Ahmedabad to Bhavnagar: "Gandhiji and the Princess"

Ahmedabad to Bhavnagar

State of Gujarat


March 8, 2007


Dear Family and Friends,

I am going to Gujarat. Gujarat? 

A few people asked me, "Where is Gujarat?"  I didn't know either until I looked at a map.

South of landlocked Rajasthan, Gujarat is on the west coast of India. It's a large state with mountains, desert, marshland and a 1600km (1000mi) coastline. The population is almost 51 million.

Gujarat has its own customs and traditions, language and alphabet. In Rajasthan, Hindi was a mystery. And now, Gujarati.

The State of Gujarat is the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi or "Gandhiji" as he is known here.

Gujarat's former residents make up a huge proportion of India's emigrants. About forty percent of Indians in New York are Gujarati. The Gujarati surname "Patel" is well known overseas.

In January 2001, Gujarat was rocked by a severe earthquake that devastated the rural northwest area of Kutch. The industrious and enterprising Gujaratis quickly rebuilt their lives.

I suppose that Gujarat is a prime example of the successful amalgamation of disparate cultures into the modern state of India. The subcontinent of India, with more than one billion citizens, unifies twenty-eight States and seven Union Territories, each with its unique ancient history and distinct lifestyle.

Few travelers and almost no tourists venture to Gujarat. Most tourists stick to The Golden Triangle or Rajasthan in this part of India.

The Lonely Planet guidebook says, "The thrill of stepping off the tourist treadmill is only part of Gujarat's charm."*

"Few tourists" sounds charming to me. I wanted to see something different. What other charms will I find?

"The Sun Temple of Modhera was built in 1026 by King Bhima I of the Solanki Dynasty.  It is so precisely laid out in an east-west direction that the sun's rays course through its chambers and strike the centre of the inner sanctum at high noon every day. The carvings, both on the inside and on the exterior, are extraordinarily detailed, depicting a pantheon of Hindu deities as well as scenes from everyday life."**

Since ancient Hindi scriptures reveal that the sun was born from the depths of the ocean, a huge water tank (baoli) stands in front of the Sun Temple. The water tank called Surya Kund is shaped like an inverted pyramid. I climb down the steps on the exposed walls of the tank where I find dozens of excellent sculptures. And just as in the Temple itself, I find scenes of everyday life.

(Everyday life of course includes the erotic. You can imagine my shock when, in a niche on the wall, at eye-level position, I found a 1000 year-old erotic sculpture, completely by accident. Well, where there is one, there must be more, and I found more and more in the water tank and even more on the walls of the Temple. I admit I looked for them . . . a lot.  If you are sensitive to this "everyday" art, please avert your eyes when you view the photo gallery. 

The most charming feature of Gujarat's major city is the legend of its founding:

"Sultan Ahmed Shah, while out hunting, encountered a warren of rabbits on the banks of the Sabarmati River. Astonishingly, the rabbits turned fiercely on his hounds and defended their territory. Viewing this as an auspicious sign, the sultan built his new capital at this site and named it after himself -- Ahmedabad." **

Somewhere in this bustling city, noisy, crowded, and almost grid-locked with traffic, I found the small and nearly hidden entrance to the Jami Masjid. Sculpted arcades surround the enormous 87,100 square feet of open court. This mosque, built by Sultan Ahmed Shah in 1423, has fifteen domes that are supported by 260 carved pillars. The interior is illuminated by natural light that filters through theย sandstone latticework screens. This massive building feels powerful and protective, and as long as there is no earthquake, I am safe for my visit.

At the entrance to the Satyagraha Ashram, a man sits on the floor gently spinning cotton fibers into a long cotton thread. He asked me if I would like to try. It looked simple but I thought I would make a mess so I declined his offer. I now regret my decision. I could have had the chance to sit where Gandhi himself sat as he spun his own cotton and wove his basic cotton cloth.

Set on the bank of the peaceful Sabarmati River, the Satyagraha Ashram, also known as Sabarmati Ashram was Gandhi's headquarters during the long struggle for Indian independence. The ashram's living quartersย are simple; the rooms are filled with photographs and other memorabilia including his round spectacles. It was from here on 12 March 1930 that Gandhi set out on his famous Salt March to the Gulf of Cambay in a symbolic protest. ***

Twenty kilometers north of the spartan ashram is the sumptuous Adalaj Vav. This vav or baoli or stepwell is an enormous water storage tank. A cool and pleasant spot for social gatherings, the Vav is an elaborate structure dedicated to the gods who provide this arid region with life sustaining water.

I descend the five stories into the octagonal-shaped well through the pavilions, landings, shrines, balconies and corridors. The walls and pillars and niches are decorated with statues and carvings of exquisite flowers, leaves, horses and intricate geometrical designs interspersed with figurines. And as I wander deep inside this marvelous "sculpture gallery" I intersperse myself with other Indian tourists and local children here on a school trip. They are as impressed as I with this elaborate creation, built in 1499, by Rudabai, the wife of a local chieftain.

What a surprise! On the upper level, surrounded by a small entourage of guards, guides and family members, I recognized the second daughter of my own local chieftain, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) of Thailand. Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn is also on tour here.

HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn has a Bachelor of Arts in History, a Master of Arts in Oriental Epigraphy (Sanskrit and Cambodian), a Master of Arts in Pali and Sanskrit, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Educational Development. The Princess speaks English, Chinese and French. HRH Princess Maha is beloved and respected by all of Thailand and is second in line to the throne after her older brother.

The Princess seemed quite absorbed by the architecture and the practicalities of the Vav. I approached her cautiously and I was able to snap a few photos. I was amazed at how close I came to the smiling Princess.

The Princess also has a sense of humor. When she was asked, "Your Majesty, you are fifty years old; why are you not yet married?" she responded, "What's the rush?" 

Bhavnagar is a large cotton trading post and a commercial center for ship-breaking, plastics and diamonds. Tourists are rare yet the busy city is not without its charms. I meandered and jostled my way through the crowded tangled web of bazaars in the old town and did a little bargaining and shopping. I also found two lovely sites:

In the late afternoon, I found Takhteshwar Temple. The temple sits on a hill high enough so that I have an excellent view of the city and out into the Gulf of Cambay. Many residents are here to say a prayer or simply to stroll with their friends and their children. Just as in Rajasthan, the women and children are brightly dressed.

At dusk, I found another temple or is it a tomb? I am not sure of the name or purpose of this small white-domed building but the jalis sandstone windows are, as always, skillfully carved with motifs of flowers and vines and emblems of royalty -- two powerful bulls hold a shield of an eagle and a lion.

In the past, the wild Asiatic lion called Gujarat home. Today this state is home to a fascinating blend of the modern and the traditional. Down the tranquil, narrow lanes of the countryside, farmers drive teams of fearsome bulls with menacingly long curved horns. In the noisy city, menacing traffic snakes past factories and office towers.

Gujarat also has a colorful marshland and seacoast region that the guidebooks tempt me to explore. But alas, I have allocated my limited time to include only two more stops, both charming, I hope: pre-historic Lorhal and medieval Palitana.

Gujarat is surely on my "map" now. I expect I will return one day to visit the coastal tribal communities and to climb more temple steps. (The pilgrimage to the Jain Temples on Girnar Hill requires a climb of only 10,000 steps!)

And just as soon as I hone my Hindi language skills, I will give Gujarati a go.



* "India." Lonely Planet. 2005
** "India." Dorling Kindersley. 2005
*** http://www.mahatmagandhiji.com

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