The ascent of Pavagadh Hill

The town of Champaner is situated at the base of Pavagadh Hill, which is a sudden rise in an otherwise gently undulating landscape. A climb up Pavagadh Hill reveals a heady mix of interesting geology, mythology, religious confluence, history, strategic military brilliance and foresight, clever design and architecture, rainwater harvesting systems, sustainable measures, a hidden valley of flowers, etc.

Geologically, Pavagadh Hill is quite different from Champaner. The Hill is composed of rhyolite, a volcanic rock, while Champaner is almost entirely sandstone, a sedimentary rock. It is this volcanic feature which made Pavagadh an important and strategic location for whoever ruled it. About 830 m high, it descends or ascends (depending on your point of view) in five plateaus, each of which are separated by steep cliffs. This feature enabled fortifications to be built at vantage points around the hill in a circular manner, making it indefensible and non-breachable. And also confusing for the visitor/tourist.

Photo: Rupal Parikh

Continue reading

The Indo-Islamic mosques of Champaner

Detail from a wall carving on Kevada Masjid

“It has not rained in Champaner for 2 years, and then it rains like this. When it rains…” the guide’s voice trailed off mournfully.

About 20 pairs of suspicious, skeptical  eyes looked at the muddy, slushy path that seemed to worsen as it wound its way to apparently nowhere. But according to Manoj, the guide, the path led to 2 mosques, one of them with the most beautiful embellishments imaginable on its walls.

Maybe Manoj did not sound convincing enough, or maybe it was the mud, but most of the owners of those eyes decided to forego seeing those two mosques. But some did agree to go with the guide and see the mosques. I was one of them.

Our tour group was in Champaner for a 2-day visit. We had arrived that morning from Mumbai to a cloudy, rainy and wet day, in the wettest rainy season that Champaner was experiencing in a long time. We were to see the ruins of the medieval city of Champaner, which included many mosques in various stages of restoration or disrepair, depending on one’s point of view. I wondered how many we would be able to see with the heavy rains having made the access roads paths almost impossible to negotiate. (There are reportedly 18 such mosques, and we managed to see about 5 of them.)

Continue reading

The forgotten medieval ruins of Champaner

Once upon a time there was a prince. He wasn’t particularly a happy prince or, for that matter, an unhappy prince; but he was an ambitious prince. He wanted to be remembered for posterity for his conquests, and his rule. The prince wanted to be like his grandfather, who had founded a great city and named it after himself. But the prince had to first become the king. And one day, he became the king.

Detail of a window at the Jami Masjid

The prince, now the king, set his eyes on a neighbouring kingdom, which was very well fortified and was known to have an impregnable defence system. The king’s  advisers and soldiers urged him to consider some other kingdom to conquer.

But he declined; it had to be this kingdom. The king’s strategy was not to engage in a battle or a war; he captured the lower fortifications of this hilly kingdom, and then laid siege to it and cut off supplies.

Cloisters of the Jami Masjid

The kingdom’s ruler was amused and offered the king money, women, and jewels, but the king was not enticed. He was firm about his intentions—he wanted the kingdom. Nothing else. To show that he meant business, the king laid the foundations for his palace and a place of worship for his soldiers just outside the fortifications and at the base of this hilly kingdom.

Continue reading

The Lord’s Tour: A visit to the home of cricket

If you had been anywhere near the Lord’s Cricket Ground on 4th September 2009, at around 9.50 am, you might have seen a woman running around trying to find a way into the grounds. It is also possible that you might have heard some loud cursing in at least 3 languages from her. That woman was me.

In case you thought that I was trying to break in to see some cricketer, perish the thought. I was running (and cursing) as I was late for a pre-booked 10.00 am Lord’s Tour, which meant that if I didn’t find the correct gate in the next 5 minutes or so, I was going to miss the start of the Tour. And my experience of guided tours in England was that They. Started. On. Time. Period.

Now I am not a cricket fan. Never was, and never will be. If India is on a winning spree, I might just listen to the talk around me, but that’s about it. So then why was I going to Lord’s then? It was because of my sports fanatic brother’s parting words at Mumbai airport before I boarded my flight for London in September 2008.

Don’t come back to India without having watched a cricket match at the Lords.

Continue reading

The golden city of Bath

Bath is a rather funny name for a city, isn’t it? I first came across the city of Bath in Charles DickensThe Pickwick Papers, and later in Jane Austen’s novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Over the years I “visited Bath” through other stories, essays, films, paintings and photographs, and discovered a deliciously decadent life of leisure and luxury, fashion, intrigue, matchmaking, music, dance, poetry… I further discovered Bath’s history of healing and curing through its mineral rich, hot water springs. In fact, archaeological evidence exists of the waters of Bath being used for healing purposes since pre-Roman times. In 1987, Bath was declared a UNESCO Word Heritage Site.

When I spent a year in London in 2008-2009, Bath was on my list of “must see places before return to India”. And on one beautiful July day in 2009, I set off for a day trip to Bath, organised by London Walks. It was a day that the English, rather mistakenly, call an Indian summer’s day—pleasantly sunny with a cool breeze and intermittent light showers. A lovely day to travel and have a bath in walk around Bath. :-)

Located in the green and gold Somerset countryside of England, my first impression of Bath, or Bath Spa as the city is called now, was that it did not look or feel like England at all—it had a very European air about the place. The River Avon flows through Bath and it is the first thing that you see when you come out of the station.

The River Avon at Bath

Continue reading

The Elephanta Caves

“I couldn’t tear myself away from the image of the Maheshmurti. It was so beautiful. So mesmerising. Elephanta was so nice,” gushed Iskra, an exchange student from Bulgaria. I listened to Iskra’s description of her visit to Elephanta Caves with part fascination and part envy. The reason? In spite of having lived in Mumbai for nearly 23 years, I had never been to the Elephanta Caves. Listening to Iskra, and that too a foreigner, rave about them needled me into resolving to visit the caves at the earliest opportunity.

And would you believe it? The opportunity presented itself to me the very next day, almost as if it was just waiting for me to make up my mind. My Facebook wall announced that Girls on the Go (GOTG), a women’s only travel club, was conducting a guided day trip to the Elephanta Caves on 13 March 2011. Would I be interested? Not one to let go of an opportunity like this, I signed up for the trip within seconds of seeing the intimation. :-D

Gateway of India

So, on D-Day, I was at the Gateway of India much before the reporting time of  7.45 am. While waiting for Piya Bose, the founder of GOTG, and the rest of the group to assemble, I tried to recall what I knew about the Caves. They were … um… really old rock-cut caves, were located in Elephanta Island some distance away from Mumbai, could be accessed only by boat, and was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In short, I knew nothing about the Caves. Of course, by the time the tour got over I was a little wiser thanks to Lakshmi Kishore, our guide, and a booklet on the Elephanta Caves that I purchased from the ticket office.

Elephanta Island has traces of habitation from 2nd century BC in the form of remains of a Buddhist stupa, reportedly built by Emperor Ashoka himself. But what the Island is really famous for are 7 rock-cut caves, whose age is not well established due to absence of written records. Various theories exist as to the age of the caves as well as to who built them, and according to the ASI’s (Archaeological Society of India) booklet, the caves were excavated during the middle of the 6th century, during the rule of the Konkan Mauryas.

Locally, Elephanta Island is known as Gharpuri and is located about 11 km from Mumbai. It was called Elephanta by the Portuguese, who found a stone statue of an elephant at one of the entry points to the Island. Though they tried their best to destroy the statue, they only succeeded in severely damaging it and today the restored elephant is installed at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai.

Aquatint of the Stone Elephant by Thomas Daniell and William Daniell, 1786. Photo Courtesy: Elephanta by George Michell

Continue reading