HIDDEN GEMS: JAMNAGAR AND JUNAGADH

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The “little visited” (according to Lonely Planet) cities of Jamnagar and Junagadh, though traffic choked and rife with air pollution, proved to be good for a couple of days of nosing about. We are now in the region of Gujarat known as Saurasthra, separated by an inlet from the Khutch area we have left.

In Jamnagar we had a pleasant hotel in a former home of one of the distant relatives of the former ruling famaily. Only the gracious staircase and a large upper landing had resisted the renovator’s zeal, but it was nice to have a modern and completely working bathroom for a change. We were very comfortable there, and their restaurant was very good, hence the pictures of the Gujarati Thali previously shared. In the evening the outside garden restaurant was pleasant, and though all the Indian guests wore warm jackets and the children toques, I felt comfortable with a wool shawl and Doug with a light sweater. After all, 23 degrees is not exactly cold to us!

IMG_5540.JPGThe congested old city market is, as usual, the most interesting area to foreign tourists like us. Hectic and seething, with a cacophony of blowing horns, crowded with rude tuk tuk drivers, oblivious cows, and determined shoppers, it still has a most attractive central core. Three beautiful Jain temples amongst the melee are a real bonus.

img_5613At the turn of the 20th century the city was part of a princely state ruled by Jam Ratsitsinjhi who had been to England and brought back a love of English architecture. He was also a good manager so Jamnagar was prosperous at the time.

IMG_5521.JPGHe decided to replace the city’s worst slum with the elegant Willingdon Crescent, rather reminiscent of the English circles including the one in Bath. The grand arcaded building was across from his palace, and retains a faded glory with stone walls softened by the erosion of weather and years, the pale blue shutters fading and cracked while the bottom level is stuffed with small shops. His best idea was to make the street wide enough to include sidewalks — you have no idea what a novel idea that is even today– so even though the crush is intense, it is possible to walk without fear of immediate demise. Unfortunately his palace, the Darbargarh is badly decayed and suffered serious damage in the earthquake. We tried to sneak into the grounds to at least have a look but were immediately apprehended by a rude young man who probably just wanted baksheesh but we didn’t bother.

img_5661The city is blessed by a small lake with a fort in the middle of it, reachable by a causeway once they get the earthquake damage repaired. Its most interesting feature however is a temple dedicated to Hanuman (the monkey god) whose devotees have been chanting “Shri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram” 24 hours a day since August 1, 1964!! If that’s not crazy enough, consider that the earthquake in 2001 levelled the fort in the middle of the small lake on the shores of which this temple sits! Imagine how they kept chanting throughout the quake. No one I asked was clear on the details, but all agreed that the chanting has been going on continuously for 52 1/2 years and is, of course, in the Guinness Book of Records.

img_5658The park surrounding the lake has an entry fee of 10 rupees (20 cents) which means that we could walk there in the pleasant gardens unharassed by beggars, but still prey to the ubiquitous photo snappers. Since they don’t usually know English, they have a habit of simply moving in, saying “picture, picture” confident that we will pose happily. By the time they have rearranged the sometimes sizeable groups 4 or 5 times we are getting heartily sick of it. Polite Canadians that we are, we do not seem to be able to refuse. However I am beginning to think we are contributing to a problem like the “one pen, one pen” or “Bon Bon” which has caused me over the years to curse those tiresome tourists who gave out pens and candies. The cell phone camera is the new curse I guess. In the evening many citizens are out taking their exercise on a rubberized “jogging” path around the lake.

img_5864On we went to Junagadh to what was apparently one of the only decent hotels in town. It’s a dirty, traffic plagued small city whose economy is dominated by the more than 2 million pilgrims who descend on the place every year to climb the sacred Girnar Hill. One particular yearly event attracts 1.5 million pilgrims who circumambulation the hill, camping as they go, over a 5 day period. Doug was determined that we would climb it, but it was not only the 9000 plus steps that eventually caused reason to prevail, but the rugged terrain which twisted over rock faces and up and down several layers of hills to the austere temples up top. It is possible to be carried up by “chowli” a kind of swing like affair suspended between 2 men, the price of which is determined by one’s weight. We did see these, but even if we had wanted to do this, after reading that the trail cut in the rock face is so narrow in spots that the chowli hits the overhanging rock face and is in a perilous situation, I flatly refused and Doug realized he could not sit cross legged for 8 hours.

img_5883We did go and walk through the temples at the bottom, then take about 300 steps up. It was about 5 in the afternoon and we met a couple of family parties coming down. One man stoped to chat — “what is your name, what is your country” the usual, but had enough English to tell me that his family had started up at 5 am so were 12 hours into their journey. His mother and aunt were being supported on either side by his teenage children and looked virtually moribund, his wife did not look too well either. The older women collapsed to the steps every 20 or so, and lay across the stairs with their eyes closed, seemingly in an awful state. I left then, but since they were so close to the bottom (another 150 steps or so) I figured they would make it by nightfall. Such devotion!

IMG_5782.JPGA tumultuous road leads up a hill that challenged our tuk tuk to the Uparkot Fort with its extremely interesting Buddhist caves, two unusual step wells and a granary which supposedly held enough grain to sustain the inhabitants through a siege that lasted 7 years.img_5774

img_5802Very unusually, Doug took to a guide who offered his services at the gate, and he proved to be a real gem. Excellent English, (completely self taught) and a way with an anecdote made the history of the place come alive. Maybe I just need to let Doug choose the guides. After 2 1/2 hours during which he showed no signs of impatience, never tried to direct “sir” to the best spot for a photo, we doubled his requested fee of $4 and he demurred, saying “I told you only 200” which only made him more special!

img_5835In the end we had a great time on the tumultuous streets of Junagadh since they have the most lovely neglected and decaying mausoleums with absolutely gorgeous carvings sprinkled about the place. Sadly neglected and only viewable from through the impossibly intricately carved window openings, the insides full of pigeon droppings and broken stones, they were a gorgeously romantic reminder of the past Mughal times. One we accessed through a house, as taking refuge from the chaotic street, we had turned into a small lane and around the corner found a group of woman at a water tap filling their brass vessels to take home (on their heads of course.). As usual, they were excited to see such strange specimens, though blessedly without their cell phones, and when we pointed to the minarets of a mausoleum we could glimpse over the buildings but could not seem to access, two of them dragged us to their house where we disturbed grandma’s rest, and opened their back door which communicated with the overgrown but still lovely graveyard. We picked our way through the grass and brambles, peering into the interiors with their creepy silk draped tombs until a graveyard dog took exception to us and we beat a hasty retreat. Luckily the girls had left the back door unlocked for us!

When India’s independence was declared in 1947, the ruler of this princely state who was Muslim could not decide whether to join India or Pakistan. His subjects, all Hindu, were not in favour of the Pakistan idea. He took weeks deciding while the area was in limbo. This man’s father, an inveterate big game hunter had a change of heart in 1900 after the Asiatic Lion population was down to 14 in all of India after severe over hunting, decided to declare a Lion Wildlife Sanctuary and thus we are now off to the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, where with a bit of luck, we may see a lion, since the population is now over 500.

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