Wood carving in Ahmedabad

POL

The old part of the city of Ahmedabad is divided into self-contained districts, like gated communities, called pols. Each pol has its own single gated entrance which gives sole access to a number of narrow streets. The narrow streets are lined by tall buildings, which together render the temperature of the pols at ground level far lower than the temperature in wider streets and open places in the city.

In times of trouble and strife, the gates of a pol can be closed to prevent intruders entering it. Secret passages lead from one pol to its neighbour(s). Pols have their own wells. 

Often a pol is inhabited by families that have something in common, for example religion, caste or profession.

One of the many delights of the pols in Ahmedabad (they are also found in Baroda) is that they often contain buildings decorated with intricately carved woodwwork decorative and stuctural features.

For tourists, a pol is not only a place that they can literally ‘chill out’ but also they can experience a valuable part of Ahmedabad’s living history.

Art school in Baroda

BARODA ART

 

This lovely old building surrounded by trees and other luxuriant vegetation stands on the campus of the Faculty of Fine Arts of the Sayajirao University of Baroda (Vadodara).

Here is an excerpt about this place from my book “Travels through Gujarat, Daman, and Diu”:

In 1935 to celebrate the diamond anniversary of his reign, Maharajah Sayajirao III Gaekwad set aside huge funds, both the state’s and his own, to create a university in Baroda. The Faculty of Fine arts, set in park-like grounds with many trees, is a part of this. The campus contains several buildings. The most attractive of these is an almost octagonal building surrounded by deep verandas with wooden balustrades at both ground floor and first floor levels. This building, which contains some studios, was constructed in the 1930s. Other buildings on the campus are newer, having been built after the Fine Arts Faculty was founded in 1951.

One of the joys of art schools in India, and that in Baroda is no exception, is watching students creating artworks in the open air, and seeing their completed creations exhibited outside. Many of the works on display demonstrate the great technical skills and lively imaginations of their creators. We saw many youngsters sitting in the shade of the trees, at work in their sketchbooks. There were plenty of great sculptures in the gardens of the Baroda art school, but no one was working on them outside. Maybe, it was too warm.

 

Travels through Gujarat, Daman, and Diu” by Adam Yamey

is available from Amazon, Bookdepository.com, Lulu.com, and on Kindle

 

 

An offering

mendicant

 

A man carrying hot coals emitting a fragrant smoke entered a small café early one morning in Baroda (Vadodara). He was offering blessings in exchange for a small financial donation. Without displaying any disappointment, he left without having been given any money.

In many religions, fragrant smoke provides a suggestion of holiness.

Salt

salt pan

Salt is an essential part of the human diet. In Africa, salt  produced by the Moors was transported across the Sahara Desert to salt-free Central Africa, where it was exchanged for gold. This shows how much salt is valued as a commodity.

On a recent bus trip between the two Gujarati cities of Baroda and Bhavnagar, we passed through a flat low-lying district not far from the sea (the Gulf of Khambat).  Along the way, we passed numerous white piles of salt recently extracted from the sea. These piles stand amongst pools of salty water that is evaporating in the hot sun. Although flat, the landscape is varied and fascinating.

Gujarat is the largest salt producer in India and the third largest in the world. Sadly, the salt workers, whose life is tough and dangerous, are poorly treated by their employers. According to the Indian Express dated April 26, 2016, the Government of the State of Gujarat is looking into ways of improving the lives of salt workers and their families.

A peculiar street object

Happy Valentine’s Day!

In the historic centres of both Ahmedabad and Baroda (Vadodara), there are a few very tall, several storeys high (higher than the buildings next to them), metal poles sprouting from the pavement. They are all topped with metalwork objects as illustrated in my photograph published below.

Most people, whom I asked, had no idea what purpose these poles and their curious apparatus served. I posted pictures of these tall poles on Facebook, and then received a number of suggestions as to what they might be. Most people, seeing the arrows, suggested that they may have been old weather vanes for determining wind direction, but I felt that this was an unlikely for these poles that look as if they were put up by a municipal authority.

One person I asked in a street in Ahmedabad thought that the poles had something to do with drainage, maybe ventilation. I quite liked that speculative reply because the spheres surmounting all of the poles have two short pipes attached to them.

Recently whilst looking at the Internet I came across a picture (see https://www.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=4c10a18d5cfa4da486df492765c2ad54) like mine. The picture was taken in Ahmedabad and is described as a sewage gas vent. This tallies with what I was told by one bystander.

A sewage gas vent that might have rotated to catch the prevaing breezes seems to be a plausible function for these poles BUT I cannot yet be sure if this is correct.

If anyone reading this can enlighten me more, please drop me a line or two in the comments section of this blog.

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.

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.

Going vegetarian in Gujarat

veg 1

 

Travellers visiting Gujarat should be aware that the majority of food served in the state is vegetarian. In bigger places like Ahmedabad and Baroda, finding non-vegetarian food is less of a problem than in smaller places. If you visit Bhavnagar, the Nilambagh Palace Hotel serves very good food – both veg and non-veg. Many people hanker after Gujarati thalis, but I am not one of these people. Those who are not on the Gujarati meals can easily find well-prepared south Indian vegetarian food like dosas, idli, and vada. Pizzas are also widely available, often with excellent tomato sauce made with fresh tomatos. 

veg 3
Gujarati thali

Another thing to consider when planning your trip to Gujarat is that it is a dry state: alcohol is not served in any public places. It is possible to get a permit (I have no idea how) to be allowed alcohol ‘for medical purposes’ (!)  Gujaratis and others desperate for booze can cross the border into either Daman or Diu, both of which were Portuguese colonies until 1961. Now they are administered not by the State of Gujarat, but by the Central Government of India – they are Union Territories. Alcohol is freely available at almost duty-free places in these tiny places, both of which are well-worth visiting.

 

veg 2
A mug of chhas

If you are thirsty, there are plenty of soft drinks available including the refreshing watered down yoghurt drink chhas (also known as ‘buttermilk’). Tea is the prevalent hot drink. We found it hard to get decent coffee, let alone any coffee. Most Gujaratis in Kutch and Saurashtra seem to be keen tea drinkers.

 

Discover more about journeying through Gujarat in Adam Yamey’s new book:

GUJ LULU PIC
Paperback available from lulu.com, Amazon, bookepository.com, Kindle, or order it from your bookshop [ISBN: 978-0244407988]