Heritage Getaway: Now Largely Forgotten, Bharuch was the Greatest Port City in India 2,000 Years Ago

The Gujarati city is still peppered with historical and architectural wonders.  
The old town of Bharuch is noted for its beautiful old havelis and mansions, some well maintained, others in ruins. Photo: Zac O’ Yeah
The old town of Bharuch is noted for its beautiful old havelis and mansions, some well maintained, others in ruins. Photo: Zac O’ Yeah

I had read much on Bharuch in old history books. In ancient Greek and Roman texts it is mostly called Barygaza, the greatest port of India, which attracted scores of foreigners. Not only Greeks and Romans, but Egyptians, Africans, Arabs, and Malay and Chinese merchants came here—making it one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities 2,000 years ago. Yet today, it has largely fallen off the tourist map.

While checking in to a small hotel the staff tells me that they have two restaurants. One specializes in Gujarati thalis and the other in Punjabi style paneer meals. I’m also discreetly informed that they can serve tandoori chicken and alcohol in my room should I require it. The whispered offer makes me thrilled about finally being in Bharuch.

City of Gods: Undai Darwaja & Dasasvamedha Ghat

I head off cheerfully on my exploration with printouts from Google Maps in my bag, because I couldn’t find any tourist maps or useful information online. Walking along the dotted route I’d plotted, I find there are no signs pointing to heritage buildings or sightseeing spots. After a kilometre of trudging through increasingly dusty backstreets, a slope takes me downhill to the Narmada River. The riverbed turns out to be an endless stretch of grassland where cattle graze. Imposing old fortifications loom large along the riverfront. After cross-checking with an archaeological document I’d found online, I determine that this is the historic Undai Darwaja, once a majestic bastion, and one of the nine ancient entrances to the city (open sunrise-sunset; entry free).

A short walk upriver is the Dasasvamedha Ghat, located quite close to a Vamana Temple. The bathing ghat is said to be the place where the demon king Mahabali performed horse sacrifices, giving the ghat its name. It is also believed to be the spot where Vamana, the dwarf avatar of Vishnu, measured the universe in three steps and forced Bali to shift base to the netherworld. The heavily silted riverbed makes it impossible to take holy baths here, but I’m told that just the sight of the Narmada will wash away the sins of three lifetimes.

Swaminarayan temple, Bharuch, Gujarat

The ceiling of the venerable Swaminarayan temple is a marvellous riot of colours. Photo: Zac O’ Yeah

The surrounding Dandia Bazaar is dotted with old shrines. Among them is the charming Swaminarayan temple, built two centuries ago in memory of a guru who came to Gujarat in the early 1800s. The pebbles from the ground Swaminarayan sat upon during his visit have been incorporated into the temple wall. In the next lane is the Bhrigu Rishi temple. It is believed that Bharuch was originally named Bhrigukachchha after the Vedic sage who lived here. Greek traders abbreviated the name to Barygaza. The current temple was probably built during Maratha rule, or around 1685, on top of the ancient structure in which the saint’s earthly remains are entombed. Next to his samadhi is a statue of Bhrigu in a meditating pose.

Port of Plenty: Hajikhan Bazaar

I follow the old city’s fortifications that begin at Undai Darwaja and continue westward, along the riverbank. In the winding lanes around Hajikhan Bazaar, every other crumbling building has something worth marvelling at. Carved wooden doors are fronted by elaborate verandas with fluted pillars crowned by fine capitals. Several homes are beautifully maintained in freshly painted pastel hues, while others have pristine art deco facades in muted blues and yellows—I feel like Alice in an architectural wonderland. The streets are not crowded, so it is a pleasure to saunter around.

Walking through a square off Vadapada Road, a friendly man invites me to the roof of one of the semi-dilapidated houses. Although he doesn’t know much English he goes on saying “clock, clock.” Puzzled, I follow him up a flight of stairs to the roof. I see the remains of a sundial embedded in a decayed brick wall. My self-appointed guide points out the positions for 12 o’clock and so on, indicating that there used to be an iron rod, the shadow of which showed time accurately when he was a child. The entire building was once the Dutch Factory, or trading post, built in 1617.

Continuing my walk, I meet another gentleman who suggests visiting the local mosque and points up a dirt track. I don’t see a mosque until I climb through some bushes to find a wooden gate with ornate posts. It leads to the modest but splendid Jama Masjid that archaeologist James Burgess made an extensive documentation of in the 1890s, in his handbook On the Muhammadan Architecture of Bharoch, Cambay, Dholka, Champanir, and Mahmudabad in Gujarat. He found it in a state of decay, and wrote that “the beautiful carved ceilings are so blackened with soot that it is scarcely possible to recognise the wonderful richness and variety of their patterns—probably unequalled in India.”

Bharuch, Gujarat, India

In Bharuch’s old town, the public hall (left) lies on the road leading to the harbour at Furja; Though it’s now missing, the shadow of an iron rod marked the hours on this 400-year-old Dutch sun clock (right). Photos: Zac O’ Yeah

When I visit, a dozen worshippers are praying inside the mosque’s main hall, which has been restored and is in use again. Some of the 48 columns are sculpted with pictorial representations of celestial beings, which I’ve never before seen in a mosque. Different sources give very different construction dates, but Burgess seemed to think it may have been built around A.D. 1300.

Standing inside the hilltop mosque, which reminds me of the pillared temples I had seen in Greece, it is easy to imagine that Greeks once lived hereabouts. These included the anonymous author of the Periplus Maris Erythraei, a marine travel guidebook written in A.D. 80 by a Greek sailor who navigated the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Malabar and Coromandel coasts, and resided in Barygaza for many years. The author describes the merchandise traded in Barygaza port: Exports included gemstones, cloth, and spices, while imports consisted of metals, especially precious ones, Italian fine wines, as well as “bright-coloured girdles a cubit wide.”

Bazaar Street: Kotparsiwad &  Katpur Bazaar

This is a multicultural neighbourhood, I find, because the next building I stop to gawk at is the impressive but uninhabited mansion of Parsi trader Shapoorjee Hormasjee Jambusarwalla. I wish these historic Parsi quarters of Kotparsiwad, were better maintained. There is apparently a municipal plan to restore a selection of the city’s historical buildings, and convert them into schools. Perhaps they will open a few for tourist visits, too.

I amble downhill towards what is marked as Malbari Darwaja on my sketchy map. There stands a substantial stretch of wall at the bottom of the road and in it an ornate but forlorn gateway. As far as I can ascertain, this is the only gate that remains intact from the nine the city originally had. The others survive only as location names. The squat tower-like bastion looming over the gate is a popular hangout for kite fliers.

Bharuch, Gujarat, India

The Narmada River has silted up and receded from the city. Where it once flowed, cattle now graze on green pastures. Photo: Zac O’ Yeah

I climb uphill again and across the hillock to the vicinity of Katpur Darwaja where there seems to be no darwaja standing. Instead I find myself in Katpur Bazaar, which was once a major market selling luxury goods from around the known world. Greek coins were in use from an early date. The bazaar is congested with a throng of shoppers, looking for everything from savoury Gujarati farsan to fashionable burkhas. There’s a covered food market (open until late) at the far end giving off pungent smells of those same spices that the Greeks and the Romans sailed here to purchase. Nowadays, one also gets readymade mixes for local delicacies such as “nylon khaman,” a fast-food version of dhokla made of chickpea flour (its texture is as smooth as nylon).

Turning left at the end of Katpur Bazaar, I reach the Furja area which was once one of Bharuch’s main harbours. To my utter astonishment, I locate a series of sturdy iron bollards dating to the days when the river was used for shipping. They are bolted to a stretch of quay, presumably part of the British-era harbour, which is now a riverside promenade. Here, locals sit and munch on freshly roasted peanuts while taking in the sunset.

Thinking of calling it a day, I head uphill towards an enticing biryani joint I’d spotted that offers half plates at Rs 40. But then, I suddenly see, towering above me, a massive citadel. I’d been so caught up by the busy bazaar, I had not noticed this fortification so overgrown with weeds and bushes that it can be mistaken for a jungle were it not for the kids flying kites from it. Hiking up a path, I get to the top of the citadel from where the vistas are breathtaking. The sun sinking into the Narmada and elderly men sitting around shooting the breeze, add a sense of timelessness to the scene.

Stories from the Raj: Golden Bridge & Victoria Clocktower

Gazing upriver, I see the 19th-century Golden Bridge, which almost every Bharuchi tells me is the most important tourist sight in their town. The narrow beam bridge connecting Ankleshwar to Bharuch was built by British engineers during 1877-81 to straddle the Narmada River. It was a hugely expensive project as special rust-resistant iron was used and therefore it was painted golden. Next to it, the British also built a railway bridge, “the silver bridge,” to connect Ahmedabad and Bombay.

Strolling on the citadel hill, I come across the oldest library of South Gujarat, the Raichand Dipchand Library (open 9-12 a.m. and 3-6 p.m.; entry free). The building itself is a sight to behold, standing on low iron pillars, perhaps to stop humidity from seeping up to the books during the monsoon. Inside, I feel I’ve stepped into another time. Built in 1858, it has a fine collection of rare manuscripts in Gujarati and some two lakh other books. The famous scribe Feroze Gandhi, who later became the son-in-law of Jawaharlal Nehru, must have come here when he was a child since his ancestral home is around the corner in Kotparsiwad.

Silver Jubilee Railway Bridge, Bharuch, Gujarat, India

The view from the Golden Bridge, built by British engineers for vehicles, looks out towards Silver Jubilee Railway Bridge. Photo: Zac O’ Yeah

Near the library is the Victoria Clocktower, built in 1906 in the memory of the then recently deceased British queen and Empress of India. A ground floor is all that remains of the original structure, which was destroyed by an earthquake. Even this is enough to indicate that it must have been a magnificent sight, visible from afar.

Next door is the Civil Hospital, an apocalyptic ruin inhabited by the poor. It is definitely worth knocking one’s knuckles on the cast-iron gateposts of this building, which were made in Liverpool and shipped here. I get a kick out of the stunning sunset views from behind the cavernous hospital, looking down toward Furja and Katpur Bazaar. There, in the hospital grounds, I find old, carved stones that really belong in a museum.

Walking back to my hotel and the temptation of some hot tandoori chicken, I think that perhaps there’s no need for Bharuch to have any museums—the old town itself is a living museum with free entry to everything.

The Guide

Orientation The city of Bharuch is located by the river Narmada in southern Gujarat. Its old town is 2 km west of Bharuch Junction, and south of Railway Station Road which has a good number of hotels, eateries, ATMs, and other amenities.

Getting There Bharuch is easily accessible from Ahmedabad (3 hr/182 km north) by train and road. The nearest airport is at Vadodara (1.5 hr/85 km north).

Getting Around Shared autorickshaws between Furja Bandar/Katpur Bazaar and Railway Station Road cost Rs 10. The old town is compact and can be explored on foot. Don’t expect any signposting useful to tourists, but locals will be happy to point you to the various sights, temples, and mosques.

Stay There are plenty of hotels on Railway Station Road, which is conveniently near the old town as well as the railway and bus stations. Right outside Bharuch Junction, there are several decent hotels such as Corona (www.hotelcoronabharuch.com; doubles from Rs 1,690), Kohinoor Hilton Plaza (hotelkohinoor.co.in; doubles from Rs 2,000) and President (www.rukminihospitality.com; doubles from Rs 1,400). Even more convenient for exploring old Bharuch is Shalimar (hotelshalimar.co.in; doubles from Rs 1,350), midway between the railway station and old town.

Eat Sample the famous Gujarati thali at Hotel Shalimar (Rs 160). Next door, the Punjabi-Chinese Ganga Jamna and the south Indian Thakor Restaurant offer more veggie options. Local delicacies such as dhokla and khaman can be sampled at Ganesh Khaman, in a Station Road basement. Pizza places serving cheesy pizzas are plentiful and cheap since Bharuch is so close to the dairy capital of India, Anand. SS Food Treat in Dreamland Plaza serves up some tasty options (pizzas start from Rs 70). Milk being plentiful, there are numerous falooda and ice cream places; the Apsara Cold Drink House (opp. Relief Cinema) has an extensive menu of desserts. Some of the stalls opposite the railway station serve delicious Kutchi dabeli with its multiple fillings.

Shopping Keep an eye out for shops dealing in peanuts that Bharuch is renowned for. Across the square from the Big Bazaar on Railway Station Road there’s an outlet for Jabsons, one of India’s top peanut brands (www.jabsons.com; a 400 gm packet of Jabson’s delicious cheese & tomato pizza-flavoured peanuts costs Rs 115). Sargam, its main competitor, is located right next-door.

 

  • Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).

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