The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, June 17, 2001

Old world values and modernism
Shona Adhikari

A view of the Laxmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara
A view of the Laxmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara

VISITING Vadodara is always a pleasure. A medium-sized town, it would seem to have the right combination of old world values and modernism, in a pleasant blend. One of the largest and most important cities in Gujarat, it was earlier known as Baroda and the capital of the erstwhile princely state of Baroda — once ruled by the Gaekwads. Much of the city’s development took place during the rule of the enlightened monarch, Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III — a monarch who modernised his poor feudal state into one worthy of a 21-gun salute. A visionary and a man of many parts, Sayaji Rao was a big game hunter, a cricket player, a patron of the race courses in India and Europe and a great patron of the arts.

Some of Sayaji Rao’s major achievements include the creation of roads, railways, modern agricultural methods, compulsory education, hospitals, abolition of bigamy and child marriage. Side by side, his interest in the arts can be seen in the city’s famous Maharaja Sayajirao University, with an arts faculty that has always included India’s best, the museum of natural science, the city museum-cum-art gallery and a zoo set in lush and beautiful gardens. In the city centre is a lake swarming with fish, and visitors are encouraged to buy food from vendors to feed them.

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Scattered all over the city there are a number of beautiful palaces, many built by Sayaji Rao. Among the most flamboyant is the Laxmi Vilas Palace, which continues to be the residence of the royal family. This amazing building is a strange amalgamation of architectural styles, both Indian and European.

Stained glass windows at the Durbar Hall of Lakshmi Vilas Palace
Stained glass windows at the Durbar Hall of Lakshmi Vilas Palace

Classified as Indo-Saracenic, the Laxmi Vilas Palace is a strange combination of turrets, towers, domes, arches and columns, that somehow blend together in remarkable harmony. Built over a period of 12 years, and completed in 1890, it was designed by Major Charles Mount. The inside of the palace is as awe-inspiring as the exterior, with arches, pillars, fountains, chandeliers and stained glass windows. Displayed within these interiors are beautifully sculpted statues, bronze busts of former rulers and trophies. However, since the palace is occupied by the royal family, special permission has to be sought to visit.

While there, it is also a good idea to visit the Naulakhi Baoil 50 metres north of the palace — similar in style to stepwells seen in other parts of Gujarat, but well worth a visit never the less.

The Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum, located within the palace grounds is full of objects d’art and royal memorabilia. Seen here are magnificent portraits of former rulers, original paintings by renowned European masters such as Raphael, Murillo and Titian, as well as copies of famous works. There is also a fine collection of Chinese and Japanese art and special furniture — studded with jewels, ivory and finely carved — reflecting the royal lifestyle.

There was once a miniature train in the palace grounds, created to take the royal children to school. The engine is said to be the smallest in the world, and has since been moved to the Sayaji Baug gardens, and the mini-rail circles the garden, giving joy rides to children. The Vadodara Museum and Art Gallery founded in 1894, is in the midst of the garden. It has impressive collections on archaeology, natural history, geology and ethnology. Full of some very important original paintings by European Masters — Veronese, Giordano, Zurbaran, Turner, Constable — some fine Mughal miniatures, and very valuable palm-leaf manuscripts of Buddhist and Jain origin.

There are a number of other palaces and buildings of note in the city. The Nazarbaugh Palace, is still used on ceremonial occasions by the Gaekwads and now houses the family heirlooms. The Makarpura Palace designed in the Italianate style, is now the Air Force training school. The Kirti Mandir, is the family vault of the Gaekwad rulers, and has some very valuable murals by the famous Indian artist, Nandalal Bose.

Italian  bronze and marble bowl in the foyer of the palace
Italian bronze and marble bowl in the foyer of the palace

The importance of Vadodara is not just for the vestiges of the past but for the traditions carried into the future. The Maharaja Sayaji Rao University is among the most prestigious in the country, with faculty that has included such luminaries as Shri Aurobindo. The Arts course offered by M.S. University is also rated very high and has been the background from which have sprung many of India’s most noted artists.

While there are a number of industrial areas close to the city, making it the haunt of businessmen, perhaps the most important is Anand. Located just 35 km from Vadodara, Anand is one of the most successful examples of a milk cooperative in the country, and perhaps the most effective one in the world. India’s well-known Amul brand of milk products, originate from this area.

There are many interesting places to visit from Vadodara. Among the most interesting are the historical ruins of Pavagarh Fort and Champaner, 47 km from Vadodara. The town of Champaner, located at the foot of the Pavagarh hill, was subjugated by Sultan Mahmud Begara in 1484, and renamed Muhammadabad when he decided to make it his new capital. The Jami Masjid here is one of the finest mosques in Gujarat, and similar in style to the Jami Masjid at Ahmedabad. The old town is full of picturesque old ruins of mosques and palaces, which are reflected in the waters of the nearby lake.

The hill of Pavagarh with its ruined Fort, rises from Champaner in three stages. The plateau on which it is built is at an altitude of 1471 ft, and is known as the Machi Haveli. In 1553, the Mughals led by Humayun, scaled the walls of the fort by using iron spikes driven into the rocks, capturing both the fort and the city. Legend has it that the Hill is actually a chunk of the Himalayas that Hanuman is said to have carried to Sri Lanka — hence its name ‘pava’ or quarter. Pavagarh is also known as the birth place of Gujarat’s famous singer Baiju, the celebrated vocalist who preceded Tansen.

The 13th - Century Dabhoi Fort, lies 29 kilometres south-east of Vadodara. It is famous for its fine architecture, and particularly its splendid gates. The fort’s architecture can be considered among the best examples of the style favoured by Hindu rulers. The ‘Hira’ or diamond gate is worth seeing for its carvings and proportions.

Dakor located 94 km from both Vadodara and Ahmedabad, is a town famous for its temple, and draws pilgrims from all over India during Sharad Purnima. The image of Lord Krishna, installed in the temple of Ranchodrai, is said to be the original image of Krishna brought from Dwarka, and installed at the temple by a devotee.

Fact file

How to get there:

By Air

There are daily Indian Airlines flights from Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad. The Indian Airlines office is on University Road.

By Train

The city is one the direct rail link between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, and there are many trains plying on the route.

Ahmedabad to Vadodara - 100 km takes 2 hrs.

Mumbai to Vadodara - 392 km takes 6 hrs.