Shortly after getting to India, a bunch of our staff members were at a conference and heard a woman speak about the school she started. The examples she gave of what they were doing and the projects they were accomplishing was inspiring and considerably closer to our philosophy than most other places we have seen in India. We requested a chance to come visit the school and I was one of the lucky staff members who had the opportunity. In addition to the chance to see this beautiful school, this all gave me a chance for a mini vacation. So I got to play the tourist and had an opportunity to visit Ahmedabad (or Ahmdavad).
Ahmedabad is a major city in the state of Gujarat – just North of Maharashtra (the state I live in). Ahmedabad was the capital of Gujarat until 1970. Gujarat shares it’s NE border with Rajasthan (another state) and its Northern border with Pakistan. It appears to have a higher percentage of Muslims (based on observation and number of famous Muslim buildings) than other regions of India. Based on my little bit of knowledge of Indian history this makes sense.
Before they managed to convince the British to leave, India included not only what we currently call India, but Pakistan, and Bangladesh as well. As India gained its independence, the Partition was one of the most deliberated topics and was eventually decided upon. The partition created the Muslim country of Pakistan and Hindu country of India. No matter the intentions of the leaders at the time this did not go as smoothly as hoped. Neither Hindus nor Muslims particularly wanted to be forced to pick up their lives and start over somewhere new. It was a time of anger and bloodshed. Although the animosity between the two religions is generally minimal, the proximity of Gujarat to Pakistan explains the larger communities of Muslims.
Because Gujarat is so close, one of the other people going and I decided to take the train. Long distance train travel is common in India and the train system is quite useful. But I also know that India is big (about 1/3 of the US) and so trains can also be long. But this trip was only 7-8 hrs, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity. Due to various circumstances, I ended up taking the train up by myself on Saturday. The trains have a variety of different classes that you can by a ticket for and variance in amenities to match. I had a ticket for the 2nd level of AC compartment – though I had no idea what that actually meant.
Getting to the train turned out to be a bit more of an adventure than I had intended due to not realizing that there was a separate station for local trains and long distance trains, but a jaunt over the walkways of the normal station and a quick rickshaw ride got me to the correct station in time to find my seat (and far faster than my driver could have made it around). I then had a slightly frantic walk down the platform next to the very long train as I tried desperately to figure out which car I was supposed to be in. But people here are friendly and helpful and through showing multiple people my ticket, I finally ended up in the correct car of the correct class and found my seat. The seats in this class are like cots. There are little sections of 4 seats (2 upper and 2 lower) like bunk beds with their heads near the window. The other side of the isle has just 2 seats (upper and lower) that run parallel to the isle. All have curtains to close them away from others. I managed to find my seat pretty easily and due to my coworker having changed his ticket at the last minute his seat (above mine) managed to stay empty the whole trip. I quickly stowed my bag, thankfully put up my foot (I had managed to break my pinky toe the previous Monday) and get out my knitting as I stared out the window with anticipation.
The trip was lovely. It was 8 hrs of relaxation to the gentle rocking of the train. I read and knit and looked at scenery. There were constantly vendors walking up and down the isle selling chai, coffee, food, and at stations even ice cream. The other seats in my little square were occupied by a lovely Indian couple. They took turns napping and chatting with me. The husband in particular was great company. He asked me questions about education in the US as well as a variety of other topics. I heard about their daughter who lives in Washington D.C. And he often commented on what we were observing out the window. Getting out of the city helped me remember just how arid so much of India is. Quite quickly the vegetation gave way to scrub and cactus, all very brown waiting the last couple of months until the rains finally come. I also got a quick glance (nicely confirmed by my neighbor) of salt making. They somehow trap thin layers of salt water that they evaporate to collect the salt. Gujarat was the home of Gandhi, and where his famous marches to the salt fields took place. It was neat to see a bit of history. I even got snacks as the wife has some homemade snacks she insisted I share.
When we finally pulled into the station it was about 9:30 pm. Even before I got out of the station, a rickshaw driver had claimed me and was leading me out to his rick. It was the most harebrained ride I have had here (which coming from Mumbai is saying something). We jumped barriers that were at least half a foot high, and weaved in and out of traffic and even stopped for gas (which I ended up paying for instead of a fare) but the hilarity of it was well worth the ride and I was nicely deposited at my hotel. I spent the rest of the evening having dinner and pouring over a guide book planning my day of adventures.
The next morning I spent lazily getting ready, packing up and eating breakfast. I was staying at a different hotel for the rest of my stay because it was with the other people coming and much closer to the school we were visiting. If I had been smart, I would have started my morning by going to the new hotel and dumping my stuff, but I knew it was out by the airport and away from everything else and so it seemed a silly choice – so I opted to just carry my stuff.
The evening before I had laid out a whole plan of things to visit all in the same area and the order I was going to visit them in for ease of walking. It included 1 temple, 1 masjid, 4 mosques (masjids and mosques are actually names for the same thing), a tomb,and a fort. I started by catching a rick to my first stop, the temple.
The temple was beautiful. It was huge and had amazing architecture. I took photos of some of the archways and some of the other carved buildings surrounding it. I spent some time looking at the beautiful idols and watching other people praying. And then I was ready to move on. According to the guide book, I needed to walk out of the temple, and down the main road to another main road and take a right.
And so I started. But there was no main road. And I quickly gave up on this plan. In typical Indian fashion, I was in a city of twisty, turny, windy roads, all without street signs. And so I let go of my plans (or at least the focus of them) and decided to get lost instead. I had no where I had to be (at least not until meeting the others at the hotel at 7pm) and had a glorious day ahead of me. It was early enough that it hadn’t hit the brutal heat of the day and many roads were still in the shadow of the buildings. And so I wandered. I wove my way through teeny tiny streets. I talked to strangers (they have fewer white people and so I resumed my superstar status of people wanting to say hi to me). I saw cows in the street and kids playing cricket in the street (at least until their ball got grand slammed over the house). And when I got tired, I would get in a rickshaw and go to the next stop on my list.
My next stop was the Jama Masjid. The masjid had arched walkways around the outside and a large stone courtyard in the middle. Along the walls of this outer square beautiful Arabic writing was painted on the walls. In the middle of the courtyard was another covered structure with a pool of water with fish in it. At one end, there was an indoor structure with rows of pillars that looked like it was often set up for prayer. I walked around and took pictures (and posed with the random strangers) and tried not to burn my feet. I forgot how hot stone is in the sun. I don’t quite understand having large areas of open stone where you are supposed to be barefoot – it hurts (and my shoes heat up outside).
From Jama Masjid I was close enough (with many helpful points) to walk to the tomb of Ahmed Shah. Ahmed Shah was a Sultan who founded the city (and named it after himself) supposedly based on the auspicious happenings of a warren of rabbits fiercely defending their territory against his hounds. The tomb is the resting place of not only Ahmed Shah but his son and grandson as well. From there, various people directed me to Rani-ka-Hazira the tomb of his queens. The guide book had mentioned this location but had also mentioned that it was mostly overtaken by the market. Had people not so nicely directed me there, I probably wouldn’t even have bothered going. It was a strange cross between the masjid and the tomb in construction and was pretty to look around though I didn’t stay long due to some girls who were getting annoying when I wouldn’t take more pictures of them. As I wandered around this area, I unintentionally went shopping. Gujarat is known for its textiles, and so I took advantage of that. I ended up with some beautiful silk (for saris though I’m not sure there is enough) and some regionally traditional fabric. Two of the styles that are “Gujarati” are tie dye and block print/batik. I wandered into a lovely shop of tie dye fabric where unlike our “tie dye” they tie tiny knobs all over the fabric in patterns with string. The affect is the same because when you remove the string, the circle where it was has remained white. All told, I ended up with material for 2 full outfits, a couple of dupattas (scarves) and a couple of yards of a lovely block print fabric.
From there, I grabbed a rickshaw to go find the Bhadra Fort. When I got there, I followed the crowd of people and ended up in a temple instead (much to my surprise). It was a temple to the goddess Durga. My original plan to observe unobtrusively didn’t work out nearly so well. The space was quite confined space and a lovely woman “helped” me toward the front where I was presented with half a coconut with a flower and a sweet in it. I said some prayers and then tried to figure out what I was supposed to do with the things I was given. I later learned from an Indian friend that I was supposed to eat some of the coconut and the sweet after saying my prayers. As I left, I added an extra prayer and left my flowers at the base of a Saraswati goddess. She is the goddess of creativity and knowledge and is one of my favorites. I gave myself a tikka (red dot) as I left and then went to actually find the fort. I later learned that this was the Bhadra Temple (not really surprising being attached to the Bhadra Fort). I found the entrance to the fort a bit down the road (in the direction I had come) but was nicely informed that it was closed because it was a holiday (ie any day off). I forgot that because the fort now houses municipal offices it was closed on Sunday.
At this point, it was about 1and I was very hot and tired and I decided it was time for lunch. I caught a rick to one of the places mentioned in the book that sounded tasty and turned out to be at one of the fancy hotels in town. I enjoyed my respite of sitting in the shade and the fans and eating spicy samosas and hand churned saffron pistachio ice cream.
As I left I planned to head to Sidi Saiyad’s mosque. It is famous for its intricately carved Tree of Life screens. After an amusing conversation with a rickshaw wala, I realized that it wasn’t around the block, it was directly across the street. But the sounds of prayers made me realize that it was not an appropriate time to be a tourist and so I skipped it and headed to my next destination – Subarmati Ashram or Gandhi’s Ashram.
We crossed the river and eventually wound our way up to the beautiful riverside location of the Ashram. This Ashram is where Gandhi spent much of his time in his later life and where most of political struggles he helped orchestrate originated from. When I first entered, I was a bit miffed because I expected this to be a tourist location and knew there was a museum there but found nothing in the way of people, sign age, or guidance. It turns out that I entered at the wrong gate and that this portion of the area was used by an NGO that does education projects so I got an extra stop talking to some kids and taking pictures of monkeys.
Eventually I made me way over to the public portion of the Ashram. The simple buildings are preserved to show the places where Gandhi spent so much of his time. Additionally, a lovely museum has been built with artifacts, information, and amazing pictures and portraits that are housed (there is even one portrait done as a mosaic of tiny rectangles of roasted nut shells). I spent some lovely time walking around, learning about Gandhi, seeing in the buildings, watching parrots (they are native here), and looking at the river.
At the house where Gandhi had lived, there was someone demonstrating using charkas. A charka is a spinning wheel for cotton. In addition to the salt movement (why should we pay British taxes on salt when we can make it) one of Gandhi’s other big movements had to do with textiles. He felt that since cotton and spinning wheels were so traditionally Indian, that Indians shouldn’t be paying to import textiles. He worked hard to bring spinning back as a common activity. The upright charka is the image at the center of the Indian flag – showing the importance it had in the independence movement. In addition to the normal Charka, Gandhi developed or at least popularized 2 more mobile versions of the charka, the box and book charkas. They are both horizontal charkas that fold away into carrying cases. When you open the case, you have two wheels on one side (connected by a belt) that then connects to the spindle by another belt. One of the wheels has a handle. You turn the handle with your right hand and pull the cotton with your left. The box charka is about the size of a brief case and the book charka is book sized. I knew I wanted one, so I asked the woman demonstrating. She wrote down the name of where I could buy one (just down the road) but they were of course closed on Sunday.
At this point in the day I was pretty done. I was hot (I’m guessing it was in the high 90s) and by this time my backpack was feeling heavy. I decided that my day of tourist was done and headed back to the hotel.
That evening, with the rest of the crew who flew in, we went out to dinner. We ended up at the other restaurant at the hotel where I had lunch. It was a lovely Thali place. Thali is the perfect meal for the indecisive. It is already decided for you. You get a large metal plate with a number of small metal bowls along one side. Each of the bowls is filled with a different item. You get breads in the main part of the plate. You just eat what you like and they bring you more of it. We all ate ourselves full on the delicious food. At the end we were served paan which I had heard about but never tried. A lot of the paan – especially what you find on the streets had tobacco in it and so people end up spitting all over the streets. This was tobacco free paan which was a combination of sugar and anise and other mouth fresheners all wrapped up in a leaf. You just pop the whole thing in your mouth and chew it up. I didn’t mind it as much as some, but I’m not searching for it either.
Monday was our lovely trip to the school. They have an beautiful space tucked back into nature on the outskirts of the city. Their school is full of amazing spaces designed for lots of learning outside and a variety of opportunities. It was a pleasure to go visit. Since it is tucked so far away from main roads, we decided that the easiest way to get back at the end of the day was the school bus. I had one of the most random kid conversations I have had in a while while on the bus. The lovely girl we were talking to suddenly looked at B and I and asked “what do you do at church?” It was obvious that because we were white, we were automatically Christian, and so we did the best job we could trying to explain to her what happens at church.
That afternoon a number of the people who had just arrived the evening before were interested in going to Gandhi’s Ashram and I wanted to go back to try to buy a spinning wheel, so off we went. When we got there they went off to see the Ashram and I headed off down the street on my own adventure. As I walked along, I would show people the name of where I was trying to go and they continued to point me down the street. Eventually, someone pointed me down a side street. Once on the side street, someone pointed to a gate. Throughout Ahmedabad, most signs aren’t even in Hindi, they are in Gujarati. I enter the gate and find a guard who points me around the corner. I turn the corner and am surrounded by a bunch of warehouse type buildings, most of which looked empty and a central courtyard filled with beautiful green raised beds of plants. Eventually I found a building with an open door and went in. It was one of the paper factories (somehow associated with the Ashram). I found a person and said spinning wheel and he nicely led me to a different office where there were people who could sell me a spinning wheel. They nicely demonstrated the box charka (they always make it look so easy) and I figured out that I could get it with or without finish, but knowing how moist it gets here, I opted for finish. He seemed really excited that I was even interested in getting on. I didn’t have a real good idea how much it was going to cost and my whole walk to the places I had been deliberating on how much I was willing to spend on it. I know trying to get one in the states would cost between $100 – 200. I finally came to an unspoken conclusion that Rs5000 was about what I was willing to spend ($100) and that I would have to think about it a bit if it was going to be more than that. When the man finally told me how much it was I ended up repeating it number by number just to make sure I had understood correctly. For the more expensive varnished version it cost Rs550 ($11). By the time I was done, my bill was actually up to Rs650 because not only did I get the box charka, I also got an extra belt, an extra spindle, and 400g of cotton to spin – for the ever so expensive $13. And then I walked back to the Ashram with a silly grin on my face the whole way.
On Tuesday, most of the staff had an early flight home, but the train Z and I were taking didn’t leave until 2:30. I had my plan of things I was attempting to see my final morning before leaving. The night before on our way to dinner, A had managed to find an awesome rickshaw driver who was not only honest, but also amazingly helpful. So we called him up and he was my escort for the morning. My morning didn’t end up at all how I planned, but it was awesome none the less.
A couple of nights before, we had passed a beautiful temple all lit up. MJ and I had tried to find it on our way to dinner the night before thinking that it was the only other temple listed in the guide book the Hatheesingh Temple. Although the Hatheesingh temple was beautiful it wasn’t the one we were looking for, but with the rick driver’s help, I ended up at the Swami Narayan temple – Shahi Baug. My driver was amazing. He got out and walked me around the temple. He carried my backpack and told me where I was and wasn’t allowed to take pictures and explained who the various idols were.
And then there was some confusion that lead to an adventure. I was hoping to go to a step well which are these giant buildings built for trapping water, and then to the textile museum. But some how my notes were confusing. Instead of the Dada Hari step well, we ended up headed to the Dada Hari Temple. This was mainly an adventure because this temple was at least 30km outside the city. So I saw some beautiful scenery. It was nice to get outside the city a bit.
On the way we stopped at another temple – Vaisnadevi Temple. I think of this temple as the amusement park of temples. It was obviously a local tourist destination. It was a temple built into a fake mountain. You had to check all your electronics and really we checked everything. You followed the metal rails up the narrow path of the fake mountain. It was a a lovely white mosaic path. And it wound through the whole structure. There were times that you would go into a tunnel only to come out on the other side of the metal railing from where you were. Some of the tunnels were so short I had to crawl on hands and knees (not the best with a broken toe) and some had water at the bottom. Eventually we ended up in the inner temple where we went up to the priest who put a tikka on my forehead and handed me some flowers and a good luck coin. And then we followed the path back out. As we were leaving I got mobbed to have my picture taken (I’m guessing not many white people end up at that temple). But the best part was that suddenly there was a man with a cobra in front of me. I got to take a picture of the cobra and he nicely draped it across my chest (which my boss later yelled at me for) but it was such a beautiful snake and I’m glad I got to pet it.
Our other stop on the way to the Dada Hari temple was to have cane juice. I see the stands in the city but have never stopped. It probably wasn’t the best idea (and may have accounted for my gastronomical distress the next week) but it was worth the adventure. The boy fed a couple of pieces of sugar cane through the press over and over again until it was just dry husk and ready to be discarded. Then he poured it through the strainer and into the cups and topped it off with some pink salt. I wasn’t fond of the salt part, but the cane juice was tasty.
Eventually, we ended up at the Dada Hari temple. It was a huge beautiful white temple. It was beautiful as were the idols inside. We walked around the inside for a few minutes and then went to the museum on the man who had it built and watched a video titled “The Science of Happiness” all about this man who had an epiphany sitting at the train station one day and went on to dedicate his life to helping people find happiness.
After that we headed back to the city. I had one last shopping venture at the law markets (named after the law gardens they are near). I managed to get a outfit for the Navratri celebration that happens in the fall in pretty purples and shiny mirrors and and lovely bedspread and my rick driver was awesome at bargaining.
And then I got dropped off at the train station. The train ride back had fewer types of compartments, so we ended up getting first class tickets. It was a lot more like an airplane. Normal seats with tray tables etc. The best part was that they fed us every 1 ½ hours or so. But I missed putting my feet up and meeting my neighbors that the other compartment had offered, but it was a great trip home. For just a couple of days, it felt like such a perfect mix of relaxation and being a tourist. It was nice to finally see somewhere that wasn’t Mumbai.