Fifteen years after our epic 5 month circumambulation of India, and 42 years after our first visit, we are back in this swirling, vibrant, colourful country. We are starting in Ahmedabad, state capital of Gujarat, an area we missed on both our previous trips.
Ahmedabad is a city of 7 million people, and 150,000 “motos” or auto rickshaws, those passenger taxis on a motorbike frame, ubiquitous all over Asia and known as tuk tuks in SE Asia, which is what we call them from old habit. There are zillions of motor bikes as well, and combined with pedestrians, people pulling carts loaded with lethal lengths of pipe, sacks, and lumber, suicidal maniacs on bicycles, the odd elephant, the resulting traffic chaos has to be seen, heard and smelled to be believed. Walking is nearly impossible and it requires nerves of steel or a death wish to cross the street. Fortunately motos are easy to find and cheap so they are the best way to get around. In fact, I’m all in favour of just paying 50 cents to cross the street but my travel companion won’t hear of it.
The city was established over 600 years ago and we are staying in the older part, separated from “new” Ahmedabad, a mere 60 years old, across the Sabarmati River. The traditional building style is a courtyard house where three or four storeys of rooms centre on a central open courtyard. The design is such that sunlight in the interior is minimized and the hot air rises through the open roof. Apparently the interiors are 5 degrees cooler than outside which in a place where temps are over 45 in summer is important, and heat is retained in winter which it is now and dashed chilly mornings and evenings. All the members of an extended family lived together in these places which often had 60 or 80 rooms, and housed their own place of worship. There was no exterior space, fountains and plants are found inside on the terraces overlooking the courtyards. Gujaratis are traditionally merchants and business people. Ahmedabad’s wealth was originally built on the textile industry.
As usual looking for a soft landing after a lengthy journey and a dreadful 12 1/2 hour time difference whereby we arrived at 6 am but our bodies were convinced it was 6 pm, I booked us into a gorgeous restored grand haveli, the property of a prominent mill owning family. And what a soft landing, a stunning property, lovingly restored by the grandson and great grandson of the original brothers who built the sprawling place in 1904. Thus we experienced haveli style by living in one, albeit a very grand one, before starting our exploration of the maze like old city.
The grandmother of the house began collecting the intricate and beautiful embroideries and prints done in the Kutch desert area, and for which Gujarat is renowned, as a young woman in the 1930’s. They are housed in a small private museum, well explained, through which we were shown by a tiny, ancient woman who spent her days sitting on the floor by the door working on her embroidered pieces. Our rooms and the large and beautiful common areas are adorned with framed examples of antique pieces, and all fabrics used in the building were printed by local artisans. Absolutely lovely.
Our appetite whetted for more history, we took two walking tours of the oldest part of the city, one lead by a guide from our hotel and the other much better one, by the local historical society. We went by tuk tuk (we can’t get used to calling them motos) to Shrinarayan Hindu temple which at 7:30 in the morning was in the full throes of worship, a noisy affair with bells, gongs, and chanting. The good thing about Hindu temples is that worship is not a hushed and reverential affair so interlopers such as ourselves do not feel particularly out of place. The men stood in front of representations of the various deities which the priests unveiled for the occasion, the women craned their necks from behind a brass rail in the rear. As Doug pointed out, since there are always way more woman worshipping than men, these patriarchal rules are really illogical, but it is thus in most eastern religions.
We met our tour leader in an adjoining building designed to house the pilgrims who were visiting the shrine. We began walking through the winding narrow lanes closely following the guide and were soon completely disoriented. The area is divided into “pols” kind of mini neighbourhoods, each with its own entrance overhung by a “security cabin” and originally with gates that were barred at night. Each pol is named over the door for the group that lived within it, by occupation or religion or kinship. All are connected by secret passageways so if the city were under siege (which it never was) the idea was that all the pols could lock their gates and still get around to other pols inside the inner maze. Every pol has a bird feeder on a high pole, a substitute for a tree, and many houses have built in bird nest holes. These people value all life, a special tenet of the Jain religion which is common here whose serious adherents wear face masks to avoid sucking bugs and thereby killing them, and whisk the ground in front of them with a broom as they walk for the same reason. People feed the birds, the squirrels, the dogs and the cows as a duty. As I was walking, a small rain of chapattis nearly struck me, intended by a resident of the upper storey for the strolling dogs and cows below.
The havelis are ornately carved and constructed with a combination of sandstone and wood, allowing them the flexibility to withstand earthquakes, the most recent of which in 2001 levelled new construction but spared the antique havelis. Now most of them are decaying and uninhabited as the wealthy families have moved across the river. The city has belatedly realized that preserving them is a good idea and incentives are offered for their restoration, an extremely expensive undertaking. Interspersed in the maze of havelis and tiny shops are places of worship — Hindu, Jain and Muslim — and antique monuments like the original Stock Exchange now inhabited by small shops.
When we finished our tour at the Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque) with its ornate columns and grand prayer hall, we found a quiet byway to drink some water and eat some sweets we had bought on the way. A friendly man came out of his repair shop to ask us where we are from (non Indian tourists are very unusual here) and bought us tiny cups of masala tea from the man who goes door to door with his kettle doling out tea to all and sundry. Apparently Gujuratis pride themselves on welcoming strangers — attributed to their position on the silk route — but in our opinion aided in the modern day by the rarity of foreign tourists. Unlike in Rajasthan there is no hassle, no hard sell, we love it! We chatted and he brought out his son who was off to school.
By the time we had done that, it was 11:00 and when we left the quiet lane, the place had transformed completely. Where the quiet “cow cafe” had been, dozens of motor bikes were being parked. Stalls full of goods and produce were setting up as we watched. Soon there was hardly room to walk between them down the little lanes and the cacophony was deafening. We walked, completely lost, enjoying the scene, until we’d had enough, hailed a tuk tuk (oh yes, not just foot traffic in the tiny spaces, but tuk tuks, motor bikes, cars, bikes, cows etc) showed the card from our hotel and were whisked off for a death defying ride back to the peace and tranquility of MG House.
We had six days in Ahmedabad, pacing ourselves, knowing that huge busy cities and full days of sight seeing are not compatible with mental health. We visited Gandhi’s original ashram where he gathered his following, honed his philosophy of non-violent resistance, and welcomed untouchables whom he renamed “Harijans” meaning children of god. That act caused some of his most loyal followers, including his wife to temporarily leave the movement as it was so repugnant to them to be near these “unclean” people. It is a peaceful place by the river, his austere quarters are preserved and a very well labeled museum documents his life. It was from this ashram that he launched his salt march to the sea to protest taxation by the British. We will visit its end point later in our trip. So much revered by Indians, there were many Indian tourists there to offer respect, even though the current focus of Gujaratis is all about making money in contrast to Gandhi’s rejection of economic wealth.
We also visited some exquisite religious buildings and a lovely restored step well, the Adalajav Vav — more about step wells in the next instalment. We had the interesting experience of being photographed at least 100 times as we visited a Kite Festival by the river where teams from all over competed in flying the most extravagant kites. The Australians were most impressive! The denizens of Ahmedabad were out in force in their Sunday finery, and though we have always been asked for photos in our travel in Asia (some sort of fascination of having pictures taken with the bizarre, dreadfully shabbily dressed foreigners) the whole thing has gone to a new level with the ubiquitous cell phones. It used to be only people with cameras but now absolutely everyone carries a phone. By the 40th selfie I had a whole new appreciation for Justin T’s patience…
The city was in the throes of an economic conference called Vibrant Gujarat, the brain child of the current prime minister of India, Mr Modi, back when he was prime minister of Gujarat. He is credited with great economic gains here, though also his right wing Hindu party was responsible for riots causing 2000 deaths in 2002. The day of the Kite Festival he was also responsible for utter gridlock on the streets, it was headline news in the Times of India the next morning, and we were caught in the middle of it as we tried to tour the sights with a car from our hotel in the afternoon. The drivers here are supremely skillful, as everyone weaves in and out of the traffic, blaring horns constantly, and missing cars, motor bikes, tuk tuks and huge buses by fractions of an inch. Best not to look. Riders of motor bikes swath their heads in bright shawls to avoid breathing in the dense fumes like a posse of brilliantly coloured ghosts. We are always relieved to see the imposing House of MG come into view on our return.
Loved our introduction to Gujarat, off now to the villages and salt desert of the Little Rann Wild Ass Sanctuary. Something completely different I expect!