Back in Baroda again

I FIND THAT REVISITING PLACES IS often pleasurable. Some might say “familiarity breeds contempt”, but for me gaining familiarity with a city does the opposite, it increases my admiration and enjoyment. Baroda (aka Vadodara) in Gujarat is no exception.

After a frustrating morning trying to reserve tickets from Surat to Bombay at both the railway station and the central bus depot, we sought refuge at the peaceful Hazira Maqbara, the 16th century mausoleum containing the grave of Qutub-ud-Din Muhammad Khan. This large, domed octagonal structure is elegant and deserves to be regarded as one of the most important architectural monuments in Baroda.

Directly across the road from Hazira, there is a large sign for ‘Sunder Baug Towers’, a block of flats. A narrow path next to the sign leads to the Koyal Vav (Nightingale Stepwell). Unlike many of the more remarkable vavs in Gujarat, for example the Bai Harir and the Adalaj vavs in Ahmedabad, that have become protected but unused monuments, the Koyal is a far simpler structure but is still in daily use. Apart from its staircase, the brickwork of the stepwell and another wide diameter circular brick well very close by are in poor condition. A man, who saw me taking photographs, asked if we were tourists or whether we had come to repair the well.

A sheet of filthy corrugated iron barred access to the stairs leading into the vav. Soon after we arrived, a lady turned up. She moved the corrugated iron barrier, explaining that it was placed there to prevent animals from descending the steps and to deter humans from doing ‘sandaas’ (defaecation) in the well.

The stairs led to a brick archway over a rectangular pool containing murky grey water. Once, there had been another arch. It had spanned the staircase about halfway down to the water. It collapsed some time ago, leaving a small projection of brickwork as evidence of its existence.

The lady told us that people bathed in the vav for medicinal purposes. At least ten people bathe every day, and on Sundays many more. She said the water was good for healing skin boils. I looked at the liquid and felt that entering it was likely to cause one to develop boils, if not worse.

From Koyal Vav we drove to the Mandvi, the central point of the old city of Baroda. It is the place where the four roads from the four gates in the now demolished city walls met. The mandvi itself is a building that used to serve as a revenue or tax collecting place. This delightful old building stands in the middle of a busy traffic roundabout.

The popular small Karnatak eating house faces the mandvi. It serves south Indian vegetarian food: idlis, dosas, vadas, etc., but, sadly, not south Indian filter coffee (nor chhaas before March). I ate a tolerable but not brilliant dosa. The Karnatak is owned by a man who comes from Udipi in Karnataka.

We walked from the mandvi towards the Lehripura gate along a bustling street lined with small shops, including many jewellery sellers, and roadside stalls selling useful as well as decorative items.

We walked through a narrow alleyway, passing some slightly dilapidated, but decorative old houses adorned with intricate wood carvings, and reached a street parallel to the one we were on. This street is also full of shops. Overhead, cords stretched across the thoroughfare carried clothes and fabrics for sale.

We entered an attractive Jain derasa (temple), which was no more than 150 years old, but displayed many of the architectural and decorative features of much older temples. The main mahavir idol was made of white marble richly encrusted with shiny jewels.

We visited a Hindu temple nearby. Many of the idols in that temple were dressed in what looks like dolls’ clothing that is supposed to protect their dignity. The ceiling of the large dome above the verandah of the temple was lined with concentric circles, just as can be found in temples built many centuries ago.

The now disused Nyayamandir, a royal palace that once housed the old law courts, stands facing a square. One side of the square is lined with women selling cricket bats in all sizes and colours. One lady was busy sanding bats prior to polishing them.

We returned to our hotel for a rest. On our way we passed the Sursagar, a large man made lake. In the centre of this, there stands a tall metal statue of Shiva holding a fearsome looking trishul (trident).

Much of what we saw we had seen before, but seeing it again was far from repetitive; it was like viewing it with fresh eyes. We recognised places but discovered things we had not noticed before.

A fine stepwell in Ahmedabad

IN ABOUT 1500, BAI HARIR SULTANI, Chief Officer of the Female Quarters of Sultan Mahmood Begada of Gujarat built a stepwell just outside the city walls of Ahmedabad.

The stepwell (a vav) is in a very good state of preservation and a fine example of this kind of structure. In essence a vav consists of a staircase leading below ground to the mouth of a well. The staircase is open to the elements but descends below an often complex structure of galleries built above it. As the staircase descends deeper, the number of layers of galleries above it increases. The staircase has a number of landinds along its length. Each new layer of gallery beginds above a landing. The result is a beautiful construction with a fascinating division of space. Photography, however good, cannot do justice to what the visitor experiences when descending into a vav. You need to visit a vav like the Bai Harir to understand and enjoy the full experience of this kind of stepwell.

The Bai Harir stepwell is on its own a good reason to travel to it, but there is another. Next to the vav there is a15/16th century mosque of great beauty. This should be visited as well as the elaborately decorated dargah (mausoleum) next to it. This contains the grave of Bai Harir Sultani, who not only established the vav but also the mosque.

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.

An underground well

VIRPUR STEP

The step well at VIRPUR in Saurashtra is typical of the subterranean wells found all over the State of Gujarat. A series of staircases lead underground to a deeeply located well head. The staircases are connected with galleries through which light filters down to the depths. These wells often doubled up as meeting places for women and underground Hindu shrines. This well at Virpur is prized by women seeking enhanced fertility.

Learn much more about step wells in Adam Yamey’s book:

TRAVELS THROUGH GUJARAT, DAMAN, AND DIU

Available: https://www.bookdepository.com/Travels-Through-Gujarat-Daman-Diu-Adam-YAMEY/9780244407988

And on Amazon as well as Kindle