Old School

Discover the discreet charms of an unlikely and unknown destination

Old School

Baroda, a friend familiar with the region informed me, is very different from other Gujarati cities. It’s a city that cares excessively for culture, he said, a college town more devoted to dance recitals than to dhandha. While Ahmedabad and Surat are driven by an often manic zeal for business, the residents of Gujarat’s third largest city are content to be employees rather than entrepreneurs. As clinching proof of their exceptionalism, he pointed out that, unlike the Amdavadis and the Surtis, the burghers of Baroda haven’t even taken the trouble to coin a toponym to express their collective belonging.

Within minutes of alighting from my train from Mumbai, I discovered that at least some elements of that characterisation seemed to have the approval of the residents of Baroda themselves. “Welcome to Gujarat’s cultural capital,” announced a sign near the exit. The area outside the station was dominated by an ungainly pedestrian bridge with a hoarding across the side bearing the images of Baroda’s most revered figures, both past and present. Prominent among them were the seventeenth-century poet Premanand Bhatt, the classical musicians Faiyaz Khan and Omkarnath Thakur and the nonagenarian photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla.

Peckish after my journey, I stopped in for a bite at Payal, the city’s farsan store of choice, in bustling Alkapuri. As I tucked into a plate crowded with portions of sabudana khichdi, sev khamani and undhiyo, I asked a fellow snacker what he liked about Baroda. “It’s very laidback,” he said. “It’s a great place for those of us from the service class.” Over the next three days, I was told frequently about Baroda’s great tradition of cultural connoisseurship and charity, of its spirited cosmopolitanism and its deep-seated tolerance.

To be honest, the last two were not qualities that my outsider’s mind immediately associated with the city. My views about Baroda had been informed by the news headlines and, over the last decade, two traumatic events have stood out. Among the numerous atrocities committed during the Gujarat riots of 2002, memories of the attack on Best Bakery in Baroda’s Hanuman Tekri area, which left 14 people dead, had lingered for years, flaring up each time the fickle witness in the trial attempted yet another prevarication. More recently, in May 2007, a student at Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) was arrested after complaints that his paintings at the institution’s annual display of examination works were blasphemous. The foot soldiers who disrupted the exhibition were led by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) activist named Niraj Jain, but the protests had been sparked off by a Methodist pastor who went by the ironic name of Reverend Emmanuel Kant.

Faced with such bad press, residents of most other cities would have immediately seized up in denial, claiming the media depictions of their hometown were distorted. It’s a sign of Baroda’s maturity that many of the locals I spoke with were quick to acknowledge that their city was facing a period of uncertainty, that there were many challenges to overcome. But most of them seemed quietly confident that reason would eventually prevail. When your foundation is strong, one person told me, you know that you can repair a leaky roof without the whole structure falling down.

That foundation, it’s apparent after even a short jaunt through Baroda, was laid by Sayajirao Gaekwad III, the visionary monarch whose name I saw on the city’s highly respected university, its grandest park, a hotel, a hospital and an entire neighbourhood. A descendant of a Maratha general who wrested Baroda from the Mughals in 1721, Sayajirao proved to be an energetic moderniser when he took full powers in 1881. He made primary education free and compulsory, and banned child marriage and untouchability. He also built a railroad system and the Bank of Baroda to encourage commerce (at least among those of his subjects who didn’t want to do ‘service’).

Sayajirao cast an umbrella of patronage over a variety of causes and personalities, making choices that continue to influence life in contemporary Baroda. His court musicians included Ustad Moula Bux, Ustad Inayat Khan and Ustad Faiyaz Khan, who left the city a knowledgeable appreciation of music. Baroda’s passion for the visual arts is a legacy of the numerous figures, both European and Indian, who created paintings and sculptures for the ruler. Politically, Sayajirao chafed at having to pay obeisance to the British (one new biography of uncertain credibility claims that he even made a pact with Hitler), bequeathing the city its now-diminishing streak of considered dissent. Dadabhai Naoroji was his dewan before the Grand Old Man of India went on to become the first Asian member of the British House of Commons; Aurobindo was employed in the Baroda College; Sayajirao paid for Bhimrao Ambedkar to study at New York’s Columbia University.

The physical manifestation of the monarch’s vision is gloriously apparent in Sayaji Baug, opened in 1879 on the banks of the Vishwamitra river to offer the people of Baroda both enjoyment and education. As villagers from nearby villages picnicked on the manicured lawns, I wandered around sections of the 113-acre park, inspecting the Grecian statues around the Victorian-style bandstand, the deer in the large zoo, the botanical garden, the aquarium, the planetarium and the History of Health Museum, with displays advising visitors on such vital matters as how to stop bad breath (brush your teeth, gargle frequently).

The jewel of Sayaji Baug, though, is the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery. Its treasures include an Egyptian mummy, the skeleton of a seventy-one-foot, two-inch blue whale that floundered up the Gulf of Khambat in 1944, and paintings by Rubens (Frederic de Marselaer) and Martin Ryckaert (Flight Into Egypt).

 The startling eclecticism of Sayajirao’s influences can be contemplated on the dramatic façade of the Laxmi Vilas Palace, the home he built in 1890 and named after his wife. The four-cornered, 212-foot tower alone bears traces of a Mughal minar, a Rajput kirtistambh and a medieval European campanile. As the lucid audio tour explained, the tower was originally designed to contain a clock, but the architects soon realised that the ticking of the giant mechanism would prove an inordinate bother to the people living in the 170 rooms below.

The palace is a marvel of East-West synthesis. In the morning, the darbar room is brightened by sunlight streaming through large stained-glass windows illustrating stories from the Hindu epics. It was here, under the chandeliers, that court musician Faiyaz Khan performed at the first All India Music Conference in 1914, as the women of the city watched from behind the privacy of balconies covered by rosewood screens. The throne room at the other end of the floor is decorated with fourteen paintings by an artist who was a kindred soul to Sayajirao. Like his Baroda patron, Raja Ravi Varma was a bridge between Europe and India, using Western techniques and styles to depict subcontinental stories. There are even more Ravi Varmas to be seen in the Maharaja Fatehsingh Museum, on another part of the estate.

Perhaps Sayajirao’s urge to merge came from visiting the medieval mosques in Champaner, forty-seven kilometres away from Baroda, the subcontinent’s “only complete and unchanged Islamic pre-Mughal city”, according to Unesco, which declared the complex a World Heritage Site in 2004. The grand shrines of Champaner, which was a capital of Gujarat in the sixteenth century, represent “a perfect blend of Hindu and Muslim architecture”, says the Unesco citation, and that’s obvious as you stroll between pillars decorated with floral motifs under enormous domes. It’s likely that the intricately carved minarets of the Jami Masjid were also among the influences of the tower of Sayajirao’s Laxmi Vilas Palace.

The main reason people across India remember Champaner, though, is because the film Lagaan is set in a fictional version of the town in 1893. Still, most visitors to the town don’t have the movies on their minds. They are pilgrims heading to the little white Kalimata temple on the Pavagadh hill nearby. While the devout still make the gruelling trudge to the summit on a flight of steep stairs, I was among the wimps seeking instant karma who took the efficient cable-car ride to the top. As I drank in the serenity, I reminded myself that it was all more fragile than I cared to admit. Though the temple is also part of the Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park, Niraj Jain of the BJP, who led the protests against the MSU student exhibition in 2007, has also tried to stir up trouble here, claiming that Muslim monuments were receiving greater attention than Hindu ones.

Back in Baroda, I took a walk through the Walled City area, which is contained between four gates: the Champaner Darwaza, Gendigate, Panigate and Lehripura Darwaza. On one street, I stumbled upon the Central Library, with a showcase displaying old inkpots. Around the corner, I found the ruined Nazarbaug Palace, which had once served as the depository of the Gaekwad’s jewels. In a store nearby, I spoke to a student named Tejas Mule, who ran his century-old family business repairing musical instruments. He told me about his city’s legendary courteousness. “If you ask someone for directions,” he said, “they’ll actually walk with you to your destination.”

As I’d discovered through my short stay, that was actually true. But it was also disconcerting to note that Mule and I were standing not very far from Champaner gate, where riots in 2006 had left six people dead after the BJP-controlled municipal corporation demolished a dargah. They claimed that the 200-year-old grave was an unauthorised construction that was impeding the flow of traffic. The riots weren’t an anomaly. Baroda’s Walled City had also been wracked by religious violence in 1969, 1971, 1978, 1982, 1983, 1987, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1998, 2002 and 2005.

Businesswoman Tejal Amin is among those concerned with the sometimes precarious state of social relations in Baroda. “Something has changed about the character of the city,” she said. “There’s a dark side. People don’t care anymore.” As a typical Baroda resident, she’s deeply interested in the arts, of course, and since 1991 has run Ghargharika, an organisation that promotes dance and music. More recently, in 2004, she was among the founders of a citizens’ group called Vadodara Initiative, which aims to work with the authorities to improve life in the city. So far, the group has tried to educate residents on how to dispose of their garbage more efficiently and has raised money to employ wardens to assist the police in keeping the traffic flowing smoothly. Amin is also among the organisers of the Vadodara Marathon, which helps raise money for these projects.

Despite the challenges, she remains unremittingly optimistic. “In Baroda, there are still many people who are willing to get involved, to give their time,” she said. She believes that if citizens can be persuaded to get involved in small causes such as the marathon, they’ll also turn out when larger problems present themselves. “This is how you combat the illiberalism,” she said.

On my last night in Baroda, I sought respite from the generously ghee-laden thalis I’d consumed through much of my trip. I found myself in Jojo Hard Rock Café in Fatehganj, a tiny establishment that was especially popular with students from MSU’s Fine Arts faculty. It is decorated with Chinese lanterns and posters of musicians performing at Woodstock, and serves up delicious, ginger-flecked momos. Patrons are encouraged to pick tunes on the guitar lying casually across one table. Around me, a group of students were kicking back after a hard day in class. Some had multiple piercings, many were tattooed and one brave chap even wore a Mohawk.

I asked one girl why Jojo’s was so popular. “It’s the only place that allows me to forget I’m in Baroda,” she replied. It was easy to see how Jojo’s immediately teleported her and her friends someplace far away. But it was just as apparent that this bohemian establishment couldn’t have existed anywhere else in Gujarat. If not for Sayajirao’s encouragement of diversity, Jojo’s wouldn’t have stood a chance more than a century later. Perhaps there is hope, after all.

The information

Getting there
If you’re getting to Baroda from Mumbai, it’s cheap (and environmentally friendly) to take one of the many trains between the two cities (Rs 621 on the Saurashtra Janata Express on 2A and Rs 656 on the convenient, but not daily, Ajmer Express). But if you choose to take the 55-minute flight, Jet Airways and IndiGo ply the route (approx. Rs 2,200 one way). The two airlines also fly from Delhi (approx. Rs 2,400) and Bangalore (approx. Rs 4,500).

Getting around
Most places in Baroda are a convenient autorickshaw ride away. Champaner is 47km or about 90 minutes away down the smooth highway in an autorickshaw (Rs 550 approx.). It costs about Rs 1,200 to rent a car and driver to get to Champaner.

Where to stay
There’s no shortage of hotels to suit all budgets in Baroda. At the high end, there’s the Gateway Hotel Akota Gardens (from Rs 9,000 for doubles; 0265-6617676; thegatewayhotels.com) and the WelcomHotel (from Rs 9,000; 2330033; itcwelcomgroup.in). Much more moderate are the rates at the comfortable and centrally located Hotel Savshanti Towers, where we stayed (from Rs 1,500; 2334540; savshantihotels.com), the Tansha Comfort Residency (under Rs 2,000; 3088888; comfortresidency.com) and the Ginger Baroda (from Rs 2,999; 1800-209-3333; gingerhotels.com). Cheaper accommodation can be found at Hotel Presidency Towers (from Rs 999; 2340049; presidencyhotels.com) and Hotel Sargam (from Rs 750; 9375907704).

Where to eat
If you like enormous Gujarati thalis, this is paradise. Starting with a selection of farsan, going on to an array of tantalising veggies and culminating with calorie-laden desserts, Gujarati lunches have only one logical end: a long siesta. Many of the establishments that serve the most delectable thalis are located on R.C. Dutt Road in the Alkapuri neighbourhood. Take your pick from Mandap at Hotel Express Towers (3055000); Sasumaa in Gokulesh building (2327038) and Amantran in Sampatrao Colony (2356989).For farsan, you’d be best advised to visit Payal (2322462), the popular snack shop in Plaza building on Alkapuri’s R.C. Dutt Road, which is noted for its sev khamani, kaju vadas and crisp jalebis. If you’re going to be visiting Baroda some time soon, don’t miss the undhiyo, a mix of winter vegetables cooked in a clay pot.
For chivda of all descriptions, but especially the sweetish potato-spear-laden lilo chivda, visit Shree Jagdish Farsan Mart on Jubilee Bagh Road in Raopura (2438183). Raju Khaman House on Rajmahal Road (2433721) draws steady crowds for its khandvi and khaman.
Jojo Hard Rock Café in Emperor Building, Fatehgunj (9924369169) is where Baroda bohemians head for momos and conversation.

What to see & do
Baroda has enough to occupy your attention over two and a half days if you throw in an excursion to Champaner, a medieval capital of Gujarat.

The Laxmi Vilas Palace has an excellent audio tour that nicely sets up the historical context to your Baroda visit, while the Maharaj Fateh Singh Museum on the grounds nearby has an extensive collection of paintings by Raja Ravi Varma. The Gaekwad rulers also built the Pratap Vilas Palace, since occupied by the Railway Staff College, and the now-abandoned Nazar Baug Palace.

Nazar Baug is in the walled city area, which could at one time be reached only by passing through one of Baroda’s four gates: the Champaner Darwaza, Gendigate, Panigate and Lehripura Darwaza. The Mandvi gate is now an ornamental traffic roundabout. It’s easy to spend an hour or two prowling through the little lanes of the old city, stumbling upon instrument repair shops, fabric sellers and Amul milk bars. Tambekar Wada is a three-storeyed haveli in the area decorated with vivid paintings of battle scenes and mythological takes. The Nyayamandir court is nearby as is the Sursagar lake with a gigantic statue of Shiv rising from the middle.

Sayaji Park contains the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery and a zoo, among other attractions. The campus of the Maharaja Sayajirao University, which dates back to 1881, is scattered with imposing buildings and small museums of musical instruments, botanical specimens, archaeological findings, geological displays and more. The Gujarat Tourism office in Narmada Bhavan on Indira Road (near the Laxmi Vilas Palace; 2427489) hands out a free brochure about the MSU campus as well as a guide to Baroda city.

Champaner is the “only complete and unchanged Islamic pre-Mughal city”, says Unesco. It contains magnificent mosques and the remains of palaces, homes and water installations, from the eighth to the fourteenth centuries.