By ROGER ALLNUTT
The western Indian state of Gujarat, located to the west of Mumbai and abutting the border with Pakistan, is one of the least travelled regions of India for foreign tourists. Its northern neighbour, Rajasthan, in comparison is one of the ‘hottest’ tourist areas in the world with many celebrities discovering its colour not to mention some of the world’s luxurious hotels many in ‘converted’ palaces of maharajas.
The major cities are Ahmedabad (sometimes Amdavad), Vadodara (previously Baroda), Surat and Rajkot and the rest of the state is principally rural, although some of the smaller towns can have a population in excess of half a million.
Driving in Gujarat (as with the rest of India) is a tiring experience and I would strongly recommend anyone planning to visit to have at least a car and driver (not expensive) and perhaps a guide. Apart from the occasional toll road most roads are narrow and in a very mixed state of repair. These roads are shared with innumerable trucks, buses, cars and vans, auto-rickshaws, cows, camels, goats, dogs and an overwhelming number of people.
The towns and villages are a maze of narrow streets lined with tiny shops. I don’t think anything is ever discarded, tyres, inner tubes and every bit of metal is recycled. Most of the innumerable tailors are men and they can alter or repair clothes in quick time; I paid $2 for four separate repairs.
Ahmedabad, the major city of Gujarat, has a population of nearly five million and is a bustling city straddling the banks of the Sabarmati River. A new capital Gandhinagar about 30km away was built in the 1970s as the administrative centre of the state but it is rather dreary place enlivened by the outstanding Akshardam Hindu temple.
Mahatma Gandhi (born in the coastal town of Porbander) lived in Ahmedabad for many years during the struggle for Indian independence and you can visit the peaceful ashram he used as his base (he led the famous Salt March from there in 1930).
There are two outstanding museums in Ahmedabad. The Calico Museum is an amazing collection of old and modern Indian textiles (only open in the mornings so be there at 10am). To contrast the City Museum is a stark building designed by Le Corbusier that covers Ahmedabad’s history. Both are free; most museums and similar attractions have one entry fee for Indian nationals and a much higher rate for international tourists and there is often an additional fee for cameras.
At Palitana, near Bhavnagar and south of Ahmedabad, is one of holiest sites of the Jain religion. On top of a hill dominating the surrounding countryside is Shatrunjaya, a collection of around 1,000 temples and this amazing edifice is reached by climbing 3,473 steps (the rise is 600 metres) or you can pay for a dholi or portable chair carried by two bearers.
Another imposing temple is at Somnath on the south coast. It has had many incarnations the latest dating from 1950 and is beautifully positioned on a cliff above the sea.
Built in 1027 it is similar to the famous Sun Temple at Konark in Orissa state. Both the outside and inside is intricately carved with numerous murals paying homage not only to the sun god and other demi-gods but also into intricate sculptures depicting aspects of daily life including elements lsuch as fire and water), plants and animals, costumes and jewellery, festivals and even erotica. At nearby Patan is a wonderfully intricate baoli or step well and the town is known for the dazzling Patoli silk saris, although the number of craftsmen who do this intricate tie-dye process is rapidly diminishing.
North of Somnath the Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary is famous as the last place where Asiatic lions (just over 300 remain) can be found. On our first morning safari in the sanctuary we were lucky to hear a great roar and then follow two magnificent, proud male lions as they strolled unconcernedly along a dusty road, stopping occasionally to strut, pose and spray their scent, before ambling off into the undergrowth.
The sanctuary is also known for its nocturnal and rarely spotted leopards, jackals, wild boar, spotted deer, monkeys and birds including, surprisingly to me, large numbers of peacocks and peahens. .
We stayed at the Lion Safari Camp on the outside of the sanctuary, in comfortable tented accommodation beside a river, from where the safaris left early each morning and in the late afternoon.
One of the highlights of Gujarat (and also Rajasthan) is the food. With its agricultural base it is a vegetarian’s paradise. Local markets are full of fresh produce and the displays of spices and herbs are mouth-watering.
A Gujarati thali, a selection of five or six different vegetarian dishes plus naan, roti, papar (papadums) and pickles allow you to sample a variety of tasty dishes.
The best time to visit Gujarat is from November to March when the weather is pleasantly cool and there is virtually no rain.
For more information on Gujarat (and the rest of India) visit www.incredibleindia.org