Thursday, November 21, 2013

Pleasure Pilgrimage - Part 1

Sidi Sayed Jhali

My wife has been asking me for a long time to plan a trip to West India, places where we could go with her sister Suganthi who lives in Mumbai.  I was not able to pay attention to this, and one fine day she just asked for the dates, saying her sister would do all the planning for the trip. She even suggested the period immediately following Diwali, as it suited her sister well, being holiday for the child and lean time for the husband.  Still unable to sit and draw a plan, I readily agreed for the dates and let Suganthi do the planning for the trip.  Time, as usual, waits for none and traversed its rapid course and suddenly there were reminders from Suganthi to book tickets immediately, as prices were going up by the day.  I didn’t realise it was only two weeks to go and hurriedly booked the tickets.  Thus started our trip to Gujarat and Rajasthan on Nov3, immediately after Diwali of 2013.

We went by air from Chennai to Mumbai.  The Spicejet flight was so empty I wondered why they had not cancelled it.  But then if they had, that would have put us in trouble.  So we happily landed in Mumbai on Sunday morning, quickly collected the luggage and with my co-brother Guruprasad and his daughter Shreya waiting to receive us at the airport, got to their home also pretty fast.  Our train to Ahmedabad was late in the night only, so we had a good rest after lunch and a little outing before departure.

Day 1 (Nov4)

We reached Ahmedabad early in the morning on Monday Nov4 and checked into Krios where our accommodation was booked.  This is a quiet, comfortable hotel only a little away from the centre of the city.  Suganthi had gathered information on places of interest through the internet.  Based on her input, the hotel manager had suggested a tour program, according to which we would cover Ahmedabad as much as possible on the first two days and then proceed to Udaipur.  What we did not know and were not informed was the fact that the entire Ahmedabad markets would be closed for the whole of the week. The ladies were disappointed because this cut heavily into their shopping plans, but they managed to put up a smile and continue with the tour, reserving shopping for the last day back again in Ahmedabad.

I realised the day starts rather late in Gujarat. On both the days, our taxi was asked to report only at eleven in the morning!  Therefore, after a relaxed bath and breakfast at Krios, we started our Gujarat tour with a visit to the Iskcon temple first, followed by visits to the Science City, Vaishno Devi temple, Adalaj Vav and Akshar Dham, in that order. Actually, the ladies wanted to see some shops or malls at least for window shopping on the way, but the driver insisted that it was not possible because of the long holiday. Another thing we did not anticipate and were not prepared for was the crowd.  This period being declared holiday, it looked like the whole of Gujarat, Rajasthan and even part of Mumbai had descended on Ahmedabad.  All the places of worship and sightseeing were flooded by visitors, and added to the time we were expected to spend at each point. 

The Iskcon temple, though crowded, offered moving space inside.   Though photography was not allowed inside the temple (it is allowed outside), I saw several visitors clicking merrily and asked the person next to me in the queue about this and learnt that since it was their New Year, they were being not very strict about the rules.  Tempted, I also took the camera out snapped the idols of Sri Rama-Sita-Lakshman-Hanuman.  We tasted a couple of native Gujarat snacks being sold outside the temple, and proceeded to Vaishno Devi temple.  However, seeing the long queue waiting at the Vaishno Devi temple, we skipped it and decided to make it Adalaj Vav.

Iskcon temple  Iskcon temple

The Adalaj Vav, or stepwell, has an interesting story with a sad ending.  I quote from Wikipedia: Its construction was started by Rana Veer Singh of the Vaghela dynasty of Dandai Desh. But he was killed in a war, wherefater the Muslim king Mahmud Begada of a neighbouring state built it in Indo-Islamic architectural style, in 1499.  The cultural and architectural depiction in the deep wells at various levels are a tribute to the history of step wells, built initially by Hindus and subsequently ornamented and blended with Islamic architecture during the Muslim rule.

As per legend, Rana Veer Singh’s widow, a beautiful lady known by the name Rani Roopba, though in deep grief at the death of her husband, agreed to a marriage proposal made by Mahmud Begada on the condition that he would first complete the building of the stepwell. The Muslim king who was deeply enamoured of the queen’s beauty agreed to the proposal and built the well in record time. Once the well was completed, Begda reminded the queen of her promise to marry him. instead the queen who had achieved her objective of completing the stepwell started by her husband, decided to end her life, as mark of devotion to her husband. She circumambulated the stepwell with prayers and jumped into the well, ending the saga of building the well in tragedy. These events are depicted on the walls of the well. Begda however allowed the well to remain without any defacing.

Again, because of the crowd, I could not devote much time to photography, and managed a few shots here. In hindsight, I feel I should have stayed a little longer and shot snaps depicting the multi-storeyed structure of this well too.  A few photos to share:

Adalaj vav  Adalaj vav  Adalaj vav

I just could not believe the crowd at Akshardham. Akshardham in Gandhinagar, comprises of a vast complex of gardens, museum, exhibition, light-show and children’s play area, all built around a beautiful central building housing a huge idol of Guru Swaminarayan.  Unfortunately, after a terrorist attack in 2002, the place is very heavily guarded and carrying of cameras and mobile phones is not allowed.  Therefore, I am not able to present my photos here.   However, I must say that the building, built of sandstone, is captivating at first look, and made me think the builders wanted to create something like a Taj Mahal here – same type of big, symmetric, high-raised building with a long stretch of garden with fountains in front.  The comparison stops here.

The mad crowd made us wait for hours for everything,  At 5.30 p.m., the tickets for the 6.30 laser show were sold out and only the next show at 7.30 p.m. was available!  Having come all the way, we had no other go and had to wait and watch, but the show was certainly worth the wait.  The story of Nachiketh was beautifully enacted with real-time actors and interesting mix of fountains, water-screen and laser beams.  Shreya coped well with us, though there was not much entertainment for her age at these places.

On the way back, we had dinner at .., and returned to Krios for a good night’s sleep.

Day 2 (Nov5)

Vasanthi is ever so happy not to be woken up in the morning, and she was pleased to have a late start like this.  More happiness was in store, as the second day started  with shopping, for the Handicrafts Bhavan was open despite holidays and both the sisters spent quite some time in the shop.  Guru and I kept Shreya engaged (could be the other way too) with small games while they were shopping.  On this day, we covered the Hutheesing Jain temple, built in 1848 and housing the marble image of the 15th Tirtankara, Dharmanatha.  Though the temple contains excellent marble work and beautiful inner corridors on three sides, photography, again, is not allowed and hence I had to content with just having a good look at them.

Hutheesing Jain Temple  Hutheesing Jain Temple  Hutheesing Jain Temple

We tried Gujarati Thali at Gopi’s, which was our driver Narendra’s choice.  More about him later. From there we proceeded to Sabarmati Ashram, where Gandhiji spent a good portion of his life.  We took a leisurely stroll through the various photo-galleries and the house where he and Ba lived, including demonstration of the charka or the spinning wheel, at which Gandhiji was very adept.  While the place evokes a feeling of patriotism and respect for the great man he was, I still feel it could be better maintained, particularly the toilets.  When Gandhiji himself did not mind cleaning toilets, it is a pity that toilets in this memorial are not maintained properly even though paid housekeeping staff is employed in good numbers here.

Sabarmati Ashram  Sabarmati Ashram  Squirrel

With the evening sprawling before us and no shopping not on the agenda, we were wondering where to go and one of the places that came to mind was the Kakaria lake.  Though not intimidated, I was certainly taken aback by the mad crowd thronging this place.  The platform on the banks of the lake was jam-packed with all sort of people – locals and outsiders, tourists like us, vendors, individuals and groups, loners and families, groups of boys, groups of girls – it was like a carnival was taking place.  Probably it was! I forgot it was New Year season in this part of India and people were just enjoying outing and mingling with the crowd.  Two toy trains were alternately chugging around the lake, but we were a little late for the day and there was such a long waiting for the train.  Moreover, as it was getting dark, the train service was being suspended for the day, and so we could not put Shreya on one of the trains though she badly wanted to get on one.   Guru pacified her in his own way and we went back to our hotel.
Kakaria Lake

Day 3 (Nov 6)

We left a little early today, because from this day it was outstation trip and we had to cover quite a few places over long distances.  As we were any way scheduled to be back in Ahmedbad for a night’s stay before our departure to home, we kept some luggage back at the store room in Krios and took only what was required for the ensuing trip.

On the way to Udaipur, we were advised to visit the Shamalji temple.  Suganthi using her mobile internet to see if anything more was possible, kept coming up with a few names here and there.  But our driver negatived most of them, saying either we had already crossed the place, or it meant a deep detour from the main road.  Soon we reached Shamalji and I saw a small temple with quite a crowd, and a Shiva statue atop a hillock behind the temple and asked the driver to go and park as near as possible. Only when we went near did we realise it was not the Shamalji temple, but another temple dedicated to Vishwakarma, and a local event was on drawing the crowd we saw.  We soon left the place and now the driver took us to the real Shamalji temple.

Oh my God, what a beautiful temple it is!  This is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. We were again upset on seeing the huge crowd that was waiting to have darshan, but once we saw that the it was closing time and the temple authorities were clearing the queue pretty fast, we joined the line.  That proved to be a good decision, because the Lord inside was such a beautiful, magnificent idol, adorned with glittering jewellery and colourful garlands.  It was a sight to behold.  We came out of the temple (rather, gently pushed out) and I started to take photos of the temple from outside.  It was then I noticed the extra-ordinary and intricate carvings on all sides of the exterior of the temple. I was so stumped and awe-struck by the beauty and depth of the carvings that I spent the next 20 minutes clicking away the entire stretch of sculptures on all three sides of the temple, except the front, which still remained obstructed by the departing crowd.

Tired of clicking in the sun, we walked our way back to the parking lot and had an excellent cup of tea prepared by an ex-serviceman who had set up a stall there.  On chatting, we came to know that he had served in the Avadi defence area, and knew Ambattur to some extent.  On the way out, I was, as usual, attracted by vendors selling jujube and the pani-phal.  See the snaps.

Shamalji Vishnu Temple  Shamalji Vishnu Temple  Jujube vendor

The next place on the itinerary was the Rishabdev temple.  I had thought it would be an abode of Lord Shiva (because of his vehicle Rishab), but it turned out to be a Jain temple!  I realised why it is important for people to get to know beforehand some information about the places they are going to visit, but it is also true that sometimes it is more interesting when you get to see something about which you do not know anything at all!  It was in this temple that I came to know about the practice of auctioning the opportunity to perform Aarthi or other kinds of worship in Jain temples, which was unheard of and something totally new to me.  I discussed this with a Jain girl Niyati who was travelling with me on the flight from Ahmedabad, and she explained the procedure, quickly adding she was not in agreement with the custom!  I told her not to feel bad about it, every religion has some customs, traditions and practices that must have been instituted by forefathers for some purpose and that it is better to continue these as long as they don’t harm anyone.

We bought some fruits on the way out of Rishabdev temple, and proceeded to Udaipur.  We encountered the same problem on reaching Udaipur – entire crowd from Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra had come there and we found that in view of severe vehicle congestion, many of the narrow, interior roads blocked by traffic police.  Because of the busy season, we were also not able to get any of the good hotels and Suganthi said she had to grab the accommodation available at whatever reasonably good hotel she was able to get.  She had booked rooms at a hotel named Anjani, which was situated in Gangaur Ghat Road, but the police did not allow our vehicle anywhere near the hotel.  The hotel people gave us directions to come as near to the hotel as possible, and from that place they arranged for the luggage to be transported by their boys, and provided an auto-rickshaw for us to reach the hotel.

The approach to the hotel was awful – narrow lanes, open drainage flowing on one side of the road, etc.  We had to climb on steep slope even to reach the reception.  They call it a ‘heritage hotel’.  I think it is because it is nothing but an old dwelling place of some palace guy converted into rented rooms with all modern fittings – attached bath, running hot water, etc.   However, once you get in, it was more acceptable, and they even had Wi-Fi functioning on the ground floor!  After checking in and refreshing a while, we took some guidance from the hotel staff and as per their advice, went to see the folk dance that was happening nearby in one of the annexures of the palace.  However, on reaching the place, we were told that not only was it running full without even standing space, but were also discouraged on the ground that the old building could not take more weight.  Disappointed, we decided to do some sight-seeing and shopping.  After crossing the bridge and viewing the palace from the other side of the lake, we took advice from local people as to where we could get good vegetarian food, and as per their advice, took dinner at Bawarchi, which was good.  They were kind enough not to charge for the kid and gave an extra plate to share our meals with her!  All this local commuting was on local auto-rickshaws, as our car was not allowed to ply on many of the roads, and the driver had completely disappeared from our view for rest for the day!  Back at the hotel, Vasanthi liked the tinted-glass windows very much, and I liked the painted glass lampshade, so I took shots of both before going to bed.
Lake by night    Anjani  Lampshade in Anjani


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