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The Urban Column III

Updated: May 2

From happening urbane Fatehgunj to transit dedicated Chhani road, Baroda offers a spectrum of spaces to the keen eye for study. An envisioned lush green or open space however seemed to be a constant theme. With renewed interest in reclaiming urban lands, which over the years became considered too compact and dense for livability or new public amenity, these are now being revisited with proposals like heritage precinct revitalization, market redevelopment or lake front rejuvenation and so on. Of these old city precincts, one very central in location and host to a variety of action, sees hordes of citizen cross it daily to access other places of the walled city or visit one of its many landmarks- yet it remains just that- a place you pass by. Not knowing of its true treasures or the potential it once boasted, Chandan Talav or Sursagar as we know it now, was once but just a small catchment area. Along with the land around, it could possibly have seen the beginnings of becoming the first unplanned but recreational public space of the city, when acquired by Sureshwar Desai in the 17th century.The lake was equipped with ghats and the like, under royal patronage in the 19th century, and this along with the area around it known as the Sursagar precinct forms an important study in urban layers. It boasts an all-inclusive built and natural heritage package of an excellent mix with ‘education, municipality, law and religious edifices- with individual bathing ghats’ lined along or near the Sursagar tank. The Sursagar is surrounded by a dense fabric of ingenuity and with the walled city on its east, a walk in the area on a pleasant cool evening is still reminiscent of a distant past.

Once lined with a shaded avenue along the lake, over the years with visarjans of many kinds and a skyline being punctuated by statues and concrete mundane buildings, the lake and it surround has lost its charms. An owner with the only house retaining its architecture and view of the lake and beyond it of a cultural institute, put it, “…the view at night with the distant lights, we sleep to a quite plight, that we might once be forgotten… yet the charm of our home dragged you from afar with appreciation of something we might lose once again…”.

Fact: Patrick Geddes, an urban planner invited by Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III to the city in the 20th century for a major urban transformation, considered the city’s water bodies amongst the finest tank park systems in the country and had ‘urged for the careful preservation of this fine chain’. For the Sursagar tank, he tagged it as ‘one of the cleanest city tanks in the country’. The old city area doesn’t rhyme with what today is suburbia, but unfortunately seems to now be regarded as one. It was once upon a time the central knit to the entire tapestry of the city. The lake and its precinct just beyond these fortifications, accessed by the Lehripura Gate on its east and the fire brigade area on the west, would have been developed with its (present day) landmarks over the course of the 18th to 20th century. Keeping in mind the lake’s location, and the Wadas of the sardars built between the walled city and the railways further northwest- the precinct got its eclectic mix of importance over this period.

A map of the considered area in the column- the Sursagar precinct. The pink shaded structures are those that give the precinct its multi-layered character and are historic built. The yellow outlined ones are built, or open spaces and are secondary in nature to the predominant heritage. These together form an old city precinct that needs holistic changes. Source: Swapna Kothari

A well-defined example of a historic urban landscape- the Sursagar precinct still boasts of intonated brick buildings that make use of the topography spot on. Jubilee Bagh, a public park with a Bronze Buddha little further to its north is the perfect traffic island to the commuters while providing much-needed respite to the residents in the evening. To this day fond memories of playing in the park in the evening send people to a reverie of thoughts. Moving down to its eastern edge, the Mangal bazar- a busy stretch of dense settlements with commercial activities in inner-lanes and their by-lanes providing for clothes to utensils and everything in between, continues burning its lights well past sunset. This eastern undulating yet longstanding skyline ending at the Shri Chimnabai Nyay Mandir however is marred by the brutalist styled Padmavati Chaughan, which not only blocks the designed grand view of the court complex, but is a stark contrast to the fine grain of its immediate neighborhood. The Chaughan was built on the green space that added to the vista of the Nyay Mandir, and came up primarily to accommodate the shopkeepers who once lined the talav in close proximity. The Chimnabai Nyay Mandir (1868) built as a market and later converted to a town hall for more than a decade, stands tall at the south eastern edge of the lake and would have once attracted citizens of various kinds. Later on, it’ garnered attention from the ‘tucked in shirts and buttoned coats with the characteristic black gowned’ lawyers, but now lies abandoned. Only until recently it was the hubbub of activity and pivot to the precinct leading to and from the inner city, along with the building adjacent to it- the Fozdaari Court, a.k.a Lal Court (1950). This annex court built to offload the main court, stands on a land, which was supposed to have been a corner green space. Behind the Bhagat Singh Chowk and forming the outer ring of the precinct is an interesting mix of early 20th century architectural spaces including turn-of-the century lodges and religious spaces including the Zakariya masjid and the radio house-beyond which lies an intrinsic network of ware specific markets.

A snap from the western edge looking onto the changed landscape along the southern side of the lake and the Nyay Mandir in the center of the photo, and the Training college and Music school on the right of this frame. Source: Rahul Gajjar for Once Upon A Time… there was Baroda

Beyond this corner, turning south west along the Pandit Gajananrao Ambade Marg (jal tarang artist) begins the educational zone, which has in an interesting way not only addressed the site architecturally but also seen change in its uses that proved to be beneficial to many. The brick buildings, Female Training College and the adjacent Faculty of Performing Arts (1875), on its southern edge boast of an elevation with a permanent panoramic view of the lake, as they were built to always be a floor above the ground line in the area. Something that the newer constructions are unable to keep up with, and opt for direct ground connectivity.

The institutes addressed the interface with a finely detailed and low heighted brick compound wall that celebrated both the building and its connection to the lake. The wall details can today be seen used in almost all of the Maharaja Sayajirao University’ compounds. The music college boasts of exquisite wood work in its building and arcades setting off the tone on the brick background with inspiration felt in each corner. Beyond these are residential concrete structures providing for not much of a relief to the barren road stretch. At the offset of the western corner used to once be the city’s central fire station, the Agni Shaman Kendra (1953-2017), which unfortunately fell prey to ‘smart’ developments like road widening- which is ironic given the fire trucks still stand there till date. The Maharani Chimnabai Stree Udyogalaya (1938-9) constructed out of a desire to help women become self-sufficient by Maharani Chimnabai II, begins the western edge of the brick buildings raised above ground, but now lies tucked away behind high walls. The compound now hosts the Maharani Kanya Vidyalaya and with its high compound walls runs along the entire the short western side of the lake.

Fun Fact: There used to be a promenade in the lake leading to a platform where people could sit on benches and later was converted to a restaurant called the Sagar- From Once Upon a Time…there was Baroda

The northern edge provides for a shift from the large civic and institutional and has a variety of new concrete monotone. Old spaces are being converted to mixed use structures, yet they lean against the walls of yesteryear buildings, one of which is the Tarkeshwar Mahadev Mandir, built in memory of Princess Tarabai, adoptive sister of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III. Again, built on a high plinth for scintillating views, it no longer has an entrance from the lake side, and like the Shri Venkatesh Balaji temple on the north- are hidden spaces of the precinct, not many people know of. The immediate edges of the Sursagar hosts a series of religious edifices at different sides and are occasional traffic breakers to those who are yet not in the state to follow the traffic flow. Besides the religious, are the social civic spaces like the art-deco styled Pratap Cinema and the Prince Cinema, single screen movie halls just off the Munshi lane and opposite the Mangal Bazar. With the Mahatma Gandhi Nagar Gruh this node completes the intersection of art, culture, civic and more around a water body and in a hastily changing environ. As density becomes looked at with a renewed lens, looking at the built and ecological heritage of a place comprehensively would allow to deal with certain issues like lack of land for public amenities. Historic old city precincts, which were planned to give a cosmopolitan nature should be revived holistically and spaces addressed before rapid and haphazard changes in certain pockets changes the urban landscape of the city.

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