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Hey guys, I’m back with a new travel series 🙂 A nine-part series on India’s western state of Gujarat!

Gujarat map

Image courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marine_National_Park,_Gulf_of_Kutch

My eleven-day travel itinerary: Mumbai – Ahmedabad – Junagadh – Somnath & Diu – Dwarka – Jamnagar – Kutch & India-Pakistan Border –  Ahmedabad – Mumbai

So sit back and enjoy this first part of the series… happy reading 🙂

Tuesday, 27 January, 2015

9:00 AM. My IndiGo flight from Mumbai lands on time at Ahmedabad’s Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Airport. Besides my flight, there is no other arrival so the baggage claim area is quiet. A few minutes later, I collect my bag and stride out, stopping for a while at the Gujarat Tourism counter to collect brochures on the state’s tourist destinations. Ahmedabad, Kutch, Dwarka, Somnath, Junagadh, Porbandar, Surat, Vadodara… I take my pick and leave. At the pre-paid taxi counter, I book a non-AC taxi to Lal Darwaja near Sidi Sayeed Masjid, where a good budget hotel is located. Since I’m leaving for Junagadh tomorrow, this hotel located near the Geeta Mandir bus stand is convenient.

Stepping out of the arrival hall, I feel a slight chill in the air despite wearing a sweater. The taxi driver tells me that it was cold till yesterday and today it’s pleasant. He disapproves of my staying in the Sidi Sayeed Masjid area which is more like Delhi’s crowded Paharganj area.  It seems there are plenty of good hotels in other areas of the city. True, but I need one close to the bus stand. That is till he informs me that buses for Junagadh leave from Paldi bus stand. Law garden, C.G. Road, Drive-in Road, Ashram Road, Nehru Bridge, Ellis Bridge… I can’t decide, so I ask him for advice. Just like I guessed, he suggests C.G. Road and Law Garden which are the city’s popular areas for food and shopping. None of the hotels in my list are located in those two areas. Hotel Vice-President on Ashram Road is reasonably-priced, but the driver suggests Hotel Rudra Regency, a short distance away from it. He says it’s much better than the former.

On the drive, I take in the sights of Ahmedabad. I have high expectations of this city so I’m a bit disappointed at first. But when I see the Sabarmati Riverfront, I’m very impressed. We enter the business and commercial area on the Ashram Road. This area looks good. I decide to stay at Hotel Vice-President instead of checking out the hotels at Law Garden and C.G. Road. The driver points out Hotel Rudra Regency as we drive past it in a quiet by-lane. But I’m adamant about staying at Hotel Vice-President which is near the main road.

The hotel building looks alright. I expect a smiling staff. Instead I have to wait till one of them appears at the reception desk. The room tariff is more than 1500 rupees and they don’t offer discounts. Maybe I should go and check Rudra Regency but I don’t remember the lane leading to it. A bit tired, or rather disappointed, I decide to check the room. It’s not worth the high tariff and the bathroom is not to my liking. Unfortunately, it’s the only standard room available. A deluxe room is shown to me. The small bathroom is newly done but again, not to my liking. Like the earlier bathroom, this too has large cracks in the false ceiling. But I take the room. The tariff is 1900 rupees plus taxes but I get it for 1700 plus taxes. I enter the bathroom. The next minute, I’m dialing for Reception. I need another room, I almost yell over the phone. A room boy comes over immediately. “Potty ka cover uthao!” (Lift the lid). After a moment’s hesitation, he lifts the lid and is immediately relieved to see the potty clean. “Yeh toh theek hai!” (It looks fine). He has failed to notice that the lid is closing down on its own. Taking a deep breath, I ask him sarcastically, “Usko pakad ke baithe kya?” (You expect me to sit while holding the lid?). He gets the message. The third room is bigger and looks like their deluxe suite. The bathroom is bigger and looks okay. So I move in. And then, I notice that the potty is not alright. I dial Housekeeping and the room boy comes running. I make him wipe the potty clean. Thankfully, I have carried a towel from home. I should have carried a bed sheet too!

Downstairs at the reception desk, when I enquire about buses for Lothal, I receive a blank look from all the three men. “Lothal? What is it? Where is it?” Hmmm…this about one of the most prominent cities of the ancient Indus Valley civilisation! Lothal and Dholavira in Kutch are the two important archaeological sites in Gujarat. They date as far back as 2400 BC and are related to the Indus Valley settlements in Mohenjodaro and Harappa, both of which are now in Pakistan. Lothal’s dock—the world’s earliest known, connected the then coastal city to an ancient course of the Sabarmati river on the trade route between Harappan cities in Sindh and the peninsula of Saurashtra when the surrounding Kutch desert of today was a part of the Arabian Sea. It was an important trading centre engaged in foreign trade with Persia, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Knowing all this, I’m keen on visiting the site which is around 80 km from the city. But first, I have to book my ticket for Junagadh. So I hop into an autorickshaw for Paldi.  There I discover that all luxury buses for Junagadh depart at night, except for those of Mahasagar Travels which leave in the morning. Their booking office is a short distance away. The roads are congested, the traffic is heavy and… I find bikes and autorickshaws driving in the opposite direction to take a short cut! But I get past it all and trudge along to the booking office. There are two buses leaving early in the morning, one at 7:00 AM and the other at 7:30 AM. The 7:00 AM bus takes a little more than 5 to 5.5 hours with one or two stops only while the other takes 6 to 6.5 hours with four to five stops. But 7:00 AM is too early for my tired self so I choose the 7:30 AM bus. The ticket costs 300 rupees. The man at the counter offers me the tariff card of its company hotel in that town, Hotel Indralok. The room rate looks reasonable. Booking done, I look around for a restaurant. Except for two biscuits, I haven’t eaten anything since the beginning of the day. To my delight, there is an Udupi (South Indian) restaurant just around the corner. Very soon, I’m tucking into a nice idli-vada-sheera combo meal. After my late breakfast, I proceed towards the State Transport bus stand which is close by. My first thought is a trip to Lothal but the bus stand controller tells me it takes two hours to reach there. The bus leaves from Geeta Mandir bus stand at around 12:00 PM and the last bus from Lothal leaves at 4:00 PM. I’m told that buses are overcrowded. All at once, roaming around the site in the scorching heat for two hours doesn’t sound appealing. There is an early morning bus too. So I might as well keep Lothal for later when I’m back in the city for two nights from Kutch, just before returning to Mumbai. For now, I decide to visit Adalaj Stepwell which is 18 km from the city. State Transport buses travel in the direction of Adalaj village on the main highway at regular intervals. And very soon one of them stops at the bus stand. I’m unable to understand the wordings written in Gujarati language but the bus stand controller tells me that it will stop at Adalaj. It’s 12:15 AM and Adalaj is just half an hour away, if there’s no traffic on the highway. It takes a bit longer and I doze off to sleep at times, only to be roused by the sudden jerks of the bus. Luckily, I’m awake when the driver informs me about my approaching bus stop.

Adalaj Ni Vav is about 15-20 minutes walking distance from the highway bus stop. Vav in Gujarati language means a stepwell i.e. a well in which the water level is reached by descending a set of steps. It’s 1:00 PM as I walk in the blistering heat towards the stepwell, a lone tourist on the deserted road. At the stepwell, there is no entrance fee. I see plenty of tourists around. Unlike me, they have come in tourist cars.

This is my first visit to a stepwell so I’m amazed by the beautiful structure of this Hindu “water building”. It’s not just a stepwell but an amazing display of stone architecture with decorative walls and ceilings and ornamental pillars.

It’s a five storey structure with three entrance stairs which lead to a stepped corridor. There are openings in the ceilings which provide ventilation. Except for a short period at noon, no direct sunlight enters the interiors. Entering inside, I get a cool respite from the burning sun. The stepwell structure was built this way precisely for this reason. A little more than 500 years ago, it encouraged women who came to fetch water to spend more time here.

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I climb down to the last floor of the octagonal stepwell but not too close. Damp smells or rather a strong stench puts me off. A light grill covers the well water which has remained unused for a very long period of time.

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Watch my video: Adalaj Stepwell near Ahmedabad

The inner structures on each floor are so intricately decorated with sculptures that the place closely resembles a palace. This stepwell, like many others, was also a venue for colourful festivals and sacred rituals. It’s believed that villagers would come here every day in the morning to fill water, offer prayers to the deities carved into the walls and interact with each other in the cool environs.

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Carving on the top storey of step well…

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One of the balconies with beautiful carvings…

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Yours truly in one of the beautiful balconies with carved elephants…

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Now coming to the history of the stepwell, it was built in 1498. This is recorded in a Sanskrit inscription on a marble slab on the first floor. The construction of the stepwell was started by the Hindu ruler of this place, Rana Veersinh of the Vaghela dynasty. His kingdom was invaded by the Muslim ruler of Gujarat, Mahmud Begada, who killed him and proposed marriage to his beautiful widow, Rani Rudabai. It is said that the queen agreed to it on the condition that he would first complete the building of the stepwell. The well was built in record time in Indo-Islamic architectural style. The queen who had achieved her objective of completing the stepwell started by her husband, decided to end her life, as mark of devotion to her husband.

Stepwells from 5th to 19th centuries are commonly found in western India. Such stepwells were once integral to the semi-arid regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan as they provided basic water needs for drinking, washing and bathing. It is said that stepwells were invented by the people of the Indus Valley Civilization because in the city of Mohenjodaro as many as 700 wells were discovered. While early stepwells were made of stone, later step wells were made of mortar, stucco, rubble and laminar stones. Many such structures, most of them now in unusable condition, are utilitarian in construction but sometimes they include significant architectural embellishments like the Adalaj stepwell. Stepwells, built initially by Hindus, were subsequently ornamented and blended with Islamic architecture during the Muslim rule.

It is said that Begda was so impressed by the architectural excellence of the stepwell that he did not want a replica to be built. When he asked the masons if they could build another similar stepwell, they agreed. So Begda put them to death. Almost all Muslim rulers in India carried on the cruel practice of chopping the arms of the architects and masons of the beautiful monuments commissioned by them because they did not want them to work for their rivals who would commission a grander monument. So the next time you visit any old Islamic monument in India, don’t just admire its beauty but think for a while about its many builders who toiled hard day and night for years to complete it. Because they probably got their arms chopped off or were put to death.

A blooming tree outside the stepwell…

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At the bus stop, after waiting for half an hour in the unwavering heat, I get a crowded ST bus to Ahmedabad. It’s a fifteen minute walk from the Income-Tax office bus stop to my hotel. For the first time, I see the brand new hotel building adjacent to my hotel and on an impulse, I enter it. The room tariff is only a bit higher than my hotel. The receptionist tells me that it’s a boutique hotel opened just yesterday. He shows me their best room which is small but good with a modern bathroom. It looks like they don’t have any guests staying at present. Perhaps I should try Hotel Rudra Regency or some other good hotel on the main road on my next stay. I rest for a while in my room before starting another round of sightseeing at 3:30 PM.

Ahmedabad has plenty of historical sites and museums but there’s one place that I eagerly look forward to visiting and that’s the Calico Museum. The museum houses a grand collection of fabrics from all over the country dating back to 500 years. But the visiting hours are limited. The afternoon timings are 2:45 PM to 4:30 PM and entry is restricted to first 15 visitors only. By the time I reach, it would be 4:00 PM not leaving me much time to look around, in case I get entry. So I decide to leave it for later and start for the Gandhi Ashram which lies on the bank of Sabarmati River.

At the Ashram, I leisurely walk around on the sprawling grounds occupied by huts and cottages, of historical significance. The Sabarmati River looks beautiful as it quietly flows by while farther away vehicles cram the bridge built across it.

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It’s wonderful to see Sabarmati River so clean despite flowing through the city. The promenade is litter-free too. A few motorboats are parked across the river.

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Watch my video: Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad

The Ashram was founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1915. It was his home so besides domestic visitors, it also attracts international visitors from all over the world. I see plenty of his admirers from Europe, America and even Far East.

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At the Memorial Centre, a large group of audience is attentively listening to an elderly man talking about their idol. They could be his admirers or admirers of his philosophy or just visitors curious to know more about his life. I don’t fall in any of the three categories so I walk on. All my childhood heroes were warriors so I was hardly interested in reading about this world-famous icon and when I did browse through his autobiography, I remained unimpressed. However, I like these three monkeys…

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I hail an autorickshaw for Law Garden via C.G. Road. I merely want to get a glimpse of the shopping area of C.G. Road so I tell the driver to slow down as I take in the sights. At Law Garden, every evening the road bustles with activity as people shop for dresses, accessories and handicrafts at a good bargain. I get down near Khau Galli (“Food Lane”) which is one of the city’s main attractions for foodies who love street food. It comes alive at night with a large variety of stalls selling all kinds of food – vegetarian, of course. Ahmedabad is mostly a vegetarian city.  I’m a bit hungry and there are a few small cafes around but I’m unable to decide what to eat and where to eat. In the end, I walk to the Gujarat Tourism office which is nearby. There’s just one person there. She gives me a brochure-cum-map of some of the places that I’m going to visit, a small road map of the city and best of all, a large road map of Gujarat. A look at the city road map makes me realize that the Calico Museum was close to the Ashram. Damn!

Next, I start for Kankaria Lake, the city’s biggest lake. The rickshaw driver tells me that the zoo near the lake closes at 5:30 PM. But I’m not interested in visiting the zoo. I reach the lake at 5:45 PM. The entrance fee is 10 rupees. When I walk inside, I’m pleasantly surprised. The lake is beautiful, of course, but the lakefront is simply fabulous! And it’s so clean…

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This artificial lake was constructed by Sultan Qutubuddin in 1451 but was revamped a couple of years ago. The renovated lakefront was inaugurated in 2008. It’s a picnic spot and children’s activity centre coupled with plenty of sport and water sport facilities. Spread across a vast area, this circular lake attracts plenty of visitors thanks to numerous attractions: an amusement park, a children’s park, an aquarium, a toy train, a natural history museum and a zoo.

In the centre of the lake, there’s an island accessed by a straight, concrete, tree-lined walkway. It houses a large musical fountain. I buy the 15-rupee ticket just for a look-see. There are a couple of food stalls and some young couples hanging around. The first show is going to start after half an hour. I turn back and stroll along the lakefront. The crowd at the food stalls in the central garden makes me walk in that direction. They are selling Mumbai’s famous street food: bhel puri, pani puri, sev puri, etc.  I decide to try a sev puri. It’s a total disaster compared to the delightful sev puris of Mumbai. There’s a local item called Khichu which is extremely popular as I see people asking for it one after another. It turns out to be steamed rice flour mixed with spices and some kind of oil. While tasting a small spoonful of it, it felt alright but now that I have a small bowl of it, I can’t bear the taste of it. I throw it in the trash bin and walk to the nearest ice-cream stall for a chocobar. It isn’t to my taste either!  Still, I finish it off slowly while watching motorboats provide happy moments to its thrilled passengers.

Watch my video: Kankaria Lake in Ahmedabad – I

The lakefront starts glowing with laser lights…

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A toy train filled with children as well as adults passes by every now and then…

Watch my video: Kankaria Lake in Ahmedabad – II

Lake panorama at night…

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I leave the lake around 7:00 PM and return to my hotel. The street food has left a bad taste in my mouth and I need to have chicken soup very badly. Unfortunately, there’s no chicken in the restaurant kitchen today. Anyway, it’s good because I don’t like the look of their small restaurant. The kitchen could be worse. The hotel manager tells me I can get chicken soup at Hotel President on C.G. Road. Being a city of mostly vegetarian people, it’s difficult to find restaurants serving non-vegetarian food. The Gujarati Hindu population of this city and of the state is vegetarian. I can probably find non-vegetarian street food in the Muslim-dominated area in the old city but I prefer going to Hotel President instead. It’s a nice-looking hotel, slightly expensive but definitely with good rooms. After having my soup, I enquire at the reception for room reservations for my next stay in the city. The guy tells me that the city is hosting an international plastic conference and all good hotels in the city are fully booked on those days. It comes as a shock to me! So where will I stay? I name some of the good hotels and he shakes his head. They are all booked! After a bit of looking around, I reach Hotel Rudra Residency. The answer is the same: Sorry, no rooms on those days! While searching for this hotel, I sighted a luxurious hotel building along the main road. It made me feel like an idiot to have travelled all the way to C.G. Road for chicken soup when there was a Hyatt hotel just a block away from my hotel.  I could have enjoyed a lovely dinner. But, I wouldn’t have found out about the international conference. The next door hotel is fully booked too and so is my hotel. Perhaps I should stay one more night in Kutch. This way, I will need a room for just one night in Ahmedabad and for that, even a small hotel or a lodge will do.

There’s a birthday party going on in the hotel and they are playing some silly old Hindi songs from the 90s. I bear the cacophony knowing that it will come to an end at 10:00 PM because the hotel manager has assured me that it would. A little after ten, I go off to sleep.

 

Wednesday, 28 January, 2015

 

At 7:00 AM, I’m at the reception patiently waiting for someone to hand me the room bill. The desk clerk comes running. Ten minutes later, I’m outside looking for an autorickshaw. I find one parked just around the corner. The driver tells me he will be charging 50 rupees because it’s an early hour. That’s almost twice the normal fare so he expects a disagreement. Instead, I growl at him, “Theek hain, jaldi chalo!” (It’s ok, hurry up). It is 7:15 AM and I have to reach Paldi before the bus arrives at 7:30 AM.

Fortunately, only a few vehicles are on road at this hour so we reach within five minutes. The bus has yet to arrive. Till then, I buy a few packets of potato chips at a nearby shop. The shopkeeper tells me that the 7:00 AM bus makes a breakfast halt near Limbdi and stops briefly at Rajkot before travelling non-stop till Junagadh, whereas my bus stops at Limdi, Rajkot and five or six places on the way before reaching Junagadh. Now I wish I would have taken the 7:00 AM bus!

I have booked the front seat, so it’s a comfortable journey. At Limdi, the bus stops outside a food court. I step out to stretch my legs. It’s cold and windy so I’m glad when the bus moves on. After the halt, the air inside the bus gets filled with food odours. As if that isn’t enough, it seems a mother seated a couple of rows behind has not bothered to clean the poop off her small child’s butt! Two hours later, an elderly man starts yapping about something in Gujarati making a total nuisance of himself to others on the bus. He goes on and on for over 30 minutes and that too at the top of his voice. Adding to my misery is a fellow in the opposite seat, who sneezes and coughs without covering his mouth, polluting the air further with his foul breath. That’s it, no more travelling in AC buses!

Such a horrible bus crowd! I get a severe headache and there’s still half an hour left to reach Junagadh…

 

Coming next: Gujarat Travelogue -2: Junagadh