Quite recently, I journeyed through an area of the Aravalli range of fold mountains across two north western states in India. These mountains are the source of many rivers such as Banas, Luni, Sahibi, Sakhi and the Sabarmati. As natural watercourses, usually fresh, forming part of the hydrological cycle, flowing gravitationally towards the ocean, lake or another bigger body of water, rivers and its banks are cradles of civilization in many parts of the world. Seven major rivers with their tributaries constitute the network of rivers in India, with most of it east flowing, emptying out into the Bay of Bengal, and the remaining few west flowing, emptying out into the Arabian Sea. Historically, we have the ‘between the rivers’ Mesopotamian civilization alongside Tigris-Euphrates, Egyptian, Indian and Chinese civilizations respectively beside the banks of Nile, Indus and the Yellow River.
One of the biggest rivers in the state of Gujarat, the Sabarmati originates in Dhebar lake in Aravalli range of Udaipur in the state of Rajasthan and courses over 350 kilometres merging into the Arabian sea at the Gulf of Khambat. Sabarmati has the unique distinction of originating from Udaipur, the city of lakes and palaces, and, in refreshing contrast, affording her banks on another territory for community living of one of the greatest souls to have trodden this earth. If greatness meant simplicity in all its nuances of purity, clarity, adherence to truth, Spartan living and occupying high moral ground, then the community at the river bank displayed all of these, not merely as a passive, spiritual way of life, but resolutely channelized towards the goal of attaining country’s independence from foreign yoke. As gracefully as the flowing waters of Sabarmati and as steadfastly as her undercurrents, there emerged a community of followers gathered around a visionary, inspired by his mission to build the momentum that eventually persuaded the mighty British into quitting the shores of India.
It could be observed that Mahatma Gandhi established Sabarmati ashram after his return from South Africa to serve, for a twelve year period from 1918 to 1930, as his home and a base for his struggle against the colonial powers and working towards social justice and betterment of the people. Securing India’s independence was the first and foremost objective, by mobilising people towards non-violent forms of protest such as civil disobedience movements; Dandi Yatra, an important civil disobedience movement, was initiated from the Sabarmati. The long march to Dandi, participated by thousands of people traversing nearly 400 kms on foot, spread over 24 days, is the most iconic event in the history of India as it attracted worldwide attention to the country’s struggle for independence. As I stood still at the frontage of Hriday Kunj, the simple dwelling that housed Gandhi and Kasturba, every grain of sand and each whiff of the gentle breeze from nearby Sabarmati river seemed to whisper stories of hundreds of men and women and several leading lights who worked tirelessly amidst trials and tribulations to realise the dream of a free India. Even among the luminaries, a few names like Madeline Slade (daughter of a British Admiral who became Gandhi’s disciple taking the name of Mirabehn), Madam Cama and Taraknath Das, along with several others, have been forgotten in the passage of time. While Madeline renounced her aristocratic life of comfort in her home country to settle for an austere community life at the banks of Sabarmati to serve Gandhi and thereby imparting a symbolic dimension to the struggle, Madam Cama and Taraknath Das strived for long years in various countries in Europe and USA campaigning and mobilising support of global opinion makers in favour of India’s independence. The columns of Free Hindustan, the journal published from Canada by Taraknath Das, were honoured by contributions from distinguished minds, notable among these being A Letter to a Hindu by Leo Tolstoy supporting the cause of India and suggesting how the movement ought to take its struggle forward against the British. Highlighting the law of love espoused in all the world’s religions, Tolstoy stressed that only through the force of love could the Indian people liberate themselves from colonial rule, focusing on individual, non-violent application of the law of love by way of peaceful protests as the sole alternative to violent revolution. These ideas found keen resonance in Gandhi and ultimately attained fruition culminating in India’s freedom in 1947.
Gandhi’s humongous collection of letters, around thirty thousand of them, books, assorted photographs and other memorabilia are well preserved in Sangrahalaya, a study center and museum designed by Charles Correa and constructed in early 1960s. In this building, the choice of local materials and purity of forms like hollowed cube and pyramid roof made from natural materials like timber, stone and clay tiles reflect the sheer simplicity of means and reliance to indigenous resources. It was striking to see the modular simplicity of the structure continued in the basic materials such as stone floors, brick walls, wooden doors and louvered windows devoid of glass, and tiled roof, staunchly adhering to the philosophy advocated and practised by Mahatma Gandhi throughout his life that rings in his words, “I do not want my house to be walled on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to blow about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any of them”. This statement seems to have inspired the pavilion design consisting of cuboids and the pyramid, open from sides and sheltered from above; the assembly of these two forms provide a sense of enclosure but leave all sides open to all directions on a site at the banks of sabarmati, providing abundant sense of horizon from within. The scale of the building, its serene construction and its openness blending with overall environment of the Ashram, invest it with the feature of a ‘place’ and community rather than a confined ‘space’ implying limits; architecturally, a place is for a community of people ideally with shared values while a space confides to subjective intentions. The absolute lack of pretension, simplicity of design and materials constituting the structure, that impressed Indian prime-minister Jawaharlal Nehru during its inauguration in 1962, would catch the eye of any visitor even today. The sapling of Ashoka tree (Saraca asoca) that Nehru planted on the occasion could be seen holding its place near the museum, its lushly verdant foliage stretching to the skies in the gesture of a silently dignified statement.
The simple living practised and advocated by Gandhi, as manifested in the austere environs of the ashram, would really prompt the thought on simplicity as a concept or a way of life. Simplicity equates to elegance, beauty, truth and godliness itself, as the Almighty is believed to be infinitely simple to a point encompassing all attributes, conceivable as well as inconceivable. One of the factors for all the conflicts in today’s world is clearly attributable to departure from simplicity, to embrace excessive indulgences, avarice and all the complexities associated with it. The conflict was foreseen by Gandhi when he commented “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed”, corroborated in the earlier Lao Tzu dictum, “manifest plainness, embrace simplicity, reduce selfishness, have few desires” and in the concern emphatically expressed by Thoreau “Our life is frittered away in too much detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify”. In essence, life is simple and all complexities layer one on top of the other, in accordance with human motives, creating an intricate web of desires and conflicts. This is not to mean that a simple life is merely getting by with little; on the contrary, it is sequencing things in right order and working with clarity of purpose and priorities, discarding the cluttering extraneity and the distracting luxury.
Moving on from the simplicity of ashram precincts, we ironically indulged ourselves in lavish multi-course Gujarati dinner at the ‘Agashiye’, after a quick spree of shopping at the city mall .
The next leg of our journey took us on a 250 kms ride in a Volvo coach stretching a little over four hours from Ahmedabad to Udaipur. It was early hours of the morning and the full recliner seat in coach drifted me into the lap of Morpheus till reaching Udaipur at 10 am, suitably energized for a full-day’s sight-seeing. Presently part of the state of Rajasthan (meaning ‘place of royals’), the earlier Udaipur state, also known as Mewar Kingdom, was a princely state in India at the time of British hegemony, during which India was a loose conglomeration of hundreds of princely states, of which the most prominent ones were designated into 7 groups by the British, denominated in numbers of gun salute, highest being 21 and lowest 9, in the order of their importance in terms of size and resources of those kingdoms.
The state of Mewar was founded around 530 CE; later it came to be called Udaipur after the name of the capital. The British authorities granted the ruler of Udaipur a 19 gun salute. When Udaipur State joined the Indian union in 1949, it was an extensive kingdom comprising several vassal territories and had been ruled by the Chattari Rajputs of Mori, Guhilot, Parihar and Sisodia dynasties for over 1,400 years.
With its expansive lakes, magnificent palaces, museums, including one exhibiting a collection of vintage cars, gardens, wild-life sanctuaries, narrow, winding and sloping lanes, Udaipur evokes the splendour and romance of a by-gone era. The massive Chittorgargh fort atop the hill is a depiction of Rajput culture and values. The fort was sacked thrice by invaders in the 14th and 16th centuries, causing the women to commit Jauhar (self-immolation by Rajput queens and female attendants to avoid surrender to the enemy).
How did Rajasthan’s royal rulers survive after India became a democracy, and their states were merged into the Union of India? They converted their palaces into hotels and tourist attractions in order to generate an income. Udaipur’s City Palace Complex, belonging to the Mewar royal family, really sets the standard as far as such heritage tourism is concerned. This all encompassing destination incorporates two authentic palace hotels and the City Palace Museum.
Inaugurated in 1746 CE, the Lake Palace is a marvellous structure completely made of marble and situated in the middle of Lake Pichola (see pic). The City Palace Museum is the jewel in the crown of Udaipur, splendorous enough for any visitor to immerse himself in the history of the Maharanas of Mewar, and really get a feel of their culture and regal lifestyle. Construction on the City Palace started in 1559, making it the oldest part of the City Palace Complex. The various Maharanas continued the work over four and a half centuries, in a number of phases, giving rise to the Mughal and British influences in the palace architecture. In 1969, the City Palace was opened to the public as the City Palace Museum. This was done out of necessity, in order to generate income and maintain the building after India became a democracy, as the royals had to give up their states and fend for themselves. Presently many projects are underway to develop it into a world class museum. One such project is the exhibition of priceless royal family photographs. The interior of the museum is also adorned with priceless artwork and portraits, documenting royal history before Udaipur saw the advent of photography in 1857. Being the largest part of the Udaipur City Palace Complex, the City Palace Museum stretches 33 meters high, 333 meters long, and 90 meters wide. Exploring the Museum was like negotiating through a maze. The guide indicated that the mazy design was specifically planned to thwart attacking enemies.
The imposing Durbar Hall forms part of the Fateh Prakash Palace, situated opposite the City Palace Museum in the same complex. Once used for royal audiences, Durbar Hall now serves as a venue for banquets and other ceremonial functions. Its dramatic ambience is enhanced by grand portraits of the Maharanas of Mewar, and other historic artifacts. What captures anyone’s attention is the seven crystal chandeliers suspended from its ceiling. The center-piece is a mammoth chandelier weighing one tonne, its brilliance dominating the entire area. Flanked on either sides are two smaller chandeliers, weighing 800 kilograms each. Another four smaller chandeliers, weighing 200 kilograms each adorn the corners of the hall. The aura of the interiors easily sweeps the visitor back to several hundred years in royal history; gracing the walls are grand portraits of Maharanas of Mewar, together with historic artifacts on display, including royal weapons, enhancing the overall historicity. Look around upwards and one can see the spectators’ gallery, used by the women of Rajputana to watch the proceedings in the hall.
The Crystal Gallery, overlooking the Durbar Hall at Fateh Prakash Palace, is indicated as probably the largest private collection of crystals in the world, containing some incredible pieces, including a crystal footrest and crystal bed. The collection of custom made crystals was specially created by F & C Osler for the young Maharana Sajjan Singh, who began his reign in 1874.
At the Sunset Terrace, also part of Fateh Prakash Palace and facilitating panoramic views, given its strategic situation on the river bank, we were treated to a visual feast of Lake Pichola and Lake Palace, bathed in the rays of the setting sun; savouring the beauty of the lake in the tranquil evening air, with the Lake Palace resembling, from the distance, a white marble structure afloat on the waters, was an exceedingly romantic experience. Proceeding further from Sunset Terrace, we boarded a boat that took us to the 17th century structure Jag Mandir , the first palace constructed in the middle of lake Pichola, to serve as a pleasure resort for the royals. Presently converted into a hotel, it has a fine dining restaurant and bar facing the City Palace Complex. Adorned by colourful serial lighting in the evenings, the place looks magical and straight out of a fairy tale (see pic).
Another attraction is the Masapurna Karni Mata Ropeway. It starts from a point close to Dudh Talai, offering an enjoyable ride in both directions. From the glass cabin, the bird’s eye-view of Lake Pichola and enchanting sprawl of the city and its lights sparkling against gradually darkening sky present a sight that one would remember for a long time.
As we returned to Mumbai, the endearing image was one of gracious and quietly flowing Sabarmati, embracing on its banks the glory of country’s struggle for freedom, the ideal of simplicity and, in marked contrast, babbling in the vicinity of forts and palaces at its origin end in the Aravalli range of Rajasthan. Her gently flowing waters seemed to be on an eternal quest for true magnificence, muddied with uncertainty as to whether it lay in opulence and grandeur of royalty, apparently realizing it in her frugal shores at the opposite end, enriched with immortal soul of the venerated figure that inspired India towards liberation from colonial rule, with the murmuring breeze and swaying branches of trees joining her shimmering expanse in eloquent testimony. The lines of Tagore in Geetanjali came streaming in, “The light of thy music illumines the world. / The life breath of thy music runs from sky to sky. / The holy stream of thy music breaks through all stony obstacles and rushes on. / All things rush on, they stop not, they look not behind, no power can hold them back, they rush on”.