Winter in Bhavnagar

Bhavnagar is a very pleasant, but less visited, city in Gujarat’s Saurashtra peninsula. Close to the sea, it was established by the Gohil dynasty in the 18th century

We arrived in Bhavnagar in late January 2019 after spending a week in Baroda. The weather in Baroda was warm (29 to 31) degrees Celsius and we need to use air conditioning even in the evenings.

Here in Bhavnagar there are cooling breezes. The daytime temperature is extremely pleasant. At midday, the temperature hit a high of 24. At night, the air becomes distinctly chilly even for someone used to British weather. Air conditioning is not required at all at the moment. Locals dress up warmly with heavy outer clothing and warm head gear.

Straying away from meteorology, Bhavnagar has a very friendly climate. People are friendly, humorous, and helpful.

To exemplify the above, let me tell you about one incident. My wife and I were ordering tea at a roadside chaiwalla stand. A man sitting close by waved a banknote at us and insisted on paying for our tea. As he did so, he said in Gujarati:

“You are our guests in Bhavnagar “.

This kind of behaviour is typical of the welcoming folks in Bhavnagar.

Tiny clothes

In markets throughout Gujarat, I have seen shops selling elaborately made miniature clothes, which are often too small to fit the tiniest of human children. At first, I thought that these were toy clothes to dress dolls. But, I was mistaken.

A man selling these tiny garments explained to me that they are for dressing the idols of deities in Hindu shrines. The picture above, taken in central Vadodara, shows such a deity clothed with one of these miniature outfits.

Buzzing around Baroda

The best way to get around Baroda (now ‘Vadodara’) is by three wheeler autorickshaw (‘auto’). There are plenty of these nifty little vehicles for hire and although their drivers hardly ever use the meters, the fares are remarkably reasonable.

Unlike Bangalore, where the auto drivers are often argumentative and dodgy about fares, the drivers in Baroda are usually straightforward and friendly.

We have made a couple of long journeys in Baroda. As the auto drivers were uncertain about what to charge, they used their antiquated meters. These must have last been calibrated many years ago. According to such a meter, a journey of about 6 kilometres should cost 4 rupees and 20 paise. This is ridiculous because the shortest auto journey in Baroda costs 20 rupees today. The auto driver looks at his ancient meter and then, without looking at a conversion table, decides on a fee. We made the 4 rupee and 20 paise journey twice. Once, we were charged 100 rupees, and the other time 120. Both amounts are reasonable, and far less than you would pay in a Bangalore auto or a Bombay taxi.

I favour autos over cars for getting around cities in India. The former are far more manoeuvrable than the latter. This is vital in a city like Bangalore, where traffic is poorly managed. In Baroda, however, traffic flows brilliantly compared with Bombay or Bangalore.

Unless you have huge amounts of baggage, hop into auto in Baroda.

A globe trotting chef in Gujarat

So-called Italian food is popular in India. Indians are fond of pasta and pizza and are happy to eat almost anything that claims to fall into these categories. Often what is served as “Italian food” would be almost unrecognizable to Italians.

However, things are changing. Increasing numbers of Indians now visit Europe and many Europeans and Americans familiar with authentic Italian food visit India. They are more discerning than about the quality of Italian food served in India than Indians who have not been abroad.

Despite this, very few Italian restaurants in India are serving what I would consider Italian food like Mamma would make. Chianti Restaurant in Koramangala (south Bangalore) does makes the grade.

Tonight, I ate at Fiorella in the Alkapuri district of Vadodara in Gujarat. This Italian restaurant serves brilliant food. It is Italian food which makes no compromises to satisfy traditional Indians’ palates.

We met Ravichandra, Fiorella’s chef. He speaks Italian fluently, which is not surprising as he lived and worked in various cities in Italy for 14 years. He has lived abroad, mostly in Europe, for a total of 22 years.

He became a member of the Federation of Italian Chefs. He worked as a consultant advising the owners of Italian restaurants all over the UK. Spending 3 months in each restaurant, he helped their owners improve their establishments.

Following his return to India in 2008, Ravichandra, who was born in Kerala, worked in various hotels and restaurants before 2012, when the owner of the Express Residency Hotel in Vadodara asked him to set up Fiorella. The plan was to establish Fiorella as a totally authentic Italian eatery, whose food was not at all adapted to Indian tastes. This, Ravichandra has achieved most successfully. An Italian eating here would not be disappointed.

Two zoos

To date, I have visited two zoos in Gujarat: Junagadh and Vadodara. I have yet to visit a third, that in Ahmedabad.

The zoo in Junagadh is laid out over a large area of ground. Large animals and those which like to run around are in spacious enclosures. The zoo is pleasant to visit. It has wide paths, many of them with trees to provide shade.

Currently (January 2019), the zoo in the Sayajibaug Gardens in Vadodara is somewhat of a building site. This zoo is undergoing major rebuilding. The zoo is divided into three areas: birds, hippos and big cats, tigers and bears. There are also ponds containing crocodiles and alligators. The highlight of our visit to this zoo was seeing a new born hippopotamus with its mother.

The cages at the zoo in Vadodara are mainly very old fashioned. Hence, the building works whose aim is to create modern enclosures and a veterinary hospital.

I know that these days not everyone approve of keeping animals in zoos, but both zoos described above are well worth visiting.

Large snakes

The Laxmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara was built for the Gaekwad (Maharajah) of Vadodara in 1890 to the designs of the British architects Charles Mant and Robert Chisholm. It covers an area four times as large as London’s Buckingham Palace. This Victorian era Indo-Saracenic pile is now one of the main tourist attractions of Vadodara. What little of it that visitors are permitted to explore of this pastiche of various Asian and European architectural styles is overbearingly impressive but not of great aesthetic value.

My main reason for visiting the palace was to see the Navlakhi Vav, a subterranean stepwell built in the 15th century. The stepwell has five levels of stonework galleries, all underground and one above the next. I was looking forward to exploring this, rather than the relatively uninteresting palace.

The official at the ticket booth for the palace compound told us that the ticket included access to the vav. He omitted to tell us that approaching this stepwell is now forbidden.

A security guard stands about 50 metres from the domes built above the vav. He told us that he would lose his job if he allowed us to go closer to the stepwells. Although his job was poorly paid, so he told us, it would be difficult for him to find another. He suggested that we returned to an office in the palace and spoke to a young lady whom we would find there.

When we explained my interest in stepwells to her, she accompanied us back to the guard, telling us that we could approach the outer walls of the stepwell but should not enter it. At present, she explained, the vav was not in good condition because stones kept falling from its structure. Additionally, the stepwell is currently infested by large snakes. She told the guard to take us to the structure. Although we could not enter the complex structure of the vav, we were able to see something of it over the low walls enclosing it at ground level. We could hear water splashing deep below us in the well in the deepest part of the stepwell.

The serpent infested vav is separated from where the guard stands by the tee of one of the 18 holes of the Laxmi Vilas golf course. We asked the guard whether the golfers, who had to stand close to the vav, were in any danger from the large snakes.

“No,” he replied in Gujarati, “they are not.”

“Why not?” we asked.

“Because they are members of the golf club,” the guard informed us.

Kites and cyclists

MAKARA SAKRANTI or UTTARAYAN, as it is known in Gujarat, is a Hindu festival held in mid January. It marks the beginning of the lengthening of day length, a month after the winter solstice.

Kite flying is a popular way to celebrate the festival. The kites are either attached to fine nylon strings or other threads sometimes covered with tiny fragments of crushed glass. Some kite flyers like to try to use their glass covered kite threads to sever the threads of other airborne kites.

The trees and ground are littered with paper kites that have escaped their owners. We have seen many of these in Vadodara.

Frequently, kites on long threads descend groundwards. The threads may cross busy roads. They offer danger to speeding motorcyclists. There is a real risk of drivers having their throats and faces severely injured by the almost invisible kite threads stretched across the road.

Prudent motorcyclists attach tall metal hoops from one handle bar to the other. These hoops will sever the hazardous kite threads before they can injure the cyclists’ throats.

Tea makers and politicians

Street tea making stalls are found all over India. They are great places for quenching your thirst and avoiding low blood sugar situations.

I am writing this during a visit to the Gujarati city of Vadodara, where we spoke to two tea makers this morning. One of them was a charming lady, who told us that she manned her stall from 630 am until 730 pm daily. She heats her tea on a gas ring. The gas cylinder contains enough gas for 15 days.

India’s present Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, worked briefly as a tea maker (‘chai wallah’) during his childhood. There is a chai wallah in Bangalore, whose shop is in Johnson Market. Not only does he serve excellent tea, but also he works as a local politician. He has his own party, whose symbol is a pocket calculator. He stands as a candidate in elections, but has never yet won any of them. He told us that if one chai wallah could become Prime Minister, there is no reason why another could not do the same.

Gopal , who has a tea stall near the entrance to one of the former pols* of Varodara, works from 10 am to 6 pm. His stall was very busy when we visited it this morning. It faces a peepal tree with numerous Hindu offerings around the base of its trunk. One of the daily offerings to the gods is the first cup of tea that Gopal makes each morning.

Like most other chai wallahs we have visited in Gujarat, Gopal adds fresh herbs and spices to his tea. Today, he had large sprigs of mint leaves and bunches of lemon grass and ginger. He pounds the latter in a pestle and mortar. He told us that pounding the ginger releases more flavour than grating it, which is what many chai wallahs do.

I asked Gopal whether I could take photographs of him and his stall. He allowed me to do so. As we were leaving him, he told his customers proudly (in Gujarati):

“Our Prime Minister has to go to the UK and USA to have his picture taken. See, people from the UK have come all the way from London to Vadodara to photograph me.”

* A pol is an ancient form of gated community, built for protection, found in the historic centres of Varodara and (more prevalently) Ahmedabad.

Indian way of worship

Some similarities in ways of worshipping

yamey

Over and over again, I am impressed by the “Indian-ness” of worshipping in India. I will illustrate what I mean by this by describing a small Orthodox Christian chapel I visited on Bazaar Road in the Mattancherry district of Cochin (“Kochi”) in Kerala.

Outside the chapel, there stands a carved stone stand with indentations for oil lamps (diyas). It looks just like any diya stand that you could find in a Hindu temple, except that it is surmounted by a Christian cross.

The crucifix that stood above a small high altar within the chapel was draped with flower garlands (malas). Again, these are commonly found draped around effigies of Hindu deities.

I saw a brass diya stand with burning oil lamps directly in front of the crucifix. Like the lamp stand by the entrance, this one was also topped with a Christian cross.

If one were…

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Coffee with ginger

Nothing much about Gujarat, but interesting anyway!

yamey

Cochin is a port on the Malabar coast. It provided a haven and home for people from all over the world, including Arabic traders. Now, it attracts foreign tourists from all over the world. This article is about a legacy of the Arab settlers.

I have occasionally drunk coffee flavoured with cardamom in Arabic restaurants. This drink is identical to Turkish coffee but is subtly tinged with cardamom.

An article, published on 28th December 2018 in the Hindu Metroplus (Cochin edition), alerted us to the existence of Kava Kada, a tiny café next to the Mahalari Masjid (mosque) in the Mattancherry district of Cochin in Kerala (India). The café is literally a hole-in-the-wall in the side of the masjid, a few feet away from the main minaret.

A small, aged glass counter-top display cabinet contains a few fried snacks including batter covered fried bananas. There are a couple of…

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