- Stan Abbott finds culture and avoids stepping on the ants in India
So, if you want to see magnificent temples and the atmospheric remains of once great civilisations, you head for India, right. Whereas, if watching big game is your bag, then it’s Africa, Kenya, say, or South Africa.
Think again! Was the cry on a visit to the India state of Gujarat – home to the world’s last remaining wild Asiatic lions. Not to mention the only herds of wild ass in the sub-continent. As well as the rare blackbuck, dolphins and more migrating waders than you could shake your shillelagh at.
Gujarat is looking to lure westward some of the tourism dollars spent each year in the so-called Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, with its Taj Mahal, Red Fort and Mahatma Gandhi Memorial.
Arriving at the sprawling metropolis of Ahmedabad, whose growth easily outstrips the ability of cartographers to provide an accurate A-Z of new business districts, this so-called Manchester of the East has been replaced as state capital by the new, and less congested, city of Gandhinagar, to the north.
The expanding suburbs of Ahmedabad – all high rise and internet cafés — collide with the countryside and displaced farmers drive goats and pigs through city streets or shelter beneath tarpaulins in mean squatter camps.
Yes, Ahmedabad and both its immediate and more distant environs boast some fine remains, of which more later, but let’s start with the animals.
The last refuge of the Asiatic lion – a tad smaller and lighter in colour than its African cousin – is 286 sq kms of forest and scrub, towards the southern seaboard of Gujarat. It’s an area in which these serene beasts face both ancient and modern threats: when I visited, the newspapers were full of tales of lions being slaughtered by tribespeople to avenge the deaths of villagers, while others had been hit by trucks or trains on the road and railway that cross the sanctuary.
Other reports suggest a wetter climate in recent years is creating more shade and moister air, with the result that some lions have respiratory ailments.
But for all that, as the state conservationists in charge of the sanctuary are quick to point out, the bottom line is healthy: the current population is steady at around 350, which is 100 more than the low point at the end of last century.
To maintain that balance, the authorities have created a core zone in which no visitors are permitted. Numbers are carefully managed in the remainder of the sanctuary, the buffer zone, where those with a keen wildlife interest will spend three or four days on safari. And, to facilitate those of us who just need a quick “lion fix” there’s 10 sq kms of safari park, visited by 2,500 visitors a month during the season that extends from mid-October to mid-June.
It’s home to a dozen or so lions, the herds of deer that provide their breakfast, and a handful of more elusive animals, including other large cats. At present the gates from the park into the main sanctuary are closed, so there’s every chance a two-hour safari will yield intimate views of females and cubs as they try and grab a moment’s peace and quiet away from prying eyes. Indeed, we enjoyed close-quarters extended scrutiny of mothers and cubs, large and small.
A more laid-back wildlife experience is afforded by visiting the northern part of Gujarat – the vast arid salt plan, known as Kutch. Here you can stay in tribal villages, in modest and idyllic guest houses — and go on ass safari. Herds of these light brown striped donkeys forage off salt-tolerant plantlife in this sun-baked wilderness.
In the rainy season, much of the area becomes a vast salty lake that in turn is home to many thousands of migrating pelicans and other waders. It has to be in the world top ten for twitchers.
Besides being very hospitable, the people here have a great line in intricate embroidery, available at a song.
So what of Gujurat’s iconic ruins? Well, the state does indeed have more than its fair share in a sub-continent that is replete with grand reminders of dynasties past. Pride of place belongs to around 150 so-called step wells. These do pretty much what it says on the tin, but in style. We saw two of the best examples — the vast Adalaj Vav, and the even vaster Rani ni Vav — each within a short drive from Ahmedabad.
To get your head round the idea of a step well, you have to imagine something like a quarry, dug perhaps a hundred feet into the ground, but with its walls lined by the most fantastically ornate carvings, and its entirety filled with a series of columned galleries, enabling you to descend to the cooling waters far below ground level.
These astonishing structures date back 500 to 1,000 years and may have been a practical solution to the problems of water scarcity or a refuge from the searing summer heat, but their extraordinary extravagance, with symbolic carvings depicting the crushing underfoot of evil, or the undesirability of succumbing to temptation, suggest a reverence for water itself.
Gujurat’s majority Hindu population lets its hair down once a year for the nine nights of Navratri, a curious mixture of local participation and showcase spectacle in honour of the Mother Goddess.
The state Government normally also uses Navratri to demonstrate how its capital projects are bringing improvements to life in even the most remote villages. However, the calling of elections in Ahmedabad and the consequent ban on the spending of public monies for possible party political ends, had led to a more muted affair up the road in Gandhinagar.
If this was modest, I’d love to see the unrestrained version: a crowd of 100,000 gathered to view a multi-national extravaganza of dance, superbly choreographed and culminating in a firework spectacular.
In smaller towns, neighbourhood groups proudly exhibited the fruits of months of dancing practice in colourful and noisy displays that competed for attention every few hundred yards. Each group was anxious to secure our less colourful participation, as novelty westerners.
Ahmedabad itself boasts some architectural treasures and a fascinating museum to the calico industry (with less than generous opening times). But the city’s greatest claim to fame is surely as the home for much of his life of Mahatma Gandhi.
For a man voted number two in Times magazine’s list of the hundred most important people of the 20th century, Gandhi today seems not to occupy a hugely prominent place in the consciousness of Gujarat.
The Gandhi Ashram – where he spent much of his life – is simple and understated and offers a little oasis of calm amid the hurly burly of Ahmedabad.
The Ashram houses a valuable library and a treasure trove of Gandhi memorabilia and yet you can’t help wondering if it is really appreciated here in just how much esteem the rest of the world has held this man of peace.
I saw many magnificent monuments inspired by different faiths, taking care in the Jain temple at Ahmedabad to avoid, as the gentle (but reputedly very rich) Jains would, stepping on the ants and thus breaking the Jain edict of not causing harm to living creatures.
Hindu ladies in bright saris paid their respects at the vast thousand-year-old Sun temple at Modhera, while the fascinating walled city of Junagadh, built by the Buddhist emperor Ashoka and with its cave monastery, cried out (in vain, sadly) for a day’s exploration.
Pride of place for the Hindus goes to the massive temple of Somnath, on the edge of the Arabian Sea – an ancient shrine rebuilt seven times, the last such project beginning in 1950 and continuing to this day.
- There are frequent flights one stop to Ahmedabad, with Air India, British Airways and Jet Airways all offering a good schedule.
- It’s advisable to use a local specialist to book accommodation or transport away from the main centres. Garha Tours & Travels in Ahmedabad, for example, can organise individual safaris to Kutch and other locations, tel: + 91 982 507 3346.
- If international style hotels are your bag, then you’ll find them in the larger cities, such as Ahmedabad and Rajkot, where you may also find state liquor stores: Gujarat, in deference to Gandhi, remains a dry state, though it’s legal to bring your own.
- For the authentic Raj experience, stay at Gondal palace, former home of the Maharajah, from where you can go on safari to Gir. It also houses every car the Maharajah’s family ever owned, while the nearby museum houses the scales that were used to weigh the Maharajah in precious metals that were then distributed to the poor. Tel: +91 79 263 02019.
- Tourist info: www.gujarattourism.com
- Asiatic lions info: www.asiatic-lion.org
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