Gujarat is known to attract all kinds of travellers. For adventure seekers there is Gir forest, for religious visits there is Somnath, Dakor, Dwarka and Pavagadh and for history buffs, there is this world of kings & queens, palaces and an ornate lifestyle
Balasinor is a small city, located 87 km east of Ahmedabad, in Mahisagar district, Gujarat. Formerly a princely state of the Babi Dynasty, the Royal Babi family resides here. The Babi clan came to India in 1654 from Babi Khel village in Afghanistan. After the collapse of the Mughal empire, the Babis retained sovereignty over the princely states of Junagadh, Radhanpur, Balasinor and Manavadar.
EXPLORING THE PAST
Years ago the Babi royal family used to live in a palace called the Navchowkia Palace in Balasinor. The palace was grand with 172 rooms, libraries and the royal treasure, but it was burnt down during a court intrigue by the British, who were in power at the time. It took seven days for the fire engines to arrive from Baroda, and three months to douse the fire. Most of the ancestral history was lost. The locals claim that if you are lucky, you may find a gold coin from the old treasure that was burnt down. The Babi family had to then shift to the ‘The Garden Palace’ at Balasinor, which was originally built for the Diwan of Balasinor in the year 1883, by Nawab Mohammad Manowar Khanji Babi.
A FAMILY WITH CREATIVE EXCELLENCE
Members of the Babi family have been known for making a mark in the field of literature and sports and also for preserving the culture and heritage of the family. In the good old days, the kings used to support and patronise art and the artists. Similarly, Nawab Jamiat Khan Babi, son of Nawab Mohammad Manowar Khanji Babi, supported musicians and theatre artists. Nawab Jamiat Khan wrote poems, plays and even ghazals. A notebook, in which he had penned all the ghazals, is kept well preserved at the Garden Palace of Balasinor. He was a theatre artist and is said to have taught the renowned theatre actor and director, Jaishankar Bhojak (better known by his theatre name Jaishankar ‘Sundari’), how to tie a sari, in an era when men would don the role of women in theatre. Unfortunately, the British were not very happy with the plays that he performed and the Nawab lived in exile for a long time in Baroda state. While Nawab Jamiat Khan was a literary figure, his son Nawab Salabat Khan Babi was more into sports. He played cricket and established the Babi Cricket Club. Interestingly, he was crowned the king of Balasinor when he was only eleven months old!
PRESERVING THE HERITAGE
Today the Garden Palace has been converted into a homestay by the name, Garden Palace Heritage Homestays. The Babi family still continues the tradition of receiving the guests with folk music and dance. One can live and touch the history of Balasinor in the living room of the Garden Palace. The room is adorned by furniture that is French Louis XIV style, the black and white portraits of all the family members, a cupboard full of awards and accolades belonging to Nawab Salabat Khan Babi, and many more prized possessions. One framed portrait that catches the eye is that of Nawab Jamiat Khan Babi, posing in front of his 1929 Buick LX car at the Navchowkia Palace at Balasinor. One can have a thrilling experience of touching the royal weapons kept for display. The experience of holding a cannon ball in hand, which is now being used as a paperweight, would surely instil a feeling of living the past in the present.
INDIA’S JURASSIC PARK
At Balasinor, apart from the royal history, one can explore the pre-historic era of dinosaurs, dating back to more than 65 million years. About twelve km away from Balasinor, in a village by the name Raiyoli, fossils and eggs of dinosaurs have been found. The site has now been converted into a dinosaur park. The drive towards the park is pleasant with sloping roads that curve after every hundred metres and with absolutely no traffic. This place has discovered the existence of a different species of dinosaur, Rajasauras Narmadensis that was found only in this particular region and nowhere else in the world. It is an exciting experience to identify the limbs of these beasts that have fossilised into rocks, and to hold an egg of a dinosaur in your hands!
Another interesting and historical place near Balasinor is Timba Tua. This place has hot water sulphuric springs (kund) and it is said that the water has medicinal value. There is also a Swayambhu
(mysteriously self-manifested) Shiva temple just opposite this spring. As per a folklore associated with this temple, it is said that the Pandavas had spent some time at this place during their exile and Bhima (one of the Pandavas) had married Hidimba here. The place also has Bhima’s footprints.
THE ROYAL CUISINE
Balasinor is also known for its unique and ‘Shahi’ cuisine. Begum Farhat Sultana, wife of Nawabzada Muhammed Salabat Khanji II, takes care of the culinary culture of the palace and promotes the cuisine of Balasinor. They have signature dishes like the soft and succulent shammi kebab-e-Balasinor, chicken biryani and murgh-e-khushroo, makai bharwan tamatar and the special dessert, zarda-ejamiat. Few preparations, like the shab-ebaraat ka halwa, take about two to three days to prepare.
Balasinor is a place for anyone who would like to take a short break on a weekend from a hectic life and also for someone looking forward to a heady mix of adventure and princely experience.
Text & Photos: Ravikiran Rangaswamy