Gujarat is a state we’ve spoken of visiting on and off for quite some time now. A large part of friends in my first job being from there also had piqued my interest in deducing the mystery of the khakra, thepla, fafda and other foods that they’d rave about at every chance. All it took to finally visit was a wedding of a friend in the group. We were honored to be swept right off from the airport by the bride-to-be herself who treated us to a quick intro of the city Ahmedabad that seemed like perfection in the early morning traffic-lull. For breakfast of course we first stopped for the most traditional of the foods.
Khaman dhokla,khandvi (insanely melt-in-your-mouth texture),patra (a roll of batter dipped leaves tempered with mustard and curry leaves), Fafda– the uniqueness is to be seen to be believed.
Once checked-in to the relatively seedy looking hotel, we bid goodbye to our friend who dropped us mid-way to the Adalaj Step wells in Gandhinagar on her way back home.
Note:Autos are super convenient in Ahmedabad- as long as you ensure they apply the meter when you get in (or you insist they do) you should be good to hire autos. On the outskirts (like towards the Adalaj step wells), autos are often shared- which is an experience in itself but they pack people to the brim, so if you’re like us, with cameras and some luggage, you may want to clarify that you don’t want to share to ensure a more comfortable ride.
Adalaj Step well : The main draw of Gujarat for me were the step wells and this was a stunning start.
History/story/Legend : King Mohammed Begda defeated King Rana Veersingh of the Vaghela Dynasty and proposed to marry his wife, Queen Rudabhai enamoured by her beauty. She set a condition that he complete the in-progress construction of the 5 storey sandstone vav to prove his devotion to her. The effort took several years and once done in 1555, the king proposed to her again. She however, decided to drown herself in the well to avoid the predicament. Needless to say, the construction of the domes was never completed by the King after that tragedy. The tombs around the well are said to be that of masons who were killed by the King in order to prevent them from ever building a replica of the remarkably stunning well. The story even inscribed in Pali on one of the walls of the well.
The temperature inside this 5 storey vav has calculated to be 6 degrees cooler than that outside- which is significant respite in the heat of Gujarat. Hence it’s easy to believe that in additional to being a social gathering point to collect water, it was also a pitstop for weary travelers traversing the semi-arid regions in the several rooms around the inside of the vav.
The well has an octagonal opening and has 3 entrances to its first storey.
There are delightful carvings in Islamic style, Hindu and Jain imagery all over the insides of the step well too.
While the functional need to have water for survival is out of the question, the stunning artistry and meticulous work that’s gone into the sculptures in the Adalaj stepwell made it clear that this was an era and a land of people who truly understood that water was worthy of worship and deserved a home worthy of royalty.
Akshardham : We had once reached the gates of the Golden temple in Vellore and returned since it seemed very commercial and crowded – also we’re a tad partial to the ancient over the new. It was the same sense with Akshardham – except this time we decided to go in instead. It is an undoubtedly beautiful monument – with the carved pillars, sculptures – the main building has some lovely artistry too. It is very apparent that an incredible amount of wealth and effort including volunteer work has gone into its construction and continues to go into its upkeep. It is a temple dedicated to Bhagwan Swaminarayan who founded the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism which we’ve to admit we weren’t even aware of till we visited Gujarat. It was constructed by his successors as a tribute to him in pink sandstone – a whole 6000 tons of it. For us, post a walk around the sprawling complex it was a good pitstop to have lunch at the restaurant in-house that we started with ice-cream to beat the heat followed by some good khichdi. Photography wasnt allowed at the premises.
Note: Throughout or trip- whether it’s temples or mosques/tombs – dressing conservatively is recommended even for men. Ensure you wear longer trousers Vs shorts of any length. You may be denied entry but sometimes (in mostly Islamic spaces), you’re given a piece of fabric to cover up which may not be the most comfortable to walk in unless you’re used to it. For women carry a scarf throughout, since some spaces require covering your head before entering (for men too but less often). Even if not, your head could use some protection from the unforgiving heat of the sun.
Before we left, I asked Anand if he would visit this again and his response summarized our opinion of it “Maybe after a 1000 years it’ll finally mellow down to a version we’d appreciate.” Today, for us, it lacked soul.
Sarkhej Roza: Hunger satiated, we made our way in the opposite direction to Sarkhej Roza. It’s a 15th century, large complex originally of 72 acres, which seemed to function in several ways in the eras gone by.
It houses palaces, tombs, mosques and areas for social gathering. Of the tombs, the most prominent is that of the Sufi Saint Ahmed Ganj Baksh Khattu- who was the one who suggested to Sultan Ahmed Shah to choose the current Ahmedabad as the capital of his Kingdom on the banks of the river Sabarmati. After the tomb, the King Mohammed Begda (Remember him from Adalaj ki Vav?), dug up the Sarkhej lake of 17 acres with stone steps from it leading to the palaces.
Today, however we saw a couple of kids riding their horses in the space and a herd of water buffaloes making good work of chomping on the greenery. The king, along with his family also have tombs in the complex just opposite to that of the Saint Ahmed Ganj Baksh.
Sadly the palace is in ruins but still has it’s charm. It includes a private mosque for the King Mohammed Megda and a secret passage out of the palace within it too! The simple mosque’s large courtyard also overlooks the lake.
History/Legend : The saint has quite a story around his life. Known to be the child of aristocratic parents, he’s carried away in a dust storm and one way or another reaches a hermitage where he was raised. He was finally a part of the Maghribi order that was known for its “rigorous austerities and fondness for poetry and music” the latter of which I completely understand. He also had the respect of several kings who ruled in his time. Read more here to learn of his fascinating life.
The fluidity of religious lines is heartening when you learn that during Krishna Janmashtami, devotees even perform a garba(dance) in front of his shrine. We found the local people and the staff there extremely kind at our ignorance of not knowing how to proceed within the large area and even guided us to areas we missed seeing in the premises.
Note :Women are not allowed inside some spaces that house tombs of male saints (and most tombs we happened on this trip were of male saints) . The locals/priests will let you know, alternately some places have boards indicating it. Also do be considerate and respectful of spaces of prayer. Especially, stay clear of those areas if it’s one of the 5 times of prayer and let the devotees pray undisturbed. Even otherwise, attempt to not be boisterous in such areas. When in doubt, ask a local.
Part of the building is even today actively used as an Urdu and English library. Something of the space is extremely calming- there’s a gentleness in the silence around it even with several people around. It seemed to lack the ability to ever seem crowded – which of course holds great appeal for us. As it occasionally happens, we had a couple of endearing kids enamoured by Anand’s camera, asking for him to take a picture of them, to which of course we obliged much to their glee before bidding the place farewell.