The awe-inspiring monument architected in recognition of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the Iron Man of India who rose to unify India, reminds one that this is New Bharat. Not the one where he lived unrecognised, uncelebrated, and reduced to a footnote in the history of India
Dr. DEV DESAI
A midst 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 in on the Rannutsav as the destination for a short trip during that break. Then came October 31, when. Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated his dream project, the Statue of Unity. Modiji’s ardent fans that we are, we decided to tweak our itinerary a bit to squeeze in this additional destination.
So our journey started on December 25 by train from Mumbai to Bharuch. From Bharuch onwards we travelled by car 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 was smooth. The other option was to drive from Vadodara, which is almost the same distance. As we approached the Sardar Sarovar Dam, came the first glimpse of the imposing monument; as expected, its grandeur was mesmerising. That day 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 in.
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
‘Tent City Narmada’ is located 4-5 km away from the statue itself and comprises of two clustres of tents. What is awe inspiring is the fact that the tent city was 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. An info-graph stated how the statue and the tourists it attracted has 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 nailed their misundersanding 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!” (“Ever since this statue came up, we have been so busy that there’s no time even to sleep).
The tents themselves are replicas of the ones at ‘Rannustsav Kutch’ (another highly successful brainchild of Modi ji, 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. 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 was served in the dining hall opposite the reception area. The food fare on offer is strictly
average, pure vegetarian and mainly Gujarati with a few Punjabi and continental dishes. Jain food is available, too.
In the evening, bus 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 an 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 were equally awed by it.
The next day, we were to take a tour of the actual statue. Here the experience was a bit unplesant. 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 over, 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 of Unity symbolises Modi Government’s attempt to right the wrongs – the
much-needed course correction in India’s deeply biased perspective of contemporary history. One cannot 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.