Fun with Textiles, History and Gujarati Thalis!
15.11.2011 - 19.11.2011 27 °C
My first foray to Gujarat, started off in and around Ahmedabad! First order of business? Getting our alcohol permit! Gujarat is a dry state, on account’a it being the birthplace of Ghandi. Ironically, Gujarat is apparently also the largest consumer per capita of alcohol in India. The permit acquiring was quite the adventure! Step one in the process; get a letter from the hotel verifying that we were indeed staying with them. A stay of at least one week is required to get the permit, which really cuts down on the desire of expats to make weekend trips to the state unfortunately. Then we were taken by our lovely driver Vikram, to the Residency Hotel, which sells alcohol, and provides the permits.
Arriving to the hotel, we were taken around back, down a dubious dark broken concrete ramp into the basement, which also seemed to double as a woodshop of some sort. The packed liquor store was more a room than a store fronting a second stock room piled with alcohol. The front room contained two desks, various price lists, and also lots of alcohol, which was being parcelled up and shipped out at an incredible rate, while at the same time, a steady stream of new supplies were being schlepped in by two delivery men. There were the obligatory two men hanging out that didn’t seem to have any function, two men working at the selling side, and one official excise fellow who was not at all impressed with us – two, obviously amoral women, especially Remy, who is Indian by heritage. He gave her a bit of a hard time at first, until he saw her passport – Singapore he exclaimed out loud, as if that explained all. We were then sent back up into the respectable part of the hotel to get our passport and visa pages photocopied. Back down into place where bad people go, where he filled in a form, had us fill in a form, then we filled in a ledger book, then he filled in our permit, stamped our passport and charged us 100 rupes! Yay, now we can drink again! And now we really wanted to!!!
After buying beverages, we went to the Sewa Society a women’s fair trade organization with exquisite craft work from the area. Gujarat is famous for its textiles, mirror work, embroidery and crafts and the quality here was superb! Then off on another adventure trying to find an ATM that would give us more than $20 and finally off to Vishala for dinner.
Vishala is set in a lovely large garden that was lit throughout by tea lights and lanterns. It also houses the Utensil Museum, which was far more interesting than I’d imagined it would be. Beautiful pots and pans, hookahs, nutcrackers, and any and all assorted kitchen equipment imaginable, including a 1000-year-old pressure-cooker pot.
I’m finding that English is not spoken as much in Gujarat as in other areas in India. So sad for us, because the food was sooo good, and completely different from any of India’s multi-cuisines had to date – we would have loved to know more than we were able to garner from the super-helpful staff who tried their best to answer our inadequate attempts at being understood.
After checking out the utensils, we were off to eat our huge Gujarati Thali dinner (for under 600 rupees – about C$12) on mats spread out on the floor before lovely rough wood tables. Our meal started with a huge array of starters – salad items, pickles, veggies, sprouts, masala powders, jaggery (palm sugar), beans, chutneys… so good! Especially the very spicy garlic chutney, which Remy bought 5 packets of at the end and I believe has completely used up already.
Then the pressed leaf plates were brought out and the Gujarati Thali food kept coming. Wonderful dishes that didn’t faintly resemble anything I’ve eaten in India yet. It was quite spicy (and would have had Sandra’s nose running almost immediately), with a hint of sweet and sour. There was kadhi – a fabulous buttermilk soup-like curry that I must find a recipe for and is Gujarat’s daal; 3 kinds of roti served with a nice pot of ghee (butter) you’re meant to spread onto the hot breads; khichdi – a fabulous rice and lentil type of porridge that was served with melted ghee poured onto; halwa and a jalebi (poured batter fried in wonderful shapes and soaked in a sugar and rose syrup) that was the best I’ve had. It was also slightly sour, unlike the purely oversweet-for-my-palate ones I’ve had to date. The drinks too were an experience – terracotta tumblers of water and buttermilk. I’ve never liked buttermilk before, and neither has Rem, but we both agreed… delish! Especially with the spicy food. Had two cups!
We were so full we had to skip the ice-cream, which is supposed to be amongst the best of this specialty of Ahmedabad, and could only eat one masala date! And all for under 500 rupees!
Champaner & Pavagadh
The next morning we were off for a road trip! Couldn’t believe it!! 150km to Champaner from Ahbmedabad and it took only 2 hours!!!!!!! That’s unheard of in the India I know. Usually, I’ll estimate travel time here at least double the time at home, so 100km takes just under an hour at home, takes just over 2 hours in India. And that’s only if the roads are considered ‘good’. The roads thus far in Gujarat are great. Not just in the condition of the asphalt, which is wonderful, but, no cows, water buffaloes or goats; no villages to go through – the highways at least bypass them completely; and all along, divided by a beautiful hedgerows of tuber-roses, bougainvillea and a few others I can’t identify – lovely.
The drive took us to the Unesco World Heritage Site of Champaner and Pavagadh. Set in a lovely and dense forest, the ruins of Champaner were once the capital of Gujarat from 1485. The walls and gates of this fortress city are crumbling but several beautiful mosques still survive – so many mosques in such a small area. This medieval city was suddenly abandoned in the early 1500s when the Moghul emperor Humayun attacked the city.
Rising up as a backdrop to Champaner is Pavagadh. Pavagadh is a massive hill reaching 850 metres up. It rises so suddenly from the surrounding plains it caused both of us to reach for our cameras. The earliest references to this site are 1022AD and it remained a Hindu and Rajput fortress till the mid-1400s. We took a cable car to the top of the hill, while other hearty souls made the trek up on foot – and the views were stunning.
Only in India do you paint the supporting cable towers in a multitude of colours. Why don’t we do this? In combination with the different coloured cable cars it reminded me of the brightly dressed Rajasthani women working the fields in their saris.
Was a long day, so back to rest, shower and change before dinner, with a pre-dinner drink in the room… which we are allowed to drink! On accounta our permits!
Dinner was at “the place” in Ahmedabad for Thalis – the House of MG’s rooftop restaurant Agashiya. The building is a heritage one, and very beautiful. We opted for the deluxe Thali meal at 600R. The meal on the roof of the hotel was beautifully atmospheric, except for the constant horns of the busy street the hotel is on. We had a lovely dinner, but, was underwhelming after Vishala’s meal. Still, lovely night and good food.
Next day was the famed Calico Textiles Museum. The textiles of the place were outstanding. Detailed embroidery so fine you would swear they were painted on. Pin-prick tie-dying so closing knotted (16 per square centimetre) you had to come very close to see the incredible detail. To think someone individually picked up each tiny piece of cloth and tied it with waxed thread before dying, in what seemed like hundreds of thousands of points to show an incredible pattern on the kurta (tunic) is unbelievable.
The museum is laid out in a beautiful old haveli, with loads of intricate wood carvings at least 300 years old. The gardens are equally impressive, but sadly no pictures were allowed. In fact no bags, water, cellphones or cameras were allowed.
But fabulous textiles aside, the whole process was an interesting one... Only 20 people are allowed in each morning for the tour. You are shepparded along with abrupt martiality through the museum. Our guide was a severe woman, who brooked no loitering. It was rather sad because the incredible array of beauty, skill and art begged to be lingered over. We learned later that at least some of the pieces there were literally stolen from their owners, who had leant them to be ‘examined’ by the museum. Course, this is heresy as well, but enough to make me go hmmmm…
Patan Patola Double Ikat Sari Weaving
The next day we hit the road again, this time to Patan, to see the double ikat weavings of the patola saris. The Salvi family have been doing this, in this location, since the 1100s, when they migrated from Maharashtra. Amazing to be able to trace your family back so effortlessly. Double ikat weaving is done by dying both the warp and weft threads BEFORE weaving them together, on a traditional handloom, to form the patterns. Each silk thread is painstakingly measured, tied, dyed and then retied and redyed for as many times as necessary for the number of colours required to create the pattern. A double ikat sari takes two people 4-6 months to complete. They are the last family in the area to still be doing this incredible labour intensive art. We met the two elder brothers, and two sons working at their shop. They were even shooting a documentary on the process and I had to talk about what I thought of the visit and what I had learned! So if you’re ever in Patan and visit once their museum is finished (in the next year or two), you may see me in their documentary!
Rani Ki Wav Stepwell
After spending a couple of hours with the Salvi family, we stopped at Patan’s Rani Ki Wav step well, which is considered the oldest and finest in Gujarat. The step wells are amazing here. So intricate and beautiful. This one was built in the last quarter of the 11th century by the Queen of Bhimdeva I and dedicated to Vishnu. In the inner sanctum of the well, there is a reclining carving of Vishnu – Shesh Shaya.
It remained covered in silt for many centuries, which kept it remarkably preserved, before being uncovered in 1958. One of the largest of its kind, it is 27 meters deep and covered with intricate carvings all the way down as you descend to the cool lower levels.
Modhera Sun Temple
We also stopped at Modhera’s Sun Temple, which was smaller than the one in Orissa, which it predates by 200 years. Built by King Bhimdev I in 1026 it is similarly laid out so the sunrise shines on the sun-god Surya’s image. It also had an elaborate stepwell fronting the temple – the Surya Kund – containing over 100 shrines to Ganesh, Vishnu and incarnations of Shiva. Amazingly lovely, after Rani ki Wav it seemed almost plain, which is funny cause without Patan, it would be the most amazing stepwell I’ve ever seen.
Finally before reaching the city we visited yet another stepwell, the Adalaj Wav, built in 1499 by Queen Rudabai. It was being strung up with lights and scaffolding, getting ready for a local festival the next day. Throngs of people were also gathering ready for the festivities. Similar to Rani ki Wav, it was beautifully and elaborately carved all the way down to the dark bottom.
Stepwells were of huge importance to the often drought-stricken areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan. These incredible structures are only found in northwestern India and those who build them are venerated in many Hindu scriptures, so in this region they must be akin to building churches in the medieval Christian world. Of course being India, the practical and hugely important water storage facilities were also turned into beautiful works of art, from simply beautiful geometric constructions to elaborately carved stories from Hindu scriptures. And again, of course being India, they displayed the power and wealth of their patrons. They were often attached to temples, and served as bathing, resting and meeting places. In some places, Ayurvedic plants were grown in the surrounding gardens, imparting medicinal value to the waters.
Our hotel, the Lemon Tree, was nice, clean and comfortable and was a really good value. Approx $300 for 2 people, 4 nights, breakfast and 1/2 wifi each day. Would certainly recommend this chain based on this first experience. So, 4 nights in Ahmedabad and where did the time go? We packed so much into our days and nights here, and still barely touched the city itself. Definitely a place to go to, and far exceeded both Remy and my expectations. Tourism still has a way to go here, to come close to the set-up Rajasthan has in place, but the fundamentals are all here – amazing history, architecture, roads, food, people and, as the next blog will show, vastly diverse and different wildlife parks. Far different than any I’ve experienced to date in India. The bad – seems to have the worst VIP issues I’ve experienced to date as well. In combination with the difficulty discussing the day over a drink before dinner, it has a bit to go before really attracting the average tourist or expat looking for a weekend escape from Delhi or Mumbai. Pity really. Still, they’ve launched a big campaign for Gujarati tourism with none-other than the patriarch of Bollywood himself – Big B – Amitabh Bachaan, so maybe there’s hope. The state sure deserves this business from the two weeks I’ve spent so far.