Prince among princely states

Prince among princely states
The sprawling Laxmi Vilas Palace grounds include a golf course, Photo Credit: Alamy

The heritage city of Baroda offers food for thought - not to mention lip-smacking street fare

Teja Lele Desai
12 Min Read

Baroda has always been a part of my life. My great-grand-father left his hometown, a small place called Apte in the middle of Maharashtra, in 1900 and put down roots in the erstwhile princely state. To me and my sister, army brats, our ancestral abode was a vacation home — Baroda was the city where we spent a few days every summer, meeting relatives, ganging up with cousins, planning outings and doing all that we could to while the hot days away.

Years later, when my father was posted to a field area, we found ourselves stationed in Baroda. Used to a nomadic lifestyle, we never really thought of the city as our hometown. But it became home for a few years. Staying in the derelict Senapati Bhavan, the house of the erstwhile army commander, we tried to get conversant with a city we had a fleeting acquaintance with. But growing up and busy getting to know our own selves, who could bother with any kind of association with the city? Time went on, and so did we — to other cities.

But life has a strange way of coming full circle. Fifteen years after I left, I’m back in Baroda, a city I may have known all my life but one I haven’t really comprehended. It may be located in a state that gained infamy as a cauldron of communal violence, but Baroda, I hear, continues to be what it always was — a ‘big little city’ where culture and cosmopolitanism coalesce.

Standing in the balcony of my apartment, I see how. Malls are cheek by jowl with mom-and-pop stores, expats trade hellos with locals, and sales are offset by cultural events. I pick up an inclusive and pluralistic vibe, one that no other city in Gujarat has.

The multicultural ethos of Baroda has its roots in the vision of Sayajirao Gaekwad III, the Maharaja of Baroda State from 1875 to 1939. The progressive ruler put in place a large number of controversial reforms — a ban on child marriage, removal of untouchability and legislation of divorce. Recognizing that education was key to progress, he made primary education compulsory and — more importantly — free. The Maharaja also set up the state’s own bank, Bank of Baroda, in 1908. His foresightedness comes to the fore in nearby Ajwa, where he had a dam built. The capacity of the reservoir is three times more than what was needed for the population then, and the dam provides water to large tracts in eastern Baroda today.

I walk down memory lane and drop in at Kala Bhavan, as the faculty of engineering and technology is popularly known. The architecture department is the second oldest school of architecture in India (after Sir JJ School of Architecture, Mumbai), and was housed in the perfect setting to study the subject — a temporary palace. The department has since moved to another area, and I feel sorry for new batches missing out on the opportunity to study here.

Not that I recall learning much about architecture while at design school. Branded an arty type at school and yet excelling in science, I thought architecture would be the right career fit. I was as wrong as the square peg who thinks it can shimmy its way into a round hole. I preferred to build with words, not bricks. I completed the course but decided architecture wasn’t for me. I preferred wielding a pen to a T-square!

Baroda’s roots have always been deep as far as learning goes. The Maharaja Sayajirao University was established in 1881 as Baroda College of Science. The beautiful main building set in bustling Sayajiganj houses the faculty of arts and was designed by Robert Chisholm as a fusion of east and west. Naturally, Indian arches co-exist with Byzantine ones; brick weds stone.

Sayajirao’s backing to the fine arts made Baroda a hub for artists and scholars; and the presence of Raja Ravi Varma added further value. The celebrated painter is said to have been behind the creation of the Baroda Museum, built in 1894 and inspired by London’s Victoria & Albert and Science Museums. The museum is bursting with art, sculpture, ethnography and ethnology treasures. Apart from a fabulous collection of paintings by Raja Ravi Varma, there are paintings by Turner, Rubens and Martin Ryckaert; an Egyptian mummy, the skeleton of a blue whale that was found in the Gulf of Khambat in 1944; Akota bronzes and a collection of Mughal miniatures.

The rich history of fine arts has held Baroda in good stead. MSU’s Faculty of Fine Arts is said to be one of the top art colleges in India and is known for fostering creativity and individualism. Synonymous with modernist art practices and experimentation, the famous alumni include N.S. Bendre, Jyoti Bhatt, K.G. Subramanyan, Haku Shah, Bhupen Khakhar, Jeram Patel, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and Rekha Rodwittiya.

Sayajirao also mentored a large pool of talent, including Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution; Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Asian member of the British House of Commons; and Sri Aurobindo, philosopher and freedom fighter. Aurobindo, once the personal secretary of Sayajirao and later the vice-principal of Baroda College, set up his ashram in Baroda. The red-brick, courtyard-centric structure is an oasis of peace in the midst of Dandia Bazaar, a chaotic city core. I stop off to pick up handmade paper and incense sticks that I have never been able to resist.

As I step out, the stately façade of the Laxmi Vilas Palace catches my eye. Built by Sayajirao in 1890, the imposing structure exemplifies the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. The palace, named after the ruler’s wife, is the largest private dwelling ever constructed — built over twelve years, it is spread over 500 acres, comprises 150 rooms and is said to be four times bigger than the Buckingham Palace. The Maharaja had to commission a mini train to ferry his children to school each day!

The structure was started by British royal engineer Major Charles Mant in 1878 and finished by British architect Robert Chisholm. As a college student I had heard many stories of how Mant, midway through the project, realized that he had made a structural mistake and killed himself. The stories were never substantiated though, and add to the aura of this gilded palace. The edifice is set in beautifully landscaped grounds replete with sculptures and installations, and was among the most expensive structures built at the time (about £1,80,000 were spent back then).

The royal family continues to reside here, but plans are afoot to turn the palace into a heritage hotel. The doors of the lavish Darbar Hall are often thrown open to the public for cultural events. The Venetian mosaic floor, Belgian stained-glass windows, intricate mosaic decorations on the walls and shimmering chandeliers create the perfect setting for concerts and soirees. I recall attending a concert by Asha Bhonsle in this hallowed hall a long time ago.

Royal vestiges are scattered around the city. The Nazarbaugh palace, once a royal guesthouse, now houses royal heirlooms for public viewing. The Pratap Vilas Palace, a European Renaissance structure, now functions as the Railway Staff College, while the Makarpura Palace, originally a hunting resort, has been transformed into an Indian Air Force base.

In the heart of the city, Sursagar, a restored artificial lake, glimmers in the evening light. Around it, stalls offering chaat, samosas and golas pick up pace as night falls. Standing tall nearby is the Nyay Mandir, a piece of Byzantine architecture that houses the district court and has been relegated to a traffic island.

I drop by the Tambekar Wada, a wooden four-storeyed Maratha mansion that was the residence of Bhau Tambekar, the Diwan of Baroda. The colourful wall paintings feature scenes from the Mahabharata, Lord Krishna’s life and the Anglo-Maratha war. When I last saw it, the murals were decaying; this time, I notice that the ASI has helped breathe new life into them.

The stomach’s been screaming for attention for a while now and I decide to give it some. A stop at Amrut Ras Ghar, a small roadside shop that’s become the place to have sugarcane juice, is a must — the chilled sweet juice seems akin to nectar to someone who’s been walking all day. Next door, at Canara Coffee House, I order a round of Poona misal (lentil curry topped with sev and yogurt). The hole-in-the-wall outlet hasn’t seen any change since I was last here — neither in the décor, nor in the taste of the misal. The misal is piping hot. I thrust a spoonful into my mouth — the spice of the misal is set off perfectly by the coldness of the yogurt. The sev adds a crunch, drawing me back to more spoonfuls.

I’m kind of full, but hankering for more. In Mangal Bazaar, I must stand in line at the stall-like Pyarelal ki Kachori for my kachori. Stuffed with a paste of moong dal, ginger, pepper, and red chilli powder, the fried savoury is topped with puffed rice and tart chutney. The price has gone up more than five-fold, but the dumpling is handed over to me as it always was — on a piece of newspaper. I take a deep breath and a big bite. I’m rewarded with a piquant implosion — the taste and flavour linger long after my kachori is gone. Around us, the four gates of Baroda — Paani Gate, Champaner Gate, Geni Gate and Lehripura Darwaja — hold amid them a massive market that stocks utility, household, craft, embroidery, stationery, cloth, hardware and wholesale items. I walk gingerly around cows, rub elbows with more than a few people and examine the many wares.

It’s getting kind of hot and I land up at Samrat Ice Cream Parlour. This old outlet was my grandfather’s favourite. Every summer, boxes of handmade ice cream would be packed and taken home to be savoured by the entire family. The menu’s surprisingly short and heavy on vanilla. I order “ek full vanilla”, a double scoop of peach-coloured ice cream, and finish up with “ek full vanilla cold drink”, a tall glass of flavoured milk with ice cream scoops. To date, the ice cream is said to be hand churned, a fact the man manning the counter neither accepts nor rebuts.

The many hoardings dotting the skyline inform residents about regular plays, shows and concerts — clearly, the city continues its cultural connoisseurship.

Over the next few days, I find myself looking for places to take my toddler. We fall in love with the EME Temple. It’s located in the cantonment, which means entry can be tiresome, thanks to ID proofs and security checks. But once inside, the silence works as a salve on frayed tempers. The manicured lawns, the umpteen stone statues and the fountains draw tourists and residents alike. The Dakshinamurti temple is remarkably contemporary — crafted out of aluminium sheets, the geodesic structure is unlike any other temple. And since it’s run by the Indian army, holy symbols from all faiths can be spotted. It’s the ideal place to teach a toddler about gods of all religions.

Obeisance offered, we end up at Dairy Den, Baroda’s first “real” ice cream parlour. Back then, it was the only place where you could buy “softies”. We taste our way through a few flavours before zeroing in on blueberry. Waffle cones in hand, we sit at Dairy Den circle, still extremely popular as a hangout zone. Around us, a variety of people go about their business. At a time when most of India is pitted against each other, be it on account of religion or state, Baroda stands out as an example of co-existence. The roots of cosmopolitanism were sown long back by a monarch with an assimilating nature, and the city has built on that strong foundation. This is a city with an integrating character, a city that makes people feel at home.

The information

Getting there
Baroda is well connected to Mumbai by Jet Airways and Indigo (approximately Rs 2,300 one-way). You could also take the Baroda Express, Shatabdi or the Double Decker (from Rs 605). Baroda is 8 hours by road from Mumbai. From Delhi, take a flight (about Rs 3,500 one-way) or the Rajdhani/August Kranti Express (Rs 1,215 onwards).

Getting around
Baroda is a small city, and autorickshaws are the best way to get around. Many autowallahs don’t have meters in their vehicles, so fix a price before you set off. Hire a cab for the day (Rs 900) if you want to visit nearby attractions like Wadhwana Lake (45km), where you can sight a large number of migratory birds in the winter; or Sankheda (40km), to pick up some of the world-famous lacquered furniture.

Baroda has scorching summers and mild winters, so the best time to visit is from October to March. Try timing your trip around Navratri — the festive season is a good time to visit.

Where to stay
Baroda offers a variety of accommodation to suit all kinds of budgets. At the top end there’s the Gateway Hotel, Akota (from Rs 5,500 doubles; 0265-6617676, thegatewayhotels.com), and WelcomHotel (from Rs 9,000 doubles; 2330033, itchotels.in) or Express Alkapuri (from Rs 5,300 doubles; 3099200, expresshotelsindia.com). Mid-range options include Royal Orchid Central (from Rs 3,500 doubles; 2301234, royalorchidhotels.com) and Hampton by Hilton (from Rs 3,800 doubles; 2303000, hamptoninn3.hilton.com) among others. If on a budget, opt for Ginger Vadodara (from Rs 2,200 doubles; 6633333, gingerhotels.com) or Kalyan Hotel (from Rs 1,500 doubles; 2362211, kalyanhotel.com).

What else to see
Make time for Champaner, the “forgotten city” that was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2004. The medieval town possesses an extremely rich architectural heritage — ancient Hindu and Jain temples co-exist with mosques from the Gujarat Sultanate. The palaces, fortifications, residential complexes, stepwells, tanks, cemeteries and gates are a perfect blend of Indo-Saracenic architecture. Built in locally quarried stone, many structures feature beautiful jalis. The stunning Jami Masjid is flanked by two tall minarets and has as many as 172 pillars. Scale the summit of the imposing Pavagadh nearby to visit the Kali temple that dates back to the 10th-11th centuries.


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