PILGRIMAGE TO PALITANA

img_6547Temples are always placed as high up as possible, the theory being that they are closer to the gods I guess, and possibly the painful climb weeds out the faint of heart, leaving only true believers to reach the top. We have climbed a lot of stairs to temples in our travels. However Palitana might be our biggest challenge yet, with 3400 steps to reach the top.

The impossibly beautiful mountain top Jain temple complex that is Palitana has been on the present site for 1000 years, with new temples continually being added there are over 900 temples in all. It is a very holy site for Jains especially, but the stairs are crowded with all manner of folk.

Jain pilgrims do the climb barefoot, swathed in white cloaks over toga like garments, carrying large staffs. They recite prayers as they tell over their strings of wooden beads and sing hymns as they climb. Once they have reached the top and done their pujas, they run as fast as possible down the steps, no mean feat as we found the descent as bad as the ascent.

img_6548We left our hotel shorty after 5 am to reach the bottom of the steps just after 6. We began our climb in the dark, lighted by the almost full moon. The bottom steps were chaotic as people started their climb, and the carriers of “dholis” vied for customers. There are three types of people carriers. The first is a small square woven seat on which you sit cross legged. It is suspended from a single pole carried fore and aft by two men. No way either of us could sit like that for two hours. The second is a folding lawn chair, suspended on each corner by ropes attached to two poles with four men carrying.

IMG_6575.JPGThe last type is the baby carrier, similar to the old fashioned car beds we had for infants before car seats, suspended from a single pole carried by two women with the pole balanced atop their heads! Since the parents of these children cannot keep up with these sprightly women, the women also entertain the babies at their rest stops.

 

In retrospect, we should have hired a dholi — we have climbed lots of steps in our time but never have we been carried up. The price seemed fairly steep, though we never bargained to establish one, and they say it goes by weight, but I think that is apocryphal because the fight for customers was so intense, those guys would have taken anyone. The four person dholis were generally hired by extremely fat, and extremely grouchy looking pilgrims — clearly wealth does not make for happiness! The two person ones were generally carrying smaller elderly pilgrims who can apparently sit in the lotus position for hours. Some large cheapskates had hired the small ones and were squashed under the bar looking horribly uncomfortable. Anyway we never seriously considered being carried, though later when the pain in our legs took 4 days to subside, we wondered at the wisdom of our decision.

We started off quickly, trying to escape the melee of pushing and shoving dholi purveyors, but though the stairs were always full of people, we did outdistance the worst of the crush and then began to pace ourselves as the fatigue set in. After about an hour we watched the sun rise, with the moon setting behind us.

IMG_6579.JPGIt was never dull, we had lots of interesting sights to distract us, the assembled throngs were a varied lot, and very interested in our ascent as we seemed to be the only foreigners in sight. Several young people who spoke English came over to offer their assistance should we be confused by anything. (It was impossible to go wrong, the steps went on and on and on, and up and up and up…) One young woman told us her whole family was doing the climb, more than 30 of them, to celebrate an aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary. I hope they had clubbed together for a dholi as an anniversary gift!

Unbelievably there was nowhere to buy water and no toilets on the way. There were buckets of water here and there, and many people drank from them, but obviously not us. Luckily we had packed water to be on the safe side, but tried to pace ourselves to avoid needing to use a non-existent toilet. It took us nearly 3 hours to reach the top, though our guidebook thinks 1 1/2 to 2 should be adequate. Maybe 15 years ago when we were in India before…

IMG_6597.JPG Finally our goal was close. Incredibly beautiful white spires rose from the top of the mountain, with small flags fluttering on the tops — like a sort of Disney vision of Camelot really. The fortified castle wall gave a clue as to why these temples have withstood waves of invaders. We allowed ourselves to be convinced to enter from a path that had 100 additional steps but would yield a view of 180 images according to an enthusiastic young man who accosted us. Well if you’ve seen one Jain image you’ve basically seen them all — they look like slim Buddhas with very eerie glittering eyes, always white marble except when they’re black marble, and anointed with daubs of gold on their heads, ears, chests, etc. The life of the originator of Jainism is an exact parallel with that of Buddha, one major difference being that he sported a neatly trimmed black beard throughout his progress from riches to the ascetic life. However that grouping of temples was quite peaceful with not so many pilgrims having chosen the 100 extra steps.

We wandered around the complex for over 2 hours, there are so many “tunks” or enclosures with one main temple at the centre and several subsidiary temples around the sides that you could be up there all day. The whole complex is arranged over several hillsides, so we were up and down stairs and through gates, lost most of the time, but enjoying the vistas and the religious rites.

Finally entering the largest one, the Adinath, we were amidst a crush of Jain adherents, garbed in fabulously embroidered silk saris (the women) or cloth of gold dhoti-like pants with gold silk shawls tied over their bare shoulders (the men). Now the reason why many of the dholis were carrying up large bags became apparent. People climbed in their ordinary clothes, but when they reached this temple, they entered a large building with lockers and changing rooms where they changed into all their finery complete with (for both sexes) satin handbags. Jains wear face masks to prevent sucking in bugs (and thereby killing them) and the true pilgrims wield whisks to sweep the path in front. No animal products can be worn, including watch straps — it goes without saying at this point that photos are not allowed.

There were a number of puja ceremonies taking place in a variety of side temples, well attended by the devotees, but the one in the main temple was clearly the premiere event. Different coloured tickets were handed out designating the time at which you needed to join the queue behind a formidable brass fence — one side for men, the other for women as usual. People with the correct ticket were allowed in in batches, very unusually well organized but still a busy scene. When entering the puja space, the adherents pulled their bandit like face masks up over their noses, and the women raised the ends of their saris to cover their hair. What happened inside we do not know, as we were not about to wait hours in line, but I think it involved the usual smoke and fire.

IMG_6619.JPGAt this point we realized how tired we were, and started the descent. Dholis were still trying to cajole us to be carried, but foolishly we did not agree. The descent was much more painful than the ascent. By the time we reached 100 steps from the bottom I was seriously unsure of whether I would make it. But make it we did, found our taxi and let him whisk us the 90 minute return journey. What had been a relatively tranquil and quick journey in the dark was the usual traffic chaos and blaring horns on the return. We got back about 10 hours after we left, and still had not had a chance to pee. Amazing how convenient dehydration can be in a situation like that!

WEDDING CRASHERS: At the Nilambag Palace Hotel

IMG_6501.JPGAnother new experience for your intrepid correspondents! We crashed the wedding of the Crown Prince of Bhavnagar — inadvertently of course. And actually it was a giant reception for all the “subjects” of the Maharaja, the wedding having taken place a week earlier in Jaipur where “flight connections are easier and liquor can be served.” We were assured that the actual wedding was an exclusive affair, mostly royal families, and a much bigger deal than the reception. This looked like a pretty big deal to us!

We drove from Diu to Bhavnagar with the purpose of visiting the astonishing Jain temple complex of Palitana and attempting to climb its 3300 steps. A whole other post.

IMG_6452.JPGI had booked us for a few days into the Nilambag Palace Hotel, a former residence of the Maharaja of Bhavnagar, converted into a hotel when he built himself a new palace about 35 years ago. Grand but not ostentatious, and not crazily expensive, slightly smaller than Downton Abbey but oddly English in style in that way. I thought it would be a fun experience and we are dawdling now as we are waiting for the weather in Kathmandu to warm up a bit.

IMG_6458.JPGWhen we arrived the receptionist said, “We’ve been trying to reach you. We are having a family function here this weekend and have cancelled all our bookings.” We were somewhat dismayed as our driver from Diu had just roared down the driveway and through the huge imposing gates out of the estate. “But never mind,” she said, “we are going to honour your booking.” Thus we were the only guests in the hotel while they devoted themselves to preparing for the wedding reception of the son of the Maharajah.

Well, what a bonus. No need to leave the 10 acre grounds to venture into the seething, dirty city of Bhavnagar, we were entertained all day by the swarming hordes of workers necessary to set up a party for 1000 people. First came the great scaffoldings to make a giant stage, and side pavilions stretching the length of the lawn, then two huge generator trucks pulled up and swarms of electricians began wiring the place for at least 50 coloured spotlights trained here and there and zillions of fairy lights twined through all the trailing plants and bushes. The whole palace facade is permanently covered with rows of white lights.

IMG_6464.JPGTables and chairs for hundreds were delivered and set up on two halves of the lawn, ready for the tablecloth and sash tying brigade to swath them in white, red and gold decoration. Two hundred white leather sofas were unloaded and placed in the centre of the front lawn in front of the rapidly evolving stage being prepared for the family receiving line. Ornately carved white benches were placed in the side pavilions. The mirror hangers rushed in with bags and bags of mirrored mobiles to hang from the pavilions and red and gold cushions were placed on the benches.

Meanwhile boys were scurrying in with boxes holding tubes of florist foam encased in wire, with which they covered the back wall of the central stage. Next came the people with 30,000 roses who began painstakingly inserting the roses into the foam wall until it was a solid mass of rosebuds. When we walked out to the front gate, we saw that the same sort of structure had been constructed there. Guests walking in the gate faced a wall of roses, with a silver statue of Ganesh placed in front, and fountains tinkling either side.

IMG_6484.JPGWe wandered out behind the garden restaurant where we have our dinner, and found hordes of cooks, stirring giant pots full of various vegetable dishes. One man showed us the “sweet” which apparently had to be stirred constantly for hours. Meanwhile two enormous buffet tables were being set up on either side of the central lawn, surrounded by hundreds of tables and chairs. The final touch when each table had been decorated, was a bouquet of red roses in the centre.

IMG_6487.JPGA dais for the band was being erected to one side of the main stage, quite small — the band was, as it turns out, a traditional one with four instruments of the type on display in the hotel. The music was very melodic, only traditional airs, no Bhangra dancing at this tony event. Like any former mother of the bride, by 5:30 I was fretting that there was no possible way everything could be done in time for the 7:30 start. No worries, said Vijay our new found friend on the staff, all will be ready. And sure enough, as we were having our solitary dinner on the back patio at 7:00, thoroughly entertained watching the man hired to tie turbans winding metres and metres of filmy cloth around the heads of all the wait staff and many of the guests who arrived all dressed up but carrying a bag with their turban fabric in it, trays of food and huge barrels of hot coals were carried past.

IMG_6471.JPGIn order to make roti and dosas to order they had been preparing the heat sources for hours. Oil drums partially filled with cement and fuelled by hot charcoal made portable tandoori ovens. We went around the front and the band members were taking their places, tuning up and starting in. Gradually guests began filtering in.

IMG_6481.JPGBeing inhibited Canadians, we were shy about actually crashing the party, but urged on by all and sundry, and especially Vijay, wearing a most glamorous turban, we got ourselves positioned for a good view of the goings on. As everyone arrived, women in multicoloured saris, and many men in the most gorgeously brilliant turbans, they greeted friends, took their places on the sofas or cushioned benches, chatting and enjoying the usual conviviality of a wedding. Waiters went around with trays of Coca Cola, juice, and tiny water bottles, the only liquid refreshments on offer in “dry” Gujarat.

IMG_6523.JPGSeemingly whenever they felt like it, groups would present themselves at the stage, where a man in a white suit with a flamingo pink turban would greet them, presumably get their names, and then present them to the wedding couple and the Maharaja and Maharani. The bride’s role in this, as in all Hindu marriages, was to look paralyzed with shyness, while the parents and sister of the bridegroom greeted everyone and accepted bouquets of flowers. Some more important guests got a photo with the group.

We were fascinated by the dress. Gujarati women dress mostly in saris — about 2/3 saris to 1/3 shalwar kameez suits in daily life. Even road workers wear brilliantly coloured saris. For this occasion there were some extremely opulent saris on show, and some not so much, surprisingly. The groom’s mother and sister were beautifully dressed, mother in a cloth of gold sari, the groom’s sister, tall and elegant in red. Some men were in the full kit out — fitted silk coat embellished by medals and shiny buttons, jodhpur style pants, curved slippers and magnificent turbans. The bride was laden down with filmy red fabric, heavily embroidered in gold, covered wrist to elbow in gold bangles, face adorned with a nose to ear golden piece that would have prevented her smiling even if she’d wanted to. However, other people had taken no care at all. It was just like a Maple Ridge wedding, some in all their finery, others just in from the street! Some of the children looked so cute, in rainbow hued fairy dresses for the girls and mini rajah suits for the boys. Others were in hoodies and jeans! Doug thought none of his grandchildren would be allowed to attend a wedding like that.

We wondered if all the people who paid their respects were actually invited — it seemed like all the workmen went up and bowed, as well as a lot of quite ordinary looking people. Our speculation is that as “subjects” of the Maharajah perhaps they were not actual party guests.

We had to leave to go to bed about 10:00 as we were to rise at 4:45 next morning to go to Palitana. People were still sifting in, groups had gathered at the tables on the lawn to eat, others sat gossiping on the sofas, children ran and played at will, and the band played on. All very free form and relaxed.

Our pal Vijay later gave us a tour of the whole palace, unlocking the suite rooms for us, and explaining how it had all worked when the family lived there. There are many works of art displayed along with huge formal portraits of the present royal family and those preceding. One of the younger sons of the previous generation had taken up birding in a big way, and his original watercolours of the birds of Gujarat adorn the hallways and staircases.

IMG_6681.JPGFurnishings are very much what would have been there since the place was built, though reupholstered and refurbished. Many of the large wooden sideboards in the living areas are very reminiscent of Downton Abbey and Vijay told us they were purchased at a shop called English Country in Mumbai which still exists today. Since the antique sofas were considered too delicate for guest use they had been replaced. Throughout there were beautiful examples of antique local handicraft work. The original royal apartments for the extended family members have been divided up with additional bathrooms to make the guest rooms. The more palatial suites retain the original bowling alley sized bathrooms which were probably renovated in the 1920’s judging by the lurid tile colours. The maintenance is immaculate. The 15 foot ceilings are freshly repainted, like wedding cake icing with gold accents, and the chandeliers are clean! You don’t know how rare that is here!

Since royalty no longer has access to the “public purse” (since 1972) the family has sold off a great deal of the land surrounding the former palace. The current size of the property is 10 acres, but formerly it was 8 square miles. The Bhavnagar royal family was formerly 7th in India in the size of its land holdings, but far from the richest. Some of the princely estates were mega wealthy. The bridegroom is currently at hotel school in Switzerland and will run this hotel after he completes a few years apprenticeship in various hotels in Europe. Many formerly royal families rent out rooms in their threadbare “palaces” but this family seems to have made a business empire of hotels, industry, and ship breaking, among other things.

IMG_6672.JPGVijay encouraged Doug to take pictures of all the noteworthy items so he will make a separate album of those pictures. What a wonderful bit of serendipity for us, quite the noteworthy experience.

DREAMING IN DIU

img_6189And again, for something completely different… Hearing conflicting reports, we decided to pay a visit to Diu, a tiny coastal island, formerly a Portuguese colony and held by Portugal as a protectorate until 1961 when India lobbed a shell at them and they belatedly joined India. It still has special status however, like Daman further down the coast, and the much better known Goa.

This special status allows it to be a tiny “wet” area in the midst of the very “dry” state of Gujarat. Therefore we had heard it to be full of drunken Gujaratis on weekends, roaming the beach at Nagoa and generally making nuisances of themselves. An unfortunate side effect of prohibition, I guess. However the lure of fresh sea food, cold beer, and a holiday from the “pure veg” breakfast regime was too much to resist so we made our visit during the week.

IMG_6270.JPGOf the many notable and extremely pleasant things about Diu, the first to strike us was the cleanliness of the streets. They have instituted a ban on plastic bags and have encouraged restaurants and hotels to put in water purification plants to stem the flood of plastic bottles. That plus putting up garbage bins in public spaces and discouraging litter has had an astonishing effect on the place.

IMG_6280.JPGSecond the food is so good, especially after 5 weeks of the Indian diet, a good deal of that time in pure veg places. Pure veg doesn’t just mean no meat, it means no eggs or dairy either. Breakfast is particularly brutal for those who can barely cope with the level of spice in lunch and dinner. And did I mention the cold beer? Any kind of alcohol actually, though your correspondents stuck to the beer.

We stayed at a cute guesthouse out of the town itself beside Nagoa Beach. As Indian beaches go, Nagoa is pretty clean, but not really what foreign tourists have in mind when visualizing a beach. However very good for walking, people watching, and relaxing which we appreciated after 5 weeks of travel.

IMG_6264.JPGIt was easy for us to take a tuk tuk from the guesthouse each morning for a ramble in the charming streets of the town. There are a couple of lovely old churches, one called St Paul’s, reputed to have the best church facade in India, though spare and minimalist inside with an all white interior embellished with shell designs at the roof. Very peaceful and much in use.

IMG_6240.JPGThe fort is very old, dating from the mid 1500’s and fun to ramble over. The views over the ocean with fishing boats and bigger wooden boats plying the water are lovely. Lots of Indian tourists, and as usual, no foreign ones. We are having to harden our hearts to the cries of: “Selfie, selfie eck (one) eck” especially with school groups as it soon becomes a mob scene.

Strolling through the usual market at the quayside as always provided endless fodder for the photographer. Some good examples of the body tattoos that women sport were recorded along with the vibrant hues of the produce. An interesting melange of fish boats tied up at the quay which we enjoyed watching from an overhanging restaurant we lunched at.

IMG_6260.JPGWe loved the streets, relatively quiet for India, though one still has to be constantly vigilant to the wildly careering scooters and motorbikes. The architecture was really attractive, sort of Portuguese influenced haveli style with ornately carved verandahs. One, where the family still lives upstairs and runs a business downstairs, has been gorgeously restored. How I wished for a tour! IMG_6302.JPGThe others range from partly restored, to decaying, to decrepit but are charming nevertheless. We loved our daily ramble through the backstreets. It was so nice to be surrounded by ocean, we always seemed to turn a corner and see the sea waiting for us.

IMG_6352.JPGOne day we took a tuk tuk in the opposite direction to a small fishing village at the other tip of the island. Huge fishing boats were pulled up on the quay for repairs and refurbishment, quite the sight to see a crane hoist one up, while a gaggle of young men steadied its dangling passage to a spot where more young men were hastily piling random bits of wood to hold it steady for the work to take place. It appeared to be the most perilous of operations, and the ship balanced on piles of scrap lumber to be so prone to topple, but this is India, they’ve done this before, and most people have survived…

IMG_6399.JPGSkipping through the piles of fish detritus — had to wash our Tevas again after this outing — we wandered through the twisting web of tiny streets, blissfully too narrow for vehicles, enjoying tiny views of the lives of these villagers who, as usual, were fascinated by our novel appearance and eager to be friendly, their only English phrases being: “What is your good name?” And “From what country are you?”

The happy crew of young men running our guesthouse grew to love us, as always happens when you stay 5 nights, and we loved their food. We felt relaxed and ready for the last leg of Gujarat when we sadly waved them good bye. Next stop, Bhavnagar where we are going mainly to climb 3300 steps to the massive Jain temple complex at the top. I have been in training for this ever since we left home, with my trusty cane in hand I am going to give it my best effort!

PUJAING IN SOMNATH

img_6151Down the road again for a one night stop in Somnath to view yet another great pilgrimage site before heading on to Diu. How many noteworthy temples are there in India? Do not even ask! As we rolled into town we passed a harbour crammed with fishing boats, seemingly moored in a roiling brew of blood and fish guts. The boats were an arresting sight, but could not compete with the overwhelming odour of the place.IMG_6128.JPG

Somnath about whose founding a mythical story is told of it being rebuilt 3 times, first in gold, then in silver, then in wood, was first mentioned by an Arab traveller in 1026 and described in such glowing terms that Mahmoud of Ghazni a legendary looter was inspired to sack the place and murder thousands of its adherents. That was just the first of such sackings, every time the place was rebuilt, someone blew through and tore it down. Finally after 200 years in ruins, the present reconstruction began in 1950 and so far it continues with no further challenges.

It is a lovely temple both outside and in, with its intricate carvings and motifs from three major religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. The resident deity is Shiva, seen as both the destroyer and paradoxically the renewer of life. Shiva is represented by a lingam, a penis like object, which in this case is huge and black with two eye like projections on the front. Wherever one finds a lingam, a yoni representing the female genitalia is nearby. Shiva’s vehicle is Nandi, the bull, and a half life size statue graces the inner temple area. Other gods are represented in niches in the walls — Ganesh, Hanuman, Laxmi, to name a few well known ones.

Unfortunately for amateur photographers, cameras and cell phones are not allowed inside the temple. In fact you have to deposit your bags in a lock up far from the entrance to the temple, then remove shoes and deposit them in another check room. Then, through separate male and female gates, visitors enter a security area with a metal detector like the airlines have, and are physically patted down to ensure compliance with the rules. Tough luck for the photographer!

IMG_6141.JPGWe got dropped off by our tuk tuk near the gate but decided to wander in the winding back streets of tiny Somnath before entering the temple. There Doug could photograph other small temples and shrines, and we enjoyed the relative calm of the tiny streets without tuk tuks and cars — though no one excludes the ubiquitous motor bikes.

 

Somnath is on the sea’s edge and to access the beach one wanders through a carnival like melange of small shops and vendors, including a tattoo artist who was inking people as they sat on the filthy path, using an electric needle plugged in by an extension cord to a light fixture. I watched as one young woman had hers finished and rinsed off, then he turned to the next customer with nary a swipe at his used needle. A lot of the tribal women here are covered with tiny spidery tattoos on their arms from shoulder to wrist, and sometimes on neck and shoulders. These are not pictures such as we are used to, but symbols done in black ink. Many of them look like fish skeletons or insects, this young woman seemed to have chosen a scorpion. I imagine they are charms. It’s a wonder anyone has a liver left what with the hygiene conditions.

IMG_6148.JPGWe had come to the temple for the “arthi” a puja ceremony held at 7 pm to honour the deity with light and fire. We entered the temple half an hour before and joined the others processing up towards the altar of the deity, with crowd confined between two rows of brass railings, one side for men, the other for women. The priest was on the altar, busying himself draping cloths here and there at the base of the lingam, with a more physical depiction of the black faced deity dressed in elaborate brocade behind. As each person passed the large bull, he or she stopped to whisper in his ear — wishes and requests for wealth, health, help with examinations, pregnancies, job searches and so on. A large turtle draped in brocade was stroked for luck I assume . Large metal boxes waited for the essential donations, and people offered garlands, gold plaques, and I think ghee, directly at the altar. As soon as everyone had gone up, each took a place beside the rails on each side of the aisle. Doug and I wedged ourselves near the rear with our backs to pillars to ease our aching backs from the lengthy period of standing, each on the gender appropriate side of the temple of course.

Just before 7 a tremendously loud blast from a kind of bugle sounded from a kind of choir loft above and behind the congregation. Immediately the whole band struck up with a discordant braying of horns, clashing of cymbals, banging drums and the occasional loud peal of bells. Everyone leapt to his or her feet and rushed the rail, fortunately I was wedged into my spot and tall, as no one is better at pushing and shoving than a certain type of very short Indian woman. Everyone began clapping with raised arms and chanting a short mantra over and over, prefaced by “Shiva-ji”, quite hypnotic. I felt compelled to join at least with the clapping because it was too crowded to keep my arms at my sides.

The priest emerged and ignited a large brazier which emitted choking clouds of grey smoke, then taking up a couple more braziers he made his way through the crowd wafting smoke at all the peripheral deities. When he had wafted a great deal of it towards Shiva, he lit a very large candelabra and repeated the routine with that. During all this time, the crowd’s chanting became louder and more insistent, until people began to rush up the aisle towards the deity to deposit more offerings, pushed along by the usual brusque temple keepers.

At that point we decided to decamp, and slipped out our respective doors. I emerged to find Doug plunging frantically through the crowd, frightened of losing me in the crush and the darkness, though thousands of glittering oil lamps on every external niche of the temple lit the scene in a most glorious fashion. Outside a great many people were sitting on benches to watch the scene inside on a giant suspended TV screen!

We made our way the lengthy route back through security limping a bit in our bare feet towards the shoe lock up. There we encountered a hysterical little girl who had lost her family in the melee. The shoe attendant had seen it all before — “Missing” he said to us to calm our alarm and he hoisted her up on the shoe counter where she could wait to be reclaimed along with the family shoes. Another remarkable experience such as India is famous for!

IMG_6134.JPGOn now for some Portuguese culture and the first beer in 5 weeks in the tiny island enclave of Diu.

SASAN GIR: LIONS & LUXURY

IMG_6025.JPGLeaving the cacophony that was Junagadh behind, we headed to Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary. We had been undecided as to whether to visit this park, as in our experience such places are generally not what we think of as national parks and the wildlife far from protected, but when we were at Devpur Homestay both our host, Krutarth, and the motorcycling man from Bangalore insisted that we could not miss it.

They also told us that we had to book the park passes well ahead as visitors are limited each day. It was necessary to book online, on a government site that did not accept foreign credit cards so Krutarth kindly booked for us and we paid him in cash. We then had to plan the next phase of our trip as we were limited as to where we could go by the passes we could get.

IMG_5922.JPGI booked us 3 nights in the Gateway Hotel, a former Indian Government rest house now run by the Taj group. Indian rest houses in the past usually had good locations but were horribly badly run and maintained with staff that frankly discouraged people from staying as they did not want the work of making up rooms and feeding guests. After all, that was why they were government employees in the first place. When we were here before, these places were resorted to only in desperation.

IMG_6064.JPGGujarat and some other states have since given up the running of these places to private operators. The Taj group is famous in India for their luxury hotels and excellent service and most are far beyond our budget, lax as it is these days. This one, though not in the luxury category and still a simple guesthouse in style, was completely renovated and immaculately maintained, and the staff were fabulous. Excellent food and all mod cons in working order. The location was wonderful, on the edge of the park, very secluded and overlooking a river bank, no tuk tuk, motorcycle, truck, bus, etc etc noise, just blissful peace.

IMG_5946.JPGWe were so ready for a “too much India” day, and I took in the view and the peace from the balcony, then fell on the comfortable bed, and passed out for an hour. In a complete reversal of roles (usually it is Doug who sleeps and I amuse myself) Doug went out onto the river bank with his camera and wandered for the hour, shooting photos of birds, monkeys, spotted deer, herds of goats, women washing clothes in the river, and men bringing the buffalo home for the evening. When he came back I told him I was not moving except to go on the safari next afternoon and for meals in the dining room!

IMG_6008.JPGIf you are set on seeing lions the guide books suggest booking 2 or 3 safaris, but we decided to just take our chances on one. The passes are quite expensive for foreigners, $50 each compared to $10 for Indians, and adding jeep rental and mandatory park guide (a deal at $3) we decided that one would have to be enough. Our time was 3 to 6 in the afternoon, as the most popular time, 6 am to 9 was completely booked out for 3 weeks. In the end that turned out to be a good thing as it is still extremely cool at that time of the morning and it did not seem that those who went on the early safari saw any more lions than anyone else. One American woman did see a leopard though, a very unusual sighting and only possible in the early dawn since they are nocturnal. She was on her third safari though when she saw her lion.

Our hotel provided a jeep for us, otherwise you had to rent one from the park office, we picked up our guide Apu and registered with our passports and our online permits at the park entry. We were randomly assigned one of 10 possible routes, unlike in Kenya when we went on safari, the jeeps have to stay to the tracks and cannot drive on any other route than the one assigned. So that too makes luck a factor.

IMG_5963.JPGApu was bound and determined that we were to see a lion even though we told him we were also interested in birds, and the other smaller animals residing in the park. But he was insistent because, as he said, the domestic tourists would have more chances but we had come so far we might never get to Gir again. He spoke good English, self taught, and told us a lot of interesting things about the park management, the protection of the lions, the local villages that are within the park, and conservation efforts. Now that the lion population has gone from nearly non-existent with18 remaining when the park was established in about 1900, to more than 500 now, and with lions leaving the area as the territory is too small, there have been suggestions that the Gujarati government share a few with Madyha Pradesh, the neighbouring state where Asiatic lions were once resident. I asked Apu what he thought of that.. “Nonsensical idea,” he said (as I knew he would, all Gujaratis feel the same according to the Times of India, Gujarat editionn) — “Those people have let all their tigers get poached how would they look after our lions…”

IMG_6032.JPGThe park employs “trackers”, labelled as such on their jackets, who go around on motorbikes and check on the animals’ locations, with the emphasis being on the cats of course. One of them came by and told Apu that two lions had killed a buffalo (according to Apu the villagers are delighted to share their buffalo with the lions?!) and so we might see them if they left the kill to drink at the river. When we came to the spot the tracker drove slowly and quietly off on his bike to see if they were there, and then returned to say that he would call another tracker and they would see if they could encourage the two lionesses to come for their drink earlier rather than later. I wasn’t sure that was entirely sporting, but Doug assured me that all the best big game hunters had employed trackers and beaters so it would be fine.

IMG_6023.JPGAfter a fairly lengthy wait, during which Apu described how “very risky” this activity was to the trackers, and tried to insist that two other jeeps crammed to the gunwales with Indian families should be quiet for a bit — didn’t work — he excitedly pointed to movement in the bush. Since the dry teak forest is exactly the same colour as the lions, they were amazingly hard to see at first, despite their huge size. They both emerged from between the tree trunks, moving in an elegant and unhurried fashion towards the water. The younger one stopped when she saw us, had a good look and decided to lie down and think about things, but the older one whose face was heavily scarred and whose jaws were still gory from her lunch, stalked superciliously by and down the bank to the water’s edge. They are really glorious looking animals, like all big cats, rippling with power, and imperious in bearing. Asiatic lions differ from African ones in that they do not eat carrion, so Apu said they would work on the buffalo for a day or two then abandon it to the hyenas, jackals, and raptors to finish it off.

IMG_5971.JPGWe saw lots of spotted deer, though none of the other types of antelope that reside there, lots of beautiful langur monkeys, which because they are never fed or coaxed to come near are not the horrendous nuisances they are in most places in India, lots of bird species including some remarkably well camouflaged small owls, horrendously ugly wild boars not that different looking from the feral pigs in the Junagadh Fort though the boars had tusks, and a very laid back jackal, somewhat like a coyote but far less nervous. Since we had waited a while for the lions to emerge, we had to drive like mad over the bumpy track to reach the end of our route before sundown — Apu said he would get into a lot of trouble if we didn’t make it — but they still stopped if we came to an interesting animal or bird. All in all a very satisfying expedition, and I was glad we hadn’t booked two.

IMG_6116.JPGWe so enjoyed the relaxing ambience of the hotel, reading on our balcony and going for little walks. A very pleasant break for us and we feel re-energized for the last lap of our Gujarat journey.IMG_6108.JPG

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.

THE GUJARATI THALI

img_5634We have of necessity, become very familiar with Gujarati food.  In appearance it is similar to the Punjabi cooking we are most familiar with, but flavours are quite different.  It can be quite spicy, in fact sometimes overly so for my tender palate, but in general it makes gentle use of chilli, and depends more on such spices as cardamom, cloves, cinnamon bark, and there is often a sweet undertone.  The thali, served usually at one p.m is the main meal of the day and is an absolute bargain.  It is much like the “comida del dia” or meal of the day we found all over Latin America.  

Apologies for the doltish looking memsahib who modelled for this post, in my opinion her photographer has much to answer for.

When entering the restaurant, one is confronted by a sea of thali trays on every table.  You don’t HAVE to have the thali but anything else will be the same food and cost way more anyway.  This restaurant is in the pleasant Hotel Aram where we stayed in Jamnagar, the did a huge business in noon hour thalis, it is quite like Latin America in that many people see to eat this main meal out.

img_5637The first visitor to the table is the man with a little holder holding four vegetable dishes.  He scoops some of each into one of the four tiny bowls.  Examples are potato, lady’s fingers, mixed vegetables, beans etc.

img_5640Next comes the raita, a papadum, and a couple of types of fritter (hiding under the papad.  These are really tasty.  The pickles and relish in front are a staple and come with most meals.  We’ve never done more than sample gingerly, they are really hot!

img_5642A sweet dessert is added and our glasses filled with delicious buttermilk, most refreshing if the spice gets a bit too much. The dish of salad contains chopped cabbage, chopped red onions, a lime, sometimes cucumbers and on top the ubiquitous whole chili which your correspondents draw the line at.

img_5643Now comes the man with the “curry” a white, milky looking liquid, which contrary to expectations is sweet not spicy, and the Dahl which varies every time we get it.

img_5644Next comes the chappati, essential as this whole meal is eaten with the fingers, the spoon only necessary for scooping up the raita, curry, dahl etc to add to the dishes or to slurp up.

img_5648Here’s Doug digging in.  I have not mentioned that the essential characteristic of the thali, whether you eat it in a restaurant or in a roadside stand, is that it is bottomless.  You no sooner pick up a piece of your first chappati than the man who doles them out comes by with a basket of hot ones and adds one or two to your plate.  The little fritter appetizers are so good I can never resist getting seconds of them.  If you can’t eat any more you have to physically defend your plate and even then someone will likely swoop in and add to the bowl you have removed a few dabs from.

img_5649For Doug who adores the breads, it is a terrible temptation., which he does not bother to resist.  As you can see from the picture above, this thali includes 4 kinds of breads, a puri having been added when we thought it was all over. Unfortunately for me, one of these meals is enough for the rest of the day.  Sometimes I skip dinner, but often I try for a “light dinner” which is pretty much impossible to manage.  High class problems I realize!

img_5647It’s really the full meal deal, they come around with rice at the end to fill up any little corners in your stomach. The price varies (so far) from between $2 at a roadside place which did not have as many dishes but hit all the same bases, to $5 which the one above cost, to $15 for a glamorous dinner on the roof of the House of M.G.  To tell the truth, the one pictured was better than that one to our untutored palates.

 

I am not sure if I have mentioned a very interesting fact about Gujarat state.  It is completely dry.  In fact there are huge fines for possessing alcohol and a law is before the state legislature to impose a 10 year (yes you read that right) jail sentence on those caught in possession.  This is good news for the Botting livers and also for their budget, but a cold beer would be a welcome way to soothe the burning mouth after a run in with an errant chili.  Fortunately the buttermilk works really quite well.

 

Also most of our hotels have been completely vegetarian, and many are “pure veg” which means no eggs either.  I feel a bit protein deprived, as breakfast is a variant of the same dishes as lunch and dinner which can be a bit hard to take at times.  Usually I ask for some curd which they usually have and cut up a banana on the top.  Not bad, but when we reach a place that relaxes the egg rule, we are the first in line for an omelet!

Munching away, all in the line of research, we remain your dedicated correspondents.