Heated in the north by the blistering deserts of Pakistan and Rajasthan, and cooled in the south by the gentle ocean breeze of the Arabian Sea, GUJARAT forms India’s westernmost bulkhead. The diversity of its topography – forested hilly tracts and fertile plains in the east, vast tidal marshland and desert plains in the Rann of Kutch in the west, with a rocky shoreline jutting into its heartland – is challenged only by the multiplicity of its politics and culture. Home to significant populations of Hindus, Jains, Muslims and Christians, as well as tribal and nomadic groups, the state boasts a patchwork of religious shrines and areas steeped in Hindu lore. Gujarat is the homeland of Mahatma Gandhi, who was born in Porbandar and worked for many years in Ahmedabad. Having long lived by his credo of self-dependence, Gujaratis are consistently at or near the top of the chart in terms of India’s economic output, and have also fanned around the world to settle abroad. The region’s prosperity dates as far back as the third millennium BC, when the Harappans started trading shell jewellery and textiles, with the latter Jain-dominated industry remaining an important source of income to the state. India’s most industrialized state, Gujarat also boasts some of the Subcontinent’s biggest oil refineries; thriving cement, chemicals and pharmaceutical manufacturing units; and a lucrative ship-breaking yard at Alang. Kandla is one of west India’s largest ports, while much of the country’s diamond cutting and polishing takes place in Surat, Ahmedabad and Bhavnagar. Rural poverty remains a serious problem, however, and health and education developments have not kept pace with economic growth.
Gandhi’s primary mission – to instigate political change through nonviolent means – has not always been adhered to in Gujarat, and Muslim-Hindu tensions have boiled over to violence on a cyclical basis. In 2002, the state suffered India’s worst communal rioting since Partition, with around two thousand people killed. The fighting came on the heels of the devastating January 2001 earthquake, centred in Kutch. These events added to the woes of a state already beleaguered by severe water shortages and drought.
Nevertheless, Gujarat has plenty to offer those who take time to detour from its more famous northerly neighbour Rajasthan, and it’s free of the hassle tourists often encounter there. The lure of important temple cities, forts and palaces is balanced by the chance to search out unique crafts made in communities whose way of life remains scarcely affected by global trends. Gujarat’s architectural diversity reflects the influences of its many different rulers – Buddhist Mauryans, Hindu rajas and Muslim emperors.
Ahmedabad, state capital until 1970 and the obvious place to begin a tour, harbours the first mosques built in the curious Indo-Islamic style, richly carved temples and step-wells dating from the eleventh century. Just north is the ancient capital of Patan and the Solanki sun temple at Modhera, while south is the Harappan site, Lothal. In the northwest, the largely barren region of Kutch was largely bypassed by Gujarat’s foreign invaders, and consequently preserves a village culture where crafts long forgotten elsewhere are still practised.
The Kathiawar Peninsula, or Saurashtra, is Gujarat’s heartland, scattered with temples, mosques and palaces that bear testimony to centuries of rule by Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. Highlights include superb Jain temples on the hills of Shatrunjaya, near Bhavnagar, and Mount Girnar, close to Junagadh. The temple at Somnath is said to have witnessed the dawn of time, and that at Dwarka is built on the site of Krishna’s ancient capital. At Junagadh, rocks bearing 2000-year-old Ashokan inscriptions stand a stone’s throw from flamboyant mausoleums and Victorian Gothic-style palaces. There’s plenty of scope for spotting wildlife, too, in particular the lions in Gir National Park, blackbucks at Velavadar National Park, and the Indian wild ass in the Little Rann Sanctuary. Separated from the south coast by a thin sliver of the Arabian Sea, the island of Diu, a Union Territory and not officially part of the state, is fringed with beaches, palm groves and whitewashed Portuguese churches.
The first known settlers in what is now Gujarat were the Harappans, who arrived from Sindh and Punjab around 2500 BC. Despite their craftsmanship and trade links with Africans, Arabs, Persians and Europeans, the civilization fell into decline in 1900 BC, largely because of severe flooding. From 1500 to 500 BC, little is known about the history of Gujarat but it is popularly believed the Yadavas, Krishna’s clan, held sway over much of the state, with their capital at Dwarka. Gujarat’s political history begins in earnest with the powerful Mauryan empire, established by Chandragupta with its capital at Junagadh and reaching its peak under Ashoka. After his death in 226 BC, Mauryan power dwindled; the last significant ruler was Samprati, Ashoka’s grandson, a Jain who built fabulous temples at tirthas (pilgrimage sites) such as Girnar and Palitana.
During the first millennium AD, control of the region passed between a succession of warring dynasties and nomadic tribes, including the Gurjars, from whom the state eventually derived its name, and the Kathi warriors of Saurashtra. Gujarat eventually came under the sway of the Solanki (or Chalukyan) dynasty in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a golden period in the state’s architectural history as the rulers commissioned splendid Hindu and Jain temples and step-wells. Many of these structures suffered during the raids of Mahmud of Ghazni in 1027, but Muslim rule was not actually established until the Khalji conquest in 1299. Eight years later, Muzaffar Shah’s declaration of independence from Delhi marked the foundation of the Sultanate of Gujarat, which lasted until its conquest by the Mughal emperor Akbar in the sixteenth century. In this period Muslim, Jain and Hindu styles were melded to produce remarkable Indo-Islamic mosques and tombs. Contrary to impressions encouraged by recent sectarian violence, particularly in Ahmedabad, Islam never eclipsed Hinduism or Jainism, and the three have lived side by side for centuries.
In the 1500s, the Portuguese, already settled in Goa, turned their attention to Gujarat. Having captured Daman in 1531, they took Diu four years later, building forts and typically European towns. Fending off Arab and Muslim attacks, the Portuguese governed the ports until they were subsumed into India in the 1960s.
The British East India Company set up its headquarters in Surat in 1613, and soon established their first factory, sowing the seeds of a prospering textile industry. When British sovereignty was established in 1818, governor-generals signed treaties with about two hundred princely and petty states of Saurashtra. Under British rule the introduction of machinery upgraded textile manufacture, which brought substantial wealth to the region but put many manual labourers out of business. Their cause was valiantly fought by Gujarat-born Mahatma Gandhi. After Partition, Gujarat received an influx of Hindus from Sind and witnessed terrible sectarian fighting as Muslims fled to their new homeland.
In 1960, after the Marathi and Gujarati language riots (demonstrators sought the redrawing of state boundaries according to language, as had happened in the south), Bombay state was split and Gujarat created. The Portuguese enclaves were forcibly annexed by the Indian government in 1961. After Independence Gujarat was generally a staunch Congress stronghold, until the fundamentalists of the BJP took control in 1991. The communal violence of 2002 reopened an old chapter of history by pitting Muslim and Hindu neighbours against one another. Nine years on, the communal tensions continue to cast a long shadow, with neighbourhoods often divided along religious lines and Muslims marginalized and discriminated against.Read More
Godhra and Gujarat’s communal violence
Godhra and Gujarat’s communal violence
When the BJP shocked India with its landslide victory in the December 2002 election, analysts needed only to point to a single word to find an answer for the victory – Godhra. The town was an anonymous railway depot until February 27, 2002, when a Muslim mob set fire to railway cars filled with Hindu pilgrims returning from the controversial temple at Ayodhya, killing 59.
The incident sparked huge riots across Gujarat. Muslim neighbourhoods burned while sword- and stick-wielding Hindus rampaged, looted and raped. In many cases police forces allegedly stood by and watched. Officially, more than one thousand people died in the weeks following the Godhra incident, although human rights organizations estimate the real figure at more than two thousand, the vast majority Muslims, while thousands more moved to refugee camps, too frightened to go back to their own homes.
The violence was politicized after Congress accused the government of not doing enough to ensure the safety of Muslim citizens. Gujarat’s BJP chief minister Narendra Modi earned the moniker “Muslim killer” for his passive attitude as the violence continued, and his lack of support for the survivors. Just days after NGO Human Rights Watch reported Gujarat state officials “were directly involved in the killings of hundreds of Muslims since February 27 and are now engineering a massive cover-up of the state’s role in the violence”, parliament attempted to censure the BJP government. Following a sixteen-hour debate Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee apologized for not having “tried harder” to end the riots and announced a $31 million rehabilitation package.
With the state elections approaching, Modi intensified his Hindutva rhetoric and campaign “to prevent” another Godhra, in a blatant attempt to haul in as many Hindu votes as possible amid a climate of ethnic tension. Yet it wasn’t until the December 12 election that his cult status among ordinary Gujaratis was at last verified by his surprising landslide win.
The 2004 national elections, however, saw a turnaround, ushering in a Congress-led government. Though BJP retained the majority in Gujarat, the elections were closely contested. Following protests that the violence had been government-supported and that the authorities were biased, the Supreme Court ruled the cases of the violence-affected families be moved to courts in other states for their safety and ordered investigations into the riots. As yet, none of the investigations have been able to come to any firm conclusion regarding the train-burning at Godhra.
In October 2007, in the run-up to the state elections, respected magazine Tehelka published secretly-filmed footage of senior Gujarati Hindu politicians, mainly from the BJP, describing in graphic detail how they took part in and helped to orchestrate the riots. The report alleged Modi allowed the violence to continue unabated, ordered the police to side with Hindu rioters and sheltered the perpetrators from justice. Thus far no attempt has been made to investigate the claims at a judicial or political level, and Modi was resoundingly re-elected in December 2007. He was subsequently talked about as a possible candidate for Prime Minister, but at the time of writing his star appeared to be on the wane.
For a powerful account of the post-Godhra violence, read Dionne Bunsha’s Scarred: Experiments With Violence In Gujarat.
Mahatma Gandhi – India’s great soul
Mahatma Gandhi – India’s great soul
Gujarat’s most famous son Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar. Although merchants by caste – Gandhi means grocer – both his grandfather and father rose to positions of political influence. Young Mohandas was shy and sickly, only an average scholar, but from early on questioned the codes of power around him and even flouted accepted Hindu practice: he once ate meat for a year believing it would give him the physical edge the British appeared to possess. As a teenager, he began to develop an interest in spirituality, particularly the Jain principle of ahimsa (nonviolence).
Gandhi moved to London to study law at 19, outwardly adopting the appearance and manners of an English gentleman, but also keeping to his mother’s wish that he resist meat, alcohol and women. Avidly reading the Bible alongside the Bhagavad Gita, he started to view different religions as a collective source of truth from which everyone could draw spiritual inheritance.
After a brief spell back in India, Gandhi left again to practise law in South Africa, where the plight of fellow Indians – coupled with his own indignation at being ejected from a first-class rail carriage – fuelled his campaigns for racial equality. His public profile grew and he gained crucial victories for minorities against the practices of indentured labour. During this time he also opted to transcend material possessions, dressing in the handspun dhoti and shawl of a peasant, and took a vow of celibacy. This turn to ascetic purity he characterized as satyagraha, which derived from Sanskrit ideas of “truth” and “firmness”, and would become the touchstone of passive resistance. Returning to India with his messianic reputation well established – the poet Tagore named him “Mahatma” (Great Soul) – Gandhi travelled the country campaigning for swaraj (home rule). He also worked tirelessly for the rights of women and untouchables, whom he called Harijans (children of God), and founded an ashram at Sabarmati outside Ahmedabad where these principles were upheld. Gandhi stepped up his activities in the wake of the brutal massacre of protesters at Amritsar, leading a series of self-sufficiency drives during the 1920s, which culminated in the great salt march from Ahmedabad to Dandi in 1930. This month-long 386-kilometre journey led a swelling band of followers to the coast, where salt was made in defiance of the British monopoly on production. It drew worldwide attention: although Gandhi was promptly imprisoned, British resolve was seen to have weakened and on release he was invited to a round-table meeting in London to discuss home rule. The struggle continued for several years and Gandhi served more time in jail – his wife Kasturba dying by his side in 1944.
As the nationalist movement gained strength, Gandhi grew more concerned about the state of Hindu–Muslim relations. He responded to outbreaks of communal violence by subjecting his own body to self-purification and suffering through fasting. When Britain finally guaranteed independence in 1947, it seemed Gandhi’s dream of a united and free India was possible after all. But Partition left him with a deep sense of failure. Once more he fasted in Calcutta in a bid to stem the violence as large numbers of Hindus and Muslims flowed between the new countries. Gandhi’s commitment to the fair treatment of Muslim Indians and his intention to visit and endorse Pakistan as a neighbour enraged many Hindu fundamentalists. He survived an attempt on his life on January 20, 1948, only to be shot dead from close range by a lone Hindu gunman in Delhi ten days later. Prime Minister Nehru announced the loss on national radio: “Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere.”