Posted by: Bob Fisher | April 2, 2010

The Faces of Gujarat: Experiencing India Subliminally

A state of grace

As she descends the stone steps leading to the small dark pool at the core of the exquisite Adalaj Step Well, her sari floats freely around her delicate frame. Her gracefulness and sylphlike steps give the impression that she is being borne downwards on a whisper of moist air.

Her son, a sprite of a boy, precedes her slightly. Barefoot and naked, except for a loose cotton shirt enhanced by a single hand stitched design, he slips carefully and silently from one step to the next.

Close behind follows the tall and loose-limbed father performing analogous movements. Together, the three of them have the weightlessness and beauty of an apparition; astonishing in their elegance. It is another moment in which I realize how much of India is perceived through the mind’s eye.

Road notes: Up at 3:00 am for a 5:40 flight from Mumbai to Ahmedabad. The drive from the Ahmedabad airport to a super (and seemingly incongruous) 5-star hotel on the main street is a morning eye opener. There are five of us so far;  one Dutch, one Dane, two Czech Repubs. Four Aussies wait for us at the hotel. Americans and others are arriving this afternoon. The world in miniature is coming to Gujarat.

Mumbai was primarily the 5-star eco-hotel I’ll be writing about for the show … and tramping around the “slums” (have got to invent a new word for that … slums just doesn’t convey the sense of the place) … people there very friendly, actually wanting their pics taken washing their laundry in the gutter. Air pollution as I have never experienced it. Marketing Director of the hotel spent a lot of time with me. Has a sister living where I grew up. Six degrees of separation! Complete tour of the ecosystem of the hotel. Even got to see the hotel’s great vats with their worms that turn all the hotel’s garbage into pure soil. Vermiculture. What a metaphor!


As the family of three descend towards what is left of the well water, they pause on a wide landing illuminated by the sun, which has worked its way through the complex architecture of the structure. Seeing an opportunity too good to be missed, I hesitantly approach and ask if I may photograph them. Anticipating a possible rebuff — at such times I always feel like a lumpish tourist — I am instead met with a beaming smile and a welcome invitation on the part of the father to admire his wife and son, and to record the moment. My Western mind hesitates briefly, considering what in my culture would likely appear as a paternalistic gesture. But, as has been the case with other individuals and families on this trip, there is a genuine expression of appreciation for the attention — a suggestion of a validation of their existence — and a desire for a cultural interchange.

I prepare to photograph the mother. She stands against one of the intricately carved walls in a somewhat posed position, eyes downcast, and demure. I lower the camera and glance at the husband. He smiles again and gently lays his arm around his wife’s shoulders. At his touch, she suddenly looks up, her sari falls back slightly off her face. I see an amazing radiance and openness of expression; and I realize that this is a privileged moment. I raise the camera and quickly capture what will become the principal focal point and theme of my visit to Gujarat — the faces of the Gujarati people.

Road notes: Face Value: noun, the value or price which is shown on, for example, a stamp, a coin or a bank note … the superficial appearance or implication of a thing. I am again aware of my need to do more; to observe, interpret, and record deeper levels of meaning in this special sphere of human intercourse.

All of the journalists received the same surprising email invitation to come to Gujarat … sometimes confusing … uncertain itineraries … Four of the group transferred just after midnight from the international to the domestic airport (all planes get into Mumbai/Bombay just after midnight) just a 15-minute walk from the very nice hotel I was staying at … and they slept in the airport until the 0540 flight this morning. I could have had them all over for a pajama party. An Urdu word, pajama. They are exhausted … I’m rested … even had an incredible massage last night with strange oils and was prayed over for several minutes … so I’m in pretty good shape … the others however look like your regular non-Indians in major culture shock.

The main street of Ahmedabad is everything I ever imagined about India … only in three dimensions and with all the smells. Through the windows of the brightly coloured airport shuttle, my Western eyes see dirt, garbage, sacred cows … even Holsteins … just standing about or lying down … many skinny dogs with protruding ribs all the same dun colour … goats … camels pulling carts full of people … hundreds of people (seems like thousands) moving inexorably to work … where I wonder … In one small green field … six small boys, and what looks like their teacher, are crouched in a 25-metre circle … all having their morning bowel movements … other boys do the same beside the road here and there … a couple of men too …

A Gujarati thali

Borrowing the adage, “you are what you eat,” and then extending that metaphor, the festive, ceremonial, and vegetarian Gujarati Thali cuisine can also be seen as representing this complex culture which is part of the larger (1.3 billion population) Indian culture.

The Thali is exotica and diversity writ large. It is also the product of the millennia. To the Western palate it is a whole new culinary experience: farsans (delicate appetizers), sweet and sour chutneys, pickles, sweetmeats, vegetables of all kinds prepared with aromatic seasonings, Bhaat (rice), lentils, bean sprouts, butter milk, nuts, roti or poori (special flat breads), Batata nu shaak (a potato dish in a sauce), and a yoghurt dessert that is flavoured with saffron and fruit.

Road notes: The group: journalists, travel suppliers, travel consultants … and none of us know how or why each of us was chosen to be here. But here we are, and dear Mr. Pavitran has taken us quite in hand. We are starting to revive. Serendipity.

Still trying to figure out flights home … still in that other time every now and then. It sticks to me like sweat. “Please Sir not to worry … you rest … we take such very good care of you … please have nice day Sir … Not to worry.”

Things get started this afternoon as soon as the Americans tumble off their flights from New York. “No problems … All works out eventually … Please come now.”

We follow obediently.

The human face is the first point of contact for the newborn and, if blessed with good fortune, the child will bond with the species. There are 43 muscles in the human face and functioning individually and collectively they control the outward signs of emotion and of “human” nature. But the real individual behind the facial mechanics must be detected through the facial cues. If the mouth smiles but the eyes don’t, there is a disconnect.

The faces I see here suggest no such disconnect.

Ancient civilizations

Gujarati history and culture is also a kind of Thali of human experience.

Coming from the recent “New World,” I learn quickly to adjust my sense of time; and I’m not just talking about jet lag. In terms of human civilization this is one of the oldest neighbourhoods on the planet. There is considerable archeological evidence that the area known today as Gujarat was part of the Indus Valley Civilization, one of the world’s oldest (3300 BCE until it mysteriously “disappeared”around 1700 BCE, give or take a couple of large chunks of time), and a contemporary of the Bronze Age civilizations of Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt.

It was known as the Harappan Civilization, named after the city of Harappa which was located in what today is Pakistan.

This highly developed civilization was known for its organization and unified government; mainly urban and market-oriented. Gujarat is part of one of the most ancient trade routes on the planet. This was the part of the world that saw the first farming cultures and the emergence of human civilization. In Gujarat, the eons-old evidence of highly developed language, arts and architecture are all about, but not in the same highly structured way in which they are preserved in, for example, European destinations.

Here you get a much greater sense of suddenly and serendipitously happening upon ancient treasures as opposed to being strategically introduced to them.

Part of the fascinating history of Gujarat also includes ancient empires (Maha, Mauryan, Gupta, Chola), sultanates, various subsequent eras, empires — the often highly romanticized British Raj — and the eventual Republic of India, which won Indians “freedom at midnight” on August 15th, 1947.

The state of Gujarat is also (post-Independence) made up of many of the former princely states that once ruled India collectively, and the rich and regal residue can still be seen here. All these layers of history are woven into the brilliant fabric of Gujarat.

Like the larger nation of India, Gujarat is a diverse and multi-ethnic state, although primarily Hindu today. Gujaratis have a long history and tradition of hospitality, welcoming for example Parsi (Zoroastrian) refugees from Iran in 775 AD.

Like the culinary harmony of Thali, Gujarat is known for its ethnic tolerance, despite a serious and politically contentious incident of violence between Hindus and Muslims that at the time gave the world a different view.

Gujaratis also have a reputation as entrepreneurs and the state has been the point of emigration for many successful new citizens of the Americas and the United Kingdom. The Gujarati people are leaders in arts and sciences — you will even find a space program here.

The 1600 kilometres of coastline of Gujarat and its strategic position on the Arabian Sea have contributed to its being a major trade route and global meeting place for millennia.

In terms of agricultural products, think peanuts, cotton, dates, sugarcane, and the largest producer of milk and milk products in India. Oh … and diamonds. Of the colonizing powers, Portugal arrived first and close on that country’s heels was the British East India Company. Needless to say, it is a part of India that has spawned a great deal of historical writing — travel writing in the most comprehensive sense of the word.

Gujarat has also contributed universal ideals and social principles to the world through its native-born charismatic leaders and their defining independence movement. Three of the most prominent came from Gujarat: Saradar Vallabhbhai Patel (the Iron Man of India), Morarji Desai (the first non-Congress party Prime Minister of India) — and the most illustrious of all, Mahatma Gandhi.

The Adalaj step well

Approximately 20 kilometres north of Ahmedabad is one of the most curious and splendid archeological treasures in the ancient world — the Adalaj Vav Step Well.

Step Wells (vavs) are fairly common throughout Gujarat although most of them disappeared with the passage of time through lack of maintenance when other means of procuring water in this semi-arid countryside became available. Some however have been beautifully maintained as monuments to the early scientific and engineering skills of those who constructed them.

A step well is, as it sounds, a deep well around which are built elaborate structures with wide, multi-stepped stairways that lead down to the water table and away from the oppressive sun that despite its intensity barely penetrates the protective stonework built over and around the pool. They were of course a major source of water — hence life — and to that extent they have an air of the sacred to them, although they are not temples. They were instead utilitarian public resources which were also highly ornamented with religious carvings.

Every pillar and wall in the Adalaj Step Well is decorated with intricate carvings, many of which reflect the abundance of life (plants, flowers, fish, flowers) that would not be possible without the essential resource of water. A common marketing term used by the Gujarat Tourism Department is “Serene, Pristine, and Divine”; a trinity of descriptors that aptly sums up the Adalaj Step Well.

Because the long western coastline of Gujarat made it the point of departure for an ancient caravan route along which the fabled riches of the East were transported, step wells were built along the way as rest stops and sanctuaries from the oppressive heat of the day. Caravans travelled by night and stopped at the step wells during the hottest part of the day, transforming them into early “multi-national” community centres — cool and peaceful oases.

And this is the sense that you still get at the Adalaj Step Well.

For a diagram and other images of Adalaj click here.

Ghandi’s ashram

We visit Gandhi’s ashram beside the Sabarmati River on his birthday, and find ourselves in the midst of a quiet family celebration. But it is a family celebration in a true “Gandhi” sense. As one writer has described life in the ashram, it was “a haven from the dust and din of the world. It was a family linked not by blood or property, but by allegiance to common ideals.”

In this quiet simple compound, families and many individuals have come to just be with the spirit of Gandhi on his birthday. There are no elaborate ceremonies nor complex rituals. People are just walking about, chatting, and remembering. It was from here that Gandhi set off with his band of followers on his famous 240-mile Salt March to the sea.

As foreign journalists, we are of course quite noticeable. However, we become quickly engaged in the place and welcomed like family; we do not feel different.

Reflecting on his time at the ashram and what he learned there, Gandhi’s grandson Arun wrote, “Exclusivity must give way to inclusivity, if living in peace and harmony are our objectives. The choice before humanity therefore, is to learn to respect life or live to regret it.”

The ideals and principles of Gandhi are clearly inherent in the place, as they are in the people who visit it. Our visit to Gandhi’s ashram is a gentle encounter with humanity and hope.

Visiting the ashram and visualizing the life and work that went on here, it is very easy to get a sense of who this man really was. The artifacts, photographs, and the peaceful setting evoke Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, or as the world came to refer respectfully to him — Mahatma (Soulful One) Gandhi.

Road notes: “I offer you peace. I offer you love. I offer you friendship. I see your beauty. I hear your need. I feel your feelings. My wisdom flows from the Highest Source. I salute that Source in you. Let us work together for unity and love.” — Mahatma Gandhi

The Sun Temple of Modhera

Aligned on and east-west axis, this stunning temple exemplifies the millennia-old tradition of sun worship, but is unique to India.

When you come upon the temple on the bank of the river Pushpavati, it is difficult initially to take it all in. Once again, you become aware of how much there is to be discovered in Gujarat; how much has not become a part of the global tourist route. If this were on most other travel itineraries, it would be swarming with busloads of tourists. But the Modhera Sun Temple remains a wide open space and at the same time a temple with a rare kind of intimacy and privacy. This intimacy is especially reflected in the intricately carved golden stonework; the whole temple is a sculpture in itself, a model of geometrical design and an elaborate three-dimensional representation of Hinduism.

This is the kind of archeological and cultural treasure that deserves to be visited at leisure and in an unstructured way. As you meander in, out, and through the temple, you will see an exquisite pillared portico, a shrine with its resident deity that is also a refuge for the devoted, an assembly hall that is connected to the rest of the temple by a narrow passage, and most of all you will see an abundance of mythological figures and narratives.

Among others, the temple is an archive of images of the deities from the Hindu pantheon, and a representation of Mount Meru where the gods resided. The temple, built during the Solanka era in 1026, is also an example of survival; having witnessed struggles between competing rulers over the centuries. Lord Rana is also believed to have performed a sacrifice here as penance for having killed a Brahmin.

As a pilgrimage site, the Modhera Sun Temple is a universal representation of our innate recognition of our dependence on the sun around which all life on this planet revolves. At the time of the equinoxes, the sun’s rays penetrate the temple and fall on the image of the sun god Surya.

The Hatheesing Jain temple

Built in 1850 by a wealthy Jain merchant just outside the Delhi Gate in Ahmedabad, the Hatheesing Jain Temple is an intricate white marble structure that is one of the best examples of Indian architecture demonstrating clearly the concept that the whole is the sum of the parts, a theme very appropriate to Gujarat, especially in religious matters.

A visit to Gujarat is like a course in comparative religions.

For those who come from a European Judaic-Christian cultural heritage, it is a direct-to-source opportunity not only to learn about other world religions like Hinduism, Jainism, and Islam; but it is also an opportunity to absorb visually and aesthetically the precepts of these faith systems. The relatively undiscovered architectural and aesthetic legacies and treasures of Islam, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Hinduism are at the heart of this emerging travel destination.

This is the land of Lord Krishna, the eighth avatar (a deity descended to earth in human form) of Vishnu — the supreme being. His story is one that resonates easily; a young boy of royal birth, living a pastoral life, who eventually becomes an heroic warrior who triumphs over evil — and also becomes a respected teacher. Some Hindu philosophers have emphasized that one of the interpretations of his name is “union of existence and bliss.”

Road notes: Although I believe Mahatma Gandhi’s being born in Gujarat was chance, I am not surprised how this part of India nourished and formed his psyche. I can also now see why he returned here; that frail little man — Bapu — who brought colonialism to its knees through non-violence and the determination to not cooperate with what he saw as wrong. I also understand better now why he was sacrificed.

One of Krishna’s wives is Lakshmi. As the Mother of the Universe and goddess of wealth, light, fortune, beauty, and fertility, she is actually married to Vishnu and by extension Krishna.The Mother-Goddess personification will be a central theme of the trip, especially when we become caught up in the dazzling Navratri celebrations. Hers is also an ancient story that highlights her purity and divinity, and the goddess who is invoked in matters relating to happiness, family, friends, marriage, children, and the essentials of nourishment. Associated with the lotus, the exquisite flower that is born of the rich mud of dark waters, she symbolizes perfection and a transcendence of the material world. She is the embodiment of the nurturing female.

I am reminded again of the universal theme of the divine mother-goddess figure prominent in various world religions and mythology: Gaia, Aphrodite, Athena, Ha Hai-i Wuhti, Isis, the Virgin mother Mary, Lakshmi. How interesting that Lakshmi is one of nine manifestations of the mother goddess.

Gujarat is a romantic destination; in the sense of the word that implies heroic narratives and style.

The Nauakha and Orchard palaces

In Gondal, a fortified town about 300 kilometres from Ahmedabad, you will find palaces and a bygone lifestyle that could serve as a film set for the kind of romantic period piece about India and the British Raj that Westerners especially are drawn to. This set however is the real thing; a princely state over which ruled the Jadeja Rajputs who claim direct descent from Lord Krishna himself.

The buildings that are currently under development as part of the emerging tourism market of Gujarat, include palaces turned heritage hotels and a palace-fort that evoke the reign of Maharajas. Here you will also see ghost-like remnants of a colonial period in India: photographs, period furniture, and unique architecture that, in some senses, seem to have been almost casually set aside, but not totally forgotten.

The imposing Naulakha Palace for example, was built around 1748 AD on the riverbank and is an elaborate stone structure that incorporates various styles of architecture that are a blend of centuries past. The intricately carved arches of the courtyard are splendid. The private museum inside is at present rather undeveloped — from a tourist’s point of view — but a fascinating and priceless collection of memorabilia from the time of the Maharaja Bhagwat Sinhji. Evocative would be an understatement.

The Orchard Palace is equally evocative and has a slightly down-at-the heels look to it that actually enhances its authenticity. Part of the estate of the former royal family of Gondal, the palace and grounds are noteworthy for their art deco furniture and antiques. And an especially curious archive on the grounds is an automobile aficionadas’s dream collection of vintage and classic cars owned by the rulers of Gondal.

The town is also a striking example of the influence of the British Empire on India and the problematic alliance between two very different sets of rulers.

Road notes: The group bonds. We talk. It’s as if we are pinning flags on maps here and there … we engage in some kind of collective conceptual struggle between what we think we know (“the fixed notion” … more on that some other day) …. and what the full reality is.

Through the window of the the bus … a different depth of field … we are visually only at arm’s length from the graceful woman in the electric blue sari. She doesn’t walk … she floats among the rows of cotton that is just ripening … an antidote to the “chaos” my noisy and ethnocentric mind sees everywhere. So close, so far. Impossible to take a pic. It doesn’t matter.

It seems to me that romanticizing India is to a greater or lesser extent inevitable; it is a normal, self-defence mechanism. Indulging in narrative, telling the compelling story is probably a reasonable thing to do … especially as it helps with “re-entry angst.” And to come to a destination such as India and be bombarded by sensory overload far beyond what you could have imagined … and at the same time discover sensory skills you never knew you had … is both a risky escapade and something to dine out on for years … even if you prefer to eat alone.

The framework of the travel “roman” is nothing new. Others have made passages to India; seen the jewel in the crown; experienced the delicate balance; strove to reconcile the high and the very low. Others have romanticized India in order, I suppose, to tame it in their own way. Others have tried to bridge that crucial gap in the human psyche that India can create. And they tell their stirring tales in part to find for themselves some kind of redemption in India. In a tiny way, they become in their story-telling like street workers. Is there some rationality in the suffering you see in India? If you find yourself within reaching distance, then I think you tell the story to save your own soul as much as that of others.

The Somnath temple

The Somnath Temple, the “Shrine Eternal,” seems a bit of an anachronism compared to the other treasures we had been seeing given that its most recent incarnation occurred in 1950. The current lofty, and in my view a bit bombastic, structure is the seventh such temple built on this spot to the glory of Lord Somnath. Legend has it that the moon god Soma built the original temple out of gold. That one was replaced by a temple of silver built by Ravan. Krishna later built one of wood, and finally King Bhimdev of Anhilwad built his of stone. Soma constructed the original temple in thanks to Lord Shiva who cured him of an illness — well actually a curse placed on him by his father-in-law who was perturbed that the King was spending all his time with only one of his 26 wives; the only one that was not the daughter of Daksha.

The evening of our visit, there was a sound a light show happening at the temple, for which we arrived too late, but wandering behind the scenes while amplified celestial voices and creative lighting seemed to be happening in some other space, was a welcome departure from the group scene and an opportunity to feel a bit of privacy in the semi-darkness of the temple.

Road notes: The real “beauty” of this experience is … to have no choice but to feel and use your senses on every level … there are few tourist trappings here. Gujarat is the perfect crucible for this kind of total experience.

Am finding I too want to promote “The New India.” Quite understand why “the sensory overload here would cause some to just “shut down” … and miss the meaning … but especially the meaningfulness.

Why I find Indians physically so beautiful:

(a) the eyes … clear and penetrating;

(b) the fine, delicate, bone structure of the face (I hope I’m not objectifying them);

(c) the natural elegance of movement … in no way does an Indian lumber … even the multiple-handicapped move with grace;

(d) an innate self-presence that is almost tactile … nothing contrived about how they relate to each other … even though they can get into some pretty good screaming matches.

At the same time, I am aware of all kinds of contradictions. A huge billboard ad for “Fair and Handsome,” a face cream that says it will lighten your skin. (“For the First Time For Men!”) The man’s face is divided by a vertical line. The right half looks somewhat European, the left half looks very Indian. Who says racism isn’t a black and white issue…

We are 24 travel journalists and travel consultants from almost as many countries … in and out of a modern tour bus … constantly just a few millimetres from that other local bus that just misses us rushing in the other direction … it too passes just millimetres from the same sacred cow.

Suddenly a major traffic jam … another cow in the middle of the road … “She is Mother. No Sir we cannot move her out of the way … we must wait … she will decide … it will happen.”

We talk and share our culture shock a lot … and these are journalists who have been “everywhere” … we share thoughts, ideas … at any given moment it is as if we have been nowhere … except here.

Paul (an engineer by training) and I discuss torque. He explains the mechanics, the opposing forces, the stress factor, the cause and effect … we talk about the psychic torque we are all experiencing … certainly a time shift … without a doubt a culture shift that intensifies the torque … and yet this is what allows you (if you permit it) to become part of the experience …

Words, phrases descriptors, other forms of language become increasingly secondary … impotent … a macrocosm of images passing in rapid succession … all different, all the same … like a dusty frayed and threadbare tapestry that threatens to unravel at any moment … but doesn’t. Something (who knows what) holds “it” all together….

The 2000 BCE Sanskrit carved into the huge boulder on the way to Girnar contains 14 edicts by the Emperor Ashoka, one of which proclaims that “perfection has already been attained … and that the perpetual abode of Lakshmi (the lily pad) is quite safe.” Someone mentions the obsessive need of the Western mind for fast food convenience … the arrogance … the antithesis of this place. One of the edicts declares that all religions are to live in harmony. Sigh.

Two large trucks have rolled over … separate events … separate times … same road … same India . One has spilled its load … India’s “many hands” are there to put things right. The other is empty.

The driver and companion wait in the shade. Something will happen… sometime …

Five water buffalo totally submerged in a stinking pond … only nostrils and bulging eyes protruding above the water … “Ah bliss,” they seem to say.

A sole donkey … separate from the many cattle, goats, pigs of all breeds that cross all major roads … the donkey led by one young female person bearing one stick … we pass her with just a breath of air between us. Her body language says, “Inshallah” (We are in a Muslim community) … or “Whatever!” … if she were a North American teenager

The brief space between us and them … not sure any more who is us and who is them … but the miniscule space determines whether there will be order or disorder … whereas everyone knows that disorder will be the general and normal state of affairs … another near miss … and we get out to pee. I feel the wind on my bum as another motorized rickshaw passes just behind me … fully loaded … like sophomoric college students trying the break the world’s record for the number of white guys you can cram into a telephone booth.

I’m walking on the haphazard main street. A very large woman gets bounced off the back of her husband’s moped when another one sideswipes them … I go to her defence … have to dodge bicycles, a lumbering cow and many cow patties … Motorized rickshaws buzz like flies around me … a camel looks at me indolently … I try to help the woman up … I retrieve her shoe … a heavy, substantial turquoise shoe with a few missing sequins … her husband just sits on the moped smoking a cigarette … chatting with the miscreant, another mopeder. I manage to hoist her up … she ignores me … I am not really there … she takes the shoe (I feel a light touch on my wrist) and throws it right at the chest of the other guy knocking him breathless.

I slip away.

On the bus, someone (speaking for everyone?) says “Gujarat is where vision is everything and time and ‘the plan’ are of no consequence.”

Bas Pas (a gentle Dutch man who runs personalized tours everywhere in India through an agency called Thali Travel says, “The Indian mind sees no need to be ‘adult’ and to wear the extreme trappings of the Western world.”

We talk about Gandhiji and his loincloth. The endless cacophony is as much visual as auditory. We talk about the “fixed notion,” the preconceptions, misconceptions, the multi-sensory ethnocentrism … our’s, everyone’s.

The cow thing again … three cows on the median of the highway out of town. Placid, complacent almost accepting, as if to say, “All this is to be borne with equanimity … while ruminating quietly … but in the final analysis, all of it isn’t really there. It passes. It’s actually a simple process that only seems disorderly.” I’ve never written dialogue for a cow before.

On the bus we are getting a bit silly and playful. I suggest I interview several cows but I suspect they will all say more or less the same thing … and make cud sounds.

Bas again … we remind each other that here time is truly irrelevant … but more than that … ephemeral. Yes, we decide, that’s the word. And it isn’t really even in the consciousness nor the subconscious, nor the unconscious. Kind of like somewhere in the distance … crudely constructed.

The street sleepers … they just lie down … maybe on a rag … and sleep during the day as well as throughout the night. Outside an old mosque, they are just waking up. One man, gets up from the pavement … he has slept on his beige shirt. One of two. He shakes the dust out of it and then in the most precise and delicate fashion, folds it … ever so carefully, puts it down beside him on the pavement and stretches. He sees me looking and smiles. Like 99.9% of the other Gujaratis we interact with, his smile is kind and welcoming … like being given a pat on the back.

A young woman has set up a makeshift cradle … a hammock strung between a wall and a lamppost next to the deafening street … she puts her tiny infant in it and I see her cooing. (How can the child hear her?) Everyone must make their way around the rockaby baby, which means stepping into traffic …and perhaps a cow patty … or oblivion … given especially that listing bus rushing towards us …

We discuss over and over how you have to suspend your Western mindset in order to even begin to “get it.” In order to recognize that this is not a faceless society.

The Navratri Festival

It makes your head spin. This event, touted as the world’s longest dance festival, is certainly the biggest party I’ve ever been at. And the most colourful, the most vibrant, the most engaging. Navratri is also Gujarat itself: you cannot separate the two. It is a cultural event that is all about mood, aura, and charisma.

Navratri (literally “nine nights”) is an ancient festival that celebrates the mother goddess in all her nine manifestations. It is also a festival that binds the diverse communities across the state in joyous revelry.

And it was the principal reason we were here; our common journalistic cause. Whether it was at the enormous outdoor inaugural gala in Ahmedabad (with dignitaries, what seemed like a substantial representation of the 50 million Gujaratis in attendance, or a smattering of dazed Westerners) or whether it was at the local street celebrations, we were privileged to experience the heart and soul of Gujarat.

And we danced too.

Welcomed as special guests, we were called up on a small stage somewhere in the midst of endless Gujarat, and we joined in the festivities — rather awkwardly at first. But slowly we picked up the rhythms of Gujarat and became part of the nine nights.

The Navratri celebrations were everywhere and they seemed to be happening all at once. Time and space merged.

I even experience the festival during my last few nights in India. In the pulsating downtown area of Mumbai, one street is taken over by great crowds of people dancing and celebrating life in the name of the goddess who symbolizes the triumph of knowledge over ignorance and goodness over evil.

And even as I leave my hotel near the airport to catch a late evening flight, my drivers have to wind their way through the back streets of the poorest part of Mumbai (the “slums” where I first experienced India) because the main road to the airport is closed for the celebrations.

We drive a twisting, circuitous route through the pulsating spirit of Navratri, surrounded by laughing faces.

Road notes: The bus is modern but the shocks are long gone. Every road is a bumpy road. Multiple jolts per second. Every jolt visual, emotional, aesthetic … each comes as a wonderful surprise.

You cannot ease your way into Gujarat. Besides, it would defeat the purpose.

For more images and faces of Gujarat, CLICK HERE.

Travelling in Gujarat

For passionate Indiaphiles, a very special breed of traveler, Gujarat has many treasures and distinct regional experiences. If this is your first time to India, as it was for me, I would recommend a tour. I would also recommend that you practise thinking in a lateral, as opposed to a linear, fashion because that is the kind travel you will be experiencing.

The websites below will help in this respect.

The Official Gujarat website

Dandya Zone: the Navratri Festival

Thali Travel (Thali Foundation; Responsible Tourism) email:

Recommended hotels:

The Pride, Ahmedabad

The Grand Regency, Rajkot

The Orchid, Mumbai (near the domestic airport)

The Gordon House Boutique Hotel (downtown Mumbai)




  2. good views on GUAJARAT. Please visit other parts of the india also..

  3. hello bob
    wow your article blew me away it was amazing i myself didnt know that gujarat was this fantastic. there was awesome photography ,thank you so much for the link.
    kinjal joshi

    • Many thanks Joshi. As I said to you, it was one of the most inspiring and multidimensional destinations I have ever been to.

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