Yesterday morning we took a Volvo bus to Ahmedabad (locally known as Amdavad) from Vadodara. It dropped us off somewhere on the western end of the city at around 12:30pm. From there we took an auto-rickshaw to Hotel Volga, which was one of 3 hotels that we had short-listed based on their review in LP. All 3 hotels are in Central Ahmedabad, which is on the eastern bank of Sabarmati River that runs thru the center of the city. The auto ride cost us Rs.60. En route we noticed that the western parts of the city were modern, well laid out, with major shopping centers and lesser crowds. The eastern side, on the other hand, seemed to be the older part of Ahmedabad and much more crowded. And our hotel was right in the center of it all.
Thankfully, we liked Hotel Volga and didn’t have to check out the rest. We checked in, dumped our bags and immediately left for lunch. The reception suggested a veg restaurant close by and we walked over to it. After a quick meal, we came back to the hotel and spent the rest of the day uploading pictures and updating our blogs – there was much to get done. One big mistake on our part was not having bought an internet access card from Delhi or Bombay. So we have had to rely on the hotels or nearby cyber-cafes for access. So far only Agra’s Tourist Resthouse provided us with wireless access – none of the other hotels even had an internet station, forget wireless. Finding cyber-cafes in India is not a challenge but invariably they are cramped, almost claustrophobic, stores that provide the slowest internet connections ever – so it’s a colossal waste of time as well. When we get to Delhi in Dec, buying a wireless card would be first on our agenda.
LP had recommended a Heritage Walk around the old city, organized by the Municipal Corporation of Ahmedabad. I called them to make reservations but was told that they have these walks 7 days a week from 8am to 10am and all we have to do is turn up by 7:45am at the starting point of the walk – no prior reservations were required. So today morning, we took an auto to the starting point of the walk, which is the Swaminarayan temple in an area called Kalupur. It was just about 5 minutes from the hotel. The temple was huge and quite beautiful. It was built in the 19th century and is the first ever Swaminarayan temple to be built. In the early morning hours, it seemed peaceful and had a great atmosphere about it. The wooden carvings on the entrance gateway and temple have been painted over with bright colors, which gives them a slightly kitschy look – I wish they had left the carvings exposed and just polished them – I guess a paint job is far easier than keeping the wood polished.
Since it was a Sunday, many local Gujaratis turned up for the walk – there were quite a few tourists like us as well. It cost Rs.20 per head and was led by a volunteer, a young 20ish girl named Urvashi. The proceeds from the ticket sales go towards the restoration and maintenance work of Ahmedabad’s heritage sites. At 8am sharp, we were all presented with a slide-show about the walk and the sights it would cover. 15 minutes later Urvashi led us out into the narrow lanes of the old city. It was absolutely fascinating! The place had a lovely, old-world charm about it. Many of the structures built 500 years ago look worn but are still standing strong and look absolutely graceful amidst all the chaos. Madhu and I would have never stumbled across these gems on our own. The walk took us through old Hindu and Jain temples, and Muslim mosques and tombs. Out of them all, I loved the intricate woodwork in the Jain temples – they were the best. The walk also took us thru ‘Pols’ or neighborhoods that each has a gated entrance with a Chaboothara (tall bird feeder), a place of worship and residences. Most of the neighborhoods are defined by religion so Hindus have their own Pols, so do Jains and so do Muslims. There were secret passageways that connect the Pols to each other as well. Some neighborhoods had homes from varied eras but there was one cul-de-sac where a British-built structure stood next to a Persian structure, a Maratha house and a Mughal home. All this was sooo fascinating.
But the whole experience was a little shocking as well because the lanes were littered with animal poop. We had a tough time looking up to gape at the fabulous architecture and also looking down to ensure that we don’t step on anything we wouldn’t want to drag back to our hotel room. There were many stray dogs and cows, which are probably responsible for all the mess. I guess it’s not possible to move them away from the area or get rid of them, but given how cheap labor is, can we not employ some people to clean the streets every morning?! Apart from the filth, India’s old town streets have the charm and beauty of any small town in culturally rich European countries like Italy and Spain.
The walk ended at the fabulous Jami Masjid, friday mosque of the area. Its twin minarets fell in the earthquake of 1819 but the rest of it is still intact and beautiful. Even today prayers are held here every Friday – there were carpets on the floor of the mosque for the devotees. In the center of the mosque’s courtyard is a beautiful, rectangular tank filled with water – we sat in the shade of its arches for a while. It was wonderful to be at such a pretty place with hardly anybody around – it was quite a peaceful experience!
Ahmedabad grew in prominence due to its textile industry and showcasing this is the Calico Museum of Textiles in Shahibag. LP said that it’s one of the finest textile museums in the country. So I was keen on seeing it. It allows visitors only between 10:30 and 12:30 in the mornings and 2:45 to 4:45pm in the afternoon. Since we were done with the walk by 10am, we decided to head out to the museum immediately. But when we got there we learnt that one has to call ahead and book tickets in advance to tour the museum. The museum conducts a guided tour of only 25 visitors at a time, starting at 10:30am and finishing by 12:30pm – a similar tour of a different wing of the museum is conducted in the afternoon session. Today’s tours were completely booked.
Disappointed, we headed off to our next stop – Sabarmati Ashram. Now this was an absolutely charming place. It lies sandwiched between a busy street and the Sabarmati river. Within its gates the atmosphere is serene and peaceful. Near the entrance is a one-storied building that displays the life and events in Mahatma Gandhi’s life. There is also a book-shop selling any and every book written about the great man. Behind this building are the original houses where Gandhiji and his followers lived. Out of them, Gandhiji’s house was the nicest. It’s a simple home with small rooms and a nice little courtyard at the back. Its austerity is its beauty; one can easily imagine Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba living here. We spent a leisurely hour walking through the place…
After lunch, we took an auto to Adalaj (pronounced as Adaa-luj) Wav, a step-well, which is about 15km north of the city. When we got there it was 2pm and blazing hot. But the step-well was breathtakingly beautiful. I have never seen such intricate carvings before and such architecture. Built in 1499, it is an octagonal-shaped well which is 5-storeys deep and is decorated with 16 pillars that have exquisite stone carvings. As we descended each storey down to the well, the air got cooler and damper. The top of the well is covered with a metal grill for safety reasons but our auto driver mentioned that after the rains, water levels come up to the steps, submerging the grill. During that period many religious rituals take place here. Since it was a Sunday, the place was quite crowded and therefore, quite noisy. Madhu and I wished we had come at a different time; it would have been lovely to sit on the stone steps in solitude and relax. Oh well!
We got back to the hotel room by 4pm and are now busy uploading pictures and updating our blog at the cyber cafe. We had initially planned on doing a day trip to Lothal tomorrow but given its distance from Ahmedabad (about 85kms) and the lack of information on it, we are not sure if we should really go there. LP said it’s a 3-hour ride from Ahmedabad. Spending 6 hours on the road for something that may not be worth the effort doesn’t sound appealing; after all we are on vacation. So we might just skip it and head to our next destination in Gujarat – Bhavnagar … or maybe Diu … who knows!