The door to the Amter Mata Temple opens noiselessly and I hesitate before stepping into a large courtyard. It is three in the afternoon on a windy day in December last year and the temple, which is in Vadnagar (Gujarat), is officially closed at that time. But the shopkeeper outside the temple urges me to go in saying that nobody would mind.
There is no one to be seen inside; I am not really surprised for it is siesta and relaxation time before the evening worship begins. As I look around, I feel an uneasy prickling sensation at the back of my neck — the kind when you feel that someone’s watching you. I look around but cannot see anyone or detect any movement.
I call out once and then again, but get no response. It appears that I’m alone in the temple. Or am I? The sensation of being watched grows and I feel that the gaze is hostile, angry, even malevolent.
I don’t scare easily, but I must confess that I’m feeling quite spooked. As I wonder if I should leave, I spot a large sculpture placed against the wall behind the main shrine at the far end of the temple. I can’t make out what the sculpture is, but something about it gives me the shivers. I decide to explore further and as I walk towards the sculpture I feel waves of anger wash over me.
Yes, really. It was a random photograph that had popped up when I was browsing through an equally random photo-stream. The photograph was of a grand and towering toran or a decorative arch with the caption, “Kirti Toran, Vadnagar”.
My first reaction was where is Vadnagar? I mean, I knew that Vadnagar was in Gujarat and also that it was India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s native town, but where was it? When a location search revealed that it was only about 40 km from Mehsana, I was stunned, for at that time, I was planning my North Gujarat trip in December 2014 at that time. And Mehsana was to be my base ! I took this happy coincidence as a sign that I needed to visit Vadnagar. 🙂
I visited the Sun Temple at Modhera on the last day of my North Gujarat trip in December 2014. It was a much-anticipated visit and I had spent the weeks prior to the trip salivating over the many photographs available online. I was so excited at the prospect of finally visiting the Sun Temple that I was awake much before the morning alarm rang.
I wanted to be at the Sun Temple by 9 am, but both the checkout at the hotel and breakfast got delayed. By the time the shared private jeep from Mehsana dropped me off at Modhera village, it was 9.30 am. A helpful villager pointed the path that would lead me to the Sun Temple and 10 minutes later, I was at the ticket office queuing up to buy my tickets.
It seemed to be a busy day for there were quite a few international tourists already making their way out of the temple complex, while bus loads of school children were entering it. Once I bought my ticket and a booklet on the Sun Temple, I entered the complex where a path lad me through well-manicured lawns, a museum before the Sun Temple came into view with a large stepped tank before it. And my first thoughts were that all the photographs do not do justice to the monument. It is far bigger and grander and more magnificent, dear reader, and do keep that in mind as you read further !
Ambaji is a temple town located in the Aravalli ranges of North Gujarat, just 10-15 km from the Rajasthan State border. The town gets its name from the Arasuri Ambaji Mata Temple or the Ambaji Temple, one of the 51 (or 52 or 64, depending on which list you follow) Shakti Peeths located in the sub-continent. The name ‘Arasur’ itself is derived from ‘aaras’, the local name for marble which is available in plenty. In fact, the ancient name for Ambaji was Arasan Nagar.
When I first put together a plan to visit North Gujarat in December 2014, Ambaji didn’t figure in the list. It was later, while checking road distances and connectivity between the various destinations that I intended to visit, that I discovered the fact that Ambaji was just 125 km from Mehsana, my base for the trip. Considering Gujarat’s excellent quality of roads, I knew that Ambaji could be visited as a day trip. And that’s exactly what I did.
It was a cold and windy December morning when I set off from Mehsana at 8 am. Since there were no direct buses to Ambaji around the time I left I had to break journey at two places.
First, I took a shared private jeep to Palanpur, and then to Danta, and finally completed the last leg of my journey to Ambaji in a Gujarat State Transport bus. It was a picturesque journey throughout along tree-lined roads. The change in landscape from flat to hilly, as well as the climb from Danta to Ambaji was particularly enjoyable.
It was around 11 am when I got off the bus at the Ambaji bus stand and headed straight for the Ambaji temple. I didn’t have to ask for directions; all I had to do was to follow the people shouting Jai Mata Di. Within 10 minutes I was at the temple gates and could see its golden spire beyond the entrance arch.
Due to security reasons, visitors are not allowed to carry their bags or any electronic item into the temple and lockers are provided for storing bags and valuables. As the caretaker of the locker room stored my backpack in the locker and handed the keys to me, he casually said: “I think you should hurry up. The temple closes at 11.30.”
The gates to the Rudra Mahalaya Temple at Sidhpur are locked when I arrive just before 6 pm that December evening in 2014. Surrounded by modern-day residential houses, the centuries-old temple is deserted and looks like it is holding out against a seige.The twilight makes the temple, which is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, look lifeless as well. As I’m wondering what to do, a passerby stops to say, “Call out for the watchman. He’ll come and open the gate.”
I call out for the watchman and the driver of the auto-rickshaw I have hired also adds to my calls. Soon, I can see someone coming out of the temple and walking towards us.
‘Yes?”, he asks.
“I want to see the temple,” I say, prepared to argue it out with him if he says something about closing times or anything else.
“Okay,” he says simply, pulling out a key bunch and deflating my ready arguments immediately. “Put your camera away. No photography allowed here.”
“Why not?” I ask, getting ready to argue again.
“Rules,” is the simple and frustrating answer.
I realise I have no choice in this matter and put away my camera. Only when I put away the camera and close my bag does the watchman open the gates and allow me inside. “You can take pictures from outside the gate, if you want to.”
I first heard of Sidhpur about 6 months back when I shamelessly eavesdropped on a conversation while commuting to work by bus. In my defence, the conversation, which was between two women from the Dawoodi Bohra community (as was evident from the colourful ridas they wore) in Gujarati and English, was really loud.
It was an animated conversation in which they spoke about their ancestral homes in Sidhpur and the holidays spent there. They spoke of chandeliers, Belgian glass windows, wooden antique furniture, fine linen, tableware, feasts, parties, and antiques among other things. There was gossip, as well as an element of ‘my-ancestral-house-is-grander-than-your-ancestral-house”, but it seemed to be in good fun.
The “conversation” on ancestral homes in Sidhpur intrigued me to look for more information on the Internet. Thanks to my good friend Google, I found in Sidhpur mansions with distinctive European style architecture, each one grander than the other. This information was enough for me to include a visit to Sidhpur when I toured North Gujarat in December 2014.
It was a little after 4 pm when I arrived at Sidhpur. While asking for directions from a local tea stall, I learnt that the Bohra houses were called Vohrawads and also that I needed to go to the Najampura area, which had the best and maximum number of such houses. A short rickshaw ride later, I was standing in front of the house that you see in the photograph below.