Sunday Herald: Bond with Baroda

A quiet Sunday morning spent meandering the lanes and bylanes of the old walled part of the city of Baroda, now Vadodara. Spotting heritage dwellings and reliving history turns out to be a memorable walk. 

Even at seven in the morning, we are not spared by the sun’s blaze. The usual morning flurry of activities has started. I am in the old walled part of Mandvi in the city of Vadodara. Taking shelter under a Banyan tree, I take notes as Chirag Munjani, the curator of the heritage walk (who also runs a social enterprise), throws light on the history of Vadodara. The wafting aroma of tea relaxes us as we gear up for a walk down memory lane.

It is crowded and busy as it would have been centuries ago. It was built in 1511 AD as a fortified city by Prince Khalikhan, son of Mahmud Begada of Gujarat Sultanate. When the Maratha warriors, the Gaekwads, lay siege to Vadodara in the 19th century, they introduced many renovations and commissioned new structures.

As we walked towards the Mandvi gate, we could notice the blend of Islamic and Maratha-Rajputana architecture. It is a square pillared hall with arches on all sides and a large clock at the top. It was used for toll collection. Today, the police constables, flower vendors and a little Hindu place of worship vie for space.

Mandvi means mandapa in Sanskrit, and is the hub of activities in the walled city just as it was during medieval times. Radiating from all four sides of the gate are the four gates at equal distance, namely Champaner Darwaza, Gendi Gate, Laheripura Darwaza and Panigate.

A quirky triangular projection jutting out of Panigate resembles a human nose, which the residents of Vadodara equate with ‘Baroda nu naak’ or Vadodara’s honour.  

The city had been prosperous, multicultural, and with the advent of Gaekwads became a hub of art, culture, literature, and a pioneer of several social reforms. 

Pointing to a Muslim girl decked in chaniya-choli going for garba practice, Chirag was quick to point out Vadodara’s plurality. It was a cosmopolitan mix even when the high priests of Jainism, sripujyas, were prominent till the 18th century.  

The residents of Vadodara take immense pride in their city and revere the visionary ruler Sayajirao Gaekwad III. Even in 1892, Vadodara received drinking water flowing from taps. An act in 1906 made primary education free and compulsory.

 Vadodara had a four-storied Central Library way back in 1931. It may well be crowned with the tag of vintage ‘green building’, having glass floors and large windows to let in natural light. I gingerly stepped on the two-inches-thick Belgium glass flooring on subsequent floors. The glass was sturdy and strong, and I walked leisurely to browse the treasure trove of centuries-old books. Leafing through the fragile yellowish pages of 1921 census of India, I See All (The World’s first picture encyclopedia), and vintage photographs of Sayajirao III’s foreign sojourns was interesting. The library even today has 40,000 registered members and three-lakh books in the languages of English, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Sindhi and Urdu. 

Sayajirao III had been a pioneer to commission several such eminent structures, which now adds to the vintage charm of the city. The most impressive building in Vadodara is the 150-room Laxmi Vilas Palace that represents architectural styles found in Europe, Persia and Rajputana. 

Even today it is the abode of the royal Gaekwad family. The architects Charles Mant, R F Chisholm and Patrick Geddes have shaped the city. The Nyay Mandir, Baroda College building, Kothi and many other structures represent the grandeur and eclectic architectural heritage of the city.

But for the common man, Vadodara was the city of pols, wadas and padas where they dwell in close proximity. So we walk into narrow lanes flanked on either side by a mix of old and new two-storied houses. In spite of being treeless and devoid of open spaces, the lanes are cool and tidy.  We see several housing clusters known as pols with small houses having steep staircases. The pols were named after a specific caste, people’s craft or anything significant. Mehta pol housed members of this caste. The wada concept came from Marathas, for the first home of Maratha rulers was called Sarkarwada. The padas were located outside the walled city. 

As we walked along, the crumbling facades of the heritage structures with peeling paint and broken panes added a tinge of sadness. Most are in a derelict state, locked and forgotten. The well-maintained ones are worth checking out. One can still see the strong window grills made without any welding joints fitted into crafted wooden frames. There are carvings of gods and goddesses, iron holders for oil lamps, ornate doors and small jharokhas (balconies). 

Temple palaces

Most tenements were made of bricks bonded by lime mortar, jaggery and powdered pulses. The structure was supported by carved Burmese-teak pillars and arches. The spacious houses were called havelis that had colourful frescoes and drawings. A few of them served as temples.

We visited the Govardhan Nathji haveli that houses Lord Krishna, wooden swings, and a pichvai painting depicting Raas lila done on cloth. Another highly revered Narsinhji temple is housed in a 275-year- old haveli. The fable says that Sayajirao III was once trapped in a sea storm and prayed for his safety. On his return, he rushed to this very temple to pay his obeisance to the lord. Today, it is revered by the royalty.

After offering our prayers, we moved on to another temple, not of a deity, but of knowledge. Built by the Jains in 1953, its doors were opened for all irrespective of religion or caste. The sculpture of a Hindu and a Muslim carved on the colourful walls to send across a strong message finds even more resonance today.

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