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The Urbane Column IV

Updated: May 2

As we end the year and come out of a widely celebrated heritage week, remnants and hidden gems- the crux of the Urbane Column- will once again take center stage. Collectively many of these gems including the built and natural, the revered and the ordinary, the daily use and the forgotten- shaped areas, defining it and often times becoming landmarks and precursors or sometimes successors to its neighbors.

One such place, the Kothi area, a boundless precinct beyond the Sursagar area covered last time, is a consortium of historic built monumentality and administrative machinery all while retaining its socio-cultural relevance and fabric. Unlike the envisioned lush greens or tanks of the city, the Kothi area, where the district collector’s office stands today, was part of the ‘rebuilding’ of the city as a center- an arrangement to show modernity and strength as the state grew.

Fact: When Sayajirao III planned a shift to the Laxmi Vilas Palace, the Sardars moved residence along with him, and thus shifted the administrative offices too. Lying at the end of the Raj Mahal Road, or the Chamaraja Wodeyar Road, the Kothi Kacheri came about. ‘He thus created a central site from where power could radiate with equal beneficence in the manner of an ancient Roman city, which was arrayed around a pivotal form.’Once Upon a time… there was Baroda.

With a shift in the royal residence down the road to the Laxmi Vilas Palace in the late 19th century, the city slowly started getting rebuilt to accommodate public gardens, museums, libraries and other institutions of power. These displayed amenities of a modern civic culture and the beginning of this shift was kickstarted by rehousing the buildings in the Kothi area to serve as an administrative hub. The approximately eighty thousand square meter area is an assortment of buildings including a record office, secretarial and police offices along with a library. The buildings on either side of the forty feet wide road are arranged around what once would have been easily accessible green areas, lawns, trees and the like. Although now with most of the district functionary taking place from the out of scale- Kuber Bhavan, the older precursors lie neglected and in need of a friend.

The Kothi Kacheri area, was actually once the British Residency headquarters. Following the Second Anglo Maratha war, the Gaekwads acknowledged the British, allowing control of its external affairs in return for retaining internal autonomy, and thus the first land allocation would have happened further west of the old citadel and the Sursagar precinct to present day Kothi. The Residency was supposed to have been present prominently in the area roughly in the early half of the 19th century, before shifting to the White House a.k.a the Sayaji Bhawan in the MSU campus, and to the Cantonment in Fatehgunj, of what is now widely known and restricted to the E.M.E boundaries. It almost seems ironical, to have the area named Kothi, although when this jargon appears is unknown, it showcases how all activities on this land- from the British residency to the present administrative offices- all have been stately and within mansions of irrelevance to the lowly struggles of day-to-day life.

Although now, the area of concern lies hidden behind vehicles and half- chopped trees, roots of which are bound by tar sprees, offering little space for pedestrians to walk down the once tree lined road and leaving much to imagination of what it would once have been. The buildings still are prima facie to the Vadodara district functioning’ (from Baroda State to District, after independence) walkers to the Kothi, are greeted by a grey compound, devoid of life in the morning, a scene that doesn’t repeat itself until after offices close for the day. A built milieu of strong proportion’s and building colors that reflect in the whole of the city, underlies the excitement that lies in knowing the background of each.

Beginning at the Old Kothi (designed in 1876 by Major Charles Mant) the first office building when the area was repurposed, is but a mere empty shell with over strewn offices and a scent of the past. The lush greens and top floor veranda are long gone, and now reflect the red and ivory of its neighbors. It is said a similar yet grander building used to once stand beside it, and used to function as the British resident’s living quarters- so opulent in woodwork was it that white ants overtook the structure, and no efforts were made to save it. Thus, now you have the totally utilitarian and somewhat brutalist Kuber Bhavan, a maze of clerical offices and long corridors and un-inviting charm.

When one is allowed or undetected, you should head down the alley beside the Kuber Bhavan, and spot remnants of what was once the compound wall with its raised corner bastion- its thin brick now exposed and look into the Railway police grounds; given you are able to see beyond the dismay of the apparent restoration efforts on the annexes and office trash strewn behind them. The police grounds are where the British troops for the residency used to be once stationed.

Adjacent to the Old Kothi, is the New Kothi building or the Collector’s office (designed in 1922 by A H Coyle, said to have been inspired from the Balmoral Castle in Scotland), sitting on a raised platform marooned amidst a crowded bazaar. It is best entered from the back, as the majestic roadside front seems to have no easily spotted or even open entrances, although it does have a gallery space at the road level, which many are unaware of, and is an afterthought of an addition post-independence.

On the opposite side of the road, and of the Juni Kothi is the second half of the Kothi complex. Altogether a complex of 5-6 buildings, the verticality and massing of these makes one stop in awe when within the complex. The apex of the complex being the archives or the Record Room where records are said to be maintained in excellent condition and in order, from rare Bahis to other district records from the 1770’s until just before independence. The complex hosts other structures reminiscent of vernacular styles like a court office (in the utmost state of disrepair) and the most revered’ Baroda State Library. Now better known as the Jaisinh Rao library, a precursor to the Baroda library movement, its silence almost eerie as its intricate wooden awnings and brackets lie in ramshackle, beckoning mostly the daily office worker to its collection of the daily news and a few interesting books. The unplanned road height with filling of tar or paver blocks, now right up to its first step has taken much away from the building making the negligence apparent.

The complex itself seems to once have been lush with greens and upright buildings holding matters of importance to the functioning of the Baroda State. With courtyards and fenestrations, cavity walls designed to protect from the elements, the buildings in the complex seem to have once provided a comfortable macro-urban environment beyond the buzz of the neighboring markets and wada’s. Even today as you walk in, the nip in the air is surreally felt.

However, over the years the city has undergone unrecognizable change, and that becomes apparent in the Kothi precinct too. Apart from the monumental mentioned above, many of the ancillary buildings give a sense of fated abandonment and one can only wonder of the stories behind them. Stripped down and under duress of demolition via neglect, the Record Tower complex itself is host to structures what once is supposed to have housed the jail, the court official’s residence and more.

A walk down the adjacent roads hint at what could once have been a towering and majestic skyline when all building campaigns would have been over, sitting on the higher land and adjoined by residences and open greens. The Wada’s and the manzils would have faced the Government and Press stationery and library, and also the Suryanarayan Mandir. The Raopura Police station further down beside the temple shows how high the elevated area overall would once originally have been, and leads you to the police grounds at its south.

Fun Fact: The Suryanarayan Mandir, was erroneously built facing east- an act that is said could have brought misfortune to the entire settlement and urban legends have it that the Airavat (divine elephant) facing it, was a later addition to negate any possible mishaps. Some also say that there is a Vaav underneath the garden and amidst the corner trees, birds chirp and dogs sleep- Read more in Once Upon a time… there was Baroda.

What was once a city at its heights- a place of palaces, and institutions to impart education, administration and culture, with hospitals and markets for all, now is swamped by the concrete and glass of mundane structures. Over time such precincts’ boundaries get blurred, some in the pretext of progress while some victims to time, walks to these places tingle the senses to those who look behind. Beneath the coffers and the kind, beyond the trees and plaques lies heritage of our kind.

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