Amidst the hustle and bustle of preparing for the impending final MBBS exams, one thing to look forward to was the short break between the end of exams and beginning of internship. After much brainstorming, my cousins’ family and ours, had zeroed onto the Rannutsav as the destination for a short trip during that break. Then came October 31, when Hon. Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi inaugurated his dream project, the Statue of Unity. Diehard Modi fans that we were, we decided to tweak our itinerary a bit to squeeze in this additional destination.
So our journey started on December 25 (Christmas/Good Governance Day/ Birthday of Bharat Ratna former PM Shri Atal Bihar Vajpayee, whichever way you choose to look at it) by train from Mumbai to Bharuch. From Bharuch onwards we took a car ride for the 90 odd kilometres to the site, punctuated by a short break en-route for a hearty snack of a local Gujarati delicacy ‘Ponk’ (roasted, freshly plucked grains of a local millet). The roads were fantastic and the ride smooth. The other option is to drive from Vadodara, which is at almost the same distance. As we neared the Sardar Sarovar Dam, came the first glimpse of the imposing monument; as expected, its grandeur was mesmerising. It being a public holiday, the area was fairly crowded and security was beefed up- we were asked more than once to show our reservation for the nearby tent city before being let through.
‘Tent City Narmada’ is located 4-5 km away from the statue itself and comprises of two clusters of tents. What is awe inspiring is the fact that the tent city has been built from scratch in a matter of just 30 days. There was a fair amount of chaos at the reception as a lot of guests thronged it to check in. Making use of that time, one can have a look at the standees put up around the check-in counter which tell us about the statue, its impact and places worth visiting in the nearby regions. One infographic which was particularly informative, stated how the statue and the tourists it attracted had had a catalytic effect on the economy of the surrounding districts, which are tribal inhabited and some of the most underdeveloped districts of Gujarat (critics of the statue have often cried hoarse about how the money invested in the statue could have been spent on the welfare of the tribal inhabitants of the region). What sealed it was this comment by our driver, a local from a nearby tribal village of Dediapara- “Aa saheb jyaar thee uthya che, amne suvano pan time nathi!” (Meaning- “Since this statue has come up, we have been so busy that there’s no time even to sleep).
The tents themselves are replicas of the ones at ‘Rannustsav Kuctch’ (another highly successful brainchild of Modiji, from his days as Gujarat CM). The ones we checked into were fairly compact and modest from inside. One potential spot of bother, could be the limited number of charging ports available (and even the few that are there, are not that accessible) – perhaps a way to provide a complimentary ‘digital detox’ to the guests:-p. The tents are self-contained with 24 hour running water, 2 single beds and an air-conditioner. Another word of caution- there is no lock and key to the tent, when you leave you simply zip it shut. Though none of our luggage got robbed, it would perhaps make sense not to carry expensive belongings when visiting.
Lunch (and all subsequent meals) was served in the dining hall opposite the reception area. Even here the number of guests had probably overwhelmed the preparations, and both seats and food in the carousels frequently ran out. One could possibly give the management the benefit of doubt here as these were only the initial few months, the response of the tourists had thus far beaten their expectations and once they had worked out the demand fairly well, things could get better. The food fare on offer, is strictly average, pure vegetarian (separate provision for Jain food) and mainly Gujarati with a few Punjabi and continental dishes.
Glimpses of Laser Show
Come evening, buses ferried us to the statue complex for the laser show, which starts around 6:45pm in the winter months (subject to vary as per sunset timings). Having seen laser shows at a few other places like the Vrindavan Gardens, we were wondering what exactly would be different about this one. While we were busy clicking selfies and photos of the grandiose monument, all of a sudden, lights in the complex went off and the announcement was made that the show was set to begin. What followed was 25 minutes long visual extravaganza which needs to be seen to be believed. The statue was lit up in a thousand different ways as the story of Vallabhbhai Patel from childhood to his emergence as a leading light of the freedom struggle and his subsequent role as the unifier of India was narrated. The crowd erupted in cheers repeatedly throughout the show, but the loudest cheer was reserved for a snippet of PM Modi’s speech expressing the gratitude of the nation towards Sardar. The show was a pedagogical model into how the same history lessons which seem boring to majority of students can be made intensely engaging; all of us ranging from 7 to 50 years of age were equally awed by it.
Next day morning we were to take a tour of the actual statue. Here is where the experience was a bit bitter. One can obtain tickets to the statue either online or from the ticket counter near the statue itself and there are two varieties of tickets- standard tickets priced at Rs. 350 per head and express tickets (which allow one to skip the queue) at Rs. 1000 per head. We had tried to book them online, but they were not available. We enquired with our tour co-ordinator at the Tent City and he said he would have them issued. The part which did not go well with us was his insistence on accepting payment only in cash and his refusal to issue any receipt or acknowledgement of having received the same (whither digital, cashless India)? Even after we had paid for the tickets, next day morning we had to spend at least an hour looking for the tent city representative at the complex to collect our tickets from him. And this unreasonable delay despite having paid for the express entry tickets was frustrating. We would strictly advise future tourists to not rely on the tent city for booking of these tickets. It is a better choice to book them from the statue complex yourself after having a look at the crowd situation- on most days, if you reach by 9:30 (first slot is from 9 onwards), you would not need an express ticket as there is essentially no queue for you to skip.
Once the initial hitches were overcome, the tour of the statue was a delight. The view from the viewing gallery located in the statue’s chest, at a height of 135 m was a sight to behold. What added to our joy was to hear from our guide that more than 90% of manpower and material used to construct this statue was indigenous. The detailing, from the buttons of the vest to the stitches of the chappals, is perfect to the T. At ground level there is a museum which shares in depth the life history of Sardar, the man and his contributions to India. There is also a food plaza and souvenir shop. Nearby is the ‘Valley of Flowers’, which has an amazing variety of flowers of different hues. There is also the dam itself and the underground hydro-electricity generation plant, but for visiting them, one needs to obtain prior permission from Gandhinagar.
Thinking back, the statue seems to be a much needed course correction in India’s deeply biased perspective of contemporary history. We were really glad to see school children from Gujarat and neighbouring states being brought on field trips to the monument, which would not only make them aware of the history of the man who made modern India in its current state possible, but also spark in them the zest to ensure that this hard earned integrity is never lost. One can-not help but marvel at the vision and dedication of those who not only conceptualised this monument, the tallest in the world, but also completed it in record time. If only the same integrity and zeal could somehow percolate to the staff managing the affairs on ground, the entire experience could be so much better……..