On the banks of the Vishwamitri River, Vadodara brims with heritage. The enduring architecture from India’s medieval and modern periods is testimony to the progressiveness of the city’s various rulers, particularly while it was the capital of the erstwhile princely state of Baroda.
The city passed through the hands of the Gupta, Rashtrakuta, and Solanki dynasties, was held by the Sultans of Delhi and Gujarat, and then the Mughals, before finally being claimed by the Marathas of the Gaekwad dynasty in the 1720s. The legacy of the Gaekwad rulers was firmly established by the popular and visionary ruler Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III (1875-1939), who transformed Baroda into an educational, industrial, and commercial centre with thriving art and architecture. Vadodara is crammed with landmarks from this period, such as libraries, hospitals, and museums, which are a reminder of the dynasty’s institution-building prowess. It also has a cluttered walled city, historically known as Kila-e-Daulatabad, now referred to as Old Baroda. Here, medieval bazaars, shrines, and century-old tenements can be found in the labyrinthine lanes. Beyond these walls, old-style bungalows and small houses still remain despite the newer high-rises. The city’s etymological roots—the Sanskrit word vatodar translates to “in the heart of the banyan tree”—are evident everywhere, with a profusion of oval leaves shading its streets.
Like the architecture, the locals are a harmonious, cosmopolitan mix of people of different faiths, from different states. They proudly call Vadodara “Sanskarnagari,” or “the cultured city,” and it lives up to this sobriquet.
The moment I step out of the railway station, Vadodara’s past is spread out before me in the form of the sprawling Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, established as Baroda College in 1881 by Sayajirao III. The imposing 144-foot-high dome atop the Faculty of Arts building is the second largest masonry dome in India. A little further is Sayajirao garden, earlier called Kamatibaug, where the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery is located in a heritage building built on the lines of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
I take cabs and autos between various landmarks, as they are scattered around the city, just a few kilometres from each other. Most bear the Maratha stamp, with the notable exception of the 16th-century Hajira Maqbara, the tomb of Mughal general Qutubuddin Muhammad Khan. Many historic buildings have offices inside and visitors require permission to enter. For example, Nyay Mandir, built in 1896, now houses a district court. Pratap Vilas Palace is a railway staff college, but college groups and tourists can visit on Saturdays with prior permission. It has a fascinating rail museum.
Sayajirao III was well travelled and fond of European architecture. His vision was realised in Baroda by architects such as R.F. Chisholm and city planner Patrick Geddes. Besides the Victorian Vadodara Museum, there’s the Kothi Building (1922), inspired by Scotland’s Balmoral Castle, where the district administration’s head office is located. A little further is Kirti Mandir, also known as Temple of Fame, a memorial for deceased members of the Gaekwad family. It has a series of small rooms with marble busts, and a main hall with murals by artist Nandalal Bose. The influence of Indo-Saracenic architecture is visible in the structure of the Sayajirao Gaekwad Hospital, near Kala Ghoda Circle.
Sayajirao III’s interest in urban planning is evident in places like Khanderao Market, a palatial building from 1906 that buzzes with vegetable and fruit sellers every morning. His most cherished construction was the earthen dam in Ajwa village, which provided clean drinking water to people at a time of frequent cholera outbreaks. It is a nice drive to Ajwa reservoir, which is about 23 kilometres from the city, and still supplies water to a large part of Vadodara. On weekends, the gardens surrounding the reservoir have illuminated fountains and make for a pleasant walk.
Lukshmi Vilas Palace, built in 1890 by Sayajirao III, dominates the city skyline. At the time, it is said to have cost about ₹1.8 crore to build, and was one of the largest and costliest private residences.
Imposing from a distance, the 150-room palace is even grander up-close. I’m awestruck by the nine-storey tower, and the architectural smorgasbord of onion-shaped Persian domes, chhatris, chhajjas, and Venetian and Gothic arches. The architectural styles from Europe, Persia, and Rajasthan somehow meld together beautifully.
The complimentary audio-guide takes me through an hour-long history of the Gaekwads, Indo-Saracenic architecture, and the relevance of each room. I grasp the significance of the weapons in the armoury, the Coronation room hung with Raja Ravi Varma masterpieces, the ornate durbar hall, the hathi room where the king alighted from his elephant, and the marble courtyard with fountains and sculptures.
Not all areas of the palace are open to visitors as members of the royal family still live here, but my disappointment quickly dissipates as I relax by a fountain with a cup of masala chai and a sandwich. (www.gaekwadsofbaroda.com; 0265-2411022; open 9.30 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday closed; entry ₹225, includes audio guide in English, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, or French.)
At the Maharaja Fatesingh Museum in the palace compound, I see Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings of Maharaja Sayajirao III in full regal attire, and his sister Princess Tarabai. The portraits are so detailed and nuanced that they could well be photographs. I take my time examining the maharaja’s collection of European art, including pieces by Italian sculptor Augusto Felici, Wedgewood bone china, Doulton collectibles, Tiffany wares, and Orrefors glasses. There are also fine Chinese and Japanese porcelain vases, some with entire battle sequences painted on them (0265-2426372; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday closed; entry ₹80, audio guide ₹30).
In Old Baroda, early one Sunday morning, I’m sipping hot tea with Chirag Munjani, who conducts urban and rural heritage walks in Gujarat. A leisurely stroll is the best way to explore this fortified city, which was built in 1511 by Muzaffar Shah II, the son of Mahmud Begada of the Gujarat Sultanate.
The city’s original walls have disappeared, but its four imposing gates, one for each cardinal direction, radiating out from the Mandvi Gate, still exist. The Champaner, Gendi, Laheripura, and Pani gates reflect a blend of Islamic and Maratha architecture. The triangular projection jutting out of the main arch of Pani gate is an iconic symbol of the city; Barodians call it “Baroda nu naak,” implying “Baroda’s honour.”
We begin our walk from the central Mandvi Gate, the hub of activity in medieval times and still a bustling market. Chirag points out the first branch of the Bank of Baroda, built by Sayajirao III in 1908, with a new extension beside it. The Central Library next door, built around 1910, is a four-storey structure with large windows and two-inch-thick Belgian glass tile flooring. I browse the treasure trove of centuries-old books and admire the pictures of Sayajirao III’s foreign sojourns.
We turn into a narrow lane where the past seems preserved in compact tenements supported by carved Burmese pillars with iron oil lamp holders, doors, window grills, and jharokhas. Each pol, or cluster of houses with a common entrance through one lane, was named after a specific caste, trade, or landmark. In one of the pols is the Narsinhji temple, where the old city still celebrates the 275-year-old traditional procession of “Narsinhji no varghodo,” which celebrates the marriage of Vishnu’s avatar to Tulsi on the 12th day after Diwali. It is a haveli and not a typical temple. At the Govardhan Nathji Haveli, I spot a 50-year-old Pichvai painting depicting the Raaslila.
Good upmarket restaurants and street food are plentiful in Vadodara. The old city, Fatehgunj area, and Vadodara’s other bazaars offer a huge variety of farsan or snacks. Sev usal is the most popular of these staple street foods, which also include kachori, chevdo, bhakarwadi, jalebi, papdi, fafda, khaman, and idada. Most of these snacks are easy on the pocket.
During a shopping spree for a chaniya–choli outfit and Navratri jewellery at Nava Bazaar, locals direct me to the famous Pyarelal Ki Kachori in Mangal Bazaar, a small shop doing brisk business in newsprint-wrapped kachoris stuffed with puffed rice, onion, sev, peanuts, dal, tomato, potato, chilli paste, and oozing with a sweet-and-spicy chutney.
Another local favourite is Manmohan Farsan, a hole-in- the-wall near the Kothi building. I am drawn by the whiff of frying samosas and bhajias which floats above the din of the crowd.
Barodians snack from morning to evening. Near the railway station, Jagdish Farsan Mart starts selling its famous bhakarwadi at 6 a.m. (₹60-80 for 200 gm). At Duliram Peda in Raopura, a fresh batch of sweet peda is made every hour (₹360 per kg).
Complete the culinary experience with the city’s sugar-tinged Gujarati thalis, and the more savoury and spicy Kathiawadi thalis. I like the decor and Gujarati thali at the Mandap in Hotel Express Tower at Alkapuri. A cloth mandap hangs over each table, and the food is served in copper-plated utensils. The green tomato curry remains my favourite (92278 81135; thali ₹299). Also in Alkapuri, Sasumaa Gujarati Thali has basic but clean interiors, and meals are served in delightful extra-large steel thalis and an array of small bowls (95746 52652; thali ₹240).
Both restaurants serve delicious seasonal Gujarati vegetables, served with bajra na rotla, or millet rotis smeared with pure ghee. Only the dal and kadhi are sweetened, and for fussy eaters, there are Punjabi versions of each dish.
My search for an authentic Kathiawadi thali leads me to Kismat Kathiawadi Dhaba on NH8, replete with charpais (thali ₹90), but for a more comfortable dining experience visit Shree Kathiyawadi Khadki’s new, air-conditioned restaurant in Sharnam Fortune Mall on Race Course Road. It serves Gujarati thalis at lunchtime (₹270) and Kathiawadi à la carte in the evening (meal for two ₹500).
Shiv Shakti Kathiawadi Hotel near the Vishwamitri Bridge opposite a Mahindra tractor shop is equally popular (0265-2342414; both Kathiawadi and Gujarati lunch limited thali ₹90, evening only Kathiawadi unlimited thali ₹170 with a churma ka laddoo. The laddoo is made on alternate days and is in high demand). Both restaurants serve the Kathiawadi specialities of sev-tameta nu shaak, ringan nu bhartu, masala khichdi kadhi, dhokla, bajra and makai na rotla, and of course, chaas and papad.
When I need to relax, I don’t have to look too far to find one of the city’s numerous parks. Sayajibaug is the city’s largest garden and houses a zoo, museum, a planetarium, an amphitheatre, and a toy train. It has good walking tracks, and during festivals, cultural events are held here, with stalls serving local delicacies.
I spy peacocks, woodpeckers, kingfishers, roseringed parakeets, and other bird species in Vadodara’s vast open expanses. During Navratri, these fill with a different kind of plumage, with garba revellers flocking to dance into the night. Uttarayan is another festival when the entire city is out celebrating.
Vadodara’s shopping is equally satisfying. For handicrafts and handlooms, visit the Khadi Bhandar (a short walk from Kothi Char Rasta), and head to Baroda Prints for handprinted textiles. Alkapuri has large showrooms for saris and designer chaniya-cholis at shops like Thakur’s and Sequinze.
For more earthy wares, visit the town of Sankheda, 55 kilometres southeast of Vadodara. Here, the Kharadi community makes wooden furniture lacquered in shades of orange and brown. In the city, J J Sankheda Furniture in Alkapuri (sankhedafurniture.com) carries some of these beautiful pieces, including Gujarati jhoolas.
Appeared in the August 2016 issue as “Vadodara’s Layered Past”.
Vadodara is 418 km/7 hr northeast of Mumbai, 111 km/1 hr 45 min southeast of Ahmedabad via National Expressway 1, and 150 km/2 hr 30 min northeast of Surat on NH8.
By air Vadodara has its own airport with direct flights from Delhi and Mumbai.
By rail Vadodara is a major station on the Western Railway network and is well-connected to Mumbai, Delhi, and Ahmedabad.
By bus Regular services connect Vadodara to Gujarat’s major cities. The air-conditioned bus terminus has an airport-like lounge with luggage trolleys and wheelchairs.