In the honking morass that is Ahmedabad, India, two retreats
“Mr. Gandhi will find it takes more than a pinch of salt to bring down the British Empire.”
So declared the Viceroy of India, in John Gielgud’s mellifluous tones. Whether a screenwriter’s conceit or not, one can trace the beginnings of this symbolic ‘pinch’ in Gujarat’s hectic capital. In its turbulent sea of chaos and cows, the sub-continent can be trying even while it fascinates and by visiting Ahmedabad I was jumping in with both feet.
“Ahmedabad is not for tourists really,” my hotel manager told me. “There’s only industries.”
Well, his industries are enjoying a boom these days and the city streets manage, even by Indian standards, to ratchet up the cacophony (the Central Railway Station was a hectare of insanity I shall never forget). By the second day I needed to escape it, but misread my city map completely and found myself anxious and alone in a dodgy neighborhood of shacks and train tracks and underpasses. The residents seemed mildly curious.
I plastered on a face of nonchalance.
A local cabbie set me straight and took me by motor rickshaw through the honking jostling traffic, across the Nehru Bridge and down Ashram Road. Here along the banks of the Sabarmati River, was Ahmedabad’s peaceful, well tended urban oasis, the ashram where Mohandas Gandhi lived for thirteen years during India’s struggle for independence. Once called Satyagraha, reflecting the idea of civil disobedience, the ashram was birthed between a jail and a crematorium – sparking a spirit of courage and defiance among its residents, braced as they were between symbols of British authority and fate. The Mahatma took up residence in 1917 and on March 12, 1930 began the famous Dandi March to the sea, two hundred and forty-one miles away, to ‘make salt,’ defying the government monopoly on the valuable resource. Following the march, the British arrested sixty thousand of Gandhi’s supporters and seized the ashram but after three years of disuse, the local residents reclaimed it and maintained it over the decades.
Today Sabarmati is open to the public daily, including (unusual for this country) public holidays. Near the opening gate are statues of the three monkeys in denial, a guard one supposes, against complacency. Unassuming and plain among the other plain buildings is Gandhi’s modest house, where one can doff footwear and look inside – its furnishings are expectedly simple. On the outer porch, several students were lacing up their shoes and a woman was spinning on the iconic charkha, which Gandhi used for weaving khadi, hoping to inspire a revival in Gujarat’s local textile industry, a vital step in alleviating the poverty of his compatriots.
The ashram is a place to breathe and reflect, a retreat as pastoral as possible in an Indian city of six million (a modest size for this nation but the ceaselessly honking drivers certainly give it their all). At Sabarmati, women were sweeping the grounds, young boys kicked a ball about, a man was hosing down the main pathways, a student studied under a tree, sharing the shade with the tiny elongated squirrels dining on the feed laid out for them.
The dominant structure at Sabarmati is the Sangrahlay Museum, opened by Prime Minister Nehru in 1963. Serving as both archive and shrine, its wide tile floors, red brick columns and open air design is perfectly attuned to the spirit of the ashram, the photographs, artifacts and quotations offering a reverential portrait of the Mahatma, his philosophy and times, including most poignantly in Gandhi’s handwriting, “My life is my message.”
Five false starts and one elephant later, I at last found the Gandhinagar bus, which sputtered the nineteen kilometers from Ahmedabad and dropped me by a roadside pastiche of kiosks and motor rickshaws, evidently standing in for the village of Adulaj. There was no arch of welcome, no signs, no arrows; nothing to indicate that somewhere in this ramshackle vicinity was one of the great step wells of northwest India. The dirt road intersecting the highway seemed the logical route by default and I walked it with a near collapse of confidence, wondering if the bus driver had played some mischief on me. Timidly I would hail the roadside vendors, interrupting the cabbies’ morning tea.
“Adulaj vav?” I asked.
They nodded and waved me along, but I continued to inquire periodically, to build a consensus.
The dirt road widened into a central town circle, surrounded by bush and burnt grasses, a few nondescript buildings and a descript one – a pink Hindu temple with banners flapping in the hot breezes. Adjacent to the temple, Adulaj Vav at ground level looked a moderately impressive, decently preserved antiquity. Only on my subsequent descent did the true wonder of the ‘water building’ become apparent: A five story cascade of steps, massive columns and vaulting rooftops, chiseled surfaces dappled in sunlight and shadow, leading finally to the pool itself, shimmering aquamarine in the darkness. Among the icons and fables carved into the descending sandstone walls was inscribed the legend of Queen Rudabai, who in 1499 prevailed upon her husband, the Vaghela chief Virasimha, to build the fabulous structure. Prior to the well’s completion, Mohammed Begda, a neighbouring Muslim prince, invaded the Vaghela kingdom, killed Virasimha and coveted Rudabai. After considerable resistance, the widowed queen agreed to marry Begda on the condition that he finish construction of her late husband’s grand project. On the well’s completion the queen, draped in her finery, murmured some final prayers, leapt from the tiers above and drowned herself. Mohammed Begda was understandably put out (evidently he had the builders killed) but the step well, with its melding of Hindu and Muslim styles, remained open as a rest stop to travelers.
Today Adulaj Vav is considered holy, used for special occasions and festivals although it remains open to the public. After my own meager hike along the Adulaj dirt road, I reflected how welcome this place would have been to the caravans plying the trade routes of Gujarat over the centuries. It was blessedly cool five stories down and for thirty minutes all was soft echoes of footsteps and muffled voices and I had the place very nearly to myself. Inevitably, the buses and field trips arrived in force with reverberations of shouting and laughter and screams. I didn’t mind. I found India’s school tots (not for the last time) to be so many delightful moppets and today their sky blue uniforms were a visual complement to the sandstone surfaces and subterranean play of light and shade in this marvelous feat of ancient engineering.