In the footsteps of the ancients at Lothal

OSTIA ANTICA, THE PORT of Ancient Rome is constructed mainly with baked clay bricks. When I visited it some years ago, I remember thinking that it looked like a recently built place because of the brickwork that looked so contemporary. Ostia dates back no further than the 4th century BC. The port at Lothal in Gujarat (western India) thrived long before Ostia, probably between 2500 and 1900 BC, but like the Roman port, the remains of Lothal are mainly (sun baked) clay bricks, giving them a far from ancient appearance. Lothal, excavated in the 1950s, was a port inhabited by people of the Bronze Age Harrapan (or Indus Valley) civilisation that thrived between about 3300 to 1300 BC.

We drove to Lothal from Ahmedabad along a good highway that runs through flat landscape with numerous tidy looking factories. We arrived after about 75 minutes of steady driving. The archaeological site, maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), is in the middle of very flat fertile agricultural land far from the nearest village. Unlike most other ASI sites that charge an entrance fee, that at Lothal is the same for both foreigners, who are usually charged a high fee and Indians. Each ticket cost only 5 Rupees.

The ticket gives access to a small but well laid out museum, whose exhibitsand information panels demonstrate how Lothal fits into current understanding of Harappan civilisation and what life might have been like in the ancient port. A fairly simplistic video was shown. It concentrated mainly on Mohenjo-Daro, a large Harappan site now in Pakistan. The evidence dug up at Lothal and other Harappan sites shows that the civilisation was both technically and artistically sophisticated. On display, were systems of weights and ingeniously crafted fine jewellery, both examples of products that could only have been produced by people of great intellectual ability.

The ruins are, as already mentioned, mostly made of brick. A low mound, known as the ‘Acropolis’, is covered with structures that might have been warehouses or residences of the upper echelons of Lothal. The mound overlooks what looks like a huge rectangular brick lined swimming pool, now filled with rainwater. When Lothal was thriving, this dock was connected to the nearby sea (now the Gulf of Khambat) by a channel along which vessels could sail. Over the millennia, the coastline has shifted and what was once Lothal is separated from the sea, far away from it. The ASI keep the dock filled with rainwater to show what the dock must have looked like in its heyday.

Various other structures outlined by brickwork, including circular wellheads, can be visited. These include the former bead factory, a cemetery (where all the skeletons discovered were from people who died aged 30 or less; maybe older people were cremated), and a ‘lower town’. What little that has been excavated is well looked after, but without the explanations provided in the museum the casual visitor would have no idea of what he or she was seeing or how ancient these remains are. With a little background information it was thrilling to walk in the footsteps of townsfolk and traders who lived and thrived so many, many years before us.

We met only three other visitors while wandering around the ruins. They were all from Bangalore. They were touring Gujarat but lamented the fact that most signs are only in Gujarati script. In Karnataka, where they live and where we visit often, signs are often not only in the local script but also in English and/or Hindi.

There are no refreshments available at the Lothal site. An employee suggested that we might get tea in the modern village of Lothal, a few kilometres away. Our driver had his doubts about this and so did I when we drove along the winding dusty road through the small village. There were no shops or stalls to be found.

We parked outside a pair of wrought iron gates separating two houses. A lady appeared in the door of one of them, and my wife asked (in Gujarati) whether tea was available in the village. The lady said she would make some for us.

We followed her through the gates and into a long wide alley lined with houses. Two ladies were embroidering gold thread, jewels, and sequins onto long silk saris spread out along the incredibly clean concrete floor of the alley. Other ladies were sitting around.

Our hostess brought us each a plastic chair from her home. We sat chatting with the ladies while we awaited our tea. The alley was lined with houses that a farmer had built for his sons. Each of the ladies was one of his daughters in law.

Our hostess arrived with a large metal cup filled with tea and two china saucers. Each of us was handed a saucer, which she filled with hot tea. We slurped the tea from the saucers as is the custom when sharing tea in Gujarat (often one person drinks from a cup and the other who is sharing it drinks from the saucer: a system known as ‘cutting chai’).

The ladies doing the embroidery take about a day to decorate a whole sari with a complex design. The silk is sent to Lothal from Surat, where the decorated saris are later sold. An old lady with barely one tooth in her smile, the mother in law of the women we were talking with, joined us. This wizened relative asked if it was true that a man’s haircut would cost 1000 rupees in the USA, as she had seen on YouTube. We told her that it would cost at least that. She was then told to go back to rest on her charpoy in the nearby farmyard.

We asked where the menfolk were. They answered: “In the fields. What else could they be doing?”

Our hostess, who seemed to be the brightest of the very hospitable women, took us to see the cow whose milk had been used to make our tea. We thsnked her calf for sharing his mothers milk. She also proudly showed us the two fine horses the family owned.

Just before we left, my wife asked our hostess whether we could leave a small gift for her children. She said that they were at school and there was no need for a gift. She told us that she was very keen that they should do well at school, and hoped that they would be able to study in the USA, because she said: “There is no future for them, nothing here anymore.”As we drove away from our new acquaintances through the village, people waved to us. We waved at three old men on a bench. They waved back. We felt that we had received a warm welcome at ground level in Gujarat.

An afternoon in Ahmedabad

FAMILIARITY BREEDS … CONTENTMENT. We have just landed in Ahmedabad. It is our third visit to this city in Gujarat within less than two years. We received a warm welcome from the staff at the small hotel where we have stayed twice before.

After settling into our room, we ate a good meal of Mughlai food at the Food Inn, which is opposite the 16th century Sidi Sayeed Mosque. Then, we travelled to the Gita Mandir bus station, where a very helpful booking clerk arranged tickets for various intercity trips we are planning to make soon.

The noisy, bustling traffic in Ahmedabad is typical of the city’s general feeling of vibrancy and exciting vitality. So bad was the congestion on the roads that our autorickshaw driver suggested that we abandoned our plans to visit the Jumma Masjid near the Manek Chowk. He explained that being the 30th of December, everyone was in a holiday mood and out on the streets spending money.

We disembarked at Khwaja Bazaar, a frenetic market place between the three arched Teen Darwaza and the Badra Fort, where the early rulers of Ahmedabad had their headquarters. We strolled along a street leading away from the market, admiring occasional old looking buildings along it. I imagine that the oldest of these is about a hundred or so years old.

Eventually, we reached a post office just across the road from an ageing Parsi ‘dharamshala’. Apart from a vigilant watchman, who looked at us suspiciously, the place looked rather dead. We took tea at a pavement stall. Typical of the kindness of people in this city, the ‘chaiwallah’ specially prepared tea without sugar for us instead of the very sweet beverage that is usually served. We sat on a bench, sipping tea and watching the world go by. It felt good to be back in Ahmedabad, a city, where kite flying is a popular pursuit. A city that is becoming familiar to us and makes us feel content.

Ginger: pounded or grated?

ginger

 

The road-side tea-makers found all over Gujarat make hot milky tea flavoured with various additives. Sugar is almost always added. Ginger is another ingredient often used. It is added to the boiling mixture of milk and tea, which is strained through cloth when it has been boiled sufficiently. Many tea makers grate their ginger using metal graters. A few others, like the man in my photograph taken near Manek Chowk in Ahmedabad, prefer to pound their ginger in a pestle and mortar. Whether using grating or pounding  makes much of a difference to the enjoyment of the tea is a matter of personal opinion.

Tea in a bag

Tea bag

 

In Porbandar, the city where Mahatma Gandhi was born, we found a small tea-stall.

As we drank our tiny cups of milky, spiced tea, we watched the chaiwallah filling narrow, cylindrical plastic tubes with hot tea. When these thin-walled short cylinders are almost filled, they are tied closed and handed to customers to drink elsewhere. Later, we learned that these popular thin plastic containers of ‘take-away’ tea pose a potential health hazard because the hot drink leaches toxic chemicals from the plastic. 

The picture above, which was taken in Ahmedabad, shows a portion of take-away tea in a bag rather than a tube. 

Just as in the UK, take-away and home delivery foods and drinks are becoming popular in India. There are many mobile ‘phone ‘apps’ that allow the customer to order the food or drinks in advance. Often, motorcyclists deliver what is ordered. In India, the Swiggy company does the same kind of work as Deliveroo does in the UK. However, hot tea in a plastic bag is a product yet to arrive on the British ‘scene’.

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.

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.

 

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Cutting chai

chai 1
Drinking cutting chai in Gondal

… all over Gujarat, tea is served in tiny cups, that can be finished in two or three swallows. It is invariably sweet. Our daughter describes these minute drinks as ‘sugar bombs’. They provide energy, rather than quenching thirst. Often, two men will share a tiny cup of tea. Half of the tea is poured into a tiny saucer, and one of the men slurps from it noisily. The other man drinks the rest from the cup. Tea shared this way is known as ‘cutting chai’. A reason for this practice is, apparently, to reduce sugar intake.

 

chai 2
Boiling tea with milk and spices in Bhavnagar

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