Gujarat’s Hidden Treasures: Baroda and Pavagadh

Gujarat was something of an unplanned stop between Maharashtra state (Mumbai, those caves), and our return to Rajasthan. We knew we had some time to burn, and we needed to stop somewhere along the way, so we decided to dip our toes into the state that was historically a key source of early Indian migrants to NZ. We had zero expectations, as knew little about what there was to see and do; all we knew was that Gujaratis like to eat and have a famous(ly sweet) cuisine. Good enough for me!

We were in the state for basically a week, split in half between the city of Vadodara (previously known as Baroda, as in Bank of…) and its biggest city, Ahmedabad. And, we have to say, apart from the traumatic exit (maybe I’ll write about that separately; maybe I’ll just continue to try and forget it), we really, really enjoyed our time there. It was so good, the original intention of covering the state in a single post will now definitely need to be a double header!

The cities were alive and bustling, the people warm and curious, and the food marvellous. Our week there was probably the biggest concentration of ‘hellos’, ‘which country you from?’, smiles, selfie requests, and also random conversations with locals, we’ve had in our trip so far. All-in-all it definitely gave us a contact high: not bad for a dry state!

After our less than warm feelings about Aurangabad, where we had just come from, Vadodara was quite the contrast. It felt alive without being overly chaotic, and there were loads of pedestrians and cyclists out and about, making it feel accessible. We felt the energy as soon as we stepped outside our hotel, that indefinable something that gives a city its own unique energy.

Vadodara is also home to the University of Baroda, which grew out of a college started in 1881, and named after the seemingly beloved Maharaja Sayajirao, who brought huge change to the city during his reign. It is the only state university whose sole medium of instruction is English, and its 35,000 students most definitely give the city elements of a ‘university town’ feel. Moreover, the face of the university to its city is the glorious humanities building (oh to have worked on a campus like that!); pleasingly, a lot of humanities are arts are among its offerings.

A Humanities building to really envy…

The two main reasons to visit, however, are its palace, Lukshmi Vilas, and the nearby UNESCO-plated Pavagadh. We did the palace first.

The palace, built by Maharaja Sayajirao in 1890, was, like a lot of magnificent architecture constructed during this era, built in the Indo-Saracenic revivalist style, which combined elements of Indo-Islamic architecture, sometimes Hindu temple architecture, and Gothic and Neo-Classical revivalist elements. Like many other palaces of its vintage, it’s both sublime and ridiculous.

Lukshmi Vilas is a perfect example of what can be achieved by combining luxurious globally-sourced materials and opulent styling when money is clearly not a concern. The tiles, the sculptures, the marble, the chandeliers; all clearly chosen to display an image of worldly class and refinement. I can’t imagine how much the kingdom’s residents and/or resources were taxed to pay for it all!

And this is always the slight tension I have visiting these kinds of places, for although they present a kind of narrative taken out of some fantastically aspirational Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, there is always a revisionist counter narrative possible. Is it not wasteful? What about those who are not spoken for here, those whose toil (slavery, perhaps) created the wealthy foundation upon which Maharaja’s descendents still sit today (they still reside in part of the palace)?

Anyway, problematics aside, it was still definitely a gorgeous sight to behold, even if the tour was quite restricted and heavily controlled (no photos inside, and only mobile cameras outside; ok then).

Pavagadh awaits…

The next day it was back to our intrepid best, in order to find our way to and from Pavagadh. I’m actually still not entirely sure if there are direct buses from Vadodara.

From the modern, gleaming Vadodara central bus stand, and its welcoming state ticket counter, it was easy enough to find out that platform we needed to at, and that we could just buy tickets onboard. So we did exactly that, and (re)confirmed, I thought, that said bus was going to Pavagadh.

It was actually going close to Pavagadh, a town called Halol. Fortunately, there, the conductor walked us to the right bus and told the new conductor where we were going (as if we’d be going anywhere else!). From Halol, it’s only a ten minute ride.

Basically the same thing occurred on the way back. At Pavagadh, I asked if there was a bus to Baroda, and the man said ten minutes. A bus turned up in five, we jumped on, and soon found ourselves back in Halol, where it then just a case of wandering about asking whoever was brave enough to make eye contact! However, ‘is this bus for Baroda?’ is not too hard to convey and we soon found ourselves wheeling our way back to base camp.

Whether direct buses, in both directions, would have turned up if we’d waited a bit longer, who knows. Either way, we made it there and back without any major difficulties, and as I said at the outset, people had an essence of Southern (India) hospitality about them.

The summit awaits…

Again the pay off made any awkwardness worth the effort. Pavagadh is actually two things: a sacred hill housing a number of temples, gates and an old mint (literally with mint growing outside it), and the ruins of Champagner, briefly Gujarat’s capital in the 15th century, and just long enough for some beautiful mosques to be constructed in and around its citadel. These mosques remain gloriously preserved, and provide excellent examples of the region’s unique style (a central dome surrounded by spiralled cupolas, as opposed to the more familiar minarets). We strode up the sacred hill first.

There are a number of ways to get to the summit. By far the majority, as we discovered, catch a bus or minivan to about the halfway point, where the road ends, and then either gondola or walk from there. We walked to the midway point, in glaring sunlight and full view of all the passing minivan and buses. Oh well.

We didn’t realise there were transport options – I thought it was supposed to something of a pilgrimage – and this way we did get to explore the gates, the mint, and an amazing lookout platform we would have otherwise missed. However, we’re not completely bonkers, so, holding my britches, we took the gondola the rest of the way up (gulp).

At both the midpoint and the top, the scene is typical temple-pilgrimage: rows and rows of stalls selling everything you could possible need to complete your offering – saffron powders, headbands, coconuts and sweets – and a lot more besides (bangles, materials, plastic crap, and so on). The steps all the way up are littered with red dots and swastikas. On the way back down, we saw why: a man, clearly in a trance state, was leading a group up the hill and someone (I assume they were taking turns) was placing red dots in front of every step he made. An exhausting enterprise.

Although there are a number of temples on the hill, it is the 10th/11th century ‘black goddess’ Kalikamata temple at its summit, dedicated to the goddess Kali, that is the focus of pilgrim attention. At the very end, there’s only one path up and down a step flight of steps, so we had no choice but to join the procession and file past Kali herself.

It was actually very pleasant, as it always is, when you can just quietly, without being intrusive, witness people carrying out an act of religious devotion that is obviously very important to them. Calmly, reflective, no cameras. From a purely tourist point of view, the views from the top, stretching far out into the hazy distance, were far-reaching and enlivening; a moment of nature’s immensity by comparison to us who merely have temporary residence here.

Britches released, I couldn’t stomach a second gondola ride back down the hill, so we threw caution (and our return tickets) to the wind, and took off on a casual stroll on the pilgrim path.

I’m glad we did – sites aplenty; achievement felt – although, again, were not completely bonkers, so bussed down from the midpoint, which turned up just as we were contemplating a smooshed shared jeep. Just in the nick of time, as the saying goes.

Champagner was really quite something. Aside from the extraordinarily well preserved ruins, it is still a functioning village. And, for all the times we’ve driven passed tiny, dusty outposts, dotted all across the country, and I’ve only been able to wonder about how life is sustained in such remote and quite extreme locations, well here it was up close and personal, right in front of our eyes.

Of course it is entirely sustainable, no different from tiny settlements in remote parts of New Zealand. It’s just the extreme appearance of the landscape that makes it seem so improbable, like desert stations in remote Australia, I guess. The insurmountable persistence and optimism of the human spirit, right? And, of course, truth be remembered, Champagner is not that far away from a city of 1.4 million residents! But still, does make you think about needs vs. wants, and creature comforts…

To be continued…

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