“Apart from Hatkeshwar Mahadev Temple, Kirti-Stambh (triumphal arches) built by Gujarati ruler Siddhraj Jaisinh, we will see the interesting occupational relation between people and their homes at Ghanchi ni pol known for housing the oil pressers community to which (Narendra) Modi belongs. We will also visit the school where Modi studied, from where you can learn about the psyche of Modi, how his upbringing was, see the tea stall where he sold tea occasionally and meet people who have known him since childhood from where you can get an idea of how his character emerged to reveal what we know of the leader today.”
Niyati Kukadia takes a pause here. A freelance guide with an interest in history and wildlife, this is the first time she is leading this tour, ‘A Rise from Modi’s Village’. Given Vadnagar’s history as the ancient capital of Gujarat, it should be a straightforward assignment. However, this one comes with a twist: with stopovers at places associated with Modi, and including meetings with the Prime Minister’s extended family, many of whom he has himself not met in years.
Run by Ahmedabad-based Akshar Travels, the tour is supported by the state government’s Tourism Corporation of Gujarat Ltd. The corporation advertised the tour on its portal during the Vibrant Gujarat Summit as well as Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, held in Gandhinagar this year. Launched January 8, to coincide with the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, it takes place every Sunday.
Akshar Travels has partnered with Tourism Corporation for more such package tours.
Manish Sharma, Managing Director of Akshar Travels, says he came up with the idea after a few test tours with NRIs who wanted to see Modi’s village during Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. “When the NRI trials went well, we decided to link the heritage element of Vadnagar with the inspirational rise of Modi. It is more like social responsibility than a venture aimed at profit.”
This day, of the “70 tourists” expected by Akshar Travels, only six have turned up, paying Rs 600 each for a one-day trip, that includes the guide and travel and lunch expenses. The other eight in the group are all journalists. The party of 14 easily fits into one 16-seater air-conditioned Tempo Traveller, flagged off by Sharma.
The six include a retired couple in their early 60s, a young couple with a toddler, two women and a part-time “numerologist” — all from Ahmedabad.
As the van starts from Akshar Travels’ office opposite the Sabarmati Ashram, Kukadia picks up from where she left off. “We will also meet an old lady who knows Modi, see photos of a play he was in that will showcase his love for theatre when at B N High School, visit Sharmishta lake where he once caught a baby crocodile. You will be able to see how he became the influential personality that he is today, which inspires loyalty, and has charisma and is extraordinary,” she says.
Rekha Bhatt, a self-confessed numerologist and vaastu shastra expert, admits to being a die-hard “Modi sir” fan. She is interested in lives of all “influential people”, she says.
“Since I saw Modi sir on TV, I was keen to see how a man from an ordinary background can become so big. I want to see the Shiv Mandir where he used to ring the evening bells and used to speak to his mother Hiraba. The trip is akin to a spiritual immersion one feels going to Mathura.”
The first stop is Vadnagar railway station. Pointing to a shut tea stall and a few small shops adjacent to it, Kukadia says these were were previously owned by Modi’s father Damodardas. A garage now runs from one of the shops.
As some in the group take selfies, Kukadia confesses she has her doubts about this chapter in the Modi tale. “While locals here speak of Modi having sold tea here daily, I highly doubt it and think it was occasionally, only to help his uncle,” she says, under her breath.
Leaving the Tempo Traveller near the station, tourists walk up the short distance to B N High School, where Modi studied till Class X. The school is closed on account of it being a Sunday, but the tourists learn how when he was in Class IX, Modi had played a well-known rebel from Gujarat’s legends, Jogidas Khuman. A promise by the tour managers to show them a photograph of Modi dressed for a school play flops, as they scramble to collect keys for the classrooms.
A short trek through the winding bylanes of Vadnagar towards Ghanchi ni pol begins, with Kukadia showing the city gate built by Mughal rulers. She points to the small shrines built in the structure to keep Hindi deities, indicating Hindu-Muslim harmony.
Soon they are at the site in Kala Vasudev ni Chanchri where Modi’s childhood home used to be and where he stayed till he was 16. In books written on him, it has been described as a “modest one-room house with paint peeling off the walls”. A one-storey house has replaced it, and the current owners do not appreciate the attention they are drawing this afternoon.
It is around 1 pm by now. In this post-lunch siesta hour, a buzz goes around the area about the “Modi tour group”. Modi’s first cousin Arvind Modi rushes out to meet them.
Modi’s childhood friend Shyamaldas Modi also joins the group. “Narendra had 8-10 gangs of friends and he was very popular,” Shyamaldas tells them.
Gesturing animatedly, he adds, “He would have his own opinions and do things only when he deemed fit. He used to say that one day wheels (cars) would run under his feet.”
Across the street lives Ashok Modi, whose father Narsinhdas was Modi’s uncle. Ashok, who sells roasted grams and peanuts and struggles to provide for his wife and two children, has never met Modi.
His wife Vimala though enthusiastically beckons tourists to come to “Modi ke chacha ka ghar (Modi’s uncle’s home)”. When they follow her in, she has little to share with them, except her father-in-law’s picture on the wall.
Ramchandra Wala, among the group, though is impressed. “I feel more respect for Modi. I can’t believe he made it so big from this kind of a background.”
The next halt is Hatkeshwar Temple. Priest Jayantbhai Pandya, also a former classmate of Modi, talks about Modi’s “reverence” for the deity.
Pandya is not sure if the temple was always open to the Modi community, an OBC, though they were definitely allowed during Laghu Rudra Pooja, he says.
At lunch break, taken at a wayside dhaba, engineer Alok Gandhi, who is taking the tour with his four-year old son and wife Uma, ponders over what they have seen so far. He has “no regrets”, he says, but wonders if the tour should be packaged like this. “One did feel that Modi was not connected to the Vadnagar town much. Also, they did not take us to Kirti Stambh and Tanariri memorial as initially planned while Sharmishta lake was locked.”
Enroute to Sun Temple at Modhera, where the tour ends, Ramchandra too wishes they could have seen more. Such as Becharaji temple, located 77 km from Vadnagar, and Patan, another ancient capital of Gujarat, instead of “wasting too much time at Vadnagar”.