A trip to Gujarat is now incomplete without seeing the world’s tallest statue, say ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY
Fine. The Diwali weekend may not have been the best time to set out to see the Statue of Unity. We left Baroda on a Saturday morning, naively calculating that we’d drive two hours to the statue, spend an hour or two there and head to Surat. The roads were lined with congratulatory signboards – ‘the world’s tallest statue, built by L&T in just 33 months, a world record’.
Comparative posters showed how other iconic statues measured up… or didn’t. Christ the Redeemer in Brazil 38m, Statue of Liberty 93m, Ushiku Daibutsu in Japan 120m, Spring Temple Buddha in China 153 m; the 182m tall statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel dwarfed them all.
Thinking we had left early, we turned off the highway into Dabhoi to check out its old southern gateway Nandodi Gate. The once fortified town had four gateways and the main one Hira Bhagol (Gate) was suffused with intricate carvings and pillared arches. One side extended as the Gadh Bhavani Kalika Mandir. Local legends recount how Hiradhar, the architect was buried here alive!
Some claim it was because the king did not want him to replicate a similar masterpiece for anyone else. Others say Hira ran short of stones as he pilfered them to create a tank for his lover, thereby incurring the king’s wrath. Whatever the story, death was a heavy price to pay for a skilled architect. Yet, Hira’s name lives on…
Soon, we were back on the highway towards Kevadiya. We had a sinking feeling as every vehicle seemed headed that way, but it was too late to turn back. Whenever any car halted for tea or snacks, we rejoiced as it meant lesser people to deal with. Eventually, we joined a slow moving traffic jam.
After an eternity we were directed to a massive makeshift parking lot. We shuffled out and joined a large mass of people on the road. It seemed like we were trapped in the Maha Kumbh mela or the mass migration of wildebeests.
Ten minutes later, we noticed people cross to the left and join a serpentine queue leading to the ticket area. To our horror, the counter was like an octopus with multiple queues. Further away, a long line of buses trailed with more queues. Every face was writ with grim determination – “I am going to see this statue today, no matter what!”
Ashen, we approached some security personnel who directed us to an office. We were told, “It is an impossible situation. Such crowds had not been anticipated. One lift has packed up. Those waiting might get a chance in a few hours, maybe evening…” There was no shame in cutting losses; we would live to fight another day.
One of Sardar Patel’s lasting legacies was the peaceful accession of over 560 princely states into the Union of India. We dropped by at one such erstwhile kingdom nearby – Rajpipla. Some unsuccessful castaways from the statue expedition were trying to derive some pleasure or meaning from the dreary museum at Rajvant Palace, which had clearly seen better days. Kids ran with glee in the odd shaped dry swimming pool at the back. We returned for another attempt after our weeklong south Gujarat tour.
The long drive from the Dangs of Saputara back to Baroda barely left us enough time to cover the statue en route before we flew out the next morning. It was now or never. How could we possibly go back not having seen “The Statue”? The one the whole world was talking about – of how much it cost (2,989 crore rupees) and whether it was needed? We imagined the incredulous inquisition that would follow. “You couldn’t see it?” “What do you mean there was a crowd?” Fearing public ridicule, we drove into Kevadiya by late afternoon with iron will and steely resolve to meet India’s Iron Man.
It wasn’t as bad as Diwali but crowds were still lining up. Luckily, a chance to check out the new Tent City on the banks of the Sardar Sarovar Dam gave us a back-route access in our own vehicle rather than the public shuttle. Driving past Zero Point to the main canal of the Narmada, we stopped at Dyke IV, where 55 tents of Tent City 1 overlooked the scenic backwaters.
Further along the reservoir at Dyke III, Tent City 2’s 188 tents stretched out like a mini city. Gujarat Tourism offered all-inclusive multi-day packages with excursions to the dam-site, Valley of Flowers, Shoolpaneshwar Temple and Rajvant Palace & Museum at Rajpipla.
Our heart skipped a beat when we finally saw the statue outlined in the afternoon haze. Constructed on Sadhu Bet, a river island, it was accessible by a wide walkway lined with travelators on either side. On the opposite side of the river, the words ‘Statue of Unity’ screamed from the hillside in Hollywood-esque fashion. Looming high, Sardar seemed to watch the people scurrying below.
A series of escalators transported visitors up to his feet. We seemed like two stitches in his sandal strap! Built out of steel framing, reinforced concrete and bronze cladding (incidentally, made in China), the statue was designed to withstand earthquakes and wind velocities of 60 m/s.
The mandatory selfie over, we ambled down to the hi-tech Exhibition Hall and Gallery below. As part of an outreach drive and a symbolic gesture, farmers across India had donated their old farming implements. By 2016, 135 metric tonnes of scrap iron had been collected as part of the Loha and Mitti campaigns. After due processing, 109 tonnes was used for the foundation. One section of the gallery was devoted to the making of the statue and how 3500 workmen toiled night and day for three years. The statue was finally unveiled on Sardar Patel’s 143rd birth anniversary.
Dominating the hall was the face of Sardar Patel, an exact replica of the main statue in a proportion of 1:5. It was designed by Padma Bhushan awardee Shri Ram V Sutar. Similar scale models of the statue have been installed elsewhere – a 30 ft statue in Gandhinagar and a 21 ft statue at Bardoli, where Patel led a satyagraha and gained the title ‘Sardar’. The museum catalogued his life and contribution while an adjoining audio-visual gallery screened a 15-minute show on Patel and the state’s tribal culture.
Two high-speed elevators zipped up and down the concrete towers that form the statue’s legs. In just 30 seconds, 26 visitors are transported to the 153 m (502 ft) high viewing gallery, which can accommodate 200 people. As luck would have it, one of the lifts had conked. The security guys looked dazed like club bouncers at dawn after a Saturday night party. Irate people hung around the elevator doors in uncertainty, as we wondered if the maintenance guy would suffer the fate of Hira the architect at the hands of the king.
Surely, logistics and infrastructure issues will be smoothened out. Meanwhile, the food court is being populated, the sound and light show is getting its final touches and the road to Kevadiya has been made into a four-lane highway. With direct flights to Baroda and Surat, tourism is all set to prosper in a quiet nook that was not even a destination. Ironically (no pun intended), the Sardar Patel statue has been as controversial as the Sardar Sarovar Dam it calmly surveys. But TV debates aside, by sheer numbers it was turning out to be the hottest tourist attraction of the year.
Fly to Baroda and drive 95km/2 hrs to the Statue of Unity at Kevadiya. It is 154km/3 hr 30 min from Surat and 200km/4 hrs from Ahmedabad. Visitors must leave all private vehicles at the parking lot from where buses ferry you to/from the statue.
Statue of Unity Ticket Centres at Kevadiya: Shrestha Bharat Bhavan, Swagat Sthal, Hotel Pratima
Timings: 9am-5pm, closed on Monday for maintenance.
Viewing Gallery: Adults Rs.350, Children Rs.200, Bus Rs.30.
Book tickets for a 2-hr slot online at www.soutickets.in
Where to Eat
There’s a food court at the Statue of Unity, though Hotel Narmada on the highway at Rajpipla is a good place for a bite.
Crocodile spotting at Sardar Sarovar Dam
Shoolpaneshwar Mahadev Temple (13km)
Rajvant Palace & Museum, Rajpipla (28km)
Nilakanth Dham, Swami Narayan Temple, Poicha (45km)
Kalika temple & Hira Gate, Dabhoi (56km)
Where to Stay
Narmada Tent City 1 & 2
Sardar Sarovar dam site, Kevadiya
Ph 079-27454646, 9797949494
Tariff 1 night/2 day package Rs.6,000 per person + GST for Luxury tent, Rs.4500 deluxe AC, Rs.3000 standard non AC, 2 night/3 day package Rs.10,500 per person + GST for Luxury tent, Rs.9000 deluxe AC, Rs.6000 standard non AC
Rajvant Palace Resort
Vijay Palace, Palace Road, Rajpipla
Grand Mercure Vadodara Surya Palace
Sayajigunj, Opp Parsi Agiary, Baroda
Four Points by Sheraton Baroda
1275 Ward, No. 7, Fatehgunj, Baroda
Arudh Mahal homestay
B/S Shree Residency Apartments, Lulla Classes lane, Piramittar Road, Dandia Bazaar, Baroda
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the Jan 2019 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.