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Published: November 12th 2018
We’re up early to take in one last sight in Ahmedabad before driving to Vadodora. It’s the Shree Swaminarayan Mandir Kalupur, the temple of a Hindu sect that worship Swamirayanan who founded their sect. It was built in the 19th
century of brightly painted teak wood. We enter through a massive gate into a courtyard with a haveli on three sides of the square and the temple on the fourth. At 8.30am it is teeming with people who have come to make their devotions. We are surprised to see what looks like a large yellow bell shaped tent approaching. There seem to be two women inside, and David is ordered to move away with all the other men, as only women are allowed in the immediate vicinity of the moving tent. Mystified, Sara looks on as the tent and its occupants go into the shrine. A worshipper explains to David that only women are allowed to worship in this section, and that men cannot gaze upon these females inside the tent who are lead in by the Brahmin priests to worship at the feet of the deity. David cannot get an explanation from his new friends as to why these woman
appeared in the tent. It's probably something to do with how much money they have donated to the temple.
The drive to Vadodora takes a mere 2 hours thanks to a new expressway. Our first stop is the Laxmi Vilas Palace, home to the Gaekwad royal family. It was built in 1890 for the then staggering sum of £180,000 and is four times the size of Buckingham Palace. It’s an eclectic mix of styles that somehow work together. The Gaekwad of Baroda is also a Maharajah and the family still live in the palace. Apparently Gaekwad translates roughly as “defender of cows”, so the family have particular honour from the depths of history for this role. The Gaekwad's were one of the powerful Maratha families who were part of the Maratha confederacy who battled against the Mughals in the 17th
century and then against the British in the 18th
century. They were only finally subjugated by the Raj in 1803 following a series of “Maratha wars”.
It is not a welcoming place. You stop at the entrance gate to register, the stop again to be security checked. Uniformed officials with whistles and sticks are everywhere, enforcing a set
of precise and petty rules. Photographs are not permitted so we leave the cameras in the car. We join the queue for tickets, which takes forever, not because there are that many people ahead of us but because every transaction takes ten minutes or more and involves an argument. It seems the locals want a discount on their ticket price but are quite rightly refused one. Ours takes about one minute, after the man in the booth beckons us forward over the heads of two whinging locals. Once in the palace, we join another queue to collect our audio guide. Eight people sit around a table. One takes our details and hands us our guides, Another collects used guides, two more separate the earpieces from the memory sticks, two reassemble them and two just watch.
The architecture is incredible, and there is much Carrera marble flooring, ornate carvings and wooden screens, and fine stained glass made by “Mr Dick of London”. The audio guide though is overly long and has no fast forward option. We are amused to listen to the current maharajah complain that the palace was so big it took half an hour for someone to bring
him a cup of coffee, but lost the will to live as the guide took us in detail through all 17 showcases in the armoury. The durbar hall is huge, with stained glass, intricately carved wooden jhali screens to shield the ladies on the first floor, and a 95ft long ceiling which is lacquered. Once round, we enjoy our free cup of tea with a 30 rupee vegetable puff which serves for lunch.
David’s notes say the Baroda museum and art gallery is well worth a visit, so off we go. It’s in the botanical gardens, which are crowded as it’s Sunday. We are the source of massive amusement for the locals, who shamelessly point and laugh. This continues indoors, where people pluck up courage to come and say hello. One girl approaches Sara to ask if she is a Christian. On being told yes, she brings all her friends over to shake hands one by one and everyone grins awkwardly at each other. Six men ask David where he is from and pleasantries are exchanged and more grins.
The museum itself has an eclectic selection of exhibits from around the world, all badly displayed in wooden cabinets
in the manner of a nineteenth century museum, with a description typed on yellowing paper and pinned in place. The zoology section is heaving with families, and has a selection of some of the saddest stuffed animals you’ve ever seen. The gallery of European art mostly features third rate artists, but hides the odd gem, such as a portrait of Charles 1 by Van Dyck. All the pictures look to have deteriorated for being kept in poor conditions with uncontrolled heat and humidity.
By now we feel quite faint from the heat – another 36C day - so retire to our hotel. From the outside it is a brutal concrete construction, but inside it’s comfortable and at least a 4 star, and the pool area is deserted apart from us. David makes the mistake of suggesting a gin and tonic would be welcome this evening, before we remember that Gujarat is a dry state. The longing for a G&T is not sated by a bottle of Sprite.
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