A city reborn

We used to spend a night in Arras in northern France when we made driving holidays to stay in rented houses on central and southern parts of the country.

To casual visitors, such as we were, the centre of Arras looks like a perfectly preserved old baroque city.

Yet, it is not.

During WW1, Arras, close to the front line fighting, was almost totally destroyed. Pictures of the city taken after the “War to End All Wars” resemble pictures of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped on it.

The reconstruction of the old centre of Arras was so successful that if you were ignorant of its history, you would believe that you are seeing the original city.

By the way, Arras is one of the few places in the rather bleak north of France really worth visiting.

Photo taken about 15 years ago.

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.

Familiarity does not always breed contempt

FAMILIARITY BREEDS … CONTENTMENT. We have just landed in Ahmedabad. It is our third visit to this city in Gujarat within less than two years. We received a warm welcome from the staff at the small hotel where we have stayed twice before.

After settling into our room, we ate a good meal of Mughlai food at the Food Inn, which is opposite the 16th century Sidi Sayeed Mosque. Then, we travelled to the Gita Mandir bus station, where a very helpful booking clerk arranged tickets for various intercity trips we are planning to make soon.

The noisy, bustling traffic in Ahmedabad is typical of the city’s general feeling of vibrancy and exciting vitality. So bad was the congestion on the roads that our autorickshaw driver suggested that we abandoned our plans to visit the Jumma Masjid near the Manek Chowk. He explained that being the 30th of December, everyone was in a holiday mood and out on the streets spending money.

We disembarked at Khwaja Bazaar, a frenetic market place between the three arched Teen Darwaza and the Badra Fort, where the early rulers of Ahmedabad had their headquarters. We strolled along a street leading away from the market, admiring occasional old looking buildings along it. I imagine that the oldest of these is about a hundred or so years old.

Eventually, we reached a post office just across the road from an ageing Parsi ‘dharamshala’. Apart from a vigilant watchman, who looked at us suspiciously, the place looked rather dead. We took tea at a pavement stall. Typical of the kindness of people in this city, the ‘chaiwallah’ specially prepared tea without sugar for us instead of the very sweet beverage that is usually served. We sat on a bench, sipping tea and watching the world go by. It felt good to be back in Ahmedabad, a city, where kite flying is a popular pursuit. A city that is becoming familiar to us and makes us feel content.

First published on http://www.gujarat-travels.com