A surprising city

AFTER AN EXCITING DAY exploring Gopipura, an old part of Surat where my wife’s father’s family lived until over 100 years ago, we spent the following day seeing some of the better known historic sights of the city.

The castle on the bank of the River Tapi was built by the Muslim Tughlaq dynasty to defend Surat against attacks by the Bhils. It was later modified by the Mughals, the Dutch, and then the British.

Until the River Tapi silted up, Surat was an important international port city with a very active involvement in import/export activity. The silting up and the British acquisition of what became Bombay led to a decline in Surat’s prosperity. Over the years, its castle gradually fell into great disrepair.

Now, the castle is being painstakingly repaired. About half of it is currently open to visitors. The castle is being reconstructed using materials and techniques that archaeologists have discovered whilst investigating what has been left of the original structure. The result is a brand new version of what was most probably how the castle was before it began to disintegrate.

The rooms inside the castle recreate their original appearanc as deduced from archaeological examination. The rooms house a beautifully displayed collection of items portraying the history of Surat. A magnificent job has been done.

A man at the ticket booth of the castle reccomended downloading an app called “Surat Heritage Walk”, which is a very useful and well designed guide to the historical landmarks of the city.

After viewing the castle from a bridge that crosses the Tapi, which is how trading vessels would have seen it in days of yore, we visited the Christ Church (Church of North India) built in 1824. This simply decorated church has memorials to several Victorians, whi died in Surat.

We drove past the Mughal Sarai constructed in the reign of Shah Jehan. This large building was a hostel where pilgrims travelling between Surat and Mecca could be accommodated. Shah Jehan was first to encourage pilgrims going to Mecca to sail from Surat rather than travel overland or to embark on ships from Persian ports.

The Khudawan Khan Rojo, a mausoleum built in the mid 16th century, is newer than most of the medieval mosques that survive in Ahmedabad but, like them, it is rich in features adopted from Hindu and Jain temple design. The mausoleum contains the grave of its builder, Khudawan Khan, a military commander who was killed while fighting the Portuguese in about 1559/60.

The mausoleum described above is beautiful and impressive, but not ‘over the top’. The mausoleums in the Dutch, Armenian, and English cemeteries, which are close to each other and surrounded by crowded Muslim neighbourhoods, have to be seen to be believed. Many of the mausoleums are flamboyant structures with domes and details suggestive of both the art of India and the orient and also the Greek and Roman empires. These fantastic final resting places of Europeans who became rich in Surat are curiously exotic and ridiculous at the same time. The exuberance of the funerary architecture exceeds that which I have seen in European cemeteries in Calcutta and Fort Cochin. These monuments should not be missed by visitors to Surat.

As we drove between the places described above, we passed numerous old buildings, often in bad states of repair but rich in finely crafted decorative features.

After our tour, we lunched at Shukan, a restaurant that serves vegetarian thalis. As a meat eater I am not usually keen on vegetarian food, but what we were served at Shukan was much to my taste. The chef is a Rajasthani ‘mahraj’ (usually a Brahmin chef). His food was light but well flavoured. Unlike chefs cooking in the Surat traditional way, he used garlic, onions, and crushed peanuts. Yet, his dishes were not sugary as we found in other parts of Gujarat, notably in Ahmedabad and Saurashtra.

Although amongst the larger cities I have visited in Gujarat, Surat has fewer major tourist attractions than others (such as Ahmedabad, Baroda, Junagadh, and Bhuj). However, it has a visually exciting urban texture and vibrancy. The two days we allotted to our first visit to Surat was not long enough. We hope to return for longer in the future.

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