Ahmedabad – The Night Food Market

April 2013

ahmedabad2At the end of the heritage walk, I took an autorickshaw back to The MG House. My *rickshawala recommended I get dinner at the nightly food market at Manek Chowk. Following his advise, I returned my audio-guide/walkman and took another *rickshaw straight to Manek Chowk. When I got there, the day stalls had packed up, hustle bustle of the (day) market had died down and the place looked deserted. I wondered if I had come to the right place. I asked a lone foodcart. “Just wait and watch.”, he laughed enigmatically. Sure enough, right in front of my eyes, the place began to transform. The day stalls were moved. Shop fronts morphed into street kitchens. Fires were lit, electric lights strung and lit, tables and chairs were set out; clang clang! bang bang! sizzle, smoke and the transformation was complete.

ahmedabad3The tantalizing aroma of street food filled the air. At first I was the only one there. I sat down and ordered a pav bhaji. Slowly, people started to trickle in and before I could finish eating the place was buzzing with life.

*autowala/rickshawala – auto-rickshaw driver

Ahmedabad – Walking Tour

April 2013

DSC_0278 Finally I reached The House of MG, the starting point of my heritage walk. The House turns out to be a heritage property converted into a contemporary hotel. MG is Mangaldas Girdhardas, a 20th century leading businessman and philanthropist who started his career as a storekeeper in a textile mill and from there built an empire mills and other related businesses. I collected my walkman/audio-guide and headphones from the front desk and set forth with all the confidence of Amelia Earhart.

ahmedabad4The first location was very easy to find, since it was right across the road.It is said that the Nawab of Junagad once went to Africa and there he fell in love with a woman. He married her and brought her back, along with thousands of slaves.Eventually  a number of them rose to positions of power and influence in the 16th century. One of them, Shaik Said al-Habshi Sultani built this mosque, which is now known by his name. The Sidi Saiyad Mosque is famous for its magnificent, delicate stone carving of the ‘tree of life’ motif  jali, or lattice-work.

ahmedabad5I walked round this lovely building and finally spot the pink facade of the The Ahmedabad Electricity Company – or AEC Tower Art Deco building. I followed the audio instructions and started walking towards Bhadra Fort. A few wrong turns later I found myself at the street market that has sprawled along the external wall of the fort.  It is believed the fort adopted the name Bhadra after a temple dedicated to Bhadra Kali housed inside.It is also said that the place called the Bhadra after an ancient Rajput citadel of that name at Anhilwada-Patan (Baroda State), which the first three kings of  Sultans of Gujarat had held before Ahmedabad became the capital. Sarsenapati Umabaisaheb Khanderao Dabhade  the only woman Commander-in-Chief  of the Marathas  fought a war and defeated Mughal Sardar Joravar Khan Babi at this very fort! The audio instructions were confusing and there are no big boards or prominent plaques to indicate historical structures. I walked out of another exit, somehow made a circle and found myself back at the fort.

ahmedabad6I had started getting a bit of unwanted attention. A tiny girl, with a big camera and a walkman, looking around confusedly , walking in circles – what else could I expect! I made another brave attempt to find my way. Soon I realized that I was not seeing things in the order listed on the audio, but there were all there. I was not lost, I was just finding a different way.The day is hot and the ice cold nimbu sherbet I had from a street cart only made me thirstier. I finally spotted the statue of Sri Chinubhai M. Ranchodlal, the first Baronet of city, the man who introduced pipes to carry water to each home and also laid gutter lines in the city, only that the green oasis supposed to be surrounding it is now a mass of broken concrete pavement, cordoned off for safety. After this, I was back on track with the audio guide. We walked to Teen Darvaja.During the reign of Badshah Ahmad Shah, these gates would close at sunset and open only at the next day at sunrise. The story here is that  once, Laxmi, the Goddess of Wealth, entered the city and by the time she wanted to leave, the sun had set and the gates had closed. The *kotwal at the gate, Khwaja Siddique begged her not to leave fort until he obtained permission from the king. The Goddess obliged. He then went to the king and beheaded himself. People say that from then till now Goddess is waiting for the kotwal and his sacrifice has ensured that  prosperity would never leave the city of Ahmadabad. Adding to the lore, there is a lamp at Teen Darwaza  that has been kept burning continuously for more than six hundred years (by a Muslim family).

ahmedabad7I made my way through the market at reached the Jami Masjid just in time for evening prayers. I took my shoes off at the entrance and went in. It is only when I stepped in that I had never been inside a functional mosque at prayer time before. The last time I went inside a functional mosque was last year in Srinagar, but there was no one else there except us and our guides. For a few seconds I was intimidated, but no one said a thing. I don’t think anyone even noticed me and my camera. They just went about their ablutions and prayers in the most routine fashion and slowly my confidence returned. When I switched my audio guide back on, it said I was to leave from a different exit. Problem – shoes? I simply picked them up in my hand and walked across the courtyard like I saw some others do. When I got out, I put them back on. At the back were goats, and little boys playing cricket, and also the tombs of Badshah Ahmed Shah and his queens. I somehow spotted the Old Stock Exchange. The audio-guide took me inside Mangaldas Market. Colourful traditional outfits and dry fruits and spices galore, this bustling market seemed to be the perfect place to do some gift shopping,except I had no time for that. I still had a few more points to cover on my walk and the day was rapidly coming to an end.

ahmedabad8I followed my audio guide into muhurat pol or the first pol. A pol is a housing cluster which comprises many families.  A typical pol has one main street, with crooked lanes branching on either side, and only one or two entrances( with sometimes secret entrances known only to residents). These entrances are closed at night to safeguard against thieves. The facades and brackets of the wood and brick havelis are decorated with richly carved wood ornaments. I walked through the first pol and reached  a Jain temple.This meant I was close to the second pol, and sure enough, a few steps later I was at its gate. I backtracked, vainly looking for Harkunvar Shethani’s haveli. Unable to find it, I decided to explore the Jain temple instead. By now my throat was parched, so I entered a shop and requested the shopkeeper for some water and gulped it down in great big swallows. From the Jain temple, I followed the audio guide down some stairs and up some stairs and found myself totally lost. Just as I was about to give up and skip the rest of the walk, I miraculously found myself back in the pols.

ahmedabad9As I went up and down the pol now looking for Bholanath Divetia’s haveli, I saw a small plaque by a richly carved house that I must have walked past twice.  This turned out to be Harkunvar Shethani’s haveli – the house I was looking for earlier.  Harkunvar Shethani was the wife of a noted wealthy merchant, Seth Hatheesing Kesarisingh. She was a religious lady, and a philanthropist and social reformer in her own right. Way back in 1850 AD when talks of women’s education still raised eyebrows, she built  Maganlal Karamchand Girl’s School, the first institution of its kind in Ahmedabad. Her house is an outstanding example of architecture and wood carving. Bholanath Sarabhai Divetia, on the other hand was Gujarati poet and religious reformer.He was born in orthodox  Hindu family and believed in idol worship but adopted belief in formless god. He founded Prarthnasamaj and Dharmasabha for religious reform.

ahmedabad10I continued down the narrow path dotted with old havelis and possibly past Bholanath Divetia’s haveli and reached a cul-de-sac of small modern buildings. The old women, enjoying their evening gossip were quite surprised to suddenly find a stranger in their midst. A young girl however correctly informed them that I was probably on the heritage walk. I confirmed this.

I chatted a bit, said my goodbyes and hurried on. Not having the time or the inclination to walk back, I took an autorickshaw back to The House of MG.

Ahmedabad – Sabarmati Ashram

 

April 2013

DSC_0274My driver helpfully got me a confirmed ticket on the train from Ahmedabad to Bombay. He has also most helpfully advised me to take the bus from Junagadh to Ahmedabad, as opposed to driving down through Rajkot as I originally proposed. On the bus, I made a new friend and saw Saheb Biwi aur Gangster Returns. It was a pleasant diversion as any, nevermind that I had not seen Saheb Biwi aur Gangster.  I wanted to hop off the bus somewhere along the highway and then take another bus from there to the Harappan excavation of Lothal and from there take a bus to Ahmedabad. My plan never materialized because my bus driver deemed it too risky and flatly refused to drop off a lone young woman at an isolated spot.

DSC_0241The first thing I did after getting off the bus was to lock my luggage and check it into the cloak room at the railway station. The old fashioned charm of the Indian railways! From the station I took a *sharing rickshaw to Sabarmati Ashram. “Bapu Ashram?” the possibly underage driver confirms and I nod my head. It was only when we were halfway in the wrong direction do we realize that he was talking about Asaram Bapu and I wanted to go to Gandhi Bapu’s ashram. It is quite telling of our times when Asaram Bapu gets more recognition than the Father of the Nation!

DSC_0236The flabbergasted **autowala dropped me off at another ***autostand with very specific instructions on how to get to my destination and the long and the short of it is that I somehow managed to get myself to Sabarmati Ashram. This ashram, on the banks of the river Sabarmati, was one of the residences of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The Father of the Nation (India) lived in this very ashram for around twelve years, with his wife and devoted lifelong companion, Kasturba Gandhi, and other followers. It was from here that Mahatma Gandhi led the historic Dandi March and defied the salt tax imposed by the British. This simple act led to large scale civil disobedience. Thousands of freedom fighters went to jail and subsequently the ashram was seized by the British. When Bapu set forth for Dandi, he vowed that he would not return to the ashram until India got independence, and return he did.

“De di hame aazadi bina khadag bina dhal

Sabarmati ke sant tune kar diya kamaal”

ahmedabad1

 

The Ashram is remarkably quiet and clean. The museum at the ashram is designed by the very talented and highly respected architect, Charles Correa. Typical of his work, the design places special emphasis on local resources, energy and climate. The museum has a number of exhibits and personal artefacts chronicling the life of the Mahatma and the India’s struggle for independence. The charkha used by Gandhiji to spin khadi and the writing table he used for writing letters are a few national treasures one can see at the ashram. One can also peek into Hridaya Kunj, Gandhiji‘s own cottage in the ashram or if you choose to, pray where he used to pray.

DSC_0259Off late it seems to have become fashionable to run down this great man and his contributions, but he was a great leader and I am at the ashram because I believe in a lot of his values like non-violence, self-sufficiency, and secularism. I am no moderate liberal. I am a rabid secularist. The State has no religion, and the country comes before religion. Not before God, but before religion. Each person is entitled to their own interpretation of religion as long as it doesn’t harm another, so don’t force your beliefs down someone else’s throat. It is high time India has a uniform civil code. If your ideologies, personal faith or religion are not in line with the law – well, too bad. The law is the law, and you gotta follow it.

I also find that being assertive of your religion being confused with intolerance.  You can be a staunch (enter religion of your choice here) and as long as you respect another man’s right to do the same, you are not being intolerant. Similarly, you don’t have to be against other religions to keep your own faith. You can be religious and secular.Yes indeed it is possible! Gandhiji was a practising Hindu. He worshipped Hindu gods and even conducted mass prayer meetings, but he deeply respected all other religions too. So let’s celebrate our differences and all live in peace.

 

*sharing rickshaw – a rickshaw version of carpooling where all passengers pay a fixed amount

**autowala/rickshawala – auto-rickshaw driver

***auto stand – a place where passengers queue up for auto-rickshaws, much like a bus stand.

Junagadh – The New

April 2013

DSC_0025The main town of Junagadh is very different too. Junah – old, is the right word for it.  The houses, the clothing, the shops, the language; the old way of life continues here. Crumbly mansions with central courtyards, afternoon siestas, men in their huge red turbans and old ladies in backless cholis; frankly, I was quite taken in.

junaghad7The Darbar museum is a quaint old place with a suitably old caretaker in charge. The museum is not very elaborate but it allows you a glimpse into the life of the rulers of Junagadh.  This used to be the place where the last Nawab conducted his daily meetings – his darbar.  Don’t be surprised if the museum suddenly loses electricity, like it did when I was in the textile section. It adds to the experience and is part of the charm. The caretaker was as fussy as the old royals might have been, and insistent that I follow a particular path and not backtrack between rooms.

junaghad8As a child I loved the zoo, but as I grew up I realized they were not the place of happy memories I imagined them to me. They were places where animals were held in, often tiny, enclosures against their will. As an adult, I have been to some excellent zoo facilities like the San Diego zoo and the Singapore zoo, yet I thoroughly enjoyed the zoo at Junagadh.  Sakkarbaug Zoological Garden, also known as Sakkarbaug Zoo or Junagadh Zoo a 200-hectare (490-acre) zoo housing mostly big cats in big cages. They do have some other interesting exhibits, but the main draw is the big cats. Going by the standards of modern zoos, where the enclosures are spacious and mimic the natural habitat of the animal the house, this zoo should be immediately shut down. Yet, I feel this is one of the best zoos I’ve been to. The enclosures may be small, but they are clean, shady and there is water. They animals look fit and well cared for. They have the expression of royalty, resigned to their fate as prisoners. It brings you up and close with the animals, shows you magnificent they are, and makes you realize that they do not belong in these cages.

DSC_0155The other fun part at the zoo were the people. Couples, families, children – all happily posed for me. Not just that they even came up to me and asked for their picture to be taken. I wish I had some way to send those pictures to them!

Shhhh – I touched the underside/pad of a tiger’s foot.

Junagadh – The Old

April 2013

DSC_1479Loath as I was to leave Gir, I had to skip the loving invitation by a local lady to a traditional home cooked meal and move on. The next stop on my itinerary was Junagadh – the old fort. In 1947, when India and Pakistan got independence from the British Empire and became independent of each other, Junagadh was the only state where a plebiscite was held. Junagadh chose India. This is what most of us (in India) studied in history class. As we grew older, a few more details were revealed. The Nawab of Junagadh, being a Muslim wanted to accede to Pakistan but since an overwhelming population of the state was Hindu and they did not accept this, a plebiscite was held. The story ends with the wicked Nawab and his family being forced to flee to Pakistan.

DSC_1494The truth about Junagadh’s plebiscite is slightly more complicated. When the Nawab of Junagadh decided to accede to Pakistan, India refused to accept his decision. India cut off supplies of fuel and coal to Junagadh, severed air and postal links, sent troops to the frontier, and occupied the principalities of Mangrol and Babariawad that had declared their independence from Junagadh and acceded to India. The Nawab and his family fled to Pakistan following clashes with Indian troops and here is where the story gets a little more interesting. When he fled, he gavehe handed over the administration to his Diwan (or administrator) Shahnawaz Bhutto. Soon, Shahnawaz Bhutto too fled to Pakista and his family went on to become a leading political family there. Soon after the plebiscite was held. The example of Junagadh has often been quoted in the case of Kashmir, where the Hindu ruler acceded to India presumable against the wishes of his Muslim majority subjects, but no plebiscite was held.

DSC_1458Junagadh is however, far older and its history goes much further back in time. My first stop is the old fort – Uparkot. This ancient fort is believed to have been built in 319 BC by the Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, and extended through the times. The fort has been besieged 16 times, and legend has it that the fort once withstood a 12-year siege. Key to this 12-year siege survival, were the great underground granaries and Navghan Kuvo – a 52m deep step well. The well is partially hewn out of soft rock and partially built up structurally, but this is not the only uncommon aspect of this well. This well has a spiral staircase, as opposed to easier to navigate straight stairs. Imagine having to climb back up the 52m elevation, with a pot on your head on a dimly lit spiral staircase.

DSC_0007There is another step well close by – Adi Kadi Vav. This one is carved entirely out of hard rock. It is said that when no water was found even after going really deep, the king sacrificed two virgins on the advice of his priest. Lo-behold – water was found. The well supposedly gets its name from those two ill-fated girls.

DSC_0002At the top of both wells, are a series of pigeon holes – ancient post offices of sorts. I somehow found this very fascinating.  In recent times people have taken to building little stone pagodas in these niches, and all around this area. People also carry water from the well up in their mouths and spill it over their pagodas in some bizarre wish fulfilment ritual. Given the smell and colour of the water, it could only be a death wish!

DSC_1491Close by is a three-storied complex of caves carved out of the rock about 2000 years ago, by Buddhist monks. The caves are remarkable clean. In fact all of Junagadh’s monuments are exceptionally well maintained, except for the water in the wells. The quietness here is a welcome respite from the general noise and hullabaloo of tourist centres.