Table of contents for Gujarat
- The Saga of Somnath and Sardar Patel
- Sun-soaked in Somnath
- Roaring Gir
- Gazing in the Gir for the wild cats with Mr. Leopard Lucky
- Lessons of life at Anil Farm House (New name Gir Jungle Resort)– Sasan Gir
- Junagadh – A journey through the ages
- Junagadh – A walk through history and folklores at Uparkot Fort
- The honest Junagadh
We visited Gujarat in this winter vacation of Rachit (December 2008). The itinerary was as follows:
24th Dec – Rajdhani Express from New Delhi to Ahmedabad (19:55-10:05)
25th Dec – Somnath Express from Ahmedabad to Veraval (22:00-6:15)
26th Dec – Stay at hotel Shivam in Somnath
27th Dec- Depart to Sasan Gir
27th Dec- Stay at Hotel Annapoorna in Sasan Gir
28th-29th Dec – Stay at Anil Farms, Balcheel Village, Sasan Gir
30th Dec – Depart to Junagarh
30-31st Dec – Stay at Leo Resort, Junagarh
1st Jan – Depart to Ahmedabad
Gujarat! It’s not a preferred tourist destination. I agree. We chose it as we felt that in Gujarat it would be easier for us to find homely food. It was a must as Tanmay, my younger son, was only eight months old. Another reason to choose it was that we wanted to visit a place where we could get ample sun. The compelling desire to leave Noida was to avoid depressing days of sunless winters.
Rachit is crazy about trains. His dream is to visit France to travel in TGV – the world’s fastest train. He was excited that we would be traveling in Rajdhani Express – India’s fastest train.
Our first train journey was ok. We were traveling in night, so nothing special to write about. Traveling in India’s fastest train did not turn out to be that different for Rachit. Though, I would like to share my concerns about the hygiene of the meals served in the Rajdhani. The dinner trays were kept very close to toilets before being served to the passengers. I had to overcome my revulsion to finish the meal. I think this may echo the sentiments of thousands of train travelers.
We reached Ahmedabad the next morning. There was a full day between our arrival in the morning and departure at night. Jaishree was tired. She could not sleep properly in the train. We looked for an accommodation close to the railway station to take rest.
We zeroed in on Moti-Mahal Hotel. Unfortunately, it was too near to appeal to any auto driver to take us there. It required some convincing and some extra money to persuade the auto driver. For the auto-wallah the hope was that we may change our decision and may request him to take us to another accommodation, where he could possibly make some extra money as commission.
I was of the opinion that as we needed the hotel room only for the day, I would be able to convince the hotel manager to offer us a discounted tariff. I could not convince him and we had to pay the full tariff (Rs 550+4% tax).
|Traffic near Hotel Moti Mahal and railway station|
This hotel and the railway station are located in old Ahmedabad – the walled city. The traffic in front of the hotel was heavy and the roads were congested. Luckily our room was not facing the road else the traffic could have been very annoying. It was good to see CNG autos there. This adoption of CNG should be the savior of the lungs of the walled city residents. Anybody could guess else how polluted the whole place would be!
Moti-Mahal was an ok kind of accommodation. It had a clean room and clean-spacious bathroom with hot water. I found the room small. But even in peak tourist season they were not charging very high amount, so the expectations were not high. However, we felt that it would be better to stay in quieter areas than in the walled city.
We were invited for dinner at my brother-in-law’s parent’s house. Auto-wallah’s in Ahmedabad are in general honest and go by the meter. It was an interesting ride to their home during late afternoon. The city was preparing itself for the kite festival. The grand finale of that takes place on the 15th Jan every year, on the festival of Makar Sankranti. Roadside shops were bustling with preparation of the colorful manjaas (thread to fly kites) with glass coating. All these shops were decorated with Charkhis (the spindles), kites and the manjaas. India is a country associated with riot of colors. We Indians are always looking for opportunities to celebrate in colors and, with colors.
As kids, we used to relish Makar Sankranti. In Khetrinagar, the small township where I had spent the most beautiful days of my life, we used to gather on terraces and playgrounds. There used to be fierce kite competitions. Every cutting of opponents thread was greeted with “woh kaata, woh maara!” at the top of our lungs and occasional drumming of old tin boxes.
Flying kites is good for the eyes of computer professionals sitting for long hours in front of their computers. Eyes need to look at infinity to reduce the negative effect of continuous staring at screens from short distances. What else can be a better way to do so then indulging in this sport?
We had a nice evening with our warm and jovial hosts. My BIL’s mother is an expert cook. I believe that anything that is cooked and served with love makes it extraordinary and there we had an extraordinary meal served with love. A meal with them is always a privilege. We had a hearty dinner. Even kids ate without fuss and filled themselves completely.
After dinner, we went back to the hotel and tried to find an auto to take us to the railway station to catch our night train. We could not find any. Sometimes having a hotel at stone’s throw may not be desirable :) Finally we managed to carry the luggage on foot till the railway station.
We boarded Veraval Express. This time we had side berths. I wonder, how Railways is justified, in the difference of the amount one pays for II AC side seat and III AC side seat. It seems to me that railway is also aware of this unfairness. So they are planning to add an extra side berth in III AC at the cost of passengers’ breathing space. Sometimes its better avoid making noises about injustice. After all sometimes justice itself is unjustified. I hope that the air flights remain cheap enough for the railways to abandon this idea.
We reached Veraval, the nearest railhead for Somnath, in the morning. Veraval is around 6 Km from Somnath. It was the major seaport for the Mecca headed pilgrims before the rise of Surat. It is still one of India’s major shipping ports. During the British rein, cannons were kept at the ruins of Somnath to keep this sea port safe from sea pirates.
Autos were readily available at Veraval for Somnath. Auto-wallah asked us for Rs 30 to take us to hotel Shivam in Somnath. Almost midway between Somnath and Veraval, we felt a pungent strong smell of dead sea fishes. The smell was coming from nearby “fish-factories”. In my guidebook a few hotels of Veraval were suggested to be avoided in case someone is sensitive to that smell. I was happy that we decided not to stay in Veraval.
Hotel Shivam was in the middle of narrow alleys. Our auto tried to cross an open drain with a stone over it operating as a bridge. The stone cracked in two and the front wheel of the auto went into the drain. There was no way that our auto could move ahead. So we paid the auto driver and carried our luggage to the hotel.
One month prior to our visit to Somnath I made a casual enquiry about the availability of rooms in Somnath. In all the hotels I called, I was told that all the rooms were booked. I started to panic. One option was to go to Somnath without any accommodation and to search for an accommodation there. Somnath is a small place. I was unsure of decent hotels in Somnath. In hotel Shivam there was a double room available in for 1500 Rs. Inspite of knowing that the price is on the higher side, I booked it. On seeing the room, I grudgingly realized that this price being charged was almost 4-5 times of its normal traiff. This is amongst the drawbacks of traveling in peak tourist season. Families with school going kids perhaps have no alternative.
There are a good number of decent hotels in Somnath. Our hotel was situated in a congested part. It was hard to get fresh air and sun there. The hotel and the room in general were clean, with hot water in bathroom. But in mornings and evenings, there was smell of dead sea-fishes. Mayuram, another well known hotel was situated at a better location. There is also the newly constructed Sukhsagar hotel near Somnath’s new railway station. I felt that it was the best amongst all.
After checking in, we ate breakfast at Bhabha restaurant that was adjacent to our hotel. In the restaurants of this region we observed that the seats were with high backs. It gives privacy but takes away the warmth and liveliness. We neither liked the ambience nor the preparation of this restaurant.
Later on we discovered an Amul outlet just in front of Somnath temple. The very first day it was where we took our meal in the form of Shrikhands, Masala Chaach and ice creams. And there was a big tree to protect us from the harsh and scorching sun and a platform was constructed around its trunk. Nice place to enjoy the Amul meals.
Near Amul outlet there was a market. In the center of that market there were eateries all around with a raised area in between. We specially enjoyed Gujarati khichdi plate at ShivShakti restaurant there.
|These Enfield Jugaads are very common in Kathiawad|
Coming to the Somnath temple, I believe that the places of worship are for believers and devotees, not for tourists. But I visited Somnath temple more as a tourist. My observations would be accordingly. Am I also among the self-confessed religiously challenged ghumakkars! ;)
It was already around noon when we were ready to enter the temple. Even in winters sun started to become harsh. The big space outside temple was clean and concreted. A statue of Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel was facing the temple. There were flocks of pigeons fed by tourists and devotees. Small act of kindness, be it with fellow human beings or animals and birds increase the general aura of spirituality. Pigeons are amongst the most docile birds. It’s calming to see them eating, and then suddenly flying off and then coming down again all-together. A few kids were chasing them and forcing them to fly.
|Pigeons in front of Somnath temple|
There were long queues of school kids waiting for their turn to enter inside. Photography is disallowed inside the temple. Facilities are provided to leave luggage and footwear outside. Lockers are also provided free of cost for keeping valuables and cameras.
On first looks, the exteriors of this temple looked impressive. It is planned in the style of the Solanki period. We entered inside. I was of the impression that this temple is among the rich Indian temples. I was expecting the construction to be comparable to Akhshardhams. It was not. Carvings on the wall were gross and lacked refinement. In-total it was an unattractive modern construction. This observation is only as far as the touristic external looks are concerned.
Somnath temple has received many terror threats, so ample security arrangements have been done to protect it.
On the first day we could not attend the aarti in the temple. Next day we were pressed on by the owner of ShivShakti restaurant to attend it. It was worth it. I recommend participating in one in order to see the fervor and zeal of devotees and to experience the crescendo of devotion.
The best part of Somnath temple was its vicinity to the vast-tranquil sea and the Grey sand beach just next to its boundary.
After visiting the temple and taking our Amul meal, my wife and kids decided to take rest in the hotel. It was decided that after some rest my wife would call me back once she was ready. In the mean time I could gallavant around, as I wanted. I decided to use this time to explore the town.
My first destination was an old museum that is situated north of the temple. The courtyard of that museum was littered with a jumble of old carved stones, statues, section of roof pillars and torans of the remains of the old temple. All of them were telling the same stories of vandalism, demolitions and destructions. I wonder how breaking idols could be an act of bravery. It reminds me of Taliban gleefully blowing down the colossal statues of Buddha in Bamiyan in front of the world media. The whole world looked helpless and watched as mere spectators. Some day in future Afghanistan will understand the loss they had on that day.
While loitering in the museum I noticed that all those remains lacked the refinement and sophistication of Khajuraho. I remained wondering, was the temple of Somnath really so grand and sophisticated as it sounds in folklores! Or is it that in the series of attacks and in the centuries of negligence, it had lost all that made it so unique.
There was no call even after I came out. So, I decided to visit an old temple in front of the new Somnath temple. There was no one to take care of one’s shoes. Before the trip I had bought new Reebok shoes. God kept a strange condition for me. If I had to visit Him, I had to shun my materialistic affinities. I requested a guard to take care of my shoes and he shrugged my request telling me that he had better business to attend to. I tried to fool God. I took off my shoes and did a 100 meter race to do the darshan. As the distance upto the sancta sanctorum was more than 100 meters, I had to return midway. God smiled at my attempt. There was a beggar. I thought of asking him to take care of my shoes. But I could not convince myself that he would remain there till I return. Sadly, in the end, my love for my new shoes won and my tryst with God on that day was not ordained to happen :(
Dejected I moved away from the temple. There was still no call. So I decided to explore more. First I moved towards Somnath’s new museum. It was near the bus stand, but was closed for renovation. It is dedicated to regional “coastal life” and maritime events. There I was told about Sangam and that Sharda Peeth, Gita Mandir and Surya Mandir were in its vicinity. I walked towards Sangam. It was around one kilometer from the temple.
I was sure that at Sangam I would not have to take off my shoes and so I decided first to explore it. आख़िर दूध का जला छाछ भी फूँक फूँक कर पीता है (Its literal english translation is that those who burn their tongue drinking hot milk, sip even the buttermilk cautiously. In other words, once bitten twice shy).
I liked the place. So I returned quickly to come back with the family.
When I returned, I saw that the kids and my wife were awake. When I told them about Sangam, everyone got interested.
The laid back life of Somnath started to absorb us in. We decided to hire buggy to go to Sangam. The whole setting reminded me of Dilip Kumar’s famous film “Naya Daur”. It was a little before sunset. Somnath temple was gleaming in sunlight. It was a beautiful sight to view the glowing temple from the hooded rear portion of the buggy.
Sangam is located at the confluence of Kapila, Hiranya and vanished Saraswati rivers. At the entrance we bought some biscuits meant for fish. When we threw them in the water it was fun to see shoals of fishes rushing to grab them.
|The tussle to grab the biscuit|
The scene seemed typical of a rugby match. A lucky fish moving ahead with its prized possession and other fishes vehemently following it. In this case though at the end the ball ended up being devoured by the hungry players. Such interesting sights usually evoke joy and excitement in the hearts of small children.
|Lucky winner moving ahead with its prized catch|
To commemorate the inauguration of Sangam by Morarji Desai there was a statue of his nearby. Morarji Desai, though spent most of his political time in Indian national congress, but has the distinction of leading the first non-congress government of India. He is the only Indian to receive the highest civilian awards from both India and Pakistan, the Bharat Ratna and Nishaan-e-Pakistan. As a kid I always sympathized with him as he was born on 29th Feb and could celebrate his birthday only once in 4 years. As an adult I envy him, he lived for 99 years but was only 24 birthday old. He is ridiculed for his championing of self urine therapy. I do believe that it is because such alternative ways are so looked down in the press.
|Statue of Morarji Desai|
At Sangam a few Brahmins were chanting shlokas and conducting prayers around small shivlingas which they had brought with themselves. A few devotees were taking bath in the holy water after the prayers. It gave the whole place an atmosphere of calm, peace and religious feel.
A crane on the shore kept us entertained.
|The Western Reef Egret|
Mr Bagula Bhagat sometimes stood still while sometimes ran behind fishes with his tilted neck – like an old chowkidar of a mango orchard running behind children, who enter inside the orchard excitedly looking forward to enjoying the luscious mangoes; never really been able to catch any of them.
|Mr Bagula Bhagat running behind fishes with tilted neck|
Then there was something very pathetic to watch. After the prayers the Brahmins left the portable shivlingas unattended on the shore. I witnessed a dog lifting its leg there. Pitiful!
|Shivlinga is abandoned after prayers|
We decided to take a boat ride. The required number of passengers assembled and we boarded the boat. We were taken to the point from where the rivers Kapila and Hiranya could be seen arriving from different directions, till then with completely distinct identities. Eventually they got married at Sangam and lost their individuality completely.
|The Great white Pelicans|
There we could see big white water birds. Are they the Great white Pelicans? I requested the boatman to take us closer to the birds. He declined, explaining that the water there was shallow and hence going further was not possible.
It was the closest we could watch those magnificent, beautiful white birds.
On Rachit’s insistence after sangam we went straight to chowpatty – the sea beach abutting the Somnath temple. (Yes, this beach was also called chowpatty like the one in Mumbai). As we reached there, we saw a few kinnars coming towards us. Rachit commented – “पापा, मस्त ताली बजाने वाले आ रहे हैं ” (Papa, the people who clap perfectly are coming towards us).
The beach was very lively. There were hordes of tourists sipping coconut water, eating chaats, and taking camel & horse rides. Camels at Chowpatty were very conscious about their beautiful faces and all of them could be seen wearing hats to avoid sunburns. Sorry, I don’t have a photograph of that!
Sun was yet to set. It was looking tired but experienced. The fierce yellow shine was paving way to a soothing yellow and the temple was glowing.
|Somnath temple basking in the soothing sun-rays|
Setting sun has its own charm and it never ceases to impress us. Rachit was enjoying the incoming and receding waves, running forward and backward with them. But the camels and horses were also running along the shore and his safety became a matter of concern for us.
|My younger kid|
|Rachit at Chowpatty|
|Sun taking the final dip|
We decided to move from chowpatty to finish our meal before the sound and light show at the temple. After dinner, the toll of continuous two night of train journeys, began to appear. Inspite of his tremendous efforts and strong desire to see the show, Rachit gave up and so did we. We also realized that he had fever and then decided to call it a day.