Jaideep Prabhu decided to go on merely a reconnaissance trip to Gujarat. That itself, though, gave him enough stories, history and anecdotes to write this travelogue.

Gujarat has attracted a lot of attention, of late.The outbreak of plague in Surat in 1994, the earthquake in 2001, the riots following the massacre of 58 Hindu pilgrims at Godhra in 2002, the state’s remarkable development story, and the electoral triumph of India’s new prime minister from Vadnagar have all fixed Gujarat firmly in the Indian and international imagination. An invitation from Amitabh Bachchan in his sonorous voice to visit the state clinches the deal and it is impossible to resist a trip to Gujarat.

For whatever reason, Gujarat has not advertised itself much as a tourist destination until recently. Even now, the promotion of tourism appears half-hearted compared to the glitzy campaigns of Thailand, Turkey, Malaysia, or even Singapore. Awareness of Gujarat’s sights, barring Gir Forest or pilgrimage spots, is very low. I would have suggested that the tourist infrastructure is almost non-existent and that also betrays the state’s apathy towards tourism but I realise this is true for most parts of India and not limited to Gujarat.

My trip started from Amdavad. I reached Amdavad by train in the morning and was ready to hit the road by noon. I am not particularly enamoured by the Mohandas Gandhi story and did not want Sabarmati Ashram on my itinerary. Thankfully, my friend did not insist on making me more closely acquainted with one of Gujarat’s great sons either. Apparently, the state has only one great son in the modern era – Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel – and all others are liked only in varying degrees.

Our first stop was Patan, approximately 130 kms north of Amdavad. This was because I had arrived at a fairly fortuitous time, just after the Vibrant Gujarat Summit and the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas but during the annual Uttarardh Mahotsav. My initial thoughts had been to spend the day in and around Amdavad rather than squeeze a visit to a nearby site of interest. That changed even before I arrived in Amdavad because it came to my notice that a classical dance show had been organised in Modhera in front of the Surya Mandir that night. The setting was going to be seductive and I like classical dance – no way was I going to miss it! As we say back home, kmean kar roiam chivut kmean ney – without dance, life has no meaning.

The road to Patan was not bad. After all, Gujarat is famous for the quality of its roads. In a country where potholes are the norm, the western Indian state really stood out as an exception. Our destination in Patan was Rani ki Vav, a 950-year-old stepwell built by Queen Udayamati in the memory of her deceased husband, Bhimdev I of the Solanki dynasty. Also known as Ranki Vav, the structure was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites in June 2014.

I had little expectations from this step-well – after all, I had seen several such decorated holes in the ground during my travels in Karnataka. Yet Rani ki Vav stunned me with its size and beautiful sculptures.

The well is some 65 metres long and well over seven storeys down. Furthermore, it was not decorated with just a few geometric designs, but extensively with sculptures of Mahishasuramardini, Parvati, Bhairava, Ganesha, Surya, Kubera, and the several avataras of Vishnu. Interspersed are the ashtadikpalas, yoginis, nagakanyas, and apsaras.

I would not be exaggerating if I said that these statues could easily be compared to those at Belur, Khajuraho, or Ellora. I was especially pleased to see vigilant guards chasing away the idiots who wanted to climb or lean on the sculptures; I wish they had the power to levy hefty fines as well.

This comparison makes me wonder about the market for craftsmen in India a thousand years ago. It is obvious that works of exquisite beauty in stone were not the monopoly of just one kingdom or one short, golden period. The talent was widespread, as was the demand.

Furthermore, there exists a span of a good five of six centuries between Ellora and the Hoysalas. Throughout this period, there seemed to be enough work for craftsmen to sustain themselves and not let their art die. As a scholar primarily of Europe, I found it an interesting comparative snapshot of the composition of the economies of the kingdoms, of the Indian subcontinent ten centuries ago.

I would like to go off on a short tangent at this point about the Solanki kings of Gujarat because I was quite surprised to hear some of the theories of their origins and others might be too. Several theories consider the Solankis to be the descendants of the southern Chalukyan dynasty of what is today Karnataka.

To begin with the mythological evidence first, one theory suggests that ‘Chalukya’ was the name of a warrior who was born from fire and his descendants became the Chalukyas. The idea of a fiery birth is prevalent across Hindu epics and puranas and very likely fired up the imagination of a few poets in search of new eulogies for their royal patrons too.

The notion of Agnikula Rajputs was probably popularised by Chand Bardai, the 12th century court poet of Rai Pithora, in his poem Prithviraj Raso. Rajput clans are broadly divided into three lineages – those claiming descent from the Sun, suryavanshi, those claiming the Moon as their ancestor, chandravanshi, and those born of fire, agnivanshi. This is drawn from the Bhavishya Purana, where it is stated that the agnikunda Rajputs – Chauhans, Chalukyas, Parmaras, and Pratiharas- were born at Mount Abu. As I said earlier, one of these warriors was called Chalukya.

Another theory, this one from Bilhana’s 11th century eulogy to Vikramaditya VI, the Vikramankdevacharita, is that Brahma took some sacred water of the Ganges into his palm, from which he created a fearsome warrior. Since the word for palm is “chuluk” in Sanskrit, the warrior and his descendants came to be known as the Chalukyas.

A third theory, proposed by the 10th century poet Pampa in his Vikramarjuna Vijaya, suggests that the Chalukyas were the descendants of the great Pandava warrior, Arjuna.

Coming to the realm of history, several scholars such as Lt. Col. James Tod, Sir James Campbell, and Gaurishankar Ojha have speculated on the Kalyankataka – a town undisputedly under Chalukya suzerainty – origins of the Solankis. Their sources are inscriptions and chronicles of the period such as Merutunga’s Prabhanda Chintamani, Arisimha’s Sukrita Sankirtana, and Someshwara’s Kirti Kaumudi. Of course, the veracity of these chronicles must be taken with a pinch of salt, but they seem to broadly agree with each other.

No doubt, there are differences between the southern Chalukyas and the northern Solankis, but that is to be expected over a couple of centuries. In keeping with local customs, perhaps, the northern branch of the dynasty underwent changes in their kuladeva, their crest, their gotra, and their name underwent a linguistic as well as language shift. Language experts can tell you more about the shift from “ch” to “s” but away from home, the Chalukyas of Gujarat gradually became the Solankis of Gujarat in a far less complicated manner, a modern example would be how the Scindias of Madhya Pradesh are the Shindes of Maharashtra.

Anyway. I had expected to spend at most half an hour at Rani ki Vav but ended up spending closer to two hours. What was supposed to be just another hole in the ground ate up much more time than I had expected. With sunset approaching, we headed to Modhera after the promise of song and dance.

The Surya Mandir at Modhera had been lit up in different colours and a stage had been built in front of it, this side of the kalyani, of course. The programme consisted of three segments: it would be an hour of odissi, followed by an hour of bharatnatyam, and concluding with an hour of Gujarat’s own gharba.

Sadly, I am no dance connoisseur but I doubt anything on a stage with such a magnificent backdrop could look bad! I was mesmerised by odissi and the bharatnatyam but left before the gharba started – somehow gharba gives off the vibe that it is a participatory activity and not a spectator event. Due to a little logistical snafu, we could not get a hotel room in Mehsana and had to drive back to Amdavad. However, thanks to the good road, we made it home in good time.

The next day, we hit the road early because we wanted to see Modhera during the day and then move on to Dholavira and make it there before the sun set. The Surya Mandir at Modhera was quite beautiful, though heavily eroded.

In fact, I was surprised to see the level of erosion the sculptures on the temple walls had endured. Going only by the erosion, had I not known the age of the temple, I would have easily guessed it to be at least 500 years older than it actually was. I suspect part of it is the constant touching and climbing by tourists, not to mention the sacking by Allaudin Khilji, but some of it might also be that the Gujarat air carries a lot of dust – not unthinkable in a semi-arid state.

The Modhera Surya Mandir was built by King Bhimdev in 1026, the same ruler in whose honour Rani ki Vav was posthumously built. It is built such that, on the summer solstice, the first rays of the sun fall on the deity, Surya.

Our return to Amdavad the previous night had not been entirely foolish, thankfully: had it been an equinox, we would have missed an opportunity to witness this for ourselves. The temple has three segments: a pushkarini, a sabha mantap, and the garbha griha. The pushkarini is slightly larger than an Olympic-size swimming pool, and its steps contain tiny shrines to 108 deities, though I did not count them! Also, I have not noticed such a prominent and stand-alone sabha mantap at any other temple that I recall. Even if such an arrangement exists, it does not seem common.

There was a small museum on site too. It is not really worth a visit unless you want to come away with horror stories of how the Archaeological Survey of India has just collected statues and fragments in there, or how the labels are atrociously vague. When we visited it, there were no guards or attendants there and even the lights were off. The museum, such as it was, stood only marginally above a lost-and-found goods warehouse.

Eroded idols at Surya Mandir, Modhera

We set off for Dholavira well before noon. The distance between us and our destination was approximately 250 kms and pace all the stories about Gujarat’s great roads, I knew that in India, the only sensible thing would be to plan to cover the distance in eight hours. Just the previous month, I had been stuck on a stretch of highway that took four hours to traverse a hundred kilometres! We reached Dholavira in four hours, but it was not all smooth sailing.

I must at this point register my strong distrust of Google Maps. The product is generally good, I will admit, but there have been times when I have also been terribly misled. This was one of them. We had driven north to Radhanpur from where got onto NH 15 as it would take us half way to Dholavira.

Theoretically, we were supposed to turn off NH 15 onto Gujarat SH 52 just after Santalpur and towards Ranmalpura. From there, GJSH 52 would take us through a desert patch called Gadkibet and all the way to GJSH 51 near Balasar and on the last stretch to Dholavira. Except that when we left NH 15, we were quickly onto a dirt track to nowhere! We pushed on for a bit but there seemed to be no sign of civilisation. Finally, we came across a couple of people walking by and asked them for directions. For whatever reason, they seemed eager to tell us how to get to Dhoraji rather than Dholavira! I dare not contemplate the possibility that they had not heard of the ancient Harappan site.

Soon, even the bushes failed and we were in the open desert with not a point of reference on the horizon to guide us. Google Maps still showed us to be on the alleged GJSH 52 but I was wondering if the whole road was some sort of NREGA scheme Google cooked up! Life never gets better without getting worse first – in the middle of this nowhere, our car got a flat tyre. I know, oy vey!

Common sensical folks that we are, we had serviced the car before leaving on our journey and we had a spare tyre. After changing the wheel, we pressed on with only the sun and our tracks as navigational references.

Oddly, I did not feel at all scared to be out of sight of everything; it felt like I had the planet to myself for a few minutes, and that really wasn’t so bad. Finally, we reached a road and I am not quite sure whether by luck or by our rudimentary navigation. To be fair, we knew we would eventually hit a road somewhere; we just hoped we would not have to deal with another puncture. We reached Dholavira only half an hour later than we had expected, remarkable given our adventures.

There was no town around Dholavira, it was merely a marker on the map. There were two lodges and a shop in the vicinity of the Harappan ruins and that was it. I did not see anything else for a few kilometres.

Normally, I review hotels I have stayed in, on TripAdvisor to avoid clutter in the travelogue. However, there is an important lesson to be learned about lodging in the Gujarati wilderness – you really cannot call Dholavira anything else – that is best explained here. Both hotels were tolerable for backpackers, students, and budget travellers but there were no luxuries. Both places were somewhat clean, though, the paint was peeling off the walls at one place and the other place appeared too new for real wear and tear. However, one place had no bathroom infrastructure in terms of a health faucet, bidet, jet spray, or even toilet paper. The difference in price for these otherwise similar places was double for the one that had the facilities. The same was the case in Mehsana – in fact, the porter actually asked us what ‘toilet paper’ was when we asked about the inadequate bathroom! So the lesson here is: always carry a roll of toilet paper in Gujarat!

We had about an hour of sunlight and I could not resist the call of a 5,000-year-old settlement. We rushed to the Harappan ruins to catch a first glimpse of what life was like, five millennia ago. Of course, the Indus Valley Civilisation was not the first settlement in South Asia though it was the first clearly urban one: the subcontinent’s history is considerably older if one considers the Mehrgarh discoveries of advanced farming communities.

Unfortunately, those sites, or whatever is left of them, are in Balochistan and not quite accessible. After an hour or so on site, we headed back to our hotel for not only was it getting dark but it was difficult to figure out the significance of all but the most obvious structures such as the huge water reservoirs.

We arranged for a guide for Dholavira for the next day at our hotel. For all its primitiveness, the staff was very cooperative and friendly. There was little to do after that except have dinner and retire – there was no television and my phone was off network.

It was not quite cold but we still started a small campfire for us to sit around and chat. It turned out to be a great decision – miles from nowhere, in the middle of a desolate salt marsh, the sky was clearer and more wondrous.

The next morning, we set off early to maximise our time at the Harappan ruins. We would have a long drive to Somnath later and the sooner we got out of Dholavira, the better. Our guide had himself spent 13 years assisting archaeologists excavate Dholavira and was quite knowledgeable about the area.

The entire archaeological site is about 800 metres in length and 600 metres across. It took us approximately three and a half hours to wander through the citadel, midtown, and lower town. Dholavira thrived for some 1,500 years and at its peak, housed some 15,000 people. Dholavira is one of the five largest Indus Valley cities discovered so far, the others being Mohenjodaro (Sindh), Harappa (Punjab, Pakistan), Kalibangan (Rajasthan), and Surkotada (Gujarat).

The city has seven layers so far – meaning that it was inhabited and abandoned seven times. Unfortunately for archaeologists, later layers freely borrowed building material from earlier ones, and separating the different stages without contaminating them is painstaking work.