Barely glimpsed by many travelers scurrying between Mumbai (Bombay) and Rajasthan, Gujarat is an easy side-step off the well-beaten tourist trail. While the capital, Ahmedabad, retains some charm amid its chaos, the countryside holds most of this state’s many treasures. Traditional artisans in tribal villages weave, embroider, dye and print some of India’s finest textiles, and pristine parks harbour unique wildlife, including migratory birds, wild asses and the last remaining prides of Asiatic lions. For the spiritually inclined, sacred Jain and Hindu pilgrimage sites sit atop mountains that rise dramatically from vast flatlands. And colourful festivals burst with a cornucopia of culture.
Gujarat also claims a special relationship to the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi: he was born here, he ignited the satyagraha movement from here, he made his Salt March here – and his legacy remains a vibrant part of public discourse and private lives.
Gir National Park & Wildlife Sanctuary
The last refuge of the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) is this forested, hilly, 1412-sq-km sanctuary about halfway between Veraval and Junagadh. It feels beguilingly uncommercial, and simply driving through the thick, undisturbed forests would be a joy even if there wasn’t the excitement of lions and other wildlife to spot.
The sanctuary was set up in 1965, and a 259-sq-km core area was declared a national park in 1975. Since the late 1960s, lion numbers have increased from under 200 to over 400. The sanctuary’s 37 other mammal species, most of which have also increased in numbers, include dainty chital (spotted deer), sambar (large deer), nilgais (large antelopes), chousinghas (four-horned antelopes), chinkaras (gazelles), crocodiles and rarely seen leopards. Sasan Gir is a great destination for birders too, with over 300 species, most of them resident.
While the wildlife has been lucky, more than half the sanctuary’s human community of distinctively dressed maldhari have been resettled elsewhere, ostensibly because their cattle and buffalo were competing for food resources with the antelopes, deer and gazelles, while also being preyed upon by the lions and leopards. About 1000 people still live in the park, however, and their livestock accounts for about a quarter of the lions’ diet.
Gir is no longer big enough for the number of lions that currently live here; some may be moved to Madhya Pradesh to protect genetic diversity, but the Gujarat government opposes this plan, vying to remain the sole home of India’s lions.
The sanctuary access point is Sasan Gir village, on a minor road and railway between Veraval and Junagadh (about 40km from each). The best time to visit is from December to April; the sanctuary is closed from 16 June to 15 October and possibly longer if there has been a heavy monsoon.
Kachchh, India’s wild west, is a geographic phenomenon. The flat, tortoise-shaped land (kachbo means tortoise in Gujarati), edged by the Gulf of Kachchh and Great and Little Ranns, is a seasonal island. During the dry season, the Ranns are vast expanses of hard, dried mud. Come the monsoon, they’re flooded first by seawater, then by fresh river water. The salt in the soil makes the low-lying marsh area almost completely barren. Only on scattered ‘islands’ above the salt level is coarse grass which provides fodder for the region’s wildlife.
The villages dotted across Kachchh’s arid landscape are home to a jigsaw of tribal groups and sub-castes who produce some of India’s finest handicrafts, above all their textiles which glitter with exquisite embroidery and mirrorwork.
A branch of the Indus River once entered the Great Rann until a massive earthquake in 1819 altered its course. Another mammoth earthquake in January 2001 again altered the landscape, killing nearly 30,000 people and completely destroying many villages. Although the effects of the tragedy will resonate for generations, the residents have determinedly rebuilt their lives and are welcoming to visitors. Tax breaks to encourage economic recovery have brought in new industrial plants, but by and large Kachchh still remains a refreshingly pristine, rural environment.
Following his capture of Pavagadh, Sultan Mahmud Begada turned Champaner, at the base of the hill, into a splendid new capital. But its glory was brief: when it was captured by Mughal emperor Humayun in 1535, the Gujarati capital reverted to Ahmedabad, and Champaner fell into ruin. The heart of this historic site is the Citadel, whose most impressive features are its monumental mosques (no longer used for worship), with their beautiful blending of Islamic and Hindu decoration styles
The huge Jami Masjid , just outside the Citadel’s east gate, boasts a wonderful carved entrance porch that leads into a lovely courtyard surrounded by a pillared corridor. The prayer hall has two tall central minarets, further superb stone carving, multiple domes, and seven mihrabs (prayer niches) along the back wall.
Other beautiful mosques include the Saher ki Masjid , behind the ticket office inside the Citadel, which was probably the private royal mosque, and the Kevda Masjid , 300m north of the Citadel and about 600m west of the Jami Masjid. Here you can climb narrow stairs to the roof, and higher up the minarets, to spot other mosques even further out into the countryside – Nagina Masjid , 500m north, with no minarets but exquisite geometric carving, and Lila Gumbaj ki Masjid , 800m east, on a high platform and with a fluted central dome. The twin minarets resembling factory chimneys, about 1km west, adorn the Brick Minar ki Masjid , a rare brick tomb.
In peaceful, shady grounds on the Sabarmati River’s west bank, this ashram was Gandhi’s headquarters from 1917 to 1930 during the long struggle for Indian independence. It’s said he chose this site because it lay between a jail and a cemetery, and any satyagrahi (nonviolent resister) was bound to end up in one or the other. Gandhi’s poignant, spartan living quarters are preserved, and there’s a museum that presents a moving and informative record of his life and teachings.
It was from here, on 12 March 1930, that Gandhi and 78 companions set out on the famous Salt March to Dandi, on the Gulf of Cambay, in a symbolic protest, with Gandhi vowing not to return to the ashram until India had gained independence. The ashram was disbanded in 1933, later becoming a centre for Dalit welfare activities and cottage industries. After Gandhi’s death some of his ashes were immersed in the river in front of the ashram.
It’s about 5km north of Lal Darwaja. Bus 83 (₹11) runs here from Lal Darwaja bus stand. An autorickshaw from the city centre is about ₹40.
This ancient fort is believed to have been built in 319 BC by the Mauryan emperor Chandragupta, though it has been extended many times. In places the ramparts reach 20m high. It’s been besieged 16 times, and legend has it that the fort once withstood a 12-year siege. The views over the city and east to Girnar Hill are superb, and there are a number of interesting sights within its walls.
The Jumma Masjid , the mosque inside the fort, was converted from a palace in the 15th century by Gujarat Sultan Mahmud Begada and has a rare roofed courtyard with three octagonal openings which may once have been covered by domes.
Close to the mosque is a set of Buddhist caves , not actually caves but monastic quarters carved out of the rock about 2000 years ago. The three-storey complex is quite eerie and the main hall contains pillars with weathered carvings.
The fort has two fine step-wells both cut from solid rock. Adi Kadi Vav , named after two slave girls who used to fetch water from it, is 41m deep and was cut in the 15th century. Navghan Kuvo , 52m deep and designed to help withstand sieges, is almost 1000 years old and its magnificent staircase spirals around the well shaft.
This sacred mountain, which rises dramatically from the plains, is covered with Jain and Hindu temples. Pilgrims from far and wide come to tackle the long climb up 10,000 stone steps to the summit, which is best begun at dawn. Be prepared to spend a full day if you want to reach the uppermost temples. Ascending in the early morning light is a magical experience, as pilgrims and porters begin to trudge up the well-maintained steps.
The Jain temples, a cluster of mosaic-decorated domes interspersed with elaborate stupas, are about two-thirds of the way up. The largest and oldest is the 12th-century Temple of Neminath , dedicated to the 22nd tirthankar: go through the first left-hand doorway after the first gate. Many temples are locked from around 11am to 3pm, but this one is open all day. The nearby triple Temple of Mallinath , dedicated to the ninth tirthankar, was erected in 1177 by two brothers. During festivals this temple is a sadhu magnet.
Further up are various Hindu temples. The first peak is topped by the Temple of Amba Mata , where newlyweds worship to ensure a happy marriage. Beyond here there is quite a lot of down as well as up to reach the other four peaks and further temples. The Temple of Gorakhnath is perched on Gujarat’s highest peak at 1117m. The steep peak Dattatraya is topped by a shrine to a three-faced incarnation of Vishnu. Atop the final outcrop, Kalika, is a shrine to the goddess Kali.
The trail begins 4km east of the city at Girnar Taleti . A motorable road, which may or may not be open, leads to about the 3000th step, which leaves you only 7000 to go! Refreshment stalls on the ascent sell chalk, so you can graffiti your name on the rocks. If you can’t face the walk, dholis carried by porters cost ₹3850 (round trip) if you weigh between 50kg and 70kg, and ₹4250 for heavier passengers. If your weight range isn’t obvious, you suffer the indignity of being weighed on a huge beam scale before setting off. Note that while photography is permitted on the trail, it’s not allowed inside the temples.
The Bhavnath Mela , over five days in the month of Magha, brings folk music and dancing and throngs of nagas (naked sadhus or spiritual men) to Bhavnath Mahadev Temple at Girnar Taleti. It marks the time when Shiva is believed to have danced his cosmic dance of destruction.