...a lively, almost boiling city full of vitality and contradictions, poverty and opportunity, tradition and progress...
Amdavad old town
Jama Masjid, the Friday Mosque, was built 600 years ago, shortly after the founding of Ahmedabad (Amdavad) by Ahmed Shah. Clearly he had a big vision, as the large courtyard had room for thousands of believers, just like the main building. 260 Pillars created a mystical atmosphere, the sculptures were very refined, the proportions and the dimensions perfect. The consistent stony colour added to the serenity. The outer wall had murals of large Arabic letters. It was very quiet and peaceful, and the building was really impressive.
Next to it stood the mausoleum of Ahmed Shah, along with his son and grandson. The graves were revered daily and covered with coloured cloths. This building too was a masterpiece of architecture and sculpture. We sat for a while on the steps at the entrance and saw a miniature neighbourhood before our eyes. Right next to the mausoleum, laundry hung out to dry above a couple of anonymous graves, girls were getting ready for school, women sat on the street baking chapatti's on a wood fire. Goats were herded (one baby goat carefully kept in a crib), cats strolled at ease on the street. It was a lovely homely and relaxing scene, you would want to move here instantly.
Once this had been the core of it, now it was a different world than the metropolis Amdavad had become in those six centuries. The day before in the bus we drove kilometre after kilometre along industrial complexes, then large areas full of modern offices, before we entered the city centre where the traffic was crawling along poor neighbourhoods. It was a lively, almost boiling city full of vitality and contradictions, poverty and opportunity, tradition and progress.
Next was the mausoleum of Rani, the wife of Ahmed Shah, also completely hemmed in by the encroaching city. Again the building was superb, with lots of fine sculpture, but it was much less maintained. The elevated walkway around it even housed a family. Still they were better off than the family we saw on the sidewalk not far from our hotel, covering themselves up for the night.
We walked through the maze of alleys. Motorcycles and bicycles zigzagged around the cows and the potholes and us. Houses, shops, workshops. Close together were concrete buildings and old stone houses with havelis, overhanging balconies of carved wood. Some well maintained, most neglected. We stood there admiring a facade when an old lady motioned us inside. Her shabby courtyard also had a facade full of carvings. Just down the road was a square with a bench where we could sit down. In two hours we had covered 200 meters as the crow flies. But zigzagging so much and seen so much, that we were fully saturated.
We went to a restaurant for lunch by auto-rikshaw. The four of us crammed in the back, the small tricycle overloaded. A kamikaze ride through crazy traffic, steering left and right to avoid collisions, diving into each gap, braking and acceleration. Scruffy males cheerfully waved at us from other rickshaws and freight cars. For contrast two beautiful girls in modern dress, all made up, sat on the back of a motorcycle. When we stood still in traffic we inhaled pure exhaust fumes.
A stepwell is a well with stairs dug until the ground water level. That sounds easier than it is. To gradually descend to the depths required, 20 to 50 meters, you either have some sort of spiral stairway, or build a long straight slope. This one was of the latter type. The slope and the pit themselves were fully ornamented with statues, arches, platforms. Over the full length that gave beautiful vistas, the full depth of about five floors with balconies above the well. Deep underground it was a relatively cool place, and thus a sort of village square, where gossip and news was exchanged. The overall design, the elegance and the details of the stonework were gorgeous. Actually, it was a kind of three-dimensional, inside out, underground, oversized artwork.
We visited seven stepwells in Junagadh, Amdavad and Patan. 950 to 500 years old, simple to richly decorated, in good and in bad condition, with slope and with spiral staircase, deeper and shallower. This variety gave a good idea of the differences and similarities.
What we were really concerned with
All these sights are a good excuse to travel through Gujarat, but actually we were more concerned with: Where can we buy dahi (yogurt for breakfast)? What are the toilets of the bus station like? How clean is the bathroom in the hotel? Is there hot water for the shower? Where do we have lunch? Did we get bananas? Do we have Wi-Fi? How hot / cold is it? What time do we have breakfast? How often have we been addressed / stared at / photographed? Who is sick, weak or nauseous today? How much can we get off the fare of the auto rickshaw? At what time does the bus leave?
North - South
Amdavad was a worthy conclusion of Vibrant Gujarat, as the slogan of the tourism office goes. It’d been a long time since I've experienced India so intensely, and we were ready for a quieter stage to digest it all. No better time or place than our friends down south.
The sheer size and diversity of India was evident once again. Language and ethnicity in the north is close to European, while the south is Dravidian. Even though the Muslims are a minority in Gujarat as well, they are much more visible there, both in architecture and dress – maybe because of several centuries of Moghul rulers.
Gujarat is semi-desert rather than tropical. Wheat and cotton in stead of rice paddies and coconut plantations. Camel carts in stead of oxen carts. The infrastructure was better and the road discipline was even better (that is: less suicidal than in the south).
On average the ladies in Gujarat were dressed more modern, their hair done more fancy, and blue jeans were no exception. People spoke less English, but as they were more extrovert, you engaged in a conversation more easily. But once you got to know them, people were equally as friendly all over India.
The weak instant coffee was no match for the real filter coffee in the south. Then again, the Gujarati thalis were much better than the Tamil meals.