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.
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Poised at the tip of the peninsula, at India’s western edge, DWARKA is one of Hinduism’s sacred Charm Dham, or “four abodes,” thanks to its legendary role as Lord Krishna’s capital following his flight from Mathura to the coast. In vivid contrast to the arid expanses further inland, Dwarka is surrounded with fertile wheat, groundnut and cotton fields, while the city itself is a labyrinth of narrow winding streets cluttered with crumbling temples. Today, these still resonate with the bustle of saffron-clad pilgrims and the clatter of celebratory drums. Dwarka really comes to life during the major Hindu festivals, especially Janmashtami (Aug/Sept), marking Krishna’s birthday.
Jagat Mandir, the elaborately carved tower of the sixteenth-century Dwarkadhish Temple, looms 78m over the town, comprising five storeys and 72 pillars while hoisting a giant flag made from more than fifty yards of cloth. It is believed that the original structure was built 2500 years ago by Vajranabha, Krishna’s grandson, and that it has been destroyed by raging seas and rebuilt no less than six times. Non-Hindus may enter the shrine only after signing a form declaring respect for the religion.
The little-visited town of JUNAGADH (or Junagarh) is an intriguing small city with a striking skyline of domes and minarets. Its lively bazaars, Buddhist monuments, Hindu temples, mosques, Victorian Gothic-style archways and faded mansions – plus the magnificent Jain temples on Mount Girnar – make it well worth exploring.
From the fourth century BC to the death of Ashoka (c.232 BC), Junagadh was the Gujarat’s capital under the Buddhist Mauryas. The brief reigns of the Kshatrapas and the Guptas came to an end when the town passed into the hands of the Hindu Chudasanas, who in turn lost out to Muslim invaders. Muslim sovereignty lasted until Independence when, although the nawab of Junagadh planned to unite with Pakistan, local pressure ensured that the city became part of the Indian Union. Because of the sanctity of Mount Girnar, 4km away, the Shivratri Mela (Feb/March) assumes particular importance in Junagadh, when thousands of saffron-clad sadhus set up camp here. Fireworks, processions, chanting, chillum-smoking and demonstrations of body-torturing ascetic practices run for at least five days and nights. Every November, up to a million people take part in the Parikrama, a three-day 36km walk around the base of Mount Girnar and the surrounding hills.
The town of SOMNATH consists of little more than a few streets between the bus stand and its giant temple, famed across India as the first of the twelve jyotrilinga of Shiva. The temple is visible from all over town, towering over a reclaimed beach, much of which still resembles a construction zone.
Legend has it that the site of Somnath Temple, 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 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 King Bhimdev, 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 more than two hundred years after a final sacking by Aurangzeb before the most recent reconstruction began in 1950. Although very little of the original structure remains, the latest reconstruction follows the elegant style of the Solanki period, and merits a visit for its physical and spiritual grandeur.
Gir National Park
Gir National ParkThe Asiatic lion, which, thanks to hunting, forest-clearance and poaching, has been extinct in the rest of India since the 1880s, survives in the wild in just 1150 square kilometres of the gently undulating Gir Forest. Gir National Park, accessed via Sasan Gir, lies 60km southeast of Junagadh and 45km northeast of Veraval, and boasts more than four hundred lions in its 260 square kilometres. The park also shelters around three hundred leopards, as well as sambar (large deer), chousingha (four-horned antelope), chinkara (gazelle), jackal, striped hyena and wild boar. The wildlife shares the land with Maldhari cattle-breeders, many of whom have been relocated outside the sanctuary. Those who remain are paid compensation by the government for the inevitable loss of their livestock to marauding lions. In 2008, it emerged that some tourists had been paying to watch lions devour tethered cattle in cruel – and illegal – “baitwalla shows”; if anyone approaches you about one of these shows, inform the park’s management team. Sightings of the lions aren’t guaranteed, although summer is the best time to spot them.
Set off the southern tip of Saurashtra is the tiny island of DIU, just 12km long and 3km wide. Under Portuguese control for more than four hundred years, until 1961, it is now governed as a Union Territory from Delhi along with its sister city of Daman. The combination of relaxed atmosphere, historic charm, broad beaches and lack of alcohol restrictions makes Diu one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state. While its beaches are admittedly not as idyllic as Goa’s, most visitors stay longer than intended.
Diu Town in the east is the island’s main focus. A maze of alleys lined with distinctive Portuguese buildings form the hub of the old town, while the fort stands on the island’s easternmost tip, 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, facing pressure from both the Mughals and Portuguese, allowed da Cunha to build a fort in Diu. Three years later an Ottoman siege of Diu was repelled, cementing Portuguese control of Diu. The Portuguese held sway for more than four centuries, making Diu one of the world’s longest-held colonial possessions. They were finally forced out in 1961 by Nehru’s government, which, after a swift bombing campaign, declared Diu to be part of India.
The port of BHAVNAGAR, founded in 1723 by the Gohil Rajput Bhavsinghji, whose ancestors came to Gujarat from Marwar (Rajasthan) in the thirteenth century, is an important trading centre whose principal export is cotton. With few sights of its own, Bhavnagar does, however, boast a fascinating bazaar in the old city, and is an obvious place to stay for a night before heading southwest to the Jain temples of Palitana. For Gujarati industrialists, it serves as the jumping-off point for the massive, controversial and booming ship-breaking yard at Alang. The yard, where twenty thousand labourers work, has been off-limits to foreigners since Greenpeace red-flagged it for environmental damage, toxic spills and hazardous work. Bhavnagar has produced a string of artists and writers, notably poet Jhaverchand Meghani. Locals also claim to speak the most grammatically correct form of Gujarati.
The focus of interest is the old city, its vibrant markets overlooked by delicate wooden balconies and the pillared facades of former merchants’ houses. The marble temple, Ganga Devi Mandir, by the Ganga Jalia Tank in the town centre, has a large dome and intricate latticework on its walls, while the Takhteshwar Temple, raised on a hill in the south of town, affords a good view over to the Gulf of Cambay in the east.
Blackbuck National Park
Blackbuck National ParkOutside the tiny village of Velavadar, the 34-square-kilometre Blackbuck National Park is Gujarat’s own slice of savannah. Bounding through the tall golden grass, however, are not impalas but blackbucks, spiral-horned Indian antelopes of which the park has the country’s highest concentration. Prior to Independence their number stood at eight thousand, but habitat loss and hunting cut this figure down to two hundred by 1966. The park’s blackbuck now number well over three thousand, making it a laudable success story. It is also home to endangered Indian wolves, striped hyenas, nilgai antelope, jackals, jungle cats and Indian foxes, as well as birds of prey like Stoliczka’s bushchat and harrier hawks, at least 1500 of the latter arriving from Siberia each winter.
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 Shatrunjaya, said to be a chunk of the mighty Himalayas 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.
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.