SAURASHTRA, or the Kathiawar Peninsula, forms the bulk of Gujarat state, a large knob of land spreading south from the hills and marshes of the north out to the Arabian Sea, cut into by the Gulf of Cambay to the east and the Gulf of Kutch to the west. This is Gujarat at its most diverse, populated by cattle-rearing tribes and industrialists, with Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Muslim architecture, modern urban centres and traditional bazaars. Saurashtra boasts India’s finest Jain temple city at Shatrunjaya near Palitana, Krishna temples at Dwarka and Somnath, and Ashoka’s Buddhist capital, Junagadh. Lions can still be found in Gir National Park, while northeast of Bhavnagar, India’s largest herd of blackbuck lives in Velavadar National Park. Gandhi’s birthplace is honoured in Porbandar and his former family home in Rajkot has been turned into a museum. For sun, sea and beer, head to the formerly Portuguese island of Diu, just off the south coast.Read More
In the far west of the peninsula, fertile wheat, groundnut and cotton fields emerge in vivid contrast to the arid expanses further inland. According to Hindu legend, Krishna fled Mathura to this coastal region, declaring DWARKA his capital. A labyrinth of narrow winding streets cluttered with temples, the town resonates today with the bustle of eager saffron-clad pilgrims and the clatter of celebratory drums. Dwarka really comes to life during the major Hindu festivals; the most fervent are the Shivratri Mela (Feb/March) and Janmashtami (Aug/Sept).
The elaborately carved tower of the sixteenth-century Dwarkadish Temple looms 50m above the town. Non-Hindus can enter the shrine only on signing a form declaring respect for religion.
When Krishna came to Dwarka with the Yadava clan, he eloped with Princess Rukmini. One kilometre east of town, the small twelfth-century Rukmini Temple is, if anything, more architecturally impressive than the Dwarkadish temple, with carvings of elephants, flowers, dancers and Shiva in several of his aspects covering every wall. For great sea and town views, climb to the top of the lighthouse.
- Junagadh and around
Veraval and Somnath
Veraval and Somnath
Midway between Porbandar and Diu, the fishing port of Veraval is the jumping-off point for trips to Somnath, 5km east, whose temple is one of the twelve jyotrilingams of Shiva. Its shrines to Vishnu and connection with Krishna – said to have lived here with the Yadavas during the time of the Mahabharata – make it equally important for Vaishnavites.
SOMNATH consists of only a few streets and a bus stand – even its famed sea-facing temple is little to look at, despite its many-layered history. Legend has it the site, formerly known as Prabhas Patan, was dedicated to Soma, the juice of a plant used in rituals and greatly praised for its enlightening powers (and hallucinogenic effects) in the Rig Veda. The temple of Somnath itself is believed to have appeared first in gold, at the behest of the sun god, next in silver, created by the moon god, a third time in wood at the command of Krishna and, finally, in stone, built by Bhim, the strongest of the five Pandava brothers from the Mahabharata epic. The earliest definite record, however, dates the temple to the tenth century when it became rich from devotees’ donations. Unfortunately, such wealth came to the attention of the brutal iconoclast Mahmud of Ghazni who destroyed the shrine and carried its treasure off to Afghanistan. The next seven centuries saw a cycle of rebuilding and sacking, though the temple lay in ruins for over two hundred years after a final sacking by Aurangzeb before the most recent reconstruction began in 1950. Very little of the original structure remains and, although planned in the style of the Solanki period, the temple is built from unattractive modern stone. The main pujas are held at 7am, noon and 7pm. An architectural museum north of the temple, contains statues, lintels, sections of roof pillars, friezes and toranas from the tenth to twelfth centuries.
Somnath’s museum, across from the bus stand, is loaded up with seaworthy artefacts. Tongas and rickshaws gather outside the bus station, ready to take pilgrims to temple sites east of Somnath. Most important of these is Triveni Tirth, at the confluence of the Hiran, Saraswati and Kapil rivers as they flow into the sea. Before reaching the confluence, the road passes the ancient Surya Mandir, probably built during the Solanki period and now cramped by a newer temple and concrete houses built almost against its walls.
- Gir National Park
Set off the southern tip of Saurashtra, the island of DIU, less than 12km long and just 3km wide, was under Portuguese control until 1961. Today, governed along with Daman as a Union Territory from Delhi, it has a relaxed atmosphere quite different from anywhere in Gujarat. While its beaches are not as idyllic as Goa’s, most visitors stay longer than intended, idling in cafés, cycling around the island or strolling along the cliffs. The leisurely pace is also due in part to the lack of alcohol restrictions.
Diu Town in the east is the focus: a maze of alleys lined with distinctive Portuguese buildings form the hub of the old town, while the fort stands on the easternmost tip of the island, staring defiantly out at the Gulf of Cambay. Along the northern coast, the island’s main road runs past salt pans that give way to mud flats sheltering flocks of water birds, including flamingos that stop to feed in early spring. The route skirting the south coast passes rocky cliffs and beaches, the most popular of which is Nagoa Beach, before reaching the tiny fishing village of Vanakbara in the very west of the island.
The earliest records of Diu date from 1298, when it was controlled by the Chudasana dynasty. Soon after it fell into the hands of invading Muslims and by 1349 was ruled by Mohammed bin Tughluq who successfully boosted the shipbuilding industry. Diu prospered as a harbour and in 1510 came under the government of the Ottoman Malik Ayaz, who repelled besieging Portuguese forces in 1520 and 1521. Aware of Diu’s strategic position for trade with Arabia and the Persian Gulf, and having already gained a toehold in Daman, the Portuguese did not relent. Under Nuno da Cunha, they once more tried, but failed, to take the island in 1531. However, in 1535 Sultan Bahadur of Gujarat, who had agreed to sign a peace accord, was murdered and the Portuguese took control, immediately building the fort and a strong town wall. While local traders and merchants continued to thrive, many resented paying taxes to the Portuguese. In defiance, local seamen made a series of unsuccessful raids on Portuguese ships. Mughal and Arab attacks were resisted, too, but the Portuguese were finally forced out in 1961 by the Indian government, which, after a swift bombing campaign, declared Diu part of India.
Little Diu Town is protected by the fort in the east and a wall in the west. Nagar Seth’s Haveli, one of the grandest of the town’s distinctive Portuguese mansions, is on Makata Road, hidden in the web of narrow streets that wind through the residential Old Portuguese District. Fishermen make daily trips from the north coast in wooden boats; their catch is sold in the market near the mosque.
Although the Christian population is dwindling along with the old language, a few churches built by the former European inhabitants are still used. Portuguese Mass is celebrated beneath the high ceilings and painted arches of St Paul’s, though the church of St Thomas, to the northwest, is now a museum, and that of St Francis of Assisi, to the south, is partly occupied by the local hospital.
Diu’s serene fort stands robust, resisting the battering of the sea on three sides and sheltering birds, jackals and the town jail. Its wide moat and coastal position enabled the fort to withstand attack by land and sea, but there are obvious scars from the Indian government’s air strikes in 1961 – notice the hole above the altar of the church in the southwest corner. Now abandoned almost completely to nature, and littered with centuries-old cannonballs, it commands excellent views out to sea and over the island. Just offshore, the curious, ship-shaped Panikotha Fort – connected to the mainland by tunnel, according to lore – is off-limits, but if it’s calm, you can hire a boat (around Rs60) from the dock for a closer look.
Velavadar Blackbuck National Park
Velavadar Blackbuck National Park
Outside the tiny village of Velavadar, 65km north of Bhavnagar, the 34-square-kilometre Blackbuck National Park has the highest concentration of this Indian antelope anywhere in the country. Prior to Independence their number stood at eight thousand, but habitat loss and hunting cut this figure down to two hundred by 1966; they now number around three thousand four hundred. The park is also home to the endangered Indian wolf, nilgai antelopes, jackal foxes, jungle cats and Indian foxes. Birdwatchers can spot rare species like the Stoicka’s bushchat and harrier hawks. Poor rainfall in recent years has forced many of the latter to roost elsewhere, however, with numbers falling from 2515 in 2002 to 979 in 2009. There are no jeeps available for hire on site, but a taxi costs around Rs1000 for a day-trip from Bhavnagar. If you arrive by bus (2 daily from Bhavnagar; 1hr), it is possible to walk to one of the watchtowers near the entrance and get a good view, but it’s not the same.
Shatrunjaya and Palitana
Shatrunjaya and Palitana
For many visitors, the highlight of a trip to Saurashtra is a climb up the holy hill of Shatrunjaya, India’s principal Jain pilgrimage site, just outside the dull town of PALITANA, 50km southwest of Bhavnagar. More than nine hundred temples crown this hill, said to be a chunk of the mighty Himalayas from where the Jains’ first tirthankara, Adinath, and his chief disciple gained enlightenment. While records show that the hill was a tirtha as far back as the fifth century, the existing temples date only from the sixteenth century, anything earlier having been lost in the Muslim raids of the 1500s and 1600s.
Climbing the wide steps up Shatrunjaya takes one to two hours, though, as with all hilltop pilgrimage centres, dholis (seats on poles held by four bearers) are available for those who can’t make it under their own steam. The views as you ascend are magnificent, and you should allow at least two more hours to see even a fraction of the temples.
The individual tuks (temple enclosures) are named after the merchants who funded them. Together they create a formidable city, laid over the two summits and fortified by thick walls. Each tuk comprises courtyards chequered in black-and-white marble and several temples whose walls are exquisitely and profusely carved with saints, birds, animals, buxom maidens, musicians and dancers. Many are two or even three storeys high, with balconies crowned by perfectly proportioned pavilions. The largest temple, dedicated to Adinath, in the Khartaravasi tuk on the northern ridge is usually full of masked Svetambara nuns and monks, dressed in white and carrying white fly-whisks. The southern ridge and the spectacular Adishvara temple in its western corner are reached by taking the right-hand fork at the top of the path. On a clear day the view from the summit takes in the Gulf of Cambay to the south, Bhavnagar to the north and Mount Girnar to the west.
The museum, 400m before the start of the steps at the bottom of the hill, displays a collection of Jain artefacts, labelled in Gujarati but well worth seeing.
A path leads along the ridge and down into the valley of Adipur, 13km away; it’s open for one day only, during the festival of Suth Tera (Feb/March), when up to fifty thousand pilgrims come to Shatrunjaya for this unique display of devotion.