India: Saurashtra, Gujarat

Mahabat Maqbara

Tomb of Bahar-ud-din Bhar, Mahabat Maqbara Complex, Junagadh

Neminath Temple, Girnar

As the winter and fog settled down in Northern India freezing the whole region, our travel troupe moved a state down from the deserts of Rajasthan to the coast of Gujarat for our Christmas 2014 holiday. Indian Railways, in its infinite wisdom, has ensured that all the trains from Pune to Saurashtra either leaves or reaches at two in the morning. So we had to roll down the hill to Mumbai, spend the day at the railway retiring room-cum-dungeon and then take the overnighter to Dwaraka, the western end of the Saurashtra coast. Dwaraka is one of the four temples that form the famous char-dham circuit. Although no one really knows what the heck a dham is and no two Hindus agree on the list of the four that constitute the grand IV league of char-dham temples, Dwaraka, nevertheless, figures prominently on the Hindu “1000 places to see before you die” list. That is mainly because Dwaraka is where Krishna is said to have reigned as a king, many a millennia ago. Getting to Dwaraka is only half the challenge. Getting through the several round of security to actually get to see the image of Krishna is definitely a harder task. Gujarat government has taken elaborate pains to ensure that no mobile phones or digital cameras ever enter the temple – you cannot blame them, the last thing you want is to have the protector of the universe get hooked onto Farmville or Candy Crush. Eighteen kilometers on land plus a half an hour on water from the main Dwaraka temple is Bet Dwaraka, an island where Krishna is said to have had his royal residence. The lack of any shred of credible evidence of any kind or the prospect of having to cross the stretch of Arabian Sea on top of an extremely overcrowded dingy lacking anything that vaguely resembles a life-jacket does not seem to deter the thousands of ardent devotees or the hundreds of blind Lonely Planet followers from undertaking this perilous journey. Asiatic Lion, Gir National Park

After roaming around Dwaraka (Bet and Regular), we started our long drive to Junagadh. Half way to our destination is Porbandar, where a century and a half ago was born one Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. His home is now converted into a museum and although there is absolutely nothing of note there, we just had to take the half hour detour into the town to pay our homage to the man instrumental in freeing one-fifth of humanity. Junagadh, our destination for the day and one of the myriad princely states, rose into prominence during independence when its Muslim king wanted to accede to Pakistan. Some unfriendly nudges from the Iron-Man, Sardar Patel, ensured no such partition of Gujarat took place and thanks to that, the city can be visited by Indians without having to apply for a visa. The following morning, we checked out the historic sights of the city – the city’s history does go back a long way, parts of it dating from the time of Chandragupta Maurya c. 320 BC. The Uperkot fort, with its 2nd century Buddhist caves and its 15th century Jama Masjid, the most famous of Ashokan edicts and the drop-dead stunning Mahabat Maqbara were the prominent sights of the day. Surprisingly, it is not the historic sites that attract most of the tourists – it is the nearby Girnar Hill, were a mere 10,000 steps take you to some of Jainism’s holiest temples. Leaving Pranav with my parents at the hotel, Aparna and I attempted the daunting climb. Starting at 4:30 am and gritting through the disgrace of being overtaken by everyone from kindergarten school groups to octogenarians, we made it to the first plateau by 7:30 am. This plateau, a 4000 step slug fest from the start, has some millennia old highly carved Jain temples. A thousand steps or an hour more brought us to a Hindu temple, from where one can get some breathtaking views of the Jain complex and the surrounding hills. Aparna wisely decided to end her climb there, while I made a rather pointless 1000 step slug up to the next maxima with little to show for the effort. We eventually made our way back by lunchtime with a gait resembling a drunken duck - which lasted for a week, and some pleasant memories which, hopefully, will last a lifetime. Shatrunjaya Temples, Palitana

Next morning, an hour in the car brought us to Somnath, a temple so famous that its fame alone brought the first of many waves of Islamic invaders of India. Attacked and looted seventeen times, it laid in ruins for many centuries till our independence, when it was reconstructed by the single minded dedication of the first home minister, Sardar Patel. The existing mosque was relocated and an impressive sea-shore temple rose in its place. So much for the state being a secular republic - the whole effort being publicly funded and not by the state would be the only feeble excuse we can offer. If the history and the stunning location isn’t enough of an attraction, Somnath also happens to be one of the twelve jyotirlingas in the nation. Oh yes, no one has a clue what a “jyotirlinga” is either and what makes a certain linga (the phallic symbol Shiva is worshiped as) “jyotir”, while others plain vanilla. But visiting all the twelve would be the top twelve things that a Hindu would want to do in his/her life. Blackbuck, Velavadar National Park

Asiatic lions, a different sub-species when compared to their more famous African cousins, used to roam all over western Asia – from Persia to the Indian sub-continent. They have been hunted to extinction everywhere except for a small pocket and the last place you would expect the pocket to be is in between the hustle of Junagadh and the bustle of Somnath, two over crowded towns separated by less than 100 kms. But that is precisely where the last of Asiatic Lions are clinging to their existence – in a small stretch of forest, an hour north of Somnath, making India the only country on the planet where you can spot both the tiger and the lion in the wild. Unlike the tigers, the lions aren’t mightily shy of their existence and hence it is a tad easier to spot them on a safari – two safaris should be plenty to catch a glimpse of one of them. Since Pranav does not consider lions to be exotic enough to forgo watching the umpteenth re-run of a Salman Khan flop, we had given ourselves four safaris to ensure the rest of us can get into at least two. Maybe it was the brownie points we gathered at the temples of Dwaraka and Somnath, or maybe it was the dumb luck or more likely, just the hefty tip I gave the guide and the driver, we spotted more than our fair share of the lions - often times close enough for me to downgrade from my 400mm to a 70mm to photograph them!

After two wonderful days in the Gir forest, we spent six hours of the next on the road to cover a mere 200 kms to Bhavnagar, the roads being rough enough to make Pranav have his customary car-sick day of the trip – so much for the Gujarat Model of development. An hour from Bhavnagar is Palitana, another masochistic Jain pilgrimage hike, this time a mere 3300 steps take you to a sea of sumptuous hilltop temples. Leaving everyone to recover from the long drive, I started at four in the morning to give myself a chance to climb the hill under the stars, watch a stunning sunrise over the said temple-sea and returning in time to join the family on the one hour drive to the next destination – the Blackbuck National Park. The park’s highlight, the blackbuck, being an antelope are numerous enough to be spotted from the comfort of the uber-luxurious five star stone cottages, the only accommodation in the park. Safaris in the park is the closest you can get to experience the African Savanna outside of that continent and they also give you a chance to see these elegant beasts gallop at 80kmph - their speed being the result of millions of years of evolutionary arms race with the Indian Cheetah (which, thanks to our Maharajas no longer run in our plains). A late evening game drive, followed by an early morning one with seeing the sun fall and rise over the savanna was a great way to end the year and our yearly travel season. We spent the last night of the year (and our holiday) inside the comfort of the first AC cabin of the Indian Railways, the only place on the planet where you can sleep through the new year without the annoying fire crackers and the loud phone calls between strangers congratulating each other on the earth returning to an arbitrary point on its orbit around the sun.

Click here for more photos from Gir National Park.
Click here for more photos from Blackbuck National Park.
Click here for more photos from rest of Saurashtra.