A Turn in the South

all the girls

Unlike Delhi, Bombay turns on the charm from the moment we arrive. Well, several moments after we arrive, let’s say, and give us time to get past the taxi-wallahs circling like vultures for easy pickings. But when we find one who will actually use his meter, with the window down and the warm coastal air broadcasting the fruit stall, the fish market, the diesel and the incense, it’s good to be back.

Soon we are in Fort, the area where we are staying. We turn beside the red-brick heap of CST railway terminus, looking more like a cathedralCST terminus than a train station, and we alight under the big palm trees in front of the GPO. It is easier to walk through the alleys of Fort than to drive. Our hotel, the Modern, is in the middle of the stationery and printing guilds, and there is a paper shop on the ground floor. We have really just come to Bombay for a break from the bleakness and cold of the north, and to eat. Most of the restaurants we know are in Colaba, and so after a small rest we set out on foot. There is constant throbbing activity in the narrow streets. A work crew in flip-flops is tearing up the pavement with pick-axe and shovel, and the porters hauling wooden carts loaded with boxes of computer paper, or carrying stacks of office furniture on their head jostle around the gaping holes. By the time we get to Horniman Circle the architecture is grand Victorian and Edwardian, but so many millions of lives have passed through the buildings that all Englishness has leached out, and it reminds me of the street dog I saw who dining in Colabaobviously had some pedigree in his past, perhaps Springer Spaniel, but who now scratched his fleas like everybody else. Bombay is the beginning of the Indian South, and we go for Southern food – crispy dosas so long they don’t fit on your plate, and plump steamed idlies and their fried complements, vadas, served with a thin mild tomato curry called sambar and rich coconut chutney.

Usually we avoid the big tourist attractions. They are where the touts and the hassles are, and usually we have seen them already. But this feels like a holiday, and we buy tickets for the launch to Elephanta Is., an hour out into the port. Elephanta is the site of a huge cave temple, 1500 years old, filled with some of the most powerful and sublime sculpture found anywhere in India. It isn’t a natural cave, but a temple carved from the solid rock. Everything is meant to make the viewer feel small, from the guardian figures leaning on heavy maces to the forest of tall thick pillars receding into the dark interior. The centerpiece is the massive three-faced Shiva Trimurti, personifying the creator, the destroyerguardian figure and the preserver, half-hidden in the shadows in the back. All the surrounding walls are also carved in highly-defined images from the Shiva story: Nataraja doing his famous cosmic dance; Ardhanari, half man, half woman, showing the unity of opposites; Shiva, his wife Parvati, and Nandi, his faithful bull; the violent, angry form of Shiva Tandava. Despite the echoing shouts of families on a picnic outing and the giggles of young men gettingdeep in the cave their pictures taken by cell phone in front of the Trimurti, the cave is brooding and evocative.

After 4 days in Bombay, we have an early morning train to Baroda, and leave our room at 5 a.m. It is no more than a hundred meters from the door of the Modern to the main street where we can catch a cab, but in the dark pre-dawn silence and chill we count 51 street-sleepers, tucked in doorways, prone on carts, all wrapped head to toe in eerie white sheets.

We are stopping in Baroda for one reason: our logo. The seductive little prince reclining so assuredly and luxuriously at the top of this page is the son of the Gaekwad of Baroda. ‘Gaekwad’ is a honorific meaning ruler, prince, king, and Baroda was the capital of the state he ruled. Now it is a city of over a million people, but it seems today we are the only whites – it is Christmas Eve, and Baroda is well off of any tourist trail. The palace is further than I anticipated, and when we finally get there it is closed. The gate is open and there is a watchman and a ticket taker, and we can see parts of the palace just down the drive, but we are forbidden from even taking a photo from a distance. Just one more of those crazy-making Indian moments.

ruin at ChampanerWe have been in big Asian cities for the better part of 2 months, and I have read of a place near here, Champaner, a UN World Heritage site, that sounds like it might be nice and rural for a change. To get there, of course, involves the jam-packed rattle-trap buses I’m sure we have told you about before. Although it is only 60 km away, no one understands “Champaner”. I quickly figure out I have to ask for “Pavagadh”. They are both essentially the same place, but Champaner refers to the ruins of mosques no one but culture mavens and the UN cares about, whereas Pavagadh is a Kali temple on top of a big hill that draws worshippers from far and wide. There is even a cable car running up the mountain, but it has collapsed once already in 2003. Some of the old cars have found their way incorporated into tea shops in the village.


the MihrabThe ruined mosques are from the 15th and 16th C, and are notable because of the strong Hindu elements found in them. Whether it is because the workers and craftsmen who made them were Hindu, and simply executed their commissions in the style they were familiar with; ormosque interior whether the stones and pillars were harvested from existing temples, and modified to avoid any iconography; or whether the rulers were so far out in the Hindu hinterland, so far from the mainstream of Islamic convention that they were “going Native” – we were unable to find out. I like to think that it was the latter, and that, like the British after them, they sometimes went a little off the eccentric deep end, and were unable to keep the country and the culture from being absorbed into everything they did.


Huge walls and fortifications surround the base of the mountain. The bus stand and some tea shops clutter up across the moat, from where jeeps depart for Pavagadh Manchi, 5 km up the mountain, where our hotel is. Somehow we manage to squeeze into a jeep with our packs – not so easy, since they won’t leave until 16 people are aboard. More medieval gates and ruined walls are passed on the way up to where the cable car terminus is. A man is eating his lunch in the open back door of a van, unaware or unconcerned that a large langur monkey is on the roof directly above him. Beside them a donkey is eating a newspaper. Our room is in a state-run hotel, and although somewhat institutional, it has a balcony with a fabulous view over the plains.


All the bustle of Pavagadh is directed at the Kali temple, so when we go back down the mountain we are virtually alone poking around the walls of the citadelruined mosques. Flocks of parrots fly screeching through the trees and minarets. The bounty of UNESCO is apparent in the handicap access ramps and watered grass of the main monuments, but not much overflow seems to have made it to the village of Champaner, squat and untidy within the huge fortifications of the citadel. We come in through a back gate, now overgrown with acacia, that once held out a Mogul army. A kid wearing only a dirty t-shirt stops dead in a lane when he sees us, and then hurries off to his doorstep and the protective folds of his mother’s sari. She gives us a dazzling smile. The main street is absurdly wide, given that water buffalo are virtually the only traffic that it sees, and we take a tea from a small shop and sit in the middle of the road and watch the village life unfold.Champaner main street


60 km from Champaner is the even smaller village of Jambugodha, reached by a bus that is even more crowded. After 20 km I get a cheek-hold on a seat with 3 others. A hundred years ago this area of western India was divided up into dozens of “Native States”, ruled by a Prince, Raja or Maharaja ( the British refused to call them “Kings”). Jambugodha was one such state, and the Maharaja’s hunting lodge has been converted, according to our guide book into a “simple and enchantingly peaceful” hotel. Not many guests arrive here on the local bus. Village women arein Jambugodha village selling vegetables and hunks of goat in the dust by the side of the road when we get off, and direct us out of town with a wave of the hand. With our packs on we walk and walk, and then turn onto a dirt road and walk some more. Katheryn is dehydrated and perhaps a little grumpy when we finally arrive at the “palace”. The reservation I made never made it to the staff, but the saving grace is that the current Prince himself, Yuvraj Karmaveersinh, comes out to greet us, assures us that a room is available, and wishes me a happy birthday.


Because it is a special occasion I am not concerned at the cost, but it is poor value for what we get. A tour group from Italy shows up later, and we meet a woman who is fed up with her tour, the hotel and pretty much all of India. “I have a dog”, she says, “and yes, she is very spoiled, but she would not go in the bathroom here!”


The trip from Jambugodha back to Baroda is notable for one thing: perhaps, in many years of crowded travel in crowded countries, I have jeep from Jambugodhanever been on anything this crowded. It is an Indian-made Tata jeep, and looks like it was designed from building blocks; there are no rounded lines on it at all. It is sitting in the shade of a tree when we reach the tarmac-ed road, and a re-organization immediately begins to fit us in. The packs, for a start, are placed loosely on the hood in front of the window, along with a sack of rice. We are wedged in the second row. In front are 6 people, the smallest sitting next to the driver with the stick-shift between her legs. People pile in, and on. At one point we are aware of 33 people traveling in this vehicle with seats for 12.


Even so, we make good time getting back to Baroda, and with several hours to go before our evening train to we decide to go try the Gaekwad’s palace once again. This time we have success.Lakshmi Vilas Palace

Subscribing to the economic orthodoxy of the time, the Prince of Baroda decided to help his subjects through a particularly devastating famine by using the vast wealth he had collected from them in taxation to employ them to build him a sumptuous palace. Given that it was such a good cause, no expense was spared. He had marble imported from Italy, and crystal from Belgium. He modeled his fountains after Versaille, and his architecture from Mars. Some of the most mosaic detailbeautiful works, however, are the mosaics, done in an Indo-Byzantium-Romantic style executed in gold tiles. The most impressive mosaic of the lot is a larger-than-life tableau outside on the front wall.

The Gaekwad was only in his position of wealth and power by the grace of a single chance event, and this mosaic illustrates the story. His uncle was the ruler of the State of Baroda, and when he died the Gaekwad was on the dispossessed side of the family, making a living from farming. The ruler’s immediate heir, however, was old, childless, and according to the British agent a proper rogue, so a plan was concocted that would make it acceptable to the people to see the Gaekwad put on the throne. There was one condition: that the child his wife was pregnant with was a boy. The symbolism tells us that his wife, like Sati in the Ramayana, passed the test; the child was a boy (the prince of our logo) the farmer became ruler, and the British had an ally for the rest of their days.The Gaekwad's story

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