Gujarat – The Dry State (booze wise anyway!)


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Asia » India » Gujarat » Ahmedabad
January 24th 2013
Published: January 24th 2013
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So after a busy afternoon (including an awesome lunch of wraps in Romali Roti at Khan Cha Cha’s in Connaught Place), we just about make it back to Maan K to get our taxi to Terminal 1 (Domestic Airport of the Indira Ghandi International Airport).

We fly Spicejet again to Ahmedabad and as we have 5 hours to kill before catching the midnight train to Bhuj we stay at the Airport & catch up on emails, blogs, pictures etc. We get a prepaid Taxi (Rs 300) to the station which is quite big. M has some snacks from the Indian railways canteen before we board the train to Bhuj.

We are allocated a coupe (First Class this time) which is pretty good and comfortable and arrive at 7.35 am (which is also when we wake up! – thankfully Bhuj is the end of the line on the Western side so no panic.)

Bhuj

A (Rs 50) tuk tuk gets us to the Hotel Mangalam 3 kms away. We had originally booked direct but ended up going through Agoda (an Indian Hostel Bookers site but for more expensive hotels not hostels) after difficulties getting a deposit paid to them and a singular lack of response from them on the issue. It’s not a bad place generally, with decent rooms and free wifi but service is a bit of a myth, both front desk and restaurant. Not sure it was worth the money but unfortunately we are not sure there was much else in Bhuj to recommend.

The Yellow Chilli Restaurant at the hotel is one of a chain owned/advised by star TV chef Sanjeev Kapoor and does really good food – all pure veg. Unfortunately, with the exception of one nice lad, the service is chronic, but we still eat there every night as we find the menu creative and the chef delivers.

The town reminds us of a Rajasthani Border town. It’s quieter, with less traffic, and few if any tourists we notice as there is hardly anywhere selling bottled water. Filtered water is freely available in the hotel though which is fine.

We go for a wonder just to get a sense of where all the main eateries and sights are, and notice there are hundreds of kite shops and stalls – some permanent, some make shift. We are in the run up to the Kite Festival on the 14th, which we thought was only in Ahmedabad but is apparently a big thing all over the state.

The main reason for coming to Bhuj is to visit the villages around the Rann of Kutch which is renowned for its diverse tribes that specialise in different handicrafts. We see some of these folk in the market place – very distinctive Jat women who wear large decorative rings through their noses which have to be held up by plaits of hair down the front of their face. They don’t come into town much so we are lucky to see them. They are also quite private and don’t like being photographed.

We try our first Gujarati Thali for lunch at the Green Rock. There is an underlying sweetness to every dish – savouries included, and at last three sweet dishes are served alongside the dal and veg dishes – which we notice local folk eat with the savoury stuff. They keep filling your dishes as much as you like, and then you are served the rice!! And it’s all washed down with a buttermilk drink. Not sure we’ll try another one as it definitely an acquired taste!

Bhuj has a few remnants from the Mughal and Rajput eras but most of its centre was destroyed in a major earthquake in 2001 (which also took many hundred thousand lives across the state). We take a few hours visiting the main sites: we enter by the Rani Mahal, which is almost totally in ruins, with just some beautiful lattice windows in one wall left to show you what it would have been like. Then there is the Prag Mahal which really wouldn’t look out of place in Oxford or a European city. And finally we see the Aina Mahal – which is completely bonkers! Italian renaissance meets India. Lots of glass lamps, photos of European royalty, mirrored walls and a museum that shows the lifestyle of the previous incumbents - including slippers which emit perfume when you tap the heels!! Enough said.

The curator of the museum who is also a local author and expert on the area, Premad Jethi, arranges trips to the villages around the area, so we agree two days – one to the east to areas known for embroidery and one to the north to see other nomadic tribes and the salt flats at the Rann.

Kalpesh Bhatt a local medical student with a history major (!) is our guide and a nice guy too. Day 1; We start with Ratnal where the Ahir community lives very friendly and cool about pictures, on to Sapedha, then Anjar which is a large market area where many mixed communities come together. It’s bustling and there are many kite shops and temporary hawkers by the road side. Its Dhanete next where we see some beautiful emroidery, Ajarakh Pura where we see traditional hand block printing run by a muslim family originally from Sindh who has been awarded a Doctorate from De Montfort University Leicester, and then finish at Bhujodi – the Hiralaxmi Memorial Craftpark, which was established and maintained by the Ashapura Group (local industry) as a means of supporting local communities after the earthquake to showcase their works to tourists.

Some of the villages we visit have been almost completely rebuilt after the earthquake but mainly in the original style – round structures clad in mud/dung mix with clay tile or hay roofs. Many are adorned with paintings or mirror decorations on the outside and serve as homes cum showcases of their handicrafts on the inside. The clothes worn by the women in particular distinguish which tribe or community they come from and some are quite elaborate with heavy embroidered dresses. Trying to get photos is a major challenge though in this part of the world. Either they refuse, or if they do agree they won’t stop chattering and laughing – which is nice but hopeless for pics!

The trip to villages in the North takes in Bhirendyara the police checkpoint (you need a permit – obtained on the spot to visit the northern communities Rs 100 per person), Ludya which has a modern commercial village and an existing village is quite interesting, Hodka where a local guy has set up a fancy resort (Shaam - E – Sarhad) with tents for accommodation and showcasing local crafts which sounds tacky but is really nicely done, then on to Gorewali, Dhordo and finally the “White” Rann Salt Flats.

The salt flats are packed with local tourists – coach loads especially kids on school trips so we have to walk out some way to get a sense of the huge open white space. There is nothing between here and the Pakistan border. Apparently the flats are only accessible for 3 months a year – the rest of the time it is under water – and it’s just like walking on a snow field – except it’s roasting hot! The Rann Utsav (festival) is underway so we take a short visit to see the showcase of the history, geography etc of the area. Quite interesting but the best bit by far is discovering Havmor Chowpatty kulfi (ice cream) in the food hall. Truly scrumptious!

So after a final dinner at the Yellow Chilli Restaurant where again the food was awesome for the price (we are definite converts to Sanjeev Kapoor’s Indian cooking – the paneer kebab was fantastic), we get a tuk tuk and go to the station where the train is awaiting to be boarded for the 10.15 pm departure. This is the first time we are both on upper berths but it works out ok and we set off for Ahmedabad …………………

Ahmedabad

Unfortunately most trains to and from Ahmedabad arrive/depart the station at an unearthly hour and we get there at 5.10am. A short Tuk Tuk ride later we awaken the staff at the Kamran Palace Hotel where we are booked in via Agoda. However, as all the rooms are booked we have to spend the next few hours in reception … it’s pleasant, wi-fi is available (in the lobby - thank the Lord) and we catch up on email news, sports & this blog.

After checking in we try and get orientated in another big city. Like any other in India, it’s noisy, dusty and there seems to be a million tuk tuks and motor bikes though no taxis and very few cows on the road. We are in the “Old City” and wander into the market area which seems to be predominantly Muslim near the Lal Dawarja area and there is a Muslim night food market – kebabs, biriyanis (Rs 10 only) and tandoori stuff mainly.

It seems to M that the Muslim community by and large tend to live in the poorer and run down areas of towns and cities not only in India but abroad as well and we aren’t quite sure why this is the case – partly discrimination, but also perhaps a lifestyle choice as religion and God come first so material wealth being not so important?

There is a Municipal run tour of the city which we thought might help us get a feel of the place (Rs 60 for 4 hours and 5 stop off points). As the next trip is not due till 1.30 pm we have time to kill so we wander off and come upon the old established House of MG (named after Mangaldas Girdhardas a successful business man) & now a 5 star hotel/come high end eatery. We try the Green House which is informal and all the cooks and waiters in Ghandi Outfits – white Kurta pajamas and Nehru Caps. It’s pretty expensive for what it is. We try some good coffee served South Indian style with some Panaki (stuff cooked in banana leaves) really interesting & a nice flavour & Dhudia Muthiya – not brill but filling.

We are about to go on the tourist bus when an enterprising Tuk Tuk Wallah makes us an offer – he’ll do the 4 hours guided tour and show us a whole lot more for Rs 150 each as long as I can do the interpretation for C. Sounds like fun so we jump in. He takes us to the highlights of the city starting with the Old Fort entry point (Gate – one of 12 in the Old City) Bhadra Fort the eastern entrance of the old Ahmedabad citadel, Teen Darwaja (three gateways) which is near where we are staying. We see the Siddi Sayeed Mosque famous for its amazingly sculptured windows out of one piece of stone in front of the House of MG.

Then onto to a museum of local crafts and villages – which is interesting as it shows how the different tribes have spread across India from their original homelands. Gujarat is the birthplace of Ghandi and his Ashram was here from 1917 to 1930 which we visit and it has a museum of his life, and we also visit the house of one of Ghandi’s cohorts – Sardar Vallabhai Patel. It’s next to the Swaminarayan Temple which is closed but is a key point in the city.

Then it’s on to an amazing step well (Dada Hari Vav) which is the highlight of our tour. It’s amazingly well (excuse the pun) preserved given that it is left open all day. It has 5 levels. We finish off with a visit to three mosques, Sidi Bashir Mosque with the shaking minarets (designed to withstand earthquakes), the Jama Masjid & Rani Spiri mosque which have some historical significance. They are all live “working” mosques not moth balled monuments which is good so they will be looked after.

We venture into New Ahmedabad which is across the Nehru Bridge. It has a revolving restaurant 50m up overlooking the river. The big draw at the moment the International Kite Festival (12th to 14th Jan’13) which is holiday time here as it’s known locally as Uttarayan. We drop in at the Gujarat Tourism office to try and arrange a day trip to Vadodara and the UNESCO sites of Champner & Pavangadh and while there we are randomly offered 2 VIP tickets to the Opening ceremony & the main tent on the 13th Jan’13. Cool.

As we have so much to plan and do & to allow time in Goa (our next stop) for relaxing, we decide against the day trip even though Ahmedabad doesn’t seem to have much to recommend it. Or perhaps we haven’t yet made the effort to discover the joys that lie in the city. The LP book is really focussed on the bits we have seen already.

We find that most things don’t open till 11 am so getting a coffee and breakfast is a challenge in the morning till we are directed to the Muslim area where we discover a small place (packed with people) doing breakfast Ahmedabadi style. After coffee and omelettes in Chappati for Rs 72 (a real bargain) we settle down to sorting out our plans for the rest of March which we have revised and the initial plans for the Japan trip.

We lunch and dine in the Muslim eating quarter where the food is tasty and cheap, mainly biryanis (Rs 10!), curries (a bit greasy though) and awesome tandoori chicken done fresh and succulent – Rs 160 for a whole chicken – wow value or what.

We go to the night kite flying part of the International Kite festival here; it’s quite nice by the riverside and is a fun evening as a precursor to the big event the next day. We go to the official opening at 9.30 am however, as in most things Indian the Chief Minister doesn’t arrive till 10.30 ish. It’s a hot day. There are presentations by the tourism minister, then songs by kids and various displays and the festival declared open, however then Modi goes into a long and boring political speech (feels like he is definitely vying to be PM next year), we leave along with a few more but there’s no denying that he has a fervent following here.

The Festival itself is pretty colourful with large areas for Tourism promotion, kite flying by the 50 odd participants from the world over from places as far as NZ, Fiji, Brazil, Canada, UK, USA, etc and kites of various shapes and sizes (a tiger, a Indian God, parachutes etc). It’s all very colourful; there are 2 craft areas and a very large Food Court area (which has a Havmor ice cream stand so C is in heaven till she discovers the real McCoy from Delhi!) with a variety of street food on sale at street food prices surprisingly. It’s all good fun and a family day out all free!! Congratulations to the Gujarat Tourist Organisation who put on a great event & the toilets were clean and smart too.

Meanwhile back in Delhi………………………….

Whilst this may seem inappropriate at this point, we feel we can’t let the tragic events in Delhi go without a comment. A 23 year old medical student gets on a bus with her partner to go home after a film show. They are attacked and she is gang raped by 6 people including the driver who then beat them up with iron bars (her quite viciously taking out her intestines) and throw them out naked. She is taken into hospital and flown to Singapore for treatment where she unfortunately dies.

The response around India to this event is amazing and vociferous. People protest all over the country in outrage & politicians and big name stars from Bollywood all say the “right things”. What folks need to wake up to is the sheer sexual inequality inbred in India – it’s part of their traditions, religious functions (not necessarily beliefs) and is so part of the Indian psyche and DNA that we hope that her death will not be in vain.

The Media has woken up and everyone is demanding action – however, the facts are that every 14 hours someone is raped in India. Where have the media been so far? Since the event commentaries by so called intellectuals in the papers have been absurd where even so called spiritual leaders have suggested that the victim was to blame. What it showed was how politicians and the policy makers are so out of touch with what people actually feel and the daily experience of women here.

The Bollywood culture encourages the view of women as sex objects & yet none of the media dare challenge them about stereotyping. Foreign women, who are seen and reflected as easy picking from a sexual stand point, have to bear harassment and unwanted attention all the time. India has to go a very long way to really change.

We can only comment on our experience and say that there appears to be a singular lack of respect for life, for law and order, for basic human rights in India and one can witness such behaviour all around. Servants & people in low paid work are often treated like sub human, it’s pretty embarrassing and makes one quite angry.

M despairs that the tragic events will be soon forgotten and life will go on as is – a shame for a country that he has a deep seated love for as the land of his birth.

Amitabh Buchchan & others ……………………….

We also have a word to say on the big star of India Amitabh Buchchan (Bollywood star & ex MP). He’s Gujarat’s son and tourism ambassador. As we have travelled the country we have had the misfortune to see some of his old films on TV and can’t quite see the X factor others see in him. His performances are total crap.

Politically one has to question his judgement turning up at the house of Raj Thakeray to pay his respects before he died. Whether or not this was politically stage managed is open to question. However, for those who don’t know Raj T was a man who had no formal political power but headed a right wing Group, who’s methods of coercion were & are questionable and who wanted anyone other than Maharatis out of Maharastra & would fuel local hatred by berating any community from another state irrespective of what contribution they make to Maharastra. His main target seemed to be the Biharis but Muslims were also attacked quite often.

The big cheese in Gujarat is the Chief Minister recently elected for a third term in office Mr Narendra Modi BJP member who is being touted as the next leader of the BJP and potential Prime Minister of India after the next elections in 2014. His political style reminds M of Boris in London (who also may have PM aspirations in the UK).

Observations on Indian poverty and begging:

Our experience with beggars in Ahmedabad brought this into sharp focus so………… Any blog on India would be incomplete without some mention of the perception of poverty and begging in the streets. Things have definitely changed in the last 40 years since M lived here. The open evidence of poverty on the streets and street dwellers has reduced but that does not mean it has gone away – perhaps just relocated. So has much of the begging that took place on the streets, however, what there is can be quite aggressive particularly with foreign tourists which is not only disturbing but very annoying. They seem to ignore locals but as soon as they see a foreigner, the children and sometimes their parents descend on the unsuspecting visitor and start prodding them and asking for money and they seem harder to shake off. A number of them look pretty healthy, perhaps a bit unclean and dishevelled but not totally destitute. The same goes for their parents (mainly women) one very rarely sees men begging other than the very old or handicapped.

There are still large slum areas on the outskirts of the main cities in India, some in Mumbai & Delhi have become so permanent with electricity and various other amenities, they have their own community infrastructure and people with good jobs in the city who still live there. Some slums have been cleared – forcibly by the government with replacement housing provided.

The government has just introduced but only in a few states, financial hand-outs for those living on a very low income – a sort of means tested benefit system, however only in states that seems sympathetic to the current ruling Congress party! Make of that what you will but buying votes in India is as age old as democracy has been in place here.

And so on with the blog! The 14th proves to be a big disappointment as the kite show really was about yesterday. This is a day for the locals to fly kites from the roof tops and have kite parties. The main area is deserted by the foreign kite flyers and only local families having a good day out are around having picnics. However, come sunset and suddenly there are fireworks everywhere along the river and hundreds of candle lit lanterns launched into the sky at night (looking like stars floating away in the breeze).

It’s a take out for dinner and an early night as we have to catch a flight to Goa at 1.35pm, however, after we have dealt with a blog upload and the letter to the HMRC re C’s tax affairs – they are being a pain. At 11.30 we wish the hotel folks farewell and it’s a Rs 200 rickshaw ride to the airport …………… Havmore kulfi for lunch and it’s onto the Indigo flight to sunny Goa …………. Yeah!


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