Gujarat’s Hidden Treasures: Ahmedabad

After our surprisingly enjoyable half-week in Baroda, we moved on to the state’s biggest city, all six million souls of Ahmedabad. Our transfer turned into an adventurous expedition on its own!

We returned to the glitzy bus stand, expecting to stroll back to the state bus counter and ask for two tickets on the next bus. Instead, the glitz was barricaded, buses replaced by security guards. Turns out the state buses were on strike. Of course.

So, with no other option, we backtracked to the train station, where, in a slightly frazzled state, I bought two tickets for the first thing going to Ahmedabad. What we ended up with were two general class tickets that simply needed to be used on a train within the next three hours. But which one?

Fortunately, I knew there were multiple trains every hour, so, with tickets secured, we took the opportunity to sit for a few minutes, cool off, and recover the faculties!

And then it was off to match tickets to train. The absence of Roman script, which has presented such interesting challenges elsewhere, was present here again. Unless, of course, you were in the market for mobile phone accessories or whatever else it was that Bollywood figures and/or impossibly ‘fair and lovely’ maidens were trying to sell you.

Eventually, like some entitled baron, I simply strolled info the superintendent’s office, and asked there. Side note: very helpful, pointed in the right direction, and I also got to see the cool control room, all flashing track lights and switches (transport need alert!).

“I’m sure it’ll be fine, and hopefully we’ll get seats,” my ever hopeful cousin/brother/husband travel companion mused. I knew that our NZD$1 tickets were going to be nothing less than a total bun fight, but I decided to leave him to his hopeful naivety.

And sure enough it was.

The train turned up and all us general glass glamazons swarmed. The only choice you had, if you wanted on, was to join the current and ride the human wave as it lunged you forward to the door, completely unforgiving to those coming the other way who miss their three second window to exit.

Onboard, thoughts of sitting are completely abandoned. The most you can hope for is to find a space where you don’t stand on anyone, can somehow acrobat your way out of the way of the inevitable food and crap-wallahs that come strolling through (seriously, why would we want to buy wraparound sunglasses right at this moment?!?!), and try not to stand too close to raised armpits.

And so I stared at and became intimately familiar with an outdated Indian Railways menu, as we journeyed to Ahmedabad!

Our time in the city was less a tick list of sites and more a general, genial wander. The city is loosely divided by the rather pleasant Sabarmati River, which runs through its centre. Unlike too many waterways we’ve seen, this one was actually flowing and looked reasonably healthy as we wandered across a couple of its many bridges.

Along both sides runs amazing waterfront promenades, strangely underused and quite deserted though, as we discovered. I think it’s more a case of things being not quite completed yet, and the promenading habit not yet ingrained. Hopefully, because it’s all sitting there begging to be enjoyed.

West of the river is the city’s New: big roads lined with boutiques and shopping centres galore, and plenty of eateries for the post-shop graze. The university is over there too and there’s quite a big hub around it. You get the drift. On our first evening we strolled over and enjoyed soaking up the post-5pm buzz, and our final afternoon was spent chilling at the city’s largest mall, its gleaming food court, cafes and cinema. You get the drift. All very pleasant.

East of the river is Ahmedabad’s Old, and here we spent a day just strolling around its old neighbourhoods and taking a taste of its many flavours (for once I’m not talking about food). As we did in Mumbai, we simply plotted out the key points and then just ambled between them.

There are mosques and tombs and temples; bazaars, lanes and the humongous old city gate, which looks out over what is now the hugely vibrant main market (and you can freely climb to the top and wander around).

Two particular, very human, moments stand out.

We weren’t able to get into the central mosque, built by city founder Ahmed Shah in 1423, due to not wearing pants long enough. Fair enough, we should have been better prepared. We got a quick look inside, though. Very nice. Close by is the tomb of the Shah’s wife. Clearly no longer that important, it is literally surrounded by the bazaar. A bit of a fail. Third time lucky, the tomb of the man himself, along with his son and grandson.

Initially we were denied again, but, the small group of caretakers, who, by the looks of it live there also, motioned for us to wait while an elderly lady got us some sarongs. Suitably attired, we were then ushered into the tomb and left to wander about. It’s a stunning piece of architecture: a huge central domed cenotaph is surrounded by four other domes, which you can walk right around. Definitely atmospheric as we were completely alone. (Being such a sacred place, obviously photos were not allowed)

Obviously the donation plate was going to come out; we expect it to and gratefully contribute. But what was lovely was the genuine interaction; lots of head bowing and smiles expressing our thanks for their help in facilitating the visit, theirs in receiving our donation. I hope it bought them a substantive feed for their Friday dinner!

The most profound moment, though, came when we visited the first temple built by the Swaminarayan Hindu sect, in 1822 (scholars have drawn many parallels between the prophet Swaminarayan’s teachings and Gandhi’s work). Knowing nothing about it beforehand, there were nil expectations. We wandered through the gate and into the courtyard, marvelling at the gorgeous temple and its surrounding residences for visiting followers.

Indulge me.

Beginning our stroll around the temple, a man came up to us and started to talk to me. My suspicious antlers, of course, immediately go up and start looking for where the catch is going to be. Instead, he told me a bit about the sect and their key figures (Vishnu and Rama), and asked about New Zealand. As we got the farthest side, and sat down, he said it was nice to meet you and then left. Shame on you, Mackley-Crump.

After a bit, another man came and sat beside me and then indicated we had to go with him, ‘prasad, prasad’ he was saying. Antlers back up. He took us around to the other side, where a priest(ly figure) gave us a small palmful of grapes and melon. He indicated for us to eat it, and then back to the seat. Ok then, what’s the catch? (although it was funny that, walking through the market this morning, I had looked at the grapes and said how much I felt like a few…talk about speaking something into being…?!).

After a few minutes, we decided to leave, but the man indicated that, no no, we needed to stay. We presumed maybe a prayer was going to start (more and more people were arriving and circling the inner temple). We were right, and just before 4pm, the doors to the three shrines opened up and men gathered (women are at the back) and they started chanting.

With great excitement the man – who obviously speaks no English; this was all by gesture – guided us towards the shrines, one at a time (there is obviously a prescribed format to this). So we stood in amongst all the men while they chanted and prayed, while the monks were doing their thing. A little awkward, but no one seemed to care and it was fascinating, unlike any other religious practice we’ve seen.

Afterwards, our friend then gestured us towards the end of a line of men – now what’s going to happen; I’m still guarded – before pulling us out of the line and taking us to the front; exactly the kind of thing that makes me super uncomfortable (being privileged ahead of those to whom the practices actually belong).

At the front of the line, however, was the man who had talked to us first and, maybe sensing something on my face, told us that we were their guests (so why we were first), and were given another palmful of grapes and bananas as a symbolic gesture of nourishment.

And with that, the ceremony was over and we walked off the temple with the rest of the people. No scams, no sales, no offers of tuk-tuks or tours or cousin’s-brother’s guesthouse, nothing but host-guest hospitality.

As we walked back around to where our shoes were, we saw our second friend leaving, and were able to gesture our thanks to him, which was reciprocated. It was a rather extraordinary and pure experience, one that will remain long in the memory; the kind of unexpected interaction that makes you want to stop approaching so much here with guard up. We know, however, that you just can’t do that. In a positive sense, it makes the surprise of these experiences, when they do happen, all the more remarkable.

Our last day had one more unexpected surprise. Ahmedabad is home to the ashram of the state’s favourite son, Gandhi. It operated as his headquarters from 1917 to 1930, after which time he left on his famous Salt March and vowed not to return until India had gained her independence. It is now a truly remarkable public museum dedicated to his life and teachings, and you can also visit his (and his ever faithful wife’s) rather spartan living quarters, preserved intact.

What makes the museum so impactful is that the majority of the story is told through Gandhi’s own words, and you realise how much of a great orator and philosopher he really was. Despite the large crowds, the compound is huge and the atmosphere fairly reverential; there was plenty of space (physical and aural) for quiet contemplation and thought.  

Sadly, among the words of Gandhi’s I remember the most were those that, with reference to talk about partition (something he was vehemently against), suggested that a country born through an act of violence could never find peace. It was impossible to not consider how much he would be saddened by how true these words have been (and this was before the latest outbreak of India-Pakistan violence erupted).

A quintessential image of India for me, and one of the few photos I’ve taken that so visibly identifies someone anonymous (I try to avoid, if possible). It’s quintessential not because of the contrast, the apparent poverty or homelessness, but because here is a man asleep on a pavement surrounded by the buzz and noise of a city at night. As someone so hopelessly unable to sleep in all but the most controlled of situations, I’m constantly amazed how people here are seemingly able to nap whenever, wherever, to quote the great Shakira.

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