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Among the 60,000-strong crowd due to pack Wembley Stadium on Friday tocatch a glimpse of Narendra Modi, India’s populist Prime Minister, many will be Gujaratis, people who while long since settled in Britain, trace their ancestry back to India’s westernmost state and the place which for years served as the base for an even greater Indian leader – Mahatma Gandhi.
Gujarat is where Mr Modi was born, raised and where he – albeit extremely controversially – cut his political teeth, eventually rising to become chief minister.
The state is almost the size of Britain and has a similar population; we are home to its largest diaspora.
Compared with Rajasthan to the north and Maharashtra to the south, it does not attract huge numbers of British visitors – though it should.
With Mumbai lying just down the road, it is easy to get to and as I stepped off the train at Mahesana, a small northern town, Bhowar my driver greeted me like… a long-lost foreign tourist.
So what are the obvious traces of the man who started life helping out at his father’s tea stall and rose to become the Prime Minister of India?
As we sped past fields of sugar cane on our way to Vadnagar – the town in which he grew up – Bhowar heaped praise on its most famous son. Modi, he said, “gets things done – like decent roads”.
There’s not a lot in Vadnagar to suggest his connection with the place, though many believe local infrastructure has indeed benefited from nostalgia-tinged largesse. There’s the B N School, as modest as it was in his day; the humble family tea shop which is now a shop for farm machinery, and Sharmishtha Lake, where the young Modi reputedly defied crocodiles to save a drowning friend.
In the earthy old quarter veined with streets barely wider than a bullock cart, we located his modest former home. Having long since changed hands, it has now been augmented with an extra storey.
So much for Modi’s Gujarat; fortunately there is much more to detain a visitor. Such as Modhera, home to the 11th-century temple dedicated to the Sun god Surya. Here I found a deep tank lined with 108 miniature shrines, a flight of stone steps rising to an ornamental archway; friezes depicting gods, goddesses and dancing girls. Briefly I had its idyllic, faintly eerie tranquillity to myself, the spell interrupted only by a local guide anxious to show me some of the temple’s more “erotic” sculptures.
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Twenty miles north, at Patan, is the incredible Rani-ki-Vav, or Queen’s Stepwell. “Step” and “well” might not sound promising but this 11th‑century architectural tour de force is among the largest such wells in India – a shrine to the sanctity of water and an astonishing blend of aesthetics and practicality.
Lingering among its terraced colonnades, I watched light, shade and shadow bleed subtly with the arcing sun across a thousand sumptuous carvings of alluring maidens and enigmatic divinities. The mythological and religious imagery is profoundly sensual, almost playful.
Domestic tourism to Gujarat prospered during Modi’s period as chief minister. India at that time was going through spectacular economic growth, and he was canny enough to encourage the marketing power of Bollywood to help raise the state’s profile. In 2010, venerable Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan became a “brand ambassador” for Gujarat Tourism and filmed several adverts with the slogan “Fragrant Gujarat”.
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It appeared to be a winning formula and shortly after last year’s general election, the Modi government announced a “Brand India” campaign focusing on “Five Ts”, among them tourism. Today 113 countries, including Britain, benefit from the long-awaited introduction of an online E-visa regime.
In reality, there’s nothing fragrant about Ahmedabad, the former state capital and still its largest city. The one-time “Manchester of the East” still boasts a vigorous mercantile community – and one of their sprawling homes is now the city’s only “boutique” hotel. The House of Mangaldas Girdhardas, or “House of M G”, a lovingly rescored Twenties mansion boasting an open-air rooftop restaurant in which I enjoyed possibly the city’s finest thali.
Next morning I embraced the city’s unbridled vitality on my way to arguably its prize draw, the Calico Textile Museum. It sounds dull but inside is an unrivalled collection of Indian fabrics, textiles and costumes.
Other highlights included Bhadra, the city’s original 15th-century citadel, and an old quarter with labyrinthine lanes containing ancient mosques and still-venerated tombs. Completed in 1524, Ahmedabad’s huge principal mosque – a confection of pale sandstone now missing its delicate minarets – still draws thousands on Fridays and readily accepts visitors.
I was struck during my wanderings by how this predominantly Hindu city also nurtures a substantial Muslim population and was heartened to hear, at least anecdotally, that communal tension had not recently raised its ugly head.
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That of course remains the one big skeleton in the Modi closet – the memory of the terrible communal riots that rocked several Ahmedabad localities in 2002 and the allegation that the then chief minister stood by as Hindu mobs took revenge on Muslims. India’s Supreme Court eventually cleared Modi of all allegations, and his rise since has been nothing short of meteoric. Once shunned on the international stage, he is now embraced wherever he goes, as seen this week in his invitation to have lunch with the Queen.