It's not often that the best dining experience of your life is outdone the very next evening. But it happens to us in Ahmedabad. All the tourism websites say that dinner at Vishalla, a 5km rickshaw ride away from Hotel Volga, is a must-do.
Like the Agashiye last night, this restaurant displays a number of The Times of India awards in its candlelit entranceway. We pay the set menu price for dinner at the outdoor restaurant, and are told there'll be a 40-minute wait. Forty minutes almost isn't long enough, as the grounds of Vishalla are fascinating. The area is huge, and set up like a traditional Gujurati village, dotted with fireplaces and smoky with incense that almost overpowers the thick smog that’s enveloping the city this evening.
According to its website, the place is “fit for the purpose, owing to the vastness in the ambience and immense relaxation it offers”. Apparently, the restaurant got its name from a book in which Vishalla is a meditation place: “The name caught the sensitive eyes of Mr Patel [the restaurateur], as it related to his vision for the restaurant – a place to have home-like food in a relaxed atmosphere and free mind.”
|Dining at Vishalla|
We stop by some of the cultural performances going on in the grounds of Vishalla; one’s a puppet show reminiscent of Czech Marionette dolls (albeit slightly more frightening – at one point a puppet snake is flung into the children in front. Very Brothers Grimm). We sit around one of the many fireplaces in the grounds and listen to drummers and bell-ringers, drinking the lemon and ginger juice we're presented when we walk in. I can't help but think that the only thing that would improve this experience would be a shot of vodka in my juice in this dry state. I must be turning into my parents, who managed to pass off their glasses of Lindauer as sparkling grape juice at my 7th form leavers’ ball.
We're called for dinner at 9.30, and are invited to sit cross-legged on mats underneath low tables. A dozen waiters swarm our table and present the most incredible selection of dishes and condiments on top of plates made of banana leaves beautifully sewn together. It is a work of art. A very, very delicious work of art. Like last night, they just keep returning: “More chapathi, madam? More sambar? More dahl?” The meal finishes with more of the caramel sesame seed treats we’d tried earlier, and a bowl of pistachio-flavoured ice-cream, rendering us almost too stuffed to shuffle back to a rickshaw to get home. But shuffle we do, with bed in mind – there’s nothing quite like a Christmas Day-style food coma.
|Sunrise in Ahmedabad after the first day of Utturayan|
The next morning, still feeling high as kites after our authentic Utturayan experience and five-star thali the previous night, a very rare thing happens. The world’s most notorious not-a-morning-person person (me) suggests a pre-breakfast walking tour of Ahmedabad. Pre-breakfast, pre-coffee, even. Hard to believe, I know.
The walking tour takes us through the heritage area of the city, and along some of the Pols (streets) and Kanchos and Khadis (small streets/lanes). We wander the pols, through secret doors and shortcuts, and come across book markets and plenty of jewellers – Ahmedabad has one of the largest jewellery markets in India. We also pass by a huge number of temples, and our tour guide tells us that in the 600 pols, there are an incredible 1600 temples. The ornate temple we visit is decorated with swastikas, which we’re told are a symbol of the Hindu faith, as well as Jainsim - a religion that promotes non-violence to all living things. Swastikas and non-violence? Seems a little ironic.
|Getting lucky, Gujurati style|
Also on our tour are a lovely Indian family, a father, mother and daughter who are visiting from another city in Gujurat. The father is an orthopaedic surgeon, and the daughter is following her dad’s footsteps and is in her first year of medical school. Along the way, they buy us chai, help with translation and tell us more about Gujurat. When we see cows being fed and ask whose responsibility it is to look after the thousands of them that roam the streets, the Gujurati family take us over and buy some grass for us to feed the cows with – apparently it’s very good luck to feed a cow on a birthday or other auspicious occasion. Well, it’s not every day you’re in Ahmedabad at Utturayan.
We visit the stunning (and mammoth) Masjid-e-Nagina mosque – the second largest in India, where 10,000 Muslims come to worship every Friday. Interestingly, the mosque’s interior design and architecture includes elements of other religions, and it even displays some of the Hindu/Jain swastikas we saw earlier. The orthopaedic surgeon tells us the man who established the mosque was very liberal, and liberalism at the mosque continues today – amazingly, there’s even a place for women to worship. Very progressive.
|Speaking and hearing no evil at Mahatma Gandhi's Ashram|
After the enlightening walking tour, we head across the bridge to the Petang Tower in search of breakfast, but the menu is Indian only. I’ve been embracing Indian food for lunch and dinner, but I draw the line at pre-midday chili. We walk on, and a short time later I make an elementary mistake. Walking with my head down to avoid the human faeces underfoot, I forget to look up for a short time and smash my head at full pace into a tree overhead. Searing pain ensues. I still don’t have my eggs for breakfast, but there’s now a large one on my head. India 101 – not only look both ways, but look up, down and all around at all times.
In the afternoon, we’re tempted to abandon the idea of visiting any other tourist attractions, but eventually decide on visiting Mahatma Gandhi’s Ashram. I’m so glad we do, as it’s one of the most fascinating places we’ve visited so far. We spend the afternoon reading about Gandhi’s many principles and beliefs, and learning more about his “non-cooperation” movement and his practice of non-violence.
There’s not enough time to take all of Ghandi’s teachings in, but I promise myself I’ll find out more about his work when I’m home. Barn buys a biography and I buy a quote book for my brother-in-law, before we head to the pentagonal lake on the other side of the city, which is packed with Indian families celebrating the public holiday.
|More kite flying in Ahmedabad|
It’s nearly time to head to the airport for our flight to Delhi, and on our way to the rickshaw, we get more waves from families flying kites on their rooftops. One calls down to us to come and join them, and initially I’m not sold. We’ve done the rooftop thing already and should get to the airport pronto to go through the rigmarole of checking in for domestic flights in India – it’s no Air New Zealand self-check-in and baggage drop system. But Barn convinces me otherwise, and it turns out to be sensational. The sky is bluer than yesterday, and kites flood the skies. We’re now the new best friends (and Facebook friends) of another Indian family who teach us to fly kites, offer us masala fizz and beg us to stay for dinner on their rooftop, which is pumping Indian beats across the neighbouring rooftops from a huge speaker.
|Pre-E.coli: "I love India 2012"|
We eventually have to take our leave, but exchange email addresses and phone numbers. Soon afterwards, Barn gets a text from Darpan, the 20-something-year-old civil engineering student of the family, saying: “Ya, we enjoyed the day but we were missing you guys. I would be pleased if you come to my home for a spicy Indian dinner, and give my love to beautiful lady Rebacca.”
We’ve had an incredible time in Ahmedabad and been welcomed so warmly into people’s homes. The rest of Darpan's text sums it up perfectly, by saying: “And don’t say thanks to me, as we Indians always treat guests that way… ‘Atithi devo bhava’ – it means guests are god.”