Gujarat was not a part of our loosely planned Indian itinerary. Our discovery that there were lions here changed all that, but even then, we only intended to see the lions and get out. That was three weeks ago! So, what can you say about Gujarat? Well, it's home to the very last asiatic lions on the planet. It's also the home of an ex-Portuguese and semiautonomous island, beautiful Jain temples, Mahatma Gandhi, Amitabh Bachchan (Bollywood's biggest superstar), 80% of India's salt production, state-sanctioned prohibition, and, insanely colorful tribal groups. Unfortunately, it's also home to thousands of square kilometers of scorched, dry, barren, and mainly unattractive land crisscrossed by some of India's worst roads. No, don't come to Gujarat for the beauty of its landscape. After lion spotting in Sasan Gir, we spent a few nights in the charming ex-Portuguese town, and island, of Diu. After that we hugged the southern coastline before heading slightly north to the mountaintop temples near Palitana and then beelined it across the flats and settled down in Bhuj- the capital of fascinating Kachchh.
While many cities and towns in India are hard to like, Diu is a town that's hard not to love. It's an ex-Portuguese town with its expected colonial leftovers. It has white-washed churches, colorful houses and shops, a well-preserved old fort, and cheap and delicious seafood. It's also a town teeming with parakeets, peacocks, and other exotic birds. It's an interesting blend of West and East, and being semi-autonomous from the State of Gujarat means it's the only place within a few hundred kilometers to get your fix of hooch. It is probably also the cleanest town in India which made for a refreshing change.
Palitana on the other hand is busy, dusty, and dirty, but, just a short drive from the city centre you begin the ascent to Jainism's holiest pilgrimage site- Shatrunjaya. Just under 4000 steps lead you up to this enchanting city of temples perched up on the plateau peak. Some of the temples date back nearly a millennium, some are more recent, but the combined collection of these hundreds of stone-carved temples is a sight to behold. The whole place has a real Tolkienesque feel to it… in an Indian kind of way. Avoiding another night in Palitana, we climbed the mountain, admired the temples, hiked back down, and caught the next available bus heading north. Kachchh was our next destination.
Bhuj, the capital city of Kachchh (Kutch), is a combination of crazy and charming. The main roads are hectic, noisy and polluted, but the streets and lanes that meander through the old districts and bazaars are wonderful and retain a real “old India” charm. The city itself has a handful of interesting sights such as the Kachchh Museum, the Prag and Aina Mahal, and the modern Shri Swaminaraya Jain temple. But the real allure of Bhuj is just exploring the narrow lanes and alleyways and poking in to one or many of the tiny shops selling the crafts of the surrounding Kachchh villages. We really enjoyed the town of Bhuj and the interesting and artistic people we met there. It is a city that we never heard of before coming to Gujarat and we ended up spending nine nights there. However, other than the friends we met there, it wasn't Bhuj itself that kept us lingering in the area for so long. It was the plethora of interesting and colorful tribal groups that inhabit the surrounding villages of Kachchh. Bhuj just served as an excellent base to explore these villages from. On one day we hired a driver cum guide for the day who took us to a village who was hosting not one, but 28 weddings. The weddings were nice to see and the townspeople were dressed beautifully, but we decided after that first “tour” that we didn't require the services of a driver. Over the next few days we hired a motorcycle and toured around the barren countryside of Kachchh visiting ethnic villages (some more authentic than others), mingling with the people and watching them ply their trades. One of my motives was to photograph the colorful tribal groups, but this proved more of a challenge than I expected. I'm pretty sure that one of the reasons we stayed so long in one place was the fact that I wasn't getting the right opportunities to get my photographs. For many of these tribal groups there are cultural stigmas regarding having their photos taken and others just prefer if you didn't. Some people hid at the sight of a camera and some (usually the ones you didn't want to photograph) insisted that you take their picture. I did leave Kachchh unfulfilled with my photographic intentions, but I did manage to get off a few shots of willing subjects. On one day we took the motorcycle to the Great Rann of Kachchh- Gujarat's massive salt desert, and on another we visited the seaside city of Mandvi. Bhuj and Kachchh was an unanticipated and wonderfully unexpected stop on our trip. We met lots of great people and no doubt we left with more memories than my photos could ever testify.
After leaving the Greater Rann of Kachchh we headed a couple hundred kilometers east to the Little Rann of Kachchh, or East Kachchh, spending one day in the Wild Ass Sanctuary. It's the only place to find free-roaming wild ass (a much more handsome breed of donkey) and is a stopover for hundreds of species of migratory birds including cranes, storks, pelicans, and flamingos. It is also a major region for salt production. In the dry season it's a landscape of cracked mudflats, but come monsoon, it transforms into a virtual sea. There are areas in the middle of the desert where sun-scorched wooden boats lay waiting for the first of the yearly downpours. But all-in-all, we weren't too impressed with this part of the state, mainly because it lacked the colorful tribal presence of western Kachchh. We then spent a couple of nights in Gujarat's capital city Ahmedabad. Ahmedabad is everything you'd expect from a big Indian city. It's noisy and polluted but it does have a few worthwhile things to see. For us, the best feature of Ahmedabad was the daily dusk murmuration of starlings that we watched from a hotel rooftop opposite the frantic Ahmedabad railway station. Nightly, what seems like millions of starlings take to the sky to deliver one impressive show of nature, almost unbeknownst to the people below. It's a spectacle that's actually worth a stopover in Ahmedabad if in the vicinity.
So that was our time in Gujarat. We saw lions, drank beers outside a 15th century church, climbed to the holiest Jain temples, immersed ourselves in the cultures of Kachchh, and met many amazing people along the way. Gujarat was a spontaneous decision and a great one at that.
118.5 hours spent on more trains and some pretty shitty roads!