Life is good sitting in an open-air dining room with fresh masala dosa and a buffet of Gujarati breakfast items while we await our guide. I am getting very little sleep, with serious jet lag, planes flying low directly over our hotel and loud broadcast prayers from the mosque across the street but happy. Our guide turns out to be young, articulate, very educated and very Modi-enamored pro-Hindu. We will need to keep his personal perspective in mind throughout this tour of Gujarat.
We begin our first walk through the streets of Ahmedabad on an early Sunday morning, with shops still shuttered and little traffic until we approach the Swami Narayana Temple, built in 1822. The impending inauguration of the Ram Mandir temple in Ayodhya tomorrow, which is declared a national holiday, has brought out many devotees this Sunday morning and the temple is crowded with men and women wishing to pay their respects at the main altars. We are the only tourists in sight. The parking lot is filled with new cars as we make our way to remove our shoes before entering the holy space. The lines to get in front of the gods are separated into one for the women in front (for once) and the “gents only” behind us. We are there at a special time when a female deity is taken out of a separate shrine, fully covered with a small colorful tent carried by 2 women, and taken to visit in turn each of the three niches containing heavily decorated god-statues. The 21st century has brought large LED screens above each of the three altar areas with live cameras projecting any activity by priests within.
When we leave, I sit on the bottom step of a side entrance in order to put on my shoes and am yelled at by a woman seeming to believe I am desecrating the space and told, in fast Gujarati, to go to the “woman’s temple” which is in a separate building around the temple. I try to be respectful of local customs and am upset that putting my behind on a very low step with my feet always on the ground would create such anger in another. It makes me wonder, once again, about the value of religion.
Walking back to the hotel is an adventure of weaving between motorcycles, motor-rickshaws and a few cars, stepping often into the street as the sidewalk is obstructed by one thing or another. Red lights mean absolutely nothing in Ahmedabad except maybe to slow down a little and we rely on our guide to get us across the street safely. We are in the Sunday market with great numbers of people outside under umbrellas, selling everything from baby clothes to brooms, in big and small piles. The cacophony is great, with raised voices and music blaring in the background.
We reach an entrance, up a few steps, to an old mosque. It is completely deserted at this time of day, with a purification pool in the center, and the large open space prepared for the masses during older times. This is the first time Gayathri has been inside a mosque as usually women are not allowed inside but must pray under the arcades surrounding the square. It is quiet and peaceful and the architecture of old stone would probably be considered Mughal style, solid and beautiful.
The Kasturbhai Lalbhai museum is a wonderful surprise. We enter a large tree filled estate with an elegant white columned house in the center which displays the private early 20th century collection of a rich local industrialist. We are the only visitors inside the house with an on-site docent showing us the collection of Rajput and Deccan miniatures, elegant bronzes and other antiquities including a library of carefully preserved books. Outside the house on the grounds was an exhibit we enjoyed even more — a modern building displaying art using Indigo, one of the main natural products of the area – a spectacular contemporary exhibit of creative and gifted (mostly) Indian artists using Indigo on marble, metal, and various fabrics.
It is a relief to step back into the quiet of our hotel. We splurge tonight at the hotel rooftop restaurant, probably the best in the city, outside under a splendid false full moon with the real half-moon up above, listening to live tabla and sitar music. A tiring and interesting day.