Discovering the Big History in Small Towns

In the last 10 years I have had the opportunity to visit a number of small towns (population less than 1 million) both on holiday and on work. And uncovering the often forgotten history in these small towns is a very interesting exercise. Here, listed in alphabetical order, are 8 small towns  that I recommend for those who have this bent of mind. Specifically, I have taken those places which have a relatively low profile in most travel guides. Hence no Rajasthan, no Goa, no Kerala.

1. Badami, Karnataka (Pop: 26,000)

Badami, February 2010

Known as Vatapi in ancient times and in most of the scriptures, Badami came into prominence in the 6th century CE when Pulakesin I made this the capital of the Chalukyan Empire. Over the years, Badami has seen many other regimes including Islamic rule to create a culturally mixed town. It’s economy is largely agrarian and the few hotels which are there just about manage to survive on the meagre tourist trade. Pattadakal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a place worth visiting as it is the earliest extant site of high quality structural temple architecture. And Aihole, a former trading town, is the source of South Indian temple architecture. (My earlier posts on Badami and the Chalukyas.)

2. Bijapur, Karnataka (Pop: 326,000)

Bijapur, March 2013

The name of the city means “City of Victory”. Its glory days came under the reign of the Adilshahi dynasty, from the end of the 15th till late 17th century when it was finally taken over by Aurangzeb. Bijapur represents the quintessential Indian small town with a rich history. There are three different layers (a) the monuments of the past which are numerous and will take you a day and a half to cover the entire lot, (b) the cultural practices that remain as a legacy of the past – the tonga rides, the biriyani shops, the large, juicy Mediterranean and Central Asian origin fruits in the markets (c) and finally the modern town itself, a semi-industrial semi-trading zone with its share of rich landlords and poor labourers, a social and economic divide that cuts across the country.

A number of people, after looking at some my photos and blog posts on Bijapur have written to me that these reminded them of their college days when they used to roam around here. Well, that is a compliment and if my posts trigger such happy moments, well, I would consider it a job well done by me.

3. Machhilipatnam, Andhra Pradesh (Pop:183,000)

Machilipatnam Beach, October 2009

A 90 minute bus ride from Vijayawada, I spent a day here, taking my Sunday off while on a field trip. The town, a port known as Masalia to ancient Romans and possibly a source of a fabric that was named muslin because it was shipped from here (there is an equally strong claim made by Mosul in Mesopotamia / Iraq). Being a trading centre has its advantages – people get exposed to different cultures. The French and Dutch traded here as did the British. Machilipatnam was the source and destination of trade from the princely state of Hyderabad.

The beach at Machilipatnam, just south of the town centre, was damaged during the 2004 Tsunami. In case you still had any doubts about the name of the town, the elaborate figures in the entrance gate of the beach should put those doubts at rest. On a Sunday afternoon, most of the shops were closed, possibly for weekend siesta. This prevented me from exploring the kalamkari work that also originates from here.

4. Ratnagiri, Maharashtra (Pop: 70,000)

Thebaw House, Ratnagiri, August 2008

Ratnagiri, though a small place, has some very interesting history. As a sea port, it was right in the middle of the Indian Ocean trade activities, harbour for both kosher merchant ships and pirate ones. It is the birthplace of Tilak. It is also the nearest urban market to buy Alphonso mangoes. You can of course venture out into the mango farms along the Konkan but if you don’t feel like doing all the work, then pick it up from the local markets.

Thebaw House, where the last king of Burma was exiled and died, is now a museum. Walking and exploring this colonial bungalow is quite an experience. From the balcony, one can’t see the harbour anymore (there’s too much of construction in the foreground).

5. Salem, Tamil Nadu (Pop: 830,000)

Salem Bus Stand, September 2010

Salem steel was a household name but I had no idea there was a town called Salem. Actually, I did not explore this town very extensively. I was on work here and was confined mostly to the hotel and the conference rooms. When I did have a day off, I went off on day trips to Hogennakal and Yercaud.

I do remember the Salem bus stand from where I got buses to the two places. One of my observations about bus travel (using state transport) has been that South India and Maharashtra have the most efficient and reliable services. And at Salem bus stand, I experienced TN buses. In spite of the language barrier, I could still get to my destinations error-free.

Not surprisingly, a lot of my free-wheeling travel have been in these states of the peninsula / Deccan.

6. Shillong, Meghalaya (Pop: 355,000)

Shillong, February 2008

On Christmas Eve, in the square in downtown Shillong, a big stage had been erected. There were a number of smartly dressed people – teenagers, youth, middle-aged aunties and the odd geriatric. They were all in queue to perform on the stage. At 4 pm, the show started. It was a parade of talent, untrained but pure natural ability and vocal brilliance. They were all doing Christmas related songs and dances – there was choir, there were some bluesy numbers, some Gospel rock, the works. The songs were in English and Khasi. It was fun and captivating.

7. Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh (Pop: 515,000)

Ujjain, September 2009

Ujjain is one of those towns, like many in the country, whose existence is traced back to the Mahabharata. In more recent times, it was the capital of Vikramaditya (of the Guptas era) in the 5th century CE. When one visits the town today, “Vikramaditya” is a common name – there are universities, private institutions, shops, restaurants, housing complexes – all named after this emperor. And then there is Kalidas.

And while the faithful come to Ujjain for all the temples as well as the Kumbh Mela, the unfaithful can also join them in enjoying government approved bhang.

8. Vasai (Pop: 50,000)

View from Bassein Fort, January 2012

Vasai, earlier known as Bassein under the British and Baccaim under the Portuguese, is a shadow of what it was, if one goes by the descriptions of medieval travelers. Between the 16th till the 18th century, it was the most prosperous Portuguese outpost outside of Goa. Court of the North it was called. The gentlemen of Bassein were, in Portuguese society, considered to be amongst the most eligible and respected people (they had lots of wealth and style anyway).

Today, it is a fairly cosmopolitan city and part of the larger metropolitan agglomeration with Virar (In fact, Vasai-Virar is a municipality with officially 1.1 million people, maybe more). There are, however, scattered across Vasai, churches built by the Portuguese in the 16th and 17th century. Most of these churches are still extant and in use.

Clearly, for a touch of the saudade, why go down to Goa. Just take a local train from Mumbai (Western Railway).

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