Gujarat Travel Guide

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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 the 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 Mohandas Gandhi 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.

Places to visit in Gujarat

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 nonviolent means, his home state has often followed a different course, and Muslim-Hindu tensions have boiled over into violence on a number of occasions. Following the devastating earthquake of January 2001, centred in Kutch, Gujarat suffered India’s worst communal rioting since Partition, with more than a thousand people killed in 2002. Six years later, dozens more died in a string of bomb attacks in Ahmedabad. All these events added to the woes of a state already beleaguered by severe water shortages and drought. The current scene is less fraught, and Gujarat – and Bhuj in particular – is showing signs of renewal; take the splendid new Shree Swaminarayan temple in Bhuj as an example.

Given this, Gujarat has plenty to offer those who take time to detour from its more famous northerly neighbour, Rajasthan. 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, along with 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, home of the world’s oldest-known dock. In the northwest, the 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 – and, unlike the rest of the region, bars (see Alcohol in Gujarat).

Brief history of Gujarat

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 millennium 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 ushered 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 headquarters in Surat in 1613, sowing the seeds of a prospering textile industry. British sovereignty over the state was established in 1818 when governors-general 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.

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, just an average scholar, but from early on he questioned the codes of power around him, even flouting 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).

At 19, he moved to London to study law, outwardly adopting the appearance and manners of an Englishman while obeying his mother’s wish that he resist meat, alcohol and women. Studying the Bible alongside the Bhagavad Gita, he came to view different religions as a collective source of truth from which all could draw spiritual inheritance.

After a brief spell back in India, Gandhi left again to practise law in South Africa. The plight of his fellow Indians there, coupled with his own indignation at being ejected from a first-class train carriage, fuelled his campaigns for racial equality. Gaining crucial victories for minorities against the usage of indentured labour, his public profile grew. At this time he opted to transcend material possessions, donning the peasant’s hand-spun dhoti and shawl and taking a vow of celibacy. This turn to ascetic purity he characterized as satyagraha, derived from Sanskrit ideas of “truth” and “firmness”; it 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 386km 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. On his 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. After Independence, Partition left him with a deep sense of failure. In a bid to stem the ensuing violence, he again fasted in Calcutta 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 gunman, nationalist Nathuram Godse, in Delhi ten days later. Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru announced the loss on national radio: “Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere.”

Best time to visit Gujarat

The best time to visit Gujarat, climate-wise, is between November and February when the temperature stays a comfortable 17–27°C. Summers (April to May) are dry, sunny and very hot, with temperatures reaching around 41°C in the day and 30°C at night. Monsoon season (July–Sept) keeps temperatures lower, around 30°C, although some areas, like Saurashtra and Kutch, don’t actually receive much rain.

Festivals in Gujarat

  • Suth Tera (Feb/March)

    A one-day event in which fifty thousand pilgrims hike up to the hilltop temple complex of Shatrunjaya.

  • Tarnetar Fair (Aug/Sept)

    Turbans, embroidered jackets and decorative umbrellas abound at this celebration of youth in Sayla, where tribal music and poetry set a backdrop for young men and women to meet their future spouses.

  • Janmashtami (Aug/Sept)

    Krishna’s birthday is important all over Gujarat, but the “sacred abode” of Dwarka is one of the best places to be to witness the most vibrant celebrations.

  • Navratri (late Sept/early Oct)

    In Vadodara, thousands of people dance through the night across ten days (navratri means “nine nights”), worshipping nine forms of the Hindu goddess Durga.

Drinking alcohol in Gujarat

Gujarat is officially a dry state, but tourists can get free one-week alcohol permits from the bigger international hotel chains and Ahmedabad airport (usually before 8pm) – as well as online at eps.gpeonline.co.in. Avoid illicitly produced alcohol – the state has imposed the death penalty for its manufacture and sale, following a July 2009 incident in which 136 people died from drinking toxic alcohol. Note that alcohol is legally served in the Union Territory enclaves of Diu and Daman, as they are governed separately from Gujarat.

Northern Gujarat

North of Gandhinagar, the district of Mehsana was the Solankis’ seat of government between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Some remains of their old capital, Anhilawada Patan, still stand, including the extraordinary Rani-ki-Vav step-well, situated just outside the modern city of Patan, home to Gujarat’s last remaining patola weavers. The big draw here is undoubtedly the ancient Sun Temple at Modhera, easily reached from the crowded city of Mehsana (Mahesana); it’s also worth visiting the striking shrines at the Jain temple at Taranga.

The Sun Temple

If you visit only one town in northern Gujarat, make it Modhera, where the eleventh-century Sun Temple is the state’s best example of Solanki temple architecture. Almost a thousand years old, the temple has survived earthquakes and Muslim iconoclasm; apart from a missing shikhara and slightly worn carvings, it remains largely intact. The Solanki kings were probably influenced by Jain traditions; deities and their vehicles, animals, voluptuous maidens and complex friezes adorn the sandy brown walls and pillars. Within the mandapa, or pillared entrance hall, twelve adityas set into niches in the wall portray the transformations of the sun in each month of the year. Closely associated with the sun, adityas are the sons of Aditi, the goddess of infinity and eternity. Modhera’s sun temple is positioned so that at the equinoxes the rising sun strikes the images in the sanctuary, which at other times languishes in a dim half-light. In front of the temple, 108 shrines adorn the rim of Surya Kund, a 100-square-metre step-well.

Patan

The bustling modern town of Patan was built on the ruins of the old city of Anhilwara, long-time capital of Gujarat. The old city served several Rajput dynasties between the eighth and the twelfth centuries before being annexed by the Mughals, then fell into decline when Ahmed Shah moved the capital to Ahmedabad in 1411. Little remains now except traces of fortifications scattered in the surrounding fields, as well as the stunning Rani-ki-Vav, Gujarat’s greatest step-well.

While modern Patan has few monuments, in the Salvivad area of town you can watch the complex weaving of silk patola saris. Once the preferred garment of queens and aristocrats, and an important export of Gujarat, the saris are now made by just one extended family, the Salvis. They fetch anywhere from one to seven lakhs (₹100,000–700,000) and take around four to six months to produce. For smaller wallets, scarves are also available from ₹6000.

Kutch

Bounded on the north and east by marshy flats and on the south and west by the Gulf of Kutch and the Arabian Sea, the province of Kutch (also written Kuchchh or Kachchha) is a place apart. All but isolated from neighbouring Saurashtra and Sindh (Pakistan), the arid landscape is shot through with the colours of the heavily embroidered local dress. Kutchi legends can be traced in sculptural motifs, and its strong folk tradition is still represented in popular craft, clothing and jewellery designs. Few tourists make it here, but those who do are invariably enchanted. Launching from the central city of Bhuj – which has now recovered following devastation in the 2001 earthquake – you can explore the region’s craft villages, ancient fortresses, medieval ports and isolated monasteries. The treeless salt marshes to the north and east, the Great and Little Ranns of Kutch, breathtaking expanses of cracked white earth, can flood completely during a heavy monsoon, effectively turning much of the region into an inland sea from July to September. Home to the rare wild ass, the Ranns are also the only region in India where flamingos breed successfully. The southern district of Aiyar Patti supports crops of cotton, castor-oil plants, sunflowers, wheat and groundnuts. Northern Kutch, or Banni, by contrast, is semidesert with dry shifting sands and arid grasslands.

Kutchi handicrafts

Kutch has long been renowned for its distinctive traditional crafts, particularly its embroidery, practised by pastoral groups like Hindu Rabaris and Ahirs, and Muslim Jats and Muthwas, as well as migrants from Sindh including the Sodha Rajputs and Meghwal Harijans. Traditionally, each community has its own stitches and patterns, though these distinctions are becoming less apparent with time.

The northern villages of Dhordo, Khavda and Hodko are home to the few remaining communities of leather embroiderers, who stitch flower, peacock and fish motifs onto bags, fans, horse belts, wallets, cushion covers and mirror frames. Dhordo is also known for its woodcarving, while Khavda is one of the last villages to continue the printing method known as ajrakh. Cloth is dyed with natural pigments in a lengthy process similar to batik, but instead of wax, a mixture of lime and gum is used to resist the dye in certain parts of the cloth when new colours are added. Women in Khavda also paint terracotta pots.

Rogan painting is practised by only a few artisans at Nirona in northern Kutch. A complex process turns hand-pounded castor oil into coloured dyes that are used to decorate cushion covers, bedspreads and curtains with simple geometric patterns. Craftsmen also make melodic bells (once used for communication among shepherds) coated in intricate designs of copper and brass. Silver jewellery is common, featuring in most traditional Kutchi costumes, but Kutchi silver engraving, traditionally practised in Bhuj, is a dwindling art form. The anklets, earrings, nose-rings, bangles and necklaces are similar to those seen in Rajasthan; many are made by the Ahir and Rabari communities living in both areas. The main centres for silver are Anjar, Bhuj, Mandvi and Mundra.

Kutchi clothes are distinctive not only for their fine embroidery and bold designs. The most common form of cloth printing is bandhani (tie-dye), a practice most concentrated in Mandvi and Anjar. Another unique craft is ilacha (mashroo-weaving), a combination of dyeing and weaving with silk yarn to create designs so detailed and complex as to appear embroidered.

In recent times, the future of many local craft centres has become doubtful, especially since the post-earthquake reconstruction of Bhuj and its surrounds. The consequent creation of many largely unskilled labouring jobs, with higher wages, lured many workers away from handicraft making. NGOs like Kala Raksha are striving to keep local traditions alive.

Kutchi pastoral groups

Kutch has the most significant population of pastoral communities in Gujarat. Each tribe can be identified from its costume, and gains income from farming or crafts such as weaving, painting, woodcarving and dyeing.

The Rabari, the largest group, rear cattle, buffalo and camels, sell ghee, weave, and are known for their fine embroidery. Most of the men sport a white turban, white cotton trousers tight at the ankle and with baggy pleats above the knee, a white jacket (khediyun), and a blanket thrown over one shoulder. Rabari women dress in black pleated jackets or open-backed blouses, full black skirts and tie-dyed head cloths, and always wear heavy silver jewellery and ivory bangles around the upper arms. In Bhujodi, near Bhuj, the Rabari weave camel wool into blankets and shawls.

The Bharvad tribes infiltrated Gujarat from Vrindavan, close to Mathura in Uttar Pradesh. The men are distinguishable by the peacock, parrot and flower motifs sewn into their khediyun, and the women by their bright backless shirts, kapadun, rarely covered by veils. Mass marriages take place among the Bharvad every few years.

The wandering Ahir cattle-breeders, today prosperous entrepreneurs, came to Gujarat from Sindh, and settled as farmers. The men sport baggy trousers and the khediyun, together with a white loosely wound headcloth; the women dress like the Rabaris, with additional heavy silver nose-rings. The children’s bright topis, or skull-caps, are like those commonly worn in Pakistan.

The Charans, long-established bards of Gujarat, encompass in their clans the Maldharis, who raise prize cattle, and the leather-workers known as Meghwal. They claim descent from a celestial union between Charan and a maiden created by Parvati. The women are often worshipped by other tribes, as their connection with Parvati links them closely to the mother goddess, Ashpura, highly popular in Kutch.

Said to have migrated from Pakistan, the Jats are an Islamic pastoral group. The men can be identified by their black clothing, while young Jat girls have dainty plaits curving round the sides of their faces, and wear heavy nose rings.

Little Rann Wild Ass Sanctuary

Spanning 4850 square kilometres, the Little Rann Wild Ass Sanctuary, a vast salt-encrusted desert plain that becomes inundated during the rains (July–Sept), is home to an abundance of wildlife, including the endangered Indian wild ass. Usually seen in loosely knit herds, this handsome chestnut-brown-and-white member of the horse family is capable of running up to 80 km/hr. The sanctuary is also home to wolves, foxes, jackals, jungle and desert cats, blackbuck and nilgai antelopes and the chinkara gazelle. Large flocks of flamingos, pelicans and winter-visiting cranes can be seen at Bajana Lake; October to March is the time to see the migratory birds.

Saurashtra

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 in the countryside and industrialists in urban centres such as Rajkot. Fabulous architecture includes the royal palaces at Wankaner and Gondal, while one of the region’s most flamboyant festivals, the Tarnetar Fair, comes to the town of Sayla in the autumn.

Dwarka

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 by 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 46m 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 be required to sign a form declaring respect for the religion before they enter.

Junagadh

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. Because of the sanctity of Mount Girnar, the Shivratri Mela (Feb/March) assumes particular importance here, when thousands of saffron-clad sadhus set up camp in town. Fireworks, processions, chanting, chillum-smoking and demonstrations of body-torturing ascetic practices run for at least five days and nights. In addition, 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 to Bhavnath.

Somnath

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 jyotirlinga of Shiva. The temple is visible from all over town, towering over a reclaimed beach, which now has a great market selling nautical trinkets and offering camel rides.

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

The Asiatic lion, which, on account of 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 five 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.

The Asiatic lion

The rare Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) is paler and shaggier than its more common African cousin, with longer tail tassels, more prominent elbow tufts and a larger belly fold. Probably introduced to India from Persia, the lions were widespread in the Indo-Gangetic plains at the time of the Buddha. In 300 BC, Kautilya, the minister of Chandragupta Maurya, offered them protection by declaring certain areas abharaya aranyas, “forests free from fear”. Later, in his rock-inscribed edicts, Ashoka admonished those who hunted the majestic animals.

The lion was favourite game for India’s nineteenth-century rulers and by 1913, not long after it had been declared a protected species by the nawab of Junagadh, its population was reduced to twenty. Since then, Gir Forest has been recognized as a sanctuary (1969), and a national park (1975), while the number of lions has swelled to more than five hundred. However, they remain under serious threat from poachers, while illegal timber-felling in the forest is still common. Three major roads and a railway line bisect the park, which also has four temples that attract more than 84,000 pilgrims each year; all this produces noise, pollution and littering. Moreover, when lions stray from the sanctuary – a common occurrence – there have been attacks on humans and livestock. Plans, meanwhile, to create another reserve outside Gujarat, possibly in Madhya Pradesh – to reduce the risk of the cats being wiped out by a particularly contagious disease or infection – continue to be resisted (for political rather than conservation reasons) by the state government. For more information, see asiaticlion.org.

Diu

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 region. 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 mudflats sheltering flocks of waterbirds, 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.

Bhavnagar

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. It has also produced a string of artists and writers, notably poet Jhaverchand Meghani. For Gujarati industrialists, it serves as the jumping-off point for the massive, controversial and booming ship-breaking yard at Alang. The yard, which employs twenty thousand labourers, has been off-limits to foreigners since Greenpeace red-flagged it for environmental damage, toxic spills and hazardous work in the early 2000s.

With few sights of its own, Bhavnagar is nonetheless an obvious place to overnight before heading southwest to the Jain temples of Palitana. The focus of interest is the old city, overlooked by delicate wooden balconies and the pillared facades of former merchants’ houses, which boasts a fascinating bazaar, clustered around the Becharaji railway station. 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

Outside 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.

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 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. Climbing the wide steps up Shatrunjaya takes one to two hours, but, 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.

Southeastern Gujarat

Sandwiched between Maharashtra and the Arabian Sea, the seldom-visited southeastern corner of Gujarat harbours few attractions to entice you off the beaten path to or from Mumbai. Vadodara (Baroda), former capital of the Gaekwad rajas, is most appealing for its proximity to the old Muslim town of Champaner and the ruined forts and exotic Jain and Hindu temples crowning Pavagadh Hill. Further south, dairy pastures gradually give way to a swampy, malaria-infested coastal strip of banana plantations and shimmering saltpans cut by silty, sinuous rivers, before reaching the former Portuguese territory of Daman.

Champaner and Pavagadh

Rising 820m above the plains of Panchmahal, the almost forgotten city – and World Heritage Site – of Champaner stands overlooked by the solitary hill of Pavagadh. Although the city was fortified centuries earlier, in 1297 the Chauhan rajputs made Champaner their stronghold, fending off three Muslim attacks. It remained Gujarat’s capital until 1536, when the courts moved to Ahmedabad and Champaner fell into decline. When the British arrived in 1803 it was almost completely overrun by the forest.

Some of the massive city walls with inscribed gateways still stand, encompassing several houses, exquisite mosques and Muslim mausoleums, all imbued with a strange, time-warped atmosphere. The largest mosque is the exuberant Jama Masjid, east of the walls; two minarets stand either side of the main entrance, and the prayer halls are dissected by almost two hundred pillars supporting a splendid carved roof raised in a series of domes. The patha (pilgrim’s route) ascends 4km from Champaner to Pavagadh, passing the old battered gates of the fortress. Roughly midway up, the road ends along with a cluster of snack, souvenir and chai stalls, the cable-car station and Pavagadh’s sole hotel. Continuing the ascent on foot, pilgrims pass numerous Jain temples and several sacred lakes along the trail to the summit, where the eleventh-century Kalikamata Temple stands, along with a shrine to the Muslim saint Sadan Shah on its roof.

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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