for about £7. (OK, that’s probably the most expensive thali in town.)

A walking tour of the old city

The first morning we wake to the empty streets at 7am – the old city doesn’t sem to rise until 10am – and find a rickshaw to take us to the Swarmi Narayan temple. A man there who had recently visited Leicester told me that they’d been chanting there since 4am. The priests are pouring milk over small statues. Boys are chipping away at large blocks of sandstone.


Attaching powdered glass to fighting kite strings

We join a large group for the morning heritage tour. There are two obvious westerners; one from London, one from Jordan. The guide leads us through the maze of the old city; past fighting kite string makers covering the plastic line with powdered glass paste, and into the pols. The pols are enclosed neighbourhoods, often complete with a defensive gatehouse, ‘secret’ passageways, a temple and a selection of elaborate bird and squirrel feeders. Many of the houses still have heavy carvings and mix European, Mughal and local styles.The local heritage organisation is helping people to renovate buildings, working with foreign architects and are ultimately trying for a Unesco World Heritage listing. We visited a private temple and an underground Jain temple.

jami-masjid2The tour ends at the great Friday mosque. Built in 1424 for the private use of the rulers, the courtyard leads you to a forest of 260 columns and a raised screened area for the women. The mihrab are decorated with hindu bells and flowers.


The tombs of the Queens

We wander back to see Shah Ahmed’s mausoleum; early 15th century. No women allowed in the inner are. Ducks & goats wander around the graveyard that has positioned itself next to the burial place of the city’s founder.

Nearby the royal women were buried, in another raised construction. The locked building is surrounded by squatters who act as defacto caretakers. They let us in to the open courtyard to show us the marble graves under their fabric covers. The caretaker’s children play among the graves, flying their kites.

Another thali

That evening we met our driver Deep Singh who drove us to Vishalla, a faux village restaurant in the suburbs. Slightly oddly there is a utensil museum attached to the restaurant which, despite our initial scepticism, was worth wandering around. A vast collection of pots, inevitable betel nut cutters, dowry containers & earthenware from across India.


The thali at Vishalla

We had another vast thali. Repeated waves of servers quickly lead to culinary overload. We ate cross-legged under canvas awnings. There was entertainment in various arenas: music and puppets. There are pictures of Indira Gandhi and a young Big B at the entrance.

The start of the trip

On Thursday morning we’re driven to the Hutheesing temple, between the hotel and the Calico museum. Built in 1849 it’s pretty and the first of many Jain temples that we’ll see. The central shrine is surrounded by 52 shrines each adorned with an image of one of the 24 Tirthankaras. The buildings – no photos allowed – are covered in carvings, and best of all, sitting on some rickety home-made scaffolding, were about 30 people of all ages, from small children to the elderly, polishing the carvings with grinding sticks.

The Calico museum is one of the great textile museums of the world. A private collection set in a group of buildings rescued from the old city But it’s officious and bureaucratic, security obsessed and user unfriendly. You need to pre-book one of two tours a day and be rushed through an astonishing collection at high speed. No photos, no notes. Lights are switched off as you are pushed into the next room. And much of the fabric is encased in user-unfriendly plastic protection

But what an astonishing collection; an entire Mughal tent kit, 17th century painted calico, a selection of ikats, applique from Orissa, naive quilting from Bihar and an entire temple wagon from Tamil Nadu. Lots of embroidery from Kutch and examples of tie-dying. Phulkaris too; ours would have fitted in well here.


Laxmi Vilas Palace


Laxmi Vilas Palace

The Palace of Laxmi Vilas in Vadodara in eastern Gujarat has to one of the most extravagant buildings I’ve ever seen.

It was only built in 1890 by an English architect for the Maharaja Gaekwar of Baroda, one of the most prestigious royal families in India, one of only five to be accorded a 21-gun salute in the strict order of precedence of the Indian royal states. Here’s the family’s website.

An English architect was given a huge budget, and briefed to include Hindu, Jain, Christian and Moslem architecture in the styling.

The tour is very limited; we didn’t leave the ground floor in the left half of the palace. The  family still live in the wing on the right. No photographs of the interior and lots of guards to keep you on track.


Entrance hall at Laxmi Vilas

The interior is full of old-fashioned taste and imported craftsmen. Chandeliers, stained glass, stucco and stuffed animals. Italian sculptors were commissioned and marble was imported for the vast darber hall. There’s a collection of armoury including a sword owned by a Mughal emporer and a clay pigeon launcher, allegedly used to propel deadly discs off the back of an elephant.



Chhota Udaipur



The living room

Chhota Udaipur is a quiet town in the eastern Gujarat. We arrived there late after long delays on the road because of celebrations from the victorious BJP in the State elections. Villagers lined the roads to watch conveys of trucks and vans flying flags and carrying supporters.

It was dark by the time we reached Kali Niketan. Built for the grandfather of the current ex-royal at the end of the 19th century, it was renovated throughout in the 1930s and is full of furniture and fittings of that time. The house is pretty fascinating but perhaps on the ramshackle side of atmospheric. I can imagine some people’s reaction being horrified. The Maharaja and his wife live upstairs. The son, a call centre manager is ‘on tour’ in Thailand.

There’s a massive collection of taxidermy; most of it in good shape. It nicely sets off a collection of Disney figurines.One of the living rooms houses four leopard heads, two bears, one whole leopard, one tiger skin, one crocodile and a leopard skin carpet. The other bedroom we viewed had two leopards poised over the bed. I counted the body parts of around 20 leopards.


Our bedroom

They’re building some modern bungalows in the grounds; space and ensuite bathrooms. Meals will still be in the house, but some of the atmosphere might get missed.

There’s a delightful family painting downstairs – not that old – of sunglass-wearing family members smiling as they stand over the corpse of a bear. And upstairs, one of the wall-mounted skulls – recent – comes with a WWF sticker attached. Plenty of deco furniture and light fittings, one enormous job lot; one or two pieces are nice but much is very worn and dusty.


Another bedroom

The friendly set of retainers were happy to talk about the house and the family. One was born in the compound and had worked here for 35 years. One mentioned: “Snakes do come into the house but not beyond the ground floor”.

The Aide-de-Camp (all the Mahrajahs seemed to have ADCs) showed us around the house. His daughter lives in Bristol and is a Tory councillor for the city council. He proudly showed us a picture of her with David Cameron.

The Haat

chhota-market1On Saturday it’s Chhota’s turn to host a haat; the weekly market. The tribal people have been walking into town since the early hours. Kim lurks behind the women photographing their bandhani (tie-dyed) saris.

I’ve never seen so many precisely arranged vegetable stalls; beautifully-piled mounds of tomatos, beans and aubergines. We were early, before the crowds, so there was a sense of calmness before the rush.chhota-market3

Among the vegetables and clothes there were basket makers and stalls selling bows and arrows – technically illegal – and home-made coils of rope made from some sort of grass fibre or creeper. Cows were forever stealing mouthfuls of horticulture when the stallholders weren’t looking.

The local museum has a collection of artifacts from various tribes. Some, like the bows and arrows, the woven loincloths, the tassled holders for carrying pots on your head, and the rice dehuskers we still on sale in the market we had just visited. There were some great wall paintings, which they really should sell on canvas, and some more elaborate terracotta horses, camels and elephants.


Bows & arrows



The town has several large and crumbling palaces; the main one is empty and subject to a family dispute over turning it into a hotel. Another is rented out to the Collector. And one is empty and crumbling. Lots of art Deco building around the town and others from earlier colonial times. But also dusty, pig-inhabited and rubbish-strewn open spaces, like most Indian towns.

The Maharaja

We finally met the the Maharaja the second evening and had a number of talks with him over dinner and breakfast. He was sent away to Rajkumar College in Rajkot, the famous royal boarding school where the British encouraged many of the princes to attend. The family had the British Resident over from Baroda every Christmas to shoot panthers in the forested hills north of Chhota. If we ever go back he said he’d take us to the camp. He regretted the break-up of the royal states and the confiscation of property. Personally he missed out going to Cambridge because of the war,  He desisted current politicians for their populism and corruption. And he was pessimistic about India; too many people.


A local potter, selling terracotta figures

But the guy had shot tigers – including the rug downstairs – you don’t often meet people like that. (Caveat; he said he only shot them if they were becoming a nuisance.)

He talked about the burden of looking after six palaces – there are pictures of them up in the hall – but those were the days when you could get a palace built in 28 days and had the railway line go past your front door for your private carriage. One of the palaces apparently had 80 kg of gold incorporated into the building! His son and daughters now have to work in fairly normal jobs, as he had to do after the break-up of the royal states. He regretted democracy and the ignorance of the population yet also saw that the demand for education was leading to labour shortages that were affecting what was left of his estate.

He was great friends with the Maharaja of Morbi. The princes, he said, never met up now – they’re all too busy. He used to have 250 horses and a private army (unclear exactly when this was) and they had a silver carriage. They can’t wear their jewels anymore because the government takes an interest. He’s quite vehemently anti-prohibition; he says smuggling across the nearby Madhya Pradesh border is easy but makes alcohol expensive.

His father and uncles were invited to the coronation (George V) in 1937. They brought back various tea services from Britain and he showed us some ceramics from a locked cupboard; some 19th century stoneware with Gothic ruins and a stylish 1930s set from Shelley’s with the family crest (“Death or victory”).


Pavagadh and Champaner



The Friday Mosque at Champaner

Between Valodara and Chhota is the hill temple of Pavagadh and the old city of Champaner. It’s on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites.



A fort on the hill

Pavagadh Hill is an old volcano that dramatically rises from the plain to 800m. There are forts and mosque ruins on the way up until you reach a plateau of a car park and shops. You can then take a cable car to the top, if you’re too lazy to walk. A mass of people were visiting and the route was lined with stalls selling Hindu souvenirs and objects to be blessed to be blessed at the top. You can have your photo taken against backdrops; magical versions of the hill. Herds of donkeys are whipped up and down to supply the stalls.

The temple at the top is a bit of an anti-climax. You expect major pilgrimage sites to be visually magnificent, but this was a small and not obviously important building on a rather bare hill, where pilgrims queued and were rushed through to have their souvenirs and coconuts blessed. If I was a bit underwhelmed, I’m sure that wasn’t true for those who’d travelled for hours to get here. The excitement and enthusiasm of the pilgrims was clear; it was a special place.


At the bottom of the hill are the remains of the 500 year old city of Champaner. This was briefly the capital of Gujarat in the 15th century before it moved to Ahmedabad. And to a western tourist it was far more obviously a ‘site’.


The Kevada Masjid with its cenotaph

A few people still live here but since early colonial times the place has been fairly deserted. Inside the remains of huge city walls there are the remains of massive structures. It’s the mosques and city walls that are mainly still standing, and there are some magnificent examples set among the fields and water tanks. The walls and minarets are covered in carvings and decoration, and are full of pierced stone windows. There are hardly any visitors.

There’s also a great step well outside the walls that spirals down to a circle of green water.


Pithora Painting


Murals covered the interior of the farmhouse

We took a short drive just to the north of Chhota to find some pithora paintings.

Off a side road we walked to a farmhouse to meet a farmer who paints in the afternoon. Man Singh had painted a mural in the Chhota Udaipur museum and had decorated the interior of his house – a basic mud-floored building – with colourful pictures of trains, galloping horses, guns, birds and animals, processions, and farm activity.

The paintings contain elements drawn from oral history, tribal legends and fantasy; silhouettes of galloping horses, birds and animals, people, village life, hills and landscape.


Man Singh at work on the wall of his barn


He sold us a painting outside for 3,000 rupees; a more colourful one was cheaper but far too large to bring home.


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