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 – can be compared to 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, born in Porbandar and a long-time resident of Ahmedabad. In line with his credo of self-dependence, Gujaratis consistently rank at or near the top of the chart in terms of India’s economic output, and have 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. The latter, Jain-dominated industry, remains 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 still lag behind economic growth.
Despite Gandhi’s push for political change through non-violent means, his home state has often followed a different course, and Muslim-Hindu tensions have boiled more than to violence on a cyclical basis. Following the devastating January 2001 earthquake, centred in Kutch, the state suffered India’s worst communal rioting since Partition, with more than a thousand people killed in 2002. Dozens more died in a 2008 string of bomb attacks in Ahmedabad. All 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 bearing testimony to centuries of rule by Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. Highlights include the superb Jain temples adorning 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, ancient Ashokan inscriptions stand a stone’s throw from flamboyant mausoleums and Victorian Gothic-style palaces. There’s plenty of scope for spotting wildlife, too, including Asia’s only lions, found in Gir National Park, blackbucks at Blackbuck 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 due to 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. Rule then passed among a succession of warring dynasties and nomadic tribes throughout the first millenium AD, among them the native Gurjars (or Gujjar), from whom the modern state would derive its name.
In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Gujarat came under the sway of the Solanki (or Chalukyan) dynasty, originating from a Gurjar clan, which issued in a golden era in the state’s architectural history. The Solankis built and rebuilt (following the devastating raid of Mahmud of Ghazni in 1027) splendid Hindu and Jain temples and step-wells throughout the state.
Muslim rule in Gujarat was established by the Khalji conquest in 1299. A century later, the Sultanate of Gujarat was founded when Muzaffar Shah declared independence from Delhi. Setting up a new capital at Ahmedabad, the Muzaffarid Dynasty ruled for two hundred years before the Mughal conquest of emperor Akbar in the sixteenth century. In the ensuing period, Muslim, Jain and Hindu styles were melded to produce remarkable Indo-Islamic mosques and tombs.
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. The British East India Company set up its factory and headquarters in Surat in 1613, sowing the seeds of a prospering textile industry. British sovereignty over the state was established in 1818 when governor-generals signed treaties with about two hundred of Saurashtra’s princely and petty states. The introduction of machinery upgraded textile manufacture, bringing substantial wealth to the region while putting many manual labourers out of business. Their cause was valiantly fought by Gujarat-born Mahatma Gandhi, who led the momentous Salt March from Ahmedabad to Dandi. After Partition, Gujarat received an influx of Hindus from Sindh (Pakistan) 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. Post-Independence, Gujarat remained a staunch Congress stronghold until the fundamentalists of the BJP took control in 1991. The communal violence of 2002 pitted Muslim and Hindu neighbours against one another. More than a decade on, the religious and ethnic tension continues to cast a long shadow. Meanwhile, Gujarat remains one of India’s most wealthy and prosperous states.