I was told that Vadodara is not as well known to the tourist as some of the other cities in Gujarat and its trails are less trodden by the regular traveller.
But vibrant Vadodara is quite the hidden gem and throws up a veritable surprise especially for lovers of heritage, history and culture, as I was pleasantly astonished to discover.
Termed the cultural capital of Gujarat which is the westernmost state of India, Vadodara is the keeper of innumerable monuments and tales of royal glory and a history buff can spend several days stepping gently into its past and savoring its glorious environs.
I was in Vadodara as a guest of the Madhav Bagh Palace Heritage Stay and thanks to my hosts Shivrajsinh and Indrayanidevi, I had the opportunity to discover a place that charmed me and enhanced my knowledge of history in a manner so alluring, that I was left thirsting for more.
Shivrajsinh is well connected to some really good guides who have in depth knowledge of the place and he organizes tours as per the interests of his guests.
A brief glimpse of the history of Vadodara –
The region traces back to being inhabited by early man but the city as such was formed in 1721 when the Maratha General Pilaji Rao Gaekwad overthrew the Mughals and created the Gaekwad dynasty which then ruled until India’s independence in 1947. Its power and prosperity of that golden age, were evident from the fact that it was one of the few princely states in India to be accorded the 21 gun salute.
Originally known as Vadapatrak after the several banyan (Vad) trees that grow there, the name later changed to Vadodara and then was anglicized by the British, to Brodera, to Badode and then Baroda. In 1974, it again went back to being officially named Vadodara.
About Vadodara –
Vadodara lives up to its title of cultural capital of Gujarat, in the various monuments and vestiges of history and heritage that it carefully safeguards.
It is the third largest city in the state and lies in the Vadodara district along the banks of the river Vishwamitri (which is not much of river nowadays).
It is also an educational and industrial hub with several reputed universities and the presence of giant petrochemical corporations like the ONGC and other important industries.
Things to do –
Vadodara dishes up quite a platter of exciting fare to the curious traveller. Its palaces, temples, museums, stepwells, mausolems etc, can take days to revel in.
My experiences –
My hosts at Madhav Bagh arranged 2 itineraries for me, both with excellent guides.
Vadodara Heritage Walk –
The first was a Vadodara Heritage walk with Chirag Munjani who has founded Rural Pleasure, which is a social enterprise which is dedicated to improving the livelihood of rural people through tourism. He conducts urban walks along various routes of the city and also has tours that cover village based activities, sight seeing of unexplored destinations and culture and art based rural tours across Gujarat.
Chirag is a veritable history book and I learnt so much about Vadodara’s past from him, in a matter of 2 hours 😀
The tour began by 8 am at the Nyay Mandir, meaning Temple of Justice that was built by Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III, one of Vadodara’s most well known rulers. Built in the late 19th century, the Indo Saracenic style was designed by the architect Robert Chisholm. Initially intended to be a shopping mall by the progressive and foresighted Maharaja, after its completion it however was considered to be more suitable as a courthouse. This building now functions as the District Court of Vadodara city.
The Nyay Mandir lies a few meters from the Sursagar lake which is a large water body in the heart of the city. A 120 ft statue of Shiva, rises imposingly from the center of the lake and is a landmark (or watermark ?) that is synonymous with Vadodara’s cityscape. The original lake called Chandan Talao, was extended in the mid 18th century by Shri Sureshwar Desai, an official in the tax department and hence is named after him.
Our itinerary was to cover Kila e Daulatabad, which is now known as the old city. This was a walled city with 4 gates that were equidistant at 800 meters each, from the central gate. The gates were manned round the clock by Muslim gate keepers and hence there was a mosque in the vicinity of every gate.
The Leheripura darwaza is named after the Laharis (coppersmiths) who used to live in its vicinity.
The Genda (rhinoceros) darwaza was named after the security guards of the gate who apparently had rhinoceros as pets and tethered them at the gate.
The Pani (water) darwaza on the east, got its name from the nearby water bodies. Behind the Pani gate lies the Jamna bai clock tower.
The Champaner gate to the North, is en route to the fort town of the same name.
At the crossroads is the central gate called Mandvi gate and this served as a toll collection center in the past. The gate gets its name from its appearance and is designed like a Mandap (pavilion of sorts). There are 4 clocks on all sides of the towers, installed for the purpose of telling the time to the traders of the locality.
The gate holds within itself, adjacent places of prayer for muslims and hindus who would stand next to each other and pray, a sign of the religious tolerance and respect in those times.
The original building of the Bank of Baroda and the Central library, both established by Sayyajirao III, lie along the stretch between the Mandvi and Champaner gates. The Sarkarwada, the original palace of the rulers, lies opposite the library. This palace is now just a collection of old shops.
The Central library is over a 100 years old and again is one of the buildings founded by Sayyajirao III who was a great proponent of accessible education. He even organized mobile libraries to reach people in distant villages.
The library was one of the earliest ‘green buildings’ designed to be eco friendly even in those times. The book cupboards in the front room are of solid wood and donated by the Maharaj himself.
It has 2 floors with rows of books classified according to subject. The upper floor is of thick Belgian glass to allow natural light.
The mammoth iron racks were based on troughs containing castor oil to prevent insects from getting at the books.
There was a mechanical pulley for transferring books between the upper and lower floors.
The surroundings were landscaped with trees to prevent direct sunlight from damaging the books.
A padlocked cell was used to store the cash that was collected everyday before taking it to the bank.
After the library, we entered an adjacent path to find ourselves transported suddenly into the old Pols of the city. Pols are community living clusters of the olden days.
We strolled through the pathways, past the gorgeous decrepit doors that I love, and past ancient temples and buildings that look ruined but continue to function as residences.
An interesting structure was the tower of lamps called a Deepmala, with its several alcoves that used to bear lit lamps during festivals. This is located near a famous Narsinhji temple.
All this walking and talking was eventually rewarded with a visit to Pyarelal Kachoriwala in Munshi no Khancho, Mangal Bazaar where we emerged from the Pol.
So we ended our walk at 10 am, by devouring these giant sized kachoris filled with various sweet, spicy and tangy chutneys and sauces and topped with sev, onions, coriander etc and served in a woefully small paper plate that could barely contain its load. Well the kachori was so delicious that my white shirt also demanded its share. Fortunately my hosts at Madhav Bagh, immediately had it washed and rendered totally stain free and the only memories of the kachori are those that I bear in my mind 😀
Chirag can be contacted at his Facebook Page – Rural Pleasure
Tour of Vadodara’s monuments –
Well the city had too much more to offer and hence we set off again after breakfast (yes we could not resist the food at Madhav Bagh, even after the giant kachoris :-D). This time I was accompanied by Chandrashekar Patil, a friend of Shivrajsinh, who was a walking talking encyclopedia on the history of Vadodara and Sayyajirao III. Patil ji is a research scholar and has his own collection of highly valuable memorabilia depicting the history of the Vadodara royal family. He is also an artist, art restorer, historian, museum consultant and has plans to open his own museum in future.
A detailed listing of the events that he is involved with, is available at the official website of Baroda.
My whirlwind tour with him was a heady cup of ‘concentrated’ Vadodara imbibed in a short duration of 4 hours. We flitted over the Koyeli Bagh step well, the Hazira, Khanderao market, Sayajirao University of Baroda (MSU), Baroda State library, Baroda state records office, a ‘house’ museum, Sevasi step well, Tambekarwada, Kirti mandir and the Baroda museum and picture gallery. Believe me, this is a tour that can take days to cover if one wants to delve deep into every monument and building.
Koyeli Bagh stepwell –
Photography is not permitted inside the mausoleum.
Khanderao market –
Baroda State library –
Also known as the Jaisinhrao library. Built in the late 1800’s
Baroda state government records office –
‘House’ museum –
Sevasi step well –
Photography was not permitted inside this art gallery.
Kirti mandir –
Baroda museum and picture gallery –
Photography was not permitted but this is a true treasure house for those who are into art and artefacts.
Apart from feeding my mind with history, I was also taken to feed my palate at Pendawala Duliram Ratanlal Sharma. This is a famous sweet shop that is known for its Pedha which they call Penda, which is a dairy based soft, fudge like sweet. This is usually made by dehydrating sweetened milk till it reaches a solid state and then rolling it into a ball. It is said that this is the only shop that does not add sugar and the sweetness is natural from the sugars in the milk. While I really did not know whether I could believe that, the sweet did prove quite addictive and I came away with a boxful that was supposed to last till I returned home a week later. No prizes for guessing what hapPenda to it 😀
Our tour thus ended in the evening on this sweet note, after which we returned to Madhav Bagh.
Lakshmivilas Palace –
As I said, there was a lot of Vadodara that remained to be seen even after this tour and the next day with the help of Shivrajsinh, I set off on a solo mission to the star attraction of the city, the majestic Lakshmivilas Palace.
This 170 room monumental building is the residence of the current titular head Maharaj Samarjitsinh Gaekwad where he stays with his wife and 2 daughters.
A portion of the palace is open to the public. The tour is ticketed and a small audio device with earphones with disposable ear pads (thankfully), is provided to the visitor. This renders an audio tour of an hour’s duration and must be returned on the way out. The recording can be paused, rewound or fast forwarded as per convenience and a guide initially helps out with the instructions.
The audio trail leads across 11 numbered destinations beginning from the front lawns to the inner halls and finally to the back of the palace. The Navlakhi step well and a portion of the back of the palace, is in the last section of the audio and since the device has to be returned earlier, one has to listen to this part first and then view the portion later on the way out. Currently the Navlakhi is also no longer open to public view.
There is a cafe inside where food and drink is available. Washroom facilities are also reasonably good and one can pee in toilets that are of palatial architecture 😀
Photography is strictly prohibited within the palace and is only permitted on the lawns. However, camera photography is not permitted and one can use only cell phones. The barricade does not permit one to cross over to the sunken gardens and it is unfortunate that the distance is not enough to capture the width of the palace from end to end. A few meters further would have helped. In the past, when the sunken garden tank used to be full of water and public was allowed in the lawns, one could obtain stunning pictures of the palace and its reflection.
I however, had to make do with a panorama shot that took several attempts and a twisted neck, to get it right 😀
The 700 acres of palace grounds also encompass sprawling gardens, a golf course, the Navlakhi step well, the LVP Banquet and Convention center and the Fatehsinh museum that is nearly a km walking distance from the main palace. The museum houses many of the magnificent paintings of Raja Ravi Verma but unfortunately I did not have time to visit it. Besides, photography is not permitted in the museum.
Other things to do in Vadodara –
For those who are beginning to get the idea that the city is only for frumpy grumpy heritage enthusiasts :-D, fear not for there is entertainment for families and children in many forms.
There are zoos, a planetarium, a toy train etc in Sayajibaug also called Kamati baug which is a large garden that was built by Sayyajirao III. There also are amusement parks and waterparks in and around the city.
Where to eat –
Food lovers in Vadodara, can rejoice in its innumerable options spanning traditional Gujarati food to global fare.
Sev usal, vada pav, sev kachori, dhabeli, jalebi, fafda, dhokla, khaman, patra, sandwiches, frankies etc are some of the several snack items that one should try.
As mentioned above, Pyarelal Kachoriwala in Munshi no Khancho, Mangal Bazaar, is famous for his kachories.
Mandap at Express Towers hotel, Sasuma, Mahakali sev usal, Raju omlette, Jagdish on OP road, Dayal ni Petis, Khathiawadi Khadki etc are some of the eateries that were suggested to me. Of course I could not visit them all and only managed one meal at the famous Mandap where I had a full fledged Gujarati thali at Rs 375 all inclusive.
Where to stay –
Vadodara is a major city and has several options that range from budget stays to 5 star hotels. For those who are looking for something off the beaten track, the luxurious Madhav Bagh Palace Heritage Stay where I stayed, provides a rare opportunity to stay in the heart of the city and yet experience old world charm.
Where to shop –
Vadodara is known for jewelry, clothing, sarees, footwear, handicrafts, items of home decor, furniture, food and whole range of other items. Apart from the existing bazaars, there are also several malls that have come up.
My interest was only in food and clothes hence I did not seek out anything else.
The city is quite the paradise for all things ethnic. Traditional Gujarati wear like chaniya cholis and kedias glinting in their vivid mirror work, fill the lanes of Nava Bazaar. I visited prior to the festival of Navaratri when shopping is at its peak and the place glitters with mirror work and jewelry.
Mangal bazaar is also said to be a popular market.
My actual shopping however, was at a well known boutique called Paneri that sells good quality casual traditional wear at very reasonable prices and since I had the foresight to carry an empty suitcase, I went quite berserk 😀
Here is a piece of trivia for those who can understand the joke. I was asked my name and phone number while paying the bill since they said they needed it for their records. Since ‘Caroline’ tends to confuse a lot of people, I went with ‘Mrs Radhakrishnan’. After a while I received a message on my phone thanking Radha Ben for shopping at Paneri. Oh Gujarat … how many are the ways that I love thee 😀
Where snacks are concerned, there are hundreds of place where one can pick up typical Gujarati fare like Khakras, bhakarwadi, ganthiya, chewda and an endless number of such munchies. Likewise, there are many famous sweets that one can indulge in and as mentioned earlier, I also bought pedhas from Dulhiram Pendawala.
Things to do in the surroundings of Vadodara city –
Apart from what the city holds in its boundary, its surroundings also have many places of tourist interest. The popular ones within a 100 km radius would be the UNESCO World Heritage site of Champaner-Pavagadh, the Jambughoda forest sanctuary, the Dinosaur park and museum at Balasinor, the Statue of Unity at the Sardar Sarovar dam in Narmada and other such places.
Getting around –
Vadodara is an easy city to navigate. App based cabs and autorickshaws are not difficult to book. Metered autorickshaws are also easily available and the average levels of honesty are quite high among the drivers. City buses are said to be convenient though I did not research them.
Best time to visit –
Vadodara has harsh summers from April to July where temperatures touch even 48 deg c. July to end September is the rainy season, less hot than summer but stiflingly humid nevertheless. November to February is considered the best season to visit, with October and March on the fringe of pleasant weather.
However, those who visit on business are not bound by the weather and it is only the leisure traveller who needs to pay heed to the seasons.
Getting there –
Vadodara is an important city in Gujarat. Hence it is well connected by all modes of transport.
Air – Vadodara airport operates a limited number of flights and is well connected to important cities like Ahmedabad and Mumbai. There is one direct flight from Bangalore which I flew on.
Rail – Vadodara is an important rail junction on the Western railway and is connected to many major cities.
Bus – Likewise there are good bus services.
The airport is barely 10 km from the city center. Metered autos and app based cabs are available from the airport.
Road – Roads are excellent in Gujarat and are a good option to getting to the city.
Vadodara is 100 km away from Ahmedabad and there are several trains, buses, cabs etc through the day.
Please Note – This trip was made in collaboration with Madhav Bagh Royal Heritage Stay and they curated and organized my Vadodara sightseeing. The narrative is based on the inputs that I received from various sources as well as my own experiences.
Sep 18th -20th, 2019