The aim was to see maximum amount of the state at a slow pace and not simply rush to all the ‘points’. That being said, now that I am back, I do unfortunately wish we had a few more days to complete some destinations that we couldn’t cover. Some parts were awesome, some good and some not-so-good. But what I loved about our fortnight in Gujarat was an introduction to a whole new level of Indian living.
Major advisory to everyone visiting Gujarat – there is no Non-vegetarian food there! And I mean no Non-veg! Imagine our horror when we walked into a Cafe Coffee Day for a much craved for Tandoori sandwich and were told that they were vegetarian too! So was Mc Donald and Dominoes! Multinational food chains whose main customer base is severely Non- vegetarian have to convert to Vegetarianism to flourish in Gujarat.
Also, there is no alcohol. That doesn’t bother me at all.
We landed in Rajkot on the 11th of December in the evening and stayed at the Hotel Park Inn. In the interests of economy I had booked us into the most low-cost hotels we could find. The room was neat, as was the bathroom, (most important) even though they were closet sized with just about enough room for two people to manoeuvre around each other, with no windows to the outside. It wasn’t that cheap to warrant such conditions but still wasn’t that bad either. The food was alright. We went to the breakfast buffet in the next door Hotel Sarovar Potico and it was absolutely sumptuous.
Back in Rajkot, we visited the Lang library and the Watson Museum. The library takes the cake. We entered expecting it to be empty and derelict as libraries usually are and imagine our pleasant surprise to see all the chairs occupied! It was a sight to make one feel instantly mellow and warm. There were at least 40 patrons, all male and mostly above 40, though I did spot two young boys with their heads bent over a huge tome, all reading newspapers. The sound of the slow fans whirring overhead, the wood paneling the smell of old books and the light the filtered in from the high windows made it appear almost a set out of the 1920’s. My conscientious husband forbade photography as a mark of respect to everyone there ( sometimes his conscience wakes up at most inopportune moments).
We visited Wankaner Fort and were told we couldn’t enter as it was only for visitors staying in the Wankaner farmhouse. To say we were disappointed is an understatement since we had driven 50 kms to see it. It looked like a cute fort from the outside and there were some modifications being done to the clock tower. At least the roads were wonderful.
On the way back we saw some coriander fields. With the drought in most parts of India, it was a pleasure to see such vivid green in such an arid area.
We were in the old part of the city and it definitely radiates a certain charm. For dinner we went to The Grand Bhagwati, which had tasty food in a good budget and then went over to the newly opened Jadoo’s, which was much hype without substance; and saw the complete new face of Rajkot with high-rise apartments and long rows of swanky shops and NRI colonies. There was also a ‘drive-in’ theater ! According to our driver, girls go out to the 11 pm show at night and then drive back at 1 pm back home on their scooters without any qualms about safety. To say that shakes all your perceptions about your country is an understatement.
2) JUNAGADH (via GONDAL & KHAMBALIDA)
We started in the morning from Rajkot towards Junagadh in a car with the intention of visiting Gondal and the Khambalida bhuddhist caves en route. The roads were excellent and we made good time, though there was not a single decent place to eat along the highway; which was strange.
We reached Gondal and this Swaminarayan temple was the first stop we made just as we entered the town. It is a beautiful temple, not very old and yet the craftsmanship on the pillars and the motifs on the walls of the temple-proper are lovely. Note the clock tower on top of the entrance gate. Clock towers were a regular feature of the Rajkot-Junagadh circuit.
Of course, we also did the usual route of tourists by visiting the Orchard Palace, whose star attraction is the collection of Vintage cars.
…and the personal Railway boogie of the royals. The Palace itself was just an old English-style bungalow, with nothing special to recommend it, except the view of the orchard behind which is surprisingly peaceful.
The entrance fees is almost exorbitant, but then the Royals need some income too, I guess. There were some foreign tourists there, who were exchange students I think, and who absolutely refused to pay an entrance fee to see the palace and negotiated a walk-through free of cost with the gullible retainers. The fascination of the Indian multitudes with the ‘Gora’s’ never ceases to amaze me.
The streets of Gondal are charming in the old quarter and with some very impressive homes in the new one, but I can hardly recommend it as a place for an ‘evening-walk’.
We moved on and reached the Khambalida Caves, and were rewarded by these beautiful rock-cut caves. The rock seems almost porous, or coral-like which is a common feature of the state, probably due to proximity to the sea and the particular type of rock used in construction. It almost feels as if these beautiful works will completely disappear in a few more centuries.
Unfortunately, the Archaeological Department seems to have forgotten this site after setting up a perimeter wall. There was no-one present to monitor comings and goings. This is a place which must have an entrance fee to ensure better maintenance and safeguard this heritage for future generations.
The last stop was Jetpur before we breezed into Junagadh. It is famous for textiles and it is great for a shopping spree for women with warehouses selling dress materials/ bandhani/ kutchi suits right along the main road.
In Junagadh we abandoned the hotel we had originally chosen when we saw it and decamped to another, better located one, called the Hotel Indralok. The room was on the expensive side, though, absolutely worth it and the food was delicious. It was in the old part of town and a part of the continuous row of the Bazaar buildings that was in existence in the 1890’s. It is an interesting study of old and new as the new hotel shares a wall and clashes with the century old shops which are now homes or abandoned depending on the state of the structure. It extends all the way to the crescent that contains the Sardar Patel Gate.
Again the town had a vibe of its own. I sincerely wish we could have explored it more.
The road through Sardar Patel Gate, that led up to the Uparkot fort on the hill is a winding uphill, small, road flanked by row houses on both sides that seem to date back at least as much as the old bazaar below.
The rich history of the fort created quite a romantic atmosphere in my mind, almost blocking out the deplorable state of the fort itself. The fact that the fort withstood a 12- year siege was stunning. 12 years is a long time, though it ended in great tragedy. Also, I realized that a lot of people believed in curses in Junagadh right from our guide, to the auto- driver, to the taxi driver irrespective of religion. Curses by a saint, by the queen,on a king, on a famous Indian starlet who came from these parts and another saint and so on!
The Archaeological department has again forgotten this fort, with no entry fee and no maintenance The walls covered with fresh graffiti and the roads completely littered with garbage and shrubs growing all over the place, point to an utterly sad state of affairs.
There was a beautiful view of Mount Girnar from the fort but we skipped visiting the real thing, since we didn’t have 7 hours to dedicate to the hike needed for that trip. If you wish to make this trek come prepared.
3) SASAN GIR
From Junagadh we took a taxi to Sasan Gir for the afternoon safari. Even though we reached a good hour early, we still were faced with a long line at the counter. With limited safari’s per day, it is a tense situation waiting for the huge forest official who emerged, to dispense the tickets. Luckily we met another couple who were alone and hooked up with them, thus ensuring a seat for ourselves.
There are numerous resorts around Sasan Gir, some swanky and some not providing adequate accommodation if you decide to stay there. What no website mentioned were the beautiful barrack like accommodations provided by the Forest Department in their compound. I think it should have been the first choice to pop up on the net.
We took the assigned guide and a perilously open Gypsy and ventured forth into the forest. It was dry and full of dust, considering the lack of rain this year. The forest department has thoughtfully constructed water troughs for the animals at strategic locations all over the park which are filled twice daily.
It was a pleasant afternoon and we sat back, determined to enjoy it even if we failed to see any lions that day. But as luck would have it…
We were greeted by the spotted deer, almost as soon as we entered the park. They seem to lurk in every corner and blend in completely with their surroundings.
This lone Ranger with the beautiful velvety antlers wasn’t very perturbed by the vehicle or us.
The Neelgai is also a fairly common inhabitant of the Gir and this one was startled enough to make a hasty retreat when we drew up alongside.
And finally there they were.. the Kings! This cub was with his mother and brother and here he stopped in the evening light to check on his mum who had stopped for a rest, before turning and following his brother.
The family met up a few yards ahead after about ten minutes and then engaged in some very light canoodling before settling down. It seemed that the playing was on show for…
……This older mum who had walked out of the forest from the opposite direction and was seated about 20 feet from them.
I was covered in buckets of dust and extremely satisfied with life.
From Sasan Gir, we moved back to Ahmedabad by train for some work that my husband had there. We stayed in the Hotel Kamran Palace, near the railway station. It is in the old part of Ahmedabad, and when I saw the area, my heart pretty much leapt into my throat. However, the hotel has just been renovated it seems, with extraordinarily clean bathrooms, with Jaguar fittings and was neat and clean. No windows again. Almost next door to the hotel is the charming House of Mg, which is a hotel in a heritage bungalow with its own restaurant and cafe. The food was good, if expensive.
I visited the Law gardens that is supposed to have this evening market of the famous and utterly beautiful ‘Kutch embroidery’ every single day. The severe level of bargaining quite scared me, since I am absolutely horrible at it and so decided in favour of a stroll in the law gardens instead. Again, it was full of evening walkers, from aunties, to young kids to groups of old uncles chatting happily on benches. This feeling of being in a small, slow-paced town remains throughout Gujarat.
The city has wide roads but the traffic sense is horrible. Nobody thinks twice about taking a short-cut on the wrong side of the road and funnier still, nobody objects!
The next day we took a trip to Sabarmati Ashram and were suitably awed by standing on the ground that saw such vital heroes of our history.
It is beautifully maintained with a lovely museum just at the entrance and the serene Sabarmati river flowing sedately on one end of the ashram.
I was absolutely enthralled by these envelopes addressed to Gandhiji, the best being the one that reads -To, Gandhiji, wherever you are!
The Sabarmati river is a presence that defines the capital. Beautiful promenades have been made on both sides of the river and extensive maintenance has led to a clean, fast flowing river in the middle of the city. A clean river is an oxymoron in India and that it has been achieved in Gujarat is an absolute miracle.
5) SOMNATH TEMPLE
We reached Veraval via train from Ahmedabad at around 6:45 in the morning and took a taxi to the Toran guest house. It was still dark and imagine my surprise when we stopped at a building directly in front of a working lighthouse! I was mesmerized by the lighthouse for a few moments and then turned to look at the Guest house. It is a dilapidated building straight out of a Ruskin Bond ghost story. My romantic location had just become a haunted one.
The rooms were huge and alright but the bathrooms were filthy with slimy buckets and mugs, unwashed basin’s and broken toilet seats. It seemed to be an extremely old building in urgent need of renovation. Thankfully it had hot water for a bath and the staff were a pair of polite and sweet old men.
From the guest house, Somnath temple was about 8 kms and so we had to travel through the fishing town of Veraval to get there. Be prepared for the smell of rotten fish that assails your nostrils as you pass through and brings water to your eyes and initiates a violent gag reflex. Reason being there are about 500 fish processing plants in the town! 500! The unprepossessing town we thought was just in existence because of the temple was actually a thriving fishing industry.
Also there were these wooden/timber boats being built all over in little roadside yards. I thought nobody took the time for boat-building anymore and it was heart warming. I saw one yard with about 8-10 boats in a row but couldn’t brave the fish smell anymore to stop and investigate. I really wish we could have taken a tour of the yard and found out how long they worked on a boat, where they got the wood from and so on. I am sure they have been working for generations on the art of boat building in those parts.
That is the Somnath temple in the background. There is very high security for the temple which feels a little restricting for a place of worship, but then I guess there must be a reason for the heavy police presence here. One has to leave mobile phones, large ladies purse’s, camera’s outside in a stock room, so we have no pictures of the temple itself.
It is extremely peaceful with the sea lapping the outer wall of the temple compound. I just wish the train had been early so we could have witnessed the morning aarti. This temple is the more famous for the amount of times it was plundered and torn down by invading Mugal rulers and then rebuilt each time by the populace.
6) DWARKA ( via MADHAVPUR BEACH & PORBANDAR )
From Somnath we took the taxi to Dwarka with a wish to enjoy the drive along the sea-coast. What we encountered was something very different, but still the roads were good and the weather was fine and so the journey passed pleasurably enough.
Madhavpur Beach is a short stretch of pristine beach on the road from Somnath to Dwarka. Though the entire road is along the sea-coast, this was the only approx. 2 km stretch where we were travelling with the seashore in view. It was empty this afternoon but for the two of us and if we had managed to move out early we could have spent some more time here.
From Madhavpur we reached Porbandar and had lunch there. Then we visited Gandhiji’s birthplace. It’s an old home with small rooms and is three stories high with a small courtyard in front. The area outside had been further enclosed in a bigger courtyard and a library has been set up in one of the buildings. The Swastika marks the place in the room where he was actually born. I think it was a happy childhood for him. The house feels warm and welcoming even after all these decades. Or maybe I just colored it that way with my imagination.
We reached Dwarka in the evening and made our way to the Toran guest house, only to be told there were no rooms. I had called twice and been told to come without any need for reservation as I would have no problem at all. The Manager absolutely refused to listen that we had ever called. That being aside, this guest house has just been renovated and is also located right in front of the Dwarka lighthouse. How I would have loved to stay here. But it was not to be. After returning the manager’s sulky scowl with one of my own, we came out and set about looking for a room. As luck would have it, that night there seemed to be no rooms in the whole of Dwarka. After trying about 10 hotels, we found the City Palace Hotel, slam in the middle of the small lanes of the market and had to take a 4-bed room since that was our only option!
That aside, the aarti at Dwarkadheesh temple is extraordinary. With drums and chanting and the entire courtyard full of people singing along, it sends shivers up your spine. It is a truly spiritual experience. It fills you with peace and the jostling crowds fade into the background of your conscience.
Outskirts of Dwarka is equally mesmerizing. The flock of Demoiselle Cranes in the top picture were nearer to Porbandar and at first looked like a heap of stones from a distance. When I screeched for the driver to stop he couldn’t believe I wanted to waste time with these odd-looking birds. I suppose the Gujarati’s don’t even notice these exotic birds anymore. How lucky!
The windmills cover the entire seacoast route in their hundreds, a mark of progress and make one feel very proud to be an Indian. The last is a flock of flamingos just outside Dwarka, in the pockets of small lakes that seem to surround the whole city.
On the way to Bet Dwarika. The First photograph is the port from where we took a ferry to Bet Dwarika amid all these fishing boats which were floating around with their nets in the water. The boats carrying the devotees to the Bet Dwarika against the backdrop of the stationary fishing boats is the middle picture while the last is the coast of the small coast of the Bet Dwarika Island where the main occupation is fishing.
Again, no photographs are allowed inside the temple and there was again a visible police presence here. It is an old building and a newer temple is being constructed outside with fine, intricate stonework. In the old building, the Brahmin who was guiding the whole lot of us made us sit in what he called was Sudama’s durbar . Imagine listening to a story about a character all your life and then coming to a place and being told here is where all of it occurred.
It is a custom to take the seagulls along on the journey to the island by feeding them food. There were people feeding them everything from biscuits to bread and it was fun to see the Seagulls catch them in mid-air like well-trained dogs. The entire ride was redolent with the cries of the sea-gulls as they screeched for more food and the adulation’s of ‘Jai Ranchodji’ by the pilgrims. I didn’t know that Ranchod was another name for Krishna.
On the way back from Bet Dwarka, we stopped at the Rukmini temple just outside the city and paid our respects.
We decided to have lunch before we left and went to the Lord’s Eco Inn. The location is exquisite, right on the sea next to the lighthouse and with a view of the temple. A perfect place to stay if you want to experience Dwarka properly and extend your visit by 2-3 days. But book in advance! Dwarka is a popular pilgrimage and therefore it is important to be prepared.
Jamnagar is a beautiful, beautiful city. It is neat and clean with lots of greenery and somehow seemed more metropolitan than Ahmedabad. It looks like a retirement town and has a dignified relaxed kind of vibe. We stayed at this lovely little hotel called Hotel Aram tucked away in between apartment buildings and in from of the Ayurveda college. It is a heritage building and extremely charming though the food was not as good as I would have expected.
We unfortunately missed the trip to the Bird Sanctuary in Jamnagar and that is one thing that has irked me no end.
We took an Auto to the Ranmal Lake and spent a lovely morning walking around. Here also the people were coming and feeding the hundreds of Sea-gulls with bread and atta. It is a religious ritual it seems as I saw many men, women and kids going to work, college or school stop purposefully, feed the birds and speed away.
I loved these lovely Great white Pelicans as they made their steady progress around the lake. They dipped into the water together to look for fish and then swam ahead in tight huddle and then repeated the whole procedure again.
The entrance to the Jamnagar Museum via these little walkways. It is surreal with the birds on either side and the old fort in the middle.
It is a small museum and belonged to Shri RanjitSinh ji, after whom the prestigious Ranji trophy is named who was a great lover of cricket. Also, he was really good-looking. The museum houses some old coins and bronze tablets and cannons as seen in the picture above. The painted ceiling’s in two of the rooms were exquisite as were the wall paintings in a small room.
8) LITTLE RANN OF KUTCH
Reached the Desert Coursers in Zainabad by train to Viramgam station and then taxi to Zainabad via Dasada at night. Desert Coursers is a rustic little place and they provide a safari and buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner included in the room tariff. The rooms were neat and clean but almost too rustic with gaps in the tiles in the roof and really old bathroom fittings. Warm water is a provided from these huge stove-like appendages fixed outside, that have to be asked to be turned on in the morning. The beds were proper cots and we were provided comfortable razai’s for the night. The linen was extraordinarily clean.
The above is the eating area and I must tell you the food was excellent!!! It was low on oil, and really- really high on flavour. The seating area is comfy and extremely cosy in the evening. There is a pit for campfires as seen in the first photograph. This is an ideal location to come as a group, when you don’t notice little shortcomings like a 2 foot lizard in your room or the weird flush mechanism or even the unavailability of hot water at all times.
We went on a safari at around 10 in the morning. It was late to start for the safari but waiting for the other party to join us took some time. The first stop was this small lake which had a few Flamingos and some cranes and some pelican’s further off. The guide said there were fewer birds due to less water due to the drought.
Finally after 20 minutes we made it to the Wild ass sanctuary. Happily a great number of the animals had collected in one place and we had some lovely photo ops. They looked healthy with strong musculature like small ponies.
Further in, we came to the salt pans. I used to think we made salt from the sea but here they were pulling out water from underground. The water was horribly salty, almost like 10 teaspoonfuls of salt in a glass of water.
That was it!
However, if I had to do it again, I would make an overnight stay at Gir and at Dwarka and explore Jamnagar more thoroughly. I would also make a trip to Bhuj and the Greater Rann of Kutch and give the Little Rann a miss.
Things to Remember when in Gujarat;
- No alcohol.
- No non-vegetarian food.
- Visit the Gujarat Tourism site. It is very well maintained and gives you a fair overview of what to expect in the places you visit and helps you to plan an itinerary efficiently.
- Carry your Odomos ( mosquito repellent).
- If you take a taxi/ an auto enunciate clearly and make the fellow repeat what you said. They have immense trouble understanding Hindi pronunciations, English comes a far second.
- Be sure of your itinerary because each city has a different set of attractions for different kind of people; instead of rushing to all of them and not enjoying any of them, pick and choose.
- Be sure to check the days that the state institutions like museums etc. are shut down. In Gujarat, it seems to be usually Wednesday.
- Gujarat has a good train and bus connectivity and so for the routes that have nothing much to offer in between they are a good alternative. Also, it’s an experience in itself.
- For Gir Wildlife Sanctuary, be sure to reach well in advance to get a ticket for the safari from the Gir Sanctuary Reception desk, during the season. For the 3:30 p.m. safari we reached at 2:15 and were about 25th in line an they take only about 20 vehicles at a time. Thankfully we managed to hitch up with a pair who were 8th in line having reached at around 1:00 p.m. Morning safari which starts at 6:30 a.m. has people lining up at 4:00 a.m. which thus makes sense if you stay at a resort nearby in stead of driving all the way from Junagadh at 2:00 a.m. in the morning.
- Most temples have morning aarti’s at 7:00 a.m. and at 7 p.m. in the evening’s. If you time your visit’s accordingly, the temple experience jumps up several notches.
- If you are in Ahmedabad and visit the evening market at law gardens for some Kutchi embroidery work, you better have your bargaining skills honed to perfection. A bit like Palika Bazaar in Delhi. Though, a good idea would be the state emporiums where the quality of work and material is exquisite.