The small town of JUNAGADH (or Junagarh), around 160km from Diu (via Veraval) is an intriguing place, with a skyline broken by 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 Junagadh an exciting city to explore.
From the fourth century BC to the death of Ashoka (c.232 BC), Junagadh was the capital of Gujarat 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 soon lost out to Muslim invaders. Muslim sovereignty lasted until Independence when, although the leaders planned to unite Junagadh with Pakistan, local pressure ensured that it 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 come to camp around the town. Fireworks, processions, chanting, chillum-smoking and demonstrations of body-torturing ascetic practices continue for nine days and nights. Meanwhile, every November up to a million people take part in the Parikrama, a five-day 36km walk around the base of Mount Girnar and the surrounding hills. Tourists arriving in Junagadh at these times should book rooms well in advance.
Junagadh is fairly compact, focused on the busy market area around Chittakhana Chowk. To the north, near the railway station, quiet wide roads lead past the majestic Maqbara monuments, while in the south, congested streets surround Circle and Janta chowks. The former comprises a fine semicircular terrace between towering Victorian Gothic-style gateways, while the latter is dominated by Durbar Hall with its modest museum. MG Road continues south to bustling Kalwa Chowk.
In the east is the imposing fortified citadel of Uperkot, perched on a thickly walled mound and colonized by eagles, egrets and squirrels. Legend dates the fort’s origins to the time of the Yadavas (Krishna’s clan) who fled Mathura to settle in Dwarka, but historians believe it was built by Chandragupta Maurya in 319 BC. Rediscovered and repaired in 976 AD by Muslim conquerors, it regained its defensive importance, withstanding sixteen sieges over the next eight hundred years. A grand sequence of three high gateways cut into solid rock during the Muslim occupation stands at the entrance to the citadel, spanning a cobbled walkway that winds upwards to the summit of the raised fort, where the Jama Masjid stands abandoned. The two fierce cannons opposite the mosque were used at Diu fort in defence against the Portuguese in 1530 and were brought here in 1538.
North of the Jama Masjid is a complex of small cells arranged around courtyards cut down into the rock. These Buddhist Caves were built in the third or fourth century AD – worn traces of figurines and foliage can still be made out on the columns in the lower level. Nearby, more than 170 steps descend to the Adi Chadi Vav (well), believed to date from the fifteenth century. The more impressive eleventh-century Navghan Kuva, in the southeast of the citadel, consists of a superb staircase that winds around the well shaft to the dimly-lit water level over 52m below.
Below the southern wall of the fort, the Babupyara Caves, hewn from the rock between 200 BC and 200 AD, were used by Buddhists until the time of Ashoka, and then by Jains. A little to the north of Uparkot, the slightly later, plainer Khapra Kodia Caves remain in good condition, intersected with staircases, colonnades and passages.
West of the main entrance to Uparkot, in Janta Chowk, the Durbar Hall Museum takes up part of the former palace of the nawabs. Silver chairs in the great hall stand in regal splendour around a large carpet, valuable silver clocks encase scruffy stuffed birds and huge coloured chandeliers hang from the ceiling.
Junagadh’s chief Muslim monuments are the boldly decorated maqbara – unlike any other in Gujarat – on MG Road opposite the High Courts. Built for Muslim rulers in the nineteenth century, these squat and square mausolea are crowned with a multitude of bulbous domes. The most opulent tomb is the 1892 sepulchre of Mahabat Khan I, but more outstanding is that of Vizir Sahib Baka-ud-din Bhar, completed four years later and flanked on each corner by tall minarets hugged with spiral staircases.
At more than 1100m, Mount Girnar (an auto-rickshaw costs Rs60), a steep-sided extinct volcano 4km east of Junagadh, is a major pilgrimage centre for Jains and Hindus, and has been considered sacred since before the third century BC. It’s best to start the ascent (at least two hours) well before 7am. The path of five thousand irregular steps climbs through eucalyptus forests before zigzagging across the sheer rock face; there are chai stalls along the way.
On a plateau below the summit, the picturesque huddle of Jain temples has been slightly renovated since its erection between 1128 and 1500. Neminath, the 22nd tirthankara who is said to have died on Mount Girnar after seven hundred years of meditation and asceticism, is depicted as a black figure sitting in the lotus position holding a conch in the marble Neminath temple, the first on the left as you enter the “temple city”. It’s well worth making the effort to climb the final two thousand steps to the summit of Mount Girnar; the views on the way are breathtaking. At the top, a temple dedicated to the Hindu goddess Amba Mata attracts both Hindu and Jain pilgrims. Steps lead down from this temple and then up again along a narrow ridge towards Gorakhnath Peak, where a small shrine covers what are supposedly the footprints of the pilgrim Gorakhnath, and further to a third peak where the imprints of Neminath’s feet are sheltered by a small canopy. At the most distant point of the ridge, a shrine dedicated to the fierce Hindu goddess Kalika, the eternal aspect of Durga, is a haunt for near-naked Aghora ascetics who express their absolute renunciation of the world by ritually enacting their own funerals.