Gujarat is always welcoming to visitors and its sights and sounds entice one to keep coming back for something new every single time. The vibrant state is full of surprises and boasts of treasures of a glorious past, including some of the popular World Heritage Sites declared by UNESCO. Gujarat is also a paradise for nature lovers. It is not just about heritage sites, white sands or wild life; it is much more than that. The artistic and ingenious beauty at every step makes this exotic state, its monuments and its rich culture equally vibrant. As their tag line goes, Kutch nahi dekha to kuch nahi dekha, one just has to immerse in the khushboo Gujarat ki to really enjoy its beauty at its best.
We landed in Ahmedabad from Bangalore and explored the heritage of this beautiful city. Gujarat Tourism has now started one-day city bus tours where one can get a glimpse of all the top sites in a day, as you plonk yourself on the top of the open to sky bus. We decided to take it slow and took a walking tour of India’s first world heritage city. We walked around with our tour guide, as we marveled at the 200 year old buildings, reflecting the Sompura architecture. There’s a Ram temple also. There are mosques and temples both co existing side by side.
On the ancient site of Ashaval and Karnavati, Ahmedabad was found on 1411. The City of Ahmedabad has some of the finest India, Islamic monuments and exquisite Hindu and Jain temples. Its carved wooden houses are another unique architectural tradition. Jains nuns and monks live in Upashreys.
A special feature of Ahmedabad is the plan of the old city comprising numerous pols, self-contained neighborhoods, sheltering large numbers of peoples. Some of these virtually small villages, traversed by narrow streets, usually terminating in square with community wells and chabutaras for feeding birds, gates, Cul-de-sacs and secret passages. To experience the glory of Ahmedabad, it is imperative that you walk through an old quarter and truly observe the nature of its architecture, its art, religious places, its culture and traditions, just like we did.
With the purpose of unveiling the city to the tourists and the citizens themselves, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation has arranged this Heritage Walk of Ahmedabad.
The tour begins from Kalupur Swaminarayan Temple at 7:45 a.m. daily and goes around the area, in between hidden passages and interesting buildings, ending at Jumma Masjid at 10.30 a.m.
The other important heritage structures of Ahmedabad include the Pol, Bhadra Fort, Sidi Sayyed Mosque, Jhula Minar, Dada Hari ni Vav, Calico Dome and Teen Darwaza.
Sabarmati Ashram – The moment you step into the home of Mahatma Gandhi, where he lived from 1917 until 1930 with his wife Kasturba, you’re filled with a sense of serenity. The peaceful retreat on the banks of the River Sabarmati away from the bustling city life takes you back in time when the Mahatma’s peaceful protest brought an end to the colonial rule in India. He also started the famous Dandi or Salt March from Sabarmati Ashram. There’s also a museum here where you can see his books, life size artworks, photographs of the Mahatma with his wife, and actual relics like his writing desk and the spinning wheel.
Vadnagar – We drove to Vadnagar next, a small city which gained prominence in the recent years for being the birthplace of our Prime Minister. We also visited the Railway Station and had a look at the dilapidated tea stall where he sold tea. Our next stop was Kirti Toran. Since the town is famous for its Torans, this structure, a pair of 12th century columns supporting an arch, standing at 40 ft tall in red and yellow sandstone, represents the same. The battle and hunting scenes on its panels suggest that it may have been erected to celebrate victory at war.
Hatkeshwar Mahadev Temple
The stunning architecture of this 17th century temple that enshrines Hatkeshwar Mahadev, the family deity of Nagar Brahmins, who were once a prominent community in Vadnagar, will leave you awestruck. The temple walls are handcrafted with figures of the nine planets, musicians, apsaras and scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata and a Shivalinga that is said to have self-emerged (Swayambhu) is seated in its inner sanctum.
Patan Patola Heritage Museum
Next on the itinerary was Patan, known for its Patola weaving center and museum. Run by the multiple-award-winning Salvi family, this museum is an excellent place to see Patola silk weaving in action. The family has specialised in double-ikat weaving, a process that their ancestors brought from Southeast Asia, since the 11th century. You can observe a demonstration on the loom and compare the family’s craft with beautifully displayed single-ikat textiles from around the world. The art of double ikat goes back centuries and is also seen in some of the cave paintings in Ajanta. Legends say that it was in 12 century AD that King Kumarpal of the Solanki dynasty, invited 700 families of patola weavers from Jalna (South Maharashtra) to settle down in Patan in North Gujarat. The Salvi family is one of them. They have continued to preserve this art for the last 35 generations.
Rani ki Vav
If you take a look at your 100 Rs currency note, you will find a picture of this oldest yet an astoundingly stunning queen of stepwells, on the banks of the Sabarmati river in Patan. Called Rani ki Vav, it was built in the form of an inverted temple by Rani Udayamati of the Chalukya dynasty to commemorate her husband, a Solanki king. The craftsmanship is unique for its Maru-Gurjara architectural style and you can spend an entire afternoon admiring the various carvings on the pillars and the walls of this stepwell.
Modhera Sun Temple
This one is sheer poetry in stone and a must visit if you’re in Gujarat. Built in the Golden Age of Gujarat, this exquisitely carved temple is dedicated to Lord Surya. Set along the backdrop of River Pushpavati, surrounded by a terra-formed garden of flowering trees and songs of birds, rests the famed Sun temple of Modhera, built by Rishabh Bhimdev 1 of the Solanky dynasty. Located in Mehsana district, its magnificently sculpted kund are jewels in the architecture of the Solanki period. In 1026 AD, the Solankis were considered to be Suryavanshi Gurjars or descendants of the Sun God.
The remains of the Sun Temple at Modhera are relics of times gone by when reverence of the natural elements fire, air, earth, water and sky were at their peak sharing space with myriad manifestations of Vedic gods. The statue of the sun god no longer exists and the Suryavanshi Solanki’s have been scattered into the dust of history since a thousand years. But on the day of the equinoxes, one can still hear the chanting of the prayers, the aroma of incense, the tinkling of bells as the first linear rays of the sun illuminate the inner core of life and light. The Surya Kund is a fine example of geometry with the semblance of stone into composition giving shape to a dazzling pattern of art, proportioned with innumerable stone steps leading to its base. The three main shrines on the three sides of the kund, dedicated to Lord Ganesh, Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva and Sitlamata are a marvel.
As the sun sets, the temple is lit by a thousand lights and dawns a completely magical and mystical avatar. So, plan to stay here till the sunset, so you can witness its magic, both during the day and at dusk. The best time to visit here is around the Uttarayan, the kite festival as a lot of internationally famed artists perform here during the annual Modhera Dance Festival.
Wild Ass Sanctuary
It was time to retire for the night. Our night stay was at Bajana at the Royal Safari Camp. This is closest to the Wild Ass Sanctuary where we were to go for our early morning safari to spot the rare breed Asiatic wild ass in action that are found only in this area. Other eco-friendly resorts nearby are at Dasada and Zainabad.
The Little Rann has one of the country’s largest wildlife enclaves – the Wild Ass Sanctuary. The graceful Wild Ass looks like a cross between a horse and a donkey. It runs as fast as a horse and possesses the same strength too. This breed is so rare that this is the only natural habitat for them in the entire world. The Wild Ass Sanctuary is also home to over 100 species of other animals like Blue Bulls or Nilgai, Chinkara, Blackbuck, Wolves, Jackals, Fox and Desert Cats, in addition to multiple lizard species and many kinds of snakes.
Little Rann gets transformed into a vast watery marshland and post the monsoons, you can spot the arrival of avian visitors from far off lands. Migratory birds like flamingos flock in large numbers, since they find the climate and the habitat to be a perfect breeding ground for them. You can also spot thousands of pelicans, cranes, waterfowls and other beautiful birds that make it their feeding, breeding and roosting ground. Explore the largely unexplored area on a jeep safari and you will love its raw and infinitely exotic one-of-its-kind unique habitat. The best time to visit the Wild Ass Sanctuary is between October and March as the weather is pleasant during these months.
You can also interact with the Agariya tribal community here and witness their salt making process. This community of salt workers caters to 75% of nation’s demand for salt. Agar in their local language means salt and the unique salt-pans that they live in are natural production units of salt.
Rann of Kutch
After our safari and late breakfast, we drove to Dhordo Tent City where the famous Rann Utsav takes place at this time of the year. The Pakistan border is just about 50 kms away from the Rann Utsav – The Tent City, where we stayed. It was late night by the time we arrived, but we managed to indulge in a quick yet lavish dinner from the buffet spread and also watch the cultural dances that are one of the highlights of the Tent City, before retiring in the luxurious and comfortable tents for the night.
Wake up to the sound of morning tea as a chaiwala walks around the clusters spread across the comfortable tents on an expansive open-to-sky land. Step out and feel the crisp air caressing your cheeks at rise of dawn with yoga music playing in the background. Walk a few steps down and you’ll find yoga class going on at the cultural function area. On the other side, there’s a lavish buffet breakfast laid out every morning, with some of the regional specialties.
Those with an adventurous streak can try Giant Pendulam, Rappelling or Ziplining at the Adventure Tower Skyzilla. The Rann Utsav is a colourful carnival of music, dance, arts and crafts, celebrating the region’s cultural, architectural and natural diversity every night. It is set in Dhordo, a blinding white salt-encrusted marsh, and is an inexplicably stunning location in its surreal starkness that takes on a completely colourful avatar during the festival. The entire landscape comes alive in a riot of colours. Catch some of the most mind-blowing performances in the shimmering moonlit landscape like keranovesh, an ancient art live in performance by Rajendra Bhai, a Guinness World Record Holder for the longest spin as he handcrafts various animal forms with a piece of cloth while spinning around, Siddi dhamal tribal dance, Garba, Bhavai and more or dive deep into Kutchi folk songs with ethnic Indie instruments like Ravanhattha and Jodiya Pava, every evening.
Step out and just a short drive away you can walk on the white sands of the Little Rann of Kutch. Especially on a full moon night this is nothing short of an ethereal experience. The best time to witness this desert kaleidoscope from the white sands is the magic hour – just a little before sunset, when it is all calm. Try and wait till the onset of moon to see its enchanting beauty glow like you’ve never seen before. Yes, it’s true that no language can ever describe the stunning surreal beauty of Rann of Kutch in its entirety. If you’re feeling adventurous, try some paramotoring right above the white sands.
The Rann Utsav is on from December to February every year.
The next morning after breakfast we visited Kalo Dungar. This is the highest point in Kutch. Perched at the highest point in Kutch, we could clearly see the Pakistan border right across. This is also the only place in Kutch, where you get a stunning panoramic view of the Great Rann of Kutch. Also called as the Black Hill, it is 462m above sea level from where you can get sweeping views of the barren Rann, right up to where it meets the horizon.
Visiting the Villages of Gujarat
Kutch has 939 villages and visiting these villages and learning about their local art is a feast to the senses. Some of the villages like Bhirandiyara, Nirona, Gandhi nu Gaam, Bhujodi, Ludiya, Khavda and Ajrakhpur are part of different tours that you can explore. Dhordo village under the leadership of Sarpanch Mian Hussain has witnessed a lot of development. We were fortunate to meet the Sarpanch himself, who told us about the progress so far and the promising future of this village.
Gandhi Nu Gaam
We visited a few villages in Kutch and this was one of them that is known for literally coming back to life after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. House structures called Bhungas were constructed, besides schools, community buildings, production centres, electricity network and water harvesting system.
The craft of mud work is deeply ingrained in Gujarat’s history. Inspired by clay art, this is a tradition that goes back years amongst the Kutch craftsmen. Mud work frames from Kutch are wonderful representations of the culture and history of the state. Through little details like depicting local flora and fauna, the art form brings to life the authentic culture and traditions of Gujarat. Today, artisans make attractive wall pieces with some beautiful mirror work and traditional clay utensils like pots, plates, bowls that are hand painted. Kutchi women make unique designs like flowers and peacocks with their two fingers, using chikni mitti to make them stick in this village.
The local handicrafts in Nirona Crafts Village are highly impressive. We visited the families who have been making Rogan Art, Copper bell making and Lacquer work for many generations. Visiting these families at Nirona Crafts Village was such a wonderful immersion into the rich culture of Gujarat. A 300-year-old craft, the Rogan Art tradition that once thrived in the Kutch region of Gujarat, today rests in the hands of Abdul Gafur’s family based in Nirona village. Padma Shri Awardee Abdul’s tree of life handcrafted Rogan artwork was gifted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the U.S. ex-president Barack Obama on his visit to the US in 2014. Gafur Bhai is keeping this family tradition alive by passing it on, not just to his entire family but to the entire village.
At the Nirona Crafts Village, we also met the craftsman who handcrafts bells of all sizes and shapes, using copper, iron, brass, zinc and borex. The bells that started being made for functional purposes to differentiate their own animal from others by its sounds has now taken more of a decorative art form. After an hour at the Copper Bell workshop, we headed to the house that is famous for its handmade Nirona Lacquer work. We were awestruck at the vibrant colours that were used on these wooden rolling pins here. It was too tempting to resist trying our hand at making one of these ourselves, which we did. Outside on the bylanes of this village are plenty of homes selling their handcrafted Kutchi work odhnis, skirts, chaniya cholis, bedcovers, bags, jewellery and other accessories, each of them prettier than the other and at prices that won’t pinch at all.
We drove back to Ahmedabad and had to make a mandatory stop for a real Gujarati feast. This was at Gordhan Thal, where we indulged in a delicious Gujarati thali, followed by a visit to the Science City and Adalaj Stepwell. It was time to take our flight back to Bangalore the next day with loads of memories and some Gujarati snacks, as we returned with promises to come back.