Laden with history and tradition, birthplace of religions, covered with ancient monuments and temples – which are often set in breathtaking scenery – full of pageantry, privilege and poverty, India is crammed with contrasts. Along with the droughts and floods, crowded cities and peaceful villages, fabulous festivals and varied food of India, in Gujarat I dance during Navratri (the longest dance festival in the world) and I’m shown a palace with its own golf course.
Golf is one of India’s best-kept secrets and this beautiful course is at the historic Lakshmi Vilas Palace Estate in Vadodara. In 1930 His Highness Pratapsinhrao Gaekwad developed this private course for his European guests, and sixty-five years later his grandson re-developed it and named it the Gaekwad Baroda Golf Club: using the British name for the ancient capital city, Baroda, a name that still lingers.
Set in the grounds of this magnificent royal residence we are told peacocks are often seen strutting around as if they owned it. Our guide also tells us the membership at this club is so full and desirable that a member had remarked to him, “If you believe in rebirth, you need to sign up for membership now then come and claim it in two more lifetimes.”
The lush green fairways set against the palace backdrop create a mini oasis away from the noise of the city. Golf continues to be a rich mans sport in India, with, only 200,000 players and about 250 golf courses in a country of over a billion,. The number of women golfers is probably no more than a few thousand. Most clubs are privately owned or membership-based and the sport is all the rage: Indian parents, like others around the world, hope to have given birth to a future Tiger Woods.
Built, by Maharaja Sayajirao in 1890, in a mixture of several different styles (Mogul, Rajasthan and western) it is still the residence of the royal family and has a remarkable collection of old armoury and sculptures in bronze, marble & terracotta. I’m also told a British architect was hired to design the palace, but there were errors in the structure and he suicided soon after it was finished.
It took an Italian master craftsman nearly a year to complete the mosaic tile floor in the ballroom – where club members are admitted to attend concerts put on by the maharaja.
I was with a group from India, a few from Europe and an American of Indian descent, and we have been given confusing messages about taking photos. I get a shock when a man shouts at us to stop taking photos in the ornate Darbar Hall. Too late. I already have some of the cattle heads mounted on the wall and of the stained glass windows through which a little light seeps through.
Earlier, standing on the edge of the greens we had been told more of the story of this dynasty. “In those days, under British rule, on the death of a maharaja, lands became the property of the British if there was no male heir. With no children, the Maharaja’s wife begged him to adopt a son and eventually he began searching for a suitable boy.
“Hearing this people began arriving at the palace to plead for their child to be adopted but no-one was suitable. One day a merchant took his three sons to meet the maharaja. The middle child stepped forward and said, ‘I’ve come here to become a Maharaja.’ Liking his attitude the maharaja and maharani adopted him.
“The young boy had never attended school and he soon had tutors in English, German, French, Sanskrit and Gujarat.”
From such humble beginnings, today almost everything in Baroda is called after him – the palace, the railway station, the museum, the university and the courts of law. He was also the first to send his daughters to school and even imposed fines on families who did not send their children to school.
The palace grounds also houses The Maharaja Fatesingh Museum, a building that was constructed as a school for the Maharaja’s children (with a miniature railway to take them there) and where a large number of works of art belonging to the Royal family are on display.
Also within the 700 acres estate there is a riding track, clay and grass tennis courts, cricket ground – home of the famed Baroda Cricket Club – and indoor courts for badminton and tennis, as well as the 12-hole golf course.
So, if you are fortunate to obtain an invitation to play here, be careful during the monsoon season, as along with the torrential rains, you could catch a glimpse of a cobra or other wildlife. Last night while dancing I saw no snakes at the Navratri celebrations.
This annual festival is devoted to the Mother Goddess – Maa Amba – goddess of Shakti or power. This festival is essentially religious and is celebrated with devotion in various temples dedicated to her, however for many thousands the nine nights of dancing take centre stage.
Garba and dandia-ras, Gujarat’s popular folk-dance, are performed each night in public squares, open grounds and streets. I too joined the festivities. Women wearing colourful, embroidered and mirrored outfits called Chania Choli surround me – all enjoying the all-night dancing and last night I am taught some of the more simple steps as we circle around earthen lamps which house the image or spirit of the mother goddess. From dancing to golf, Gujarat has it all: as their tourism department says: Vibrant Gujarat, where life is a celebration.
Heather Hapeta is a New Zealand travel writer and author of Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad. (ISBN 978-0-473-11675-0)