Bhavnagar’s Historic Structures: Then and Now

Bhavnagar, literally the land of Bhavs, or feelings, holds an intricate repository of history archived behind every little stone. Have you ever wondered about the historical coordinates of this Gujarati city nestled between the Saurashtra coast and the rolling hills?

Dive into this engaging talk by Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil as she revisits Bhavnagar, through colonial-era sepia toned photographs (c. 1886-89) from the Getty Collection, tracing its progress under the illustrious Maharaja Takhatsinghji Gohil.

About Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil 

She has a BA Joint Honours degree in Archaeology and History of Art from the University of Nottingham, and an MA in Heritage Management and Conservation from Durham University. Born into the royal family of Bhavnagar. She conducts regular heritage walks, and discussions. Today, she takes us down the memory lane revisiting architectural marvels of her ancestral land through this engaging presentation. 

This talk has been adapted in written form by Aadrit Banerjee for those who prefer to read. Aadrit is our former Open Knowledge Fellow, and is pursuing a graduate degree in English from Delhi University.

Bhavnagar: a capital for the Gohils 

Approximately 190 kilometres away from the capital city of Gujarat is the city of Bhavnagar, standing to the west of the narrow Gulf of Khambhat. Alang, the world’s largest ship breaking yard is located 50 kilometres from it. 

Legend has it that the Gohila dynasty who established Bhavnagar were descendants of the Pandavas. They trace their familial lineage to Shalivahan, the founder of the Shaka era. After an intense competition with the Marwars, the Gohils had migrated further south, settling along the Saurashtra coast, establishing various capitals at Sejakpur, Umrala, and Sihor.

Aerial view of Sihor
Sihor (1886–1889) | Getty Museum, Public Domain

This is Sihor, the kingdom’s earlier capital. Remnants of the fortification visible in the photograph, on the distant hill, exist even today. However, being prone to raids by neighbouring rulers, Maharaja Bhavsinghji Gohil (1703–1764) decided to shift the headquarters near Vadva village in 1723. The new capital was also a hotspot of maritime trade connections. It was named Bhavnagar, after its founder.

Portrait Photograph of Maharaja Takhtsinghji
H.H.H. the Maharaja Takhtsinghji | Getty Museum, Public Domain

Under Maharaja Takhatsinghji Gohil’s (1858-1896) rule, Bhavnagar grew into an important centre of repute. It prospered in terms of trade, basic infrastructure, arts and culture. In order to protect the kingdom’s maritime trade, Bhavsinghji entered into alliance with the Siddis of Janjira who controlled the Surat castle. When the British took over Surat in 1756, Bhavsinghji entered into a similar alliance with them. He became the “model ruler of a model state”, and won the Empress of India Gold Medal in 1877 for the range of reforms he introduced. Here you can see him in all his glory, similar to the poised portrait that Raja Ravi Varma painted when he was touring the princely states of Gujarat.

Bhavnagar: where every building has a story to tell 

From 1870-1878, the State was under a joint administration with the British. This period saw exceptional reforms due to the combined efforts of Mr E. H. Percival of the Bombay Civil Service and Gaurishankar Udayshankar, Chief Minister of Bhavnagar State. The State maintained cordial relations with the English until it joined an independent India in 1948. These colonial entanglements are still visible in the architecture.

grand doorway of the palace with carved apsaras
Old Darbar Gateway | Getty Museum, Public Domain

In the surviving portions of the Darbargadh or the palace gate one can still spot, among the beautiful apsaras, the British emblem carved in marble. The gate is incorrectly credited to Takhatsinghji. It was actually Vijaysinghji who constructed the gate in the early 1800s. “Although the gate has stood the test of time, inside it is quite a disaster”, Gohil observes. “None of the former zenana quarters remain. The space has not been properly conserved, and has been ruined by ill-maintained construction activities”. 

Sir Takhatsinghji Hospital

Maharaja Takhatsinghji Gohil was a progressive ruler, and most of the monuments that dot the site today date back to his reign. He founded the Sir Takhatsinghji Hospital. It spans over a huge area, and stands right in the centre of the city. “The building has been so skilfully designed that the natural sunlight filtering into the operation theatre was enough to conduct surgeries in the absence of electricity”, Gohil claims. With an initial capacity of catering to 50,000 people, today it is a government hospital and serves over ten lakh people.

Old photograph of Takhtsinghji hospital built in indo-saracenic style
Takhtsingji Hospital, front view | Getty Museum, Public Domain

Bhavnagar’s Educational Institutions

Takhatsinghji also established the Alfred High School in 1872. It was named after Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s second son, the first British royal to visit India.

Photograph of Alfred High school built in indo-saracenic style
Alfred High School | Getty Museum, Public Domain

“A beautiful mix of Indo-Saracenic styles, the school runs even today. The lawns now have lush greenery. The structure is similar to Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial, and Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Bus Terminal”.

photograph of Samaldas Art College being built
Samaldas Arts College | Getty Museum, Public Domain

Another premier education institute that the Maharaja established was the Samaldas Arts College. It was built in memory of his able Diwan, Samaldas Paramananddas Mehta in 1885. Ms Gohil notes, “the outside of the architecture is not detailed. It is made of normal limestone, but it has exquisite wooden carvings on the inside. This wood was sourced from Burma with who, Bhavnagar had cordial trade relations”. Today, the college has shifted to a new location. Though the old structure still stands, it is in dire need of conservation.

old Photograph of Majiraj Girls School
Majiraj Girls School | Getty Museum, Public Domain

At a time when women across most princely states were forced to remain under the purdah, Takhatsingh founded the Majiraj Girls School. It is one of the oldest girls’ schools in Gujarat and functions even today. Noting the transformation of the school premises that have taken place in today’s time, Brijeshwari says: “I found this photograph very interesting. There is so much development that has happened in this area ever since … and if I were to see this photograph and not have been given the title of where it is located, I wouldn’t have guessed, even though I pass by it almost everyday.”

The Taj Mahal of Bhavnagar

old Photograph of Chhatri monument in Gangajaliya Tank
Chhatri in Gangajaliya Tank | Getty Museum, Public Domain

This is Ganga Deri. A picturesque, but now dilapidated, chhatri — it is an architectural marvel carved in marble, floating atop the Gangajaliya, a man-made lake. “As per local narratives, back in the 1800s, the talav (lake) was where the Bhavnagar State Olympics would be held, and people from all parts of the kingdom would come to participate. All the water was cleared from the lake for this purpose” — Ms Gohil explains. Takhatsinghji commissioned the monument in memory of his late wife in 1875. She fondly calls it the Taj Mahal of Bhavnagar for the similarity of the sentiment behind its erection, and the marble that forms the base material for both monuments. The famous British architect Sir John Griffith designed it, and completed it over a period of sixteen years. Today, it stands in a decrepit condition and requires immediate conservation efforts.

Architectural marvels: Jashonath and Takhteshwar Mahadev Temple

old Photograph of Jashonath temple
Jashonath Temple | Getty Museum, Public Domain

Two architecturally unique Shiva shrines, Jashonath and Takhteshwar Mahadev, guard the kingdom. “The area around Jashonath temple had beautiful lawns and gardens, where sadhus visiting Bhavnagar took shelter. Later, after independence, these grounds were used for constructing shelters for government officers working in the road development department” — Ms Gohil says. The Jashonath temple was built in memory of Maharaja Jaswantsingji, Takhatsinghji’s father, while Takhteshwar temple, as the name suggests, honours Bhavnagar’s most illustrious scion.

old photograph of Takhteshwar temple set on a hill
Takhteshwar Temple | Getty Museum, Public Domain

Today, Bhavnagar has undergone sea-changes, marked by modern developments and urbanisation after Independence. These remaining touchstones of history — which according to Ms Gohil provide a feeling of rootedness — call for immediate conservation.

photograph of Samaldas College lecture hall showcasing intricate jali work
Samaldas College (Lecture Hall) | Getty Museum, Public Domain

If you are a history or architecture aficionado, or even somebody who simply loves listening to stories on a cool-lazy afternoon, then this talk about Bhavnagar, and its history wrapped in marble and wood, is your perfect place! You’re welcome!

This illustrated talk uses photos available under an open license from the Getty Museum. The talk is produced as part of The Heritage Lab’s Indian Heritage Online series which draws attention to openly licensed photographs, prints, art featuring Indian monuments and heritage sites.

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