the 6 untold treasures of vadodara

Friend: “You’re going to Vadodara. Wonderful idea! There is a lot to see in the city. After all, it is the cultural capital of Gujarat.”
Me: “Nice. So what do you suggest I visit and explore?”
Friend: “The Lukshmi Villas Palace is an absolute must!”
Me: “Ok, will do. What else?” [As I jotted it frantically in my notebook in anticipation of being hit by a barrage of to-do-things]
Friend: “The museum attached to the palace is another must do.”
Me: “Ok, got that down too. And?”
Friend: “Hmmm. Oh well. I don’t know. But there is a lot. Hey, it is the cultural capital. But I don’t know…”

Yes, that is it with Vadodara, earlier known as Baroda. Though it is publicly acknowledged as the cultural capital of Gujarat, its attractions are neither documented nor publicised. At least not enough and one cannot be blamed for wondering if they even exist.

At first glance the city is an apathetic conglomeration of concrete edifices lining hot dusty streets. From behind the trees 19th Century domed structures of a bygone princely state peep out, morphed now into universities and government offices.

Other monuments have not been so lucky. As I wandered through the by-lanes I was told Nazarbaug Palace had been torn down to be replaced with a mall by the same name. Three-storeyed, with a Shish Mahal [Glass Palace] in its grounds, it was built in 1871 and was the city’s oldest Gaekwad stately home.

Gaekwad rule of Vadodara began in 1721 when Pilaji Rao Gaekwad, a Maratha general, overthrew Mughal control of the city. As a token of appreciation for the victory and to enable effective management of the Maratha Empire, Peshwa Bajirao I granted the territory as a fief to the Gaekwads. [The Peshwas were the de facto leaders of the Maratha Empire]

The ensuing fall of the Maratha Empire by the close of the 18th Century paved the way for the fiefdom to grow into a sovereign realm named Baroda State. A turning point was the year 1802 when the British agreed to recognise the Gaekwad rulers’ independence from the Maratha Empire and guarantee them local autonomy. In exchange they had to accept British suzerainty. A mutually symbiotic partnership was, thus, forged between the two.

Vadodara was the royal capital of the Baroda State. To put it more bluntly, Vadodara was the royal residence of the Gaekwads from 1721 to 1947.

Scores of palaces, royal grounds, orchards, and gardens made up the Gaekwad home enclosed in high walls. The centrepiece was the Lukshmi Villas Palace, an extravagant, opulent building four times the size of Buckingham Palace. Built in the Indo-Saracenic style in 1890 at a cost of GBP 180,000, it was the private residence of the royal couple: Maharaja and Maharani Sayajirao Gaekwad III.

Lukshmi Villas Palace is now a museum with the current generation of the Gaekwad dynasty, Samarjitsinh Ranjitsinh Gaekwad and his family residing in the right wing. Minor Gaekwad palaces form a bulk of the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda (Vadodara), the largest university in Gujarat. Large tracts of the palace grounds, meanwhile, have been taken over by the Indian government to build roads, hospitals, schools, and government departments.

Toggling between a royal past and a democratic present, Vadodara’s “attractions” are, in consequence, esoteric. One needs to dig hard to go beyond the city’s single centrepiece. Unpeel the layers, remove the veils. But the effort is so worth it.

This post is about Vadodara’s untold but obvious treasures I discovered whilst exploring it. Do you know of any more hidden treasures in Vadodara? If yes, please do share. I’d love to read about them. 🙂

1. Lukshmi Villas Palace, the largest private residence in the world



The private residence of Mr. and Mrs. Sayajirao Gaekwad III, the Lukshmi Villas Palace comprises 170 rooms behind its 525-feet wide, 3-storeyed western facade topped with a clock tower. It was built with elevators et al 130 years ago and is a heady fusion of Islamic domes, Hindu and Jain motifs, and Italian Renaissance and Gothic architectural elements. Highlights are the magnificent Durbar Hall with its Venetian mosaic floor and Belgium stained glass windows, an armoury collection including Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s sword, and six stunning mythological Raja Ravi Varma masterpieces.

Travel tips: 1) The Rs. 225 entry ticket covers an excellent state-of-the-art audio guide. 2) LVP Banquets runs Verandah Cafe within the premises which serves a delectable range of cakes and puff pastries. Cup of English tea + nimbu pani + chicken puff = Rs. 100.

2. Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum, the Gaekwad family’s private art and artefacts collection


Photography is not allowed in the Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum, but oh, what a treat it is. Located at the other end of Lukshmi Villas Palace, it is jam-packed with the royal family’s private collection of paintings and objets d’art from all over the world. Not to miss are the series of poignant Gaekwad family portraits by Raja Ravi Varma, a staggering turban collection, the world’s smallest locomotive engine, and exquisite oleographs. The building was originally a school for the Maharaja’s children.

Travel tips: 1) The museum is a 10-minute walk away from the main road. 2) The audio guide is brilliant. 3) You will most likely be the only person visiting it; the footfall is sadly minimal.

3. Kirti Mandir or Temple of Fame, the Gaekwad cenotaph decorated with frescoes by Nandalal Bose



On the outside, Kirti Mandir, the Gaekwad family cenotaph appears to be just another royal building. Its charms lie inside, or to be more specific they line the walls of the upper floor. Four gigantic murals by Nandalal Bose, the renowned Indian Modern artist whose work has been declared national treasures, recount celebrated stories from Indian mythology. These are: Gangavatarana, descent of the River Ganga; Natir Puja, a Buddhist legend; the life of Mirabai, Lord Krishna’s legendary devotee; and the Battle of Kurukshetra.

NOTE:
You may also like to read: The mythological frescoes of Nandalal Bose in Vadodara.

Travel tips: 1) The temple is usually locked. You will need to find the caretaker and ask him to open the premises for you. 2) There is no entry ticket but a small token of appreciation to the caretaker would be a nice gesture.

4. Tambekar Wada, a 19th Century Maratha home covered with 300 murals


[image by: Gujarat Tourism]
In an obscure lane, behind an even more obscure facade [it was till recently being used as a school] are some of India’s most beautiful 19th Century murals. Tambekar Wada, a typical Maratha mansion, was the home of the Baroda State Diwan or Minister, Bhau Tambekar from 1849 to 1854. Every inch of the mansion’s walls, doors, and ceilings were once covered with scenes from Indian mythology, everyday life back then, and historical events. Most of these paintings were whitewashed over when the rooms functioned as classrooms. A handful, covered with about 300 paintings, still remain untouched on the first and second floors.

Travel tips: 1) Photography is strictly prohibited. You have to get special permission from the ASI office in Mandvi. 2) Tambekar Wada is located in Raopura, near Sur Sagar Lake.

5. Tomb of Qutb-ud-din Muhammad Khan, tutor of the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s son and successor, Salim


In a city with a predominantly Hindu heritage, the Hazira Maqbara is an unusual dimension. Dating back to the Mughal Empire, it contains the graves of Qutb-ud-din Muhammad Khan [Salim’s tutor] and his son Naurang Khan. Naurang Khan held key positions in Gujarat during Emperor Akbar’s reign. The actual graves lie in an underground chamber; the ones inside the main hall are false graves. Of more interest, however, to the local populace is the tomb of Amba Bibi [wife of Mastaan Baba] placed in a corner room and believed to have magical powers.

Travel tip: 1) The tomb is in Makarpura near the ONGC Guest House.

6. The Champaner-Pavagadh UNESCO World Heritage Site



Going to Vadodara and not exploring the Champaner-Pavagadh UNESCO World Heritage Site, an archaeological park spilling over a hillock and its immediate surrounds, would be sheer sacrilege. Whilst Champaner [above images] is a Sultan’s portrayal of his ideal capital city and is decorated with towering mystical mosques, Pavagadh [below images] is where a shakti peetha, Jain temples and a Rajput fortress meet. Together, covering a time span from the 8th to 16th Centuries, each is incomplete without the other. Yet, one or the other half is often missed out on.

NOTE:
You may also like to read Champaner—The Muslim part of the Champaner-Pavagadh UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Pavagadh—The Hindu part of the Champaner-Pavagadh UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Travel tips: 1) The site is 50 kilometres or an hour’s drive from Vadodara. 2) It is a large site and not easily covered by foot. It is recommended you hire a car [with driver] for the day. 3) If you are passionate about history and heritage, you may like to connect with Manoj Joshi at: +91 98 7954 2611. He is the one who showed me around.

Travel tips:

  • Getting to Vadodara from Mumbai and back: Shatabdi Express from Mumbai Central to Vadodara Junction; Leaves at 6:25 am; Returns at: 4:11 pm; Travel time: 4 and a half hours one way.
  • Getting around: Auto rickshaws are plentiful in Vadodara. Fares are not by meter.
  • Staying there: I stayed at GenX Vadodara, Alkapuri, near the railway station, through OYO Rooms premium range.

champaner—the muslim part of the champaner-pavagadh unesco world heritage site

Fairy tales often start like this, don’t they: Once upon a time there was a fearless, virtuous king who had dreams of conquering an invincible fortress perched on a hill. His father and grandfather had time and again attempted to defeat it too, but to no avail.

The tale I am writing about continues like this: The brave king was Sultan Abu’l Fath Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah I, ruler of the Gujarat Sultanate and great-grandson of Ahmed Shah I, founder of Ahmedabad, Gujarat in 1411. The invincible fortress belonged to the Kichchi Chauhan Rajputs on Pavagadh.

Calling himself “Sultan al-Barr, Sultan al-Bahr” meaning “Sultan of the Land, Sultan of the Sea,” history knows him as Mahmud Begada. The name “Begada” was derived from his winning two gadhs in his lifetime, namely Pavagadh and Junagadh. Continue reading

pavagadh—the hindu part of the champaner-pavagadh unesco world heritage site

I have a book titled Speaking Stones World Cultural Heritage Sites in India which I must confess is my most prized possession. Coming to terms these past few months with some harsh realities on death and the transience of life, I reached out to the hard bound volume on my bookshelf to see what I could add to a wish-list to make come true.

The pages opened, almost as if urged by some mysterious calling, on Champaner-Pavagadh. Truth be told, I had never heard of the place before. But it was nearby and seemed doable over a few days. A friend pointed out the weather was all wrong for the rendezvous: “No one travels for pleasure to Gujarat in May when temperatures are soaring at 43 degrees.” The little voice in me said, “Who cares about the heat. Remember life truths!” 🙂

And, thus, one fine early morning, I found myself boarding a train to Vadodara, my base for my explorations. What I learnt and saw and experienced in the ensuing days far outweighed my expectations. But I run ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning. Continue reading

global travel shot: champaner, a 500-year-old indo-saracenic poem in stone

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“Look up, at the ceiling.” I am broken from my reverie, as I drift through a forest of 172 stone pillars, by my guide Manoj’s voice prodding me to halt in my tracks and raise my eyes, heavenwards.

High up, inside a dome above the main mihrab is the most exquisitely carved sculpture I have seen to date. And I find myself gasping in awe. Is this for real? I am not too sure what stuns me more. Its immense size, the fineness of the swirling leaves, or its incongruous placement—I am in a 500-year-old mosque in Champaner in Gujarat, 50-odd kilometres outside Vadodara, and the sculpture is Hindu-Jain in style and content. Continue reading

praha, the royal bohemian city of 500 spires—photo essay

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One of my wanderings in Central and Eastern Europe was through Prague—or Praha in Czech—the economic, political, and cultural centre of Central Europe for most of its 1,100 years of existence. Generally acclaimed as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, it is after London, Paris, Istanbul, and Rome, the fifth most visited European city.

An overnight train from Budapest in a dark, panelled, velvet-clad train compartment took me to the “City of a Hundred Spires” [based on the count of a 19th Century mathematician]; a statistic which has now increased to 500 spires piercing its ethereal skyline. Praha was left largely untouched by the second World War unlike other European cities since Hitler made it a Nazi Germany protectorate in 1939. The result is a precinct pulled straight from the pages of a mythical past: Those that are romanticized and reminiscenced about, and are a treasure trove of art and architectural styles. Continue reading

36 hours in krakow

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Krakow is my last stop as I travel through Central Eastern Europe.

The royal capital of Poland, the city is unlike any other I have visited. And yes, this may well sound clichéd, but its past justifies the claim. The Old Town with its Jewish Quarter and Auschwitz II-Birkenau were one of the first to go on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Pronounced “Krakuf” in Polish, the medieval city of Krakow is straight from a mythical tale replete with dragons and princes. According to legend the 1,000-year-old city was founded by Krakus, a Polish prince who slayed the evil Wawel Dragon, and went on to build his castle and city over its lair on Wawel Hill by the banks of the River Vistula.

A set of bones of a pleistocene creature hangs over the Wawel Cathedral entrance. I am told they belong to the dragon and “The world will come to its end when the bones will fall on the ground.” Continue reading