If your hotel has the mud walls and back-to-basics furniture of a traditional Indian home, and the electricity comes from a high-tech windmill, chances are that you’re staying in a Gujarat Tourism Holiday Resort. Chances are too, that you won’t find a better introduction to this multi-faceted State, where it’s quite in order to go back to one’s roots in the village, yet enjoy 20th century technology in the same breath.
In the rest of the country you’ll see modern and ancient India side by side-in Gujarat, they’re two sides of the same coin-the diamond merchant racing along the highway in his Mercedes to catch a jet, will wear his dhoti kurta and you can bet it’s a hand-spun one. The milkman will roar along the streets of his town astride his brand new motorbike, aluminum pots clanging on either side. That he’s dressed in an embroidered frock coat and baggy pyjamas is not a contradiction in terms to him: he is a Rabari (one of Gujarat’s many tribes, Rabaris are semi-nomadic and tend animals, especially cattle – for milk) isn’t he ? So why shouldn’t he dress like one? And unlike his forefathers he lives in the 20th century doesn’t he? So why should he drive a bullock cart to deliver milk when he can ride a motorcycle more expeditiously? Why indeed?
Just how multi-faceted Gujarat really is will become clear to you as you wend your way through beaches, wildlife sanctuaries, temples, mosques, deserts and hill-stations. You can see state-of-the-art textile factories and village belles wearing home-spun, hand-embroidered skirts. You can explore museums, many privately owned and shop for folk crafts. Or you can eat your way through a gastronomic treat-almost entirely vegetarian.
Gujarat is one of India’s most highly industrialised States, with a formidable presence in pharmaceuticals, textiles, petrochemicals, diamond cutting and polishing, and non-conventional energy. On the flip side, it has a rich culture, riotous colour in so far as local costumes, and a landscape dotted with temples, places and mosques.
Most important of all is the State’s connection with Mahatma Gandhi, the 20th century apostle of peace.
Although Gandhinagar is the state’s capital, it is the vibrant city of Ahmedabad which is the metropolis of the State. Your introduction to Gujarat is likely to be by way of Ahmedabad whether you arrive by air or rail. Situated on either side of the river Sabarmati, four bridges span the river, leading from 14th century mausolea to architecture by modern giants- BV Doshi, Charles Correa, Louis Kahn and Corbusier.
The city was founded by Sultan Ahmed Shah. Many fine old mosques and mausolea date from that period- Sidi sayyed’s mosque whose stone windows bear exquisite tracery; the mausoleum of Rani Rupmati, the Jama Masjid, Sidi Bashir’s mosque and Sarkhej Roza are the best known of these. All are executed in honey coloured stone. The old city contains a profusion of lesser known edifices from that period.
Teen Darwaza and Rani no Hajiro and Badshah no Hajiro are well known land-marks of this part of the city, more for the warren of tiny shops selling colourful wares than for their historical importance. Much later in the city’s history, three important temples were built: the Hutheesingh Jain temple, the Gita mandir and the Swaminarayan temple.
However, as in the case of mosques, all over the city tiny temples from islands of peace and prayer. Visited by a handful of people who live in the immediate vicinity, they add to the city’s ebb and flow of life.
All around are a network of streets, roads and lanes, the smallest ones being no more than cul-de-sacs whose entrance is barred by imposing doors. These are the pols, once upon a time the hub of the city where craftsmen lived, one craft to each pol.
It is a feature of life in Gujarat that eminent citizens have a strong sense of community and nowhere is this better illustrated than in Ahmedabad. Modern design whether in architecture or the arts is nurtured assiduously. Two of the country’s premier institutions in the field of education are the National Institute of Design and the Indian Institute of Management. Privately owned and run museums which are open to the public are the Calico Museum for Textiles and Embroideries, the Lalbhai-Dalpatbhai Museum for Jain Art and Sculpture, the Shryeas Museum of Folk Art, Bhanu Shah’s Kite Museum and the Utensils Museum.
This last one adjoins Ahmedabad’s most popular restaurant, Vishalla. A recreation of a village, Vishalla does not operate like a conventional restaurant. Instead, there is a fixed menu which changes daily. This contains several courses and is served on low trellis tables on leaf plates. Diners enter the premises early – 7 pm is a good time to arrive. A look at the museum, crafts shop and puppet shows is part of the experience, as is sitting around a bonfire in winter or under a tree in summer. You eat when dinner is served to everybody – you have already paid for it upon entrance. Vishalla has no Cokes and no Pepsis – or electricity, or any of the trappings of the city life. It is an authentic village within the city.
215 kilometers from Ahmedabad, situated a short distance from Bhavnagar, Palitana is a small town or large village depending on your point of view, It would have been another interesting but unspectacular place in Gujarat had it not been for the Hill of Shatrunjay which rises immediately above it. The very top of the hill is Jainism’s most sacred site, and no fewer than 863 temples have been built upon it. From pre-dawn onwards, the steps that lead from the base to the top are crowded with hundreds of pilgrims, priests and nuns. The old and infirm – and the lazy –have the option of hiring a palanquin device to take them up the 2.5 kilometers climb. Palitana is very highly recommended as one of the must-see sights in Gujarat. That flutter of pigeons, the clanging of bells and the drone of prayers are the only sounds that disturb the millennia. The largest temple is enormous; the smallest too tiny to allow even a single devotee inside. White marble images of the tirthankas – Jain apostles – are situated in every cornice, and are said to number 10,000 in all.
Palitana town has a Gujarat Tourism Bungalow as well as several dormitories of varying levels of comfort which admit non-Jains on the proviso that they conform to the certain rules.
The capital of former princely state, Vadodara is an electric mix of erstwhile palaces and gracious mansions on one hand and a modern industrial city on the other.
The Gaekwads-the former Indo Saracenic style that have come to the identifies with Vadodara. As patrons of art, it is only fitting that Vadodara should have one of India’s best known colleges of art, housed in a superb old mansion.
As in case of Ahmedabad, a leisurely walk through the city will yield richer dividends than a whistle-stop tour, because many of the city’s finest edifices are private houses or crumbling mansions that lie, long-forgotten in corners of the city.
Like Vadodara, Junagarh is also an erstwhile princely capital. Dotted with old monuments including the Maqbara and Uparkot, an old fort, Junagadh has a fine museum recreating the splendor of the Nawabs.
The mount of Girnar, Gujarat’s highest peak, starts from the outskirts of Junagadh. This is a sacred spot for Jains in particular the Digamber sect as opposed to the Swetamber sect whose pilgrimage spot is Palitana. A stiff walk up the hill leads to over a dozen old Jain temples.
Junagadh is also the closest town from Sasan Gir, the only place in the world where the Asiatic lion can be seen in its natural habitat. Other species include leopards and several species of deer and antelope. Closed only during the monsson months, Gir is a fine get-away-from-it-all destination because of the excellent hotel it has within the sanctuary.
Gujarat is really an experience too vast to encapsulate here. You have to ‘live’ it in order to soal in the many facets of this State.
EXCURSIONS FROM AHMEDABAD AND VADODARA
ADALAJ VAV 17 kilometers north of Ahmedabad is one of the enduring features of life in Gujarat as it was in bygone days. The stepwell is a feature of life in western India, and culminates in Gujarat. Built of stone with descending corridors upto the level of the water, step-wells were often built by philanthropists and are notable examples of architecture in themselves. Weary travellers could rest, congregate or refresh themselves with water in much the same way as at an oasis in the desert.
LOTHAL is 87 kilometers from Ahmedabad. An archaeological site dating from the 2nd millennium BC, Lothal is of immense interest owing to its prominence in the Indus Valley civilisation. Three such sites exist throughout Gujarat, all of them belonging to the Harappan civilisation, the other two being Dholavira an Surkotda, both in the north Gujarat districts of Kutchchh. A small museam at Lothal displays objects of daily use excavated at the site.
MODHERA is 106 kilo-metres from Ahmedabad, the temple is one of very few known ones dedicated to the Sun God. For a temple dating back 1000 years it is in a remarkable state of preservation. Outside the pillars supporting the structure are carved with a profusion of figures. In contrast, the interior is austere, the rays of the sun reflecting the exact spot where the image of the Sun God stood before invaders destroyed it.
PATAN is 130 kilometers from Ahmedabad. This old town – where time appears to have stood still is famous for three things. Over 100 Jain temples, many of them in a single cluster, Gujarat’s most spectacular step-well and patola saris all make Patan well worth a day’s sightseeing, although it is not on the tourist map.
CHAMPANER, 47 kilometers from Vadodara is a ghost town with exquisitely beautiful mosques and palaces dating to the 14th century.
JAMNAGAR the centre of the tie and dye craft is worth a visit for the interesting old town, the Ayurvedic College which imparts education on India’s ancient herbal cures for ailments, and for the Lakhota Fort and Kotha Bastion on the island in the midst of the lake around which Jamnagar was built.
DWARKA is an ancient temple town remarkable for its architecture and the life around it, and for its association with Lord Krishna.
PORBANDER is a coastal town inextricably linked with the birth of Mahatma Gandhi. The ancestral house of his birth with its trellised windows and carved bal-conies is open to the public. Nearby Kirti Mandir commemorates the life of the Mahatma.
SOMNATH situated by the sea, has a site that according to legend is the oldest one in creation. The temple here – now built in stone – is said to have been successively built of gold, silver and precious stones.
AHMEDPUR MANDVI is one of the finest beaches in Gujarat, being totally sandy. Protected from strong currents by the presence of the island of Diu, it is safe for swimmers. The Gujarat Tourism Resort here recreates a Gujarat village – albeit with all modern amenities. Water sports are offered here.
KUTCH is not a town but a district, and Gujarat’s largest at that. As far off the tourist map as one can get, it is a conglomeration of villages – many of them without electricity and running water – and small towns. The desert of Kutch is the richest area in whole State for crafts. Lifestyles of the various communities that live here are in complete consonance with the harsh environment. The capital, Bhuj, has a sprinkling of mid-range hotels. Drives to a village or group of villages can be undertaken by car from Bhuj. The more intrepid may like to spend the night at a village, in which case an outright payment in lieu of bed and meals would cause offence; buying as many crafts as you can is a more graceful way of showing appreciation.
WHAT TO BUY
The question is not so much what to buy as what not to! Gujarat’s crafts are about the richest in the country. Here are but a sampling.
Wooden lacquer furniture from Sankheda, in prominently black and red; tie and dye woollen throws, silk saris and cotton dupattas from many parts of the State, the finest and most intricate coming from Jamnagar, where it is possible to buy directly from the craftsman.
Patan’s patola saris are collector’s items – very few persons are still engaged in the weaving of these saris, which have to be dyed very precisely. The price they command, is, as a consequence, extraordinarily high.
Every community in Gujarat – and there are hundreds – has their own range of embroideries which are worked onto women’s garment’s and household linen. Embroidery merchants all over Gujarat deal in them.
Kutch leather work is colourfully tufted with brightly coloured thread and used for slippers, fans, mirrors and a number of other items.
From Bhujodi in Kutchchh come woollen shawls and blankets in an array of natural colours; elsewhere in Kutch block printing and ‘ajrakh’ dyeing is practiced. Kutchi pottery with its folk charm has distinctive black and white markings on it.
Every tribe in Gujarat has its own vocabulary of designs for silver jewellery. All of it is exotic and chunky.
What is remarkable about Gurjari, the State Emporium for handicrafts is the care they have taken to contemporize crafts, so that it is possible to find a file covered in tie and dye or a visiting card holder with a block printed jacket – neither of which is traditional to the village where the fabric originated, but which is a welcome addition to any hand-bag or office desk!
REACHING THERE: Gujarat is connected to all parts of the country by air, road and rail. Ahmedabad is the most important city in the State and has the largest air network.
GETTING AROUND: Intercity, the best bet is tourist taxis who charge a flat fee per kilometer. Trains (2nd class air-conditioned sleeper) is good but far longer than the excellent road network on which State Transport buses ply regularly and efficiently. However, all signs are in Gujarati, and those looking for comfort leave alone luxury are likely to be disappointed. Within a city or town, three wheeler scooters are plentifully available and are usually meticulous in returning change and helpful to newcomers.
HOTELS: Ahmedabad and Vadodara have almost all the large starred hotels in the State. Gujarat Tourism has a network of budget hotels all around the State. In addition are Heritage Hotels which are refurbished palaces, many run by the owning family. They are located at Balaram near Ahmedabad, Bhavnagar, Poshina in Sabarkantha district, Gondal, Wankaner, and Utelia. Information for these can be had from Gujarat Tourism. Website:http://www.allindia.cotn/gujtourism. e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Their offices are in Mumbai, Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai, Hyderabad, Lucknow and Jaipur as well as in all major cities in Gujarat.
ABOARD ROYALTY:Take a trip through Gujarat and Rajasthan. Cross the great Indian desert at night and take day trips to the most fascinating places. Soak your feet in the warm waters of the Arabian Sea or laze on the beach. Safari in the jungles to see the only lions outside Africa. To take you to all these exotic locales is the Royal Orient -one of the world’s most luxurious trains. A joint venture between the Tourism Corporation of Gujarat Limited and the Indian Railways, The Royal Orient promises you seven memorable days and nights. With air conditioned coaches and all the modern amenities, The Royal Orient offers you an unforgettable experience.
TIPS FOR TRAVELERS
Gujarat is completely ‘dry’ alcohol-wise. Tourists, however are exempt from this blanket ban, and are issued with a permit and license to buy alcohol at licensed vendors, all of which are State controlled. The only restriction is that you cannot partake your legally purchased drink in anything that constitutes a ‘public place’. Which means that you can only drink within the confines of your hotel room. Contact Gujarat Tourism for more details.
Mosques and temples are tourist spots in their own right, quite apart from being religious places of worship. Most allow persons of all faiths to enter – a few have restrictions that are clearly posted on noticeboards. It is expected that you observe the decorum due to a place of worship while you visit: women should have their heads covered and both sexes should be decently clad’ – for Gujarati standards that is. Most Jain temples do not permit leather within the premises which means you have to leave watch straps, handbags, belts at the gate. Shoes have to be taken off in any case.
Gujarati cuisine is delicious – from restaurants serving thalis with upto a dozen courses to street-side snack foods and dry snacks that travel well and go well with cocktails. Meat, even the thought of it, is abhorrent to a number of locals, as is the idea of eating anything so strong as garlic, onions or any vegetable that grows underground!