Thursday, January 13, 2011
India: Gujarat's wildlife, culture and cuisine
India: Gujarat's wildlife, culture and cuisine
Gujarat, India's most westerly state, offers an intoxicating mix of culture, scenery and wildlife, says Martin Dixon.
The Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary is home to more than 350 Asiatic lions
Three jeeps of camera-toting visitors swung off the jungle track into a clearing. Trackers stood at the ready, armed with batons and two-way radios. Ahead, just 20 feet away, lay two kings of the jungle. Unconcerned by the arrival of intruders, the pair of young male lions dozed in the shade of a fig tree.
I'm no expert, but these animals seemed slightly smaller and stockier than those I'd seen in Africa. They are said to have thinner manes and a thicker tuft at the end of the tail, too, but I was not planning to get close enough to check.
India is not the obvious place to come in search of lions, but the state of Gujarat is their only Asian natural habitat. Covering an area roughly the size of London, the Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary is home to more than 350 Asiatic lions, as well as panthers and leopards.
"I promised you lions today," cried Mitain, our guide, slapping my thigh enthusiastically. "I very happy now."
If sighting game is all you want from your escort then Mitain is your man. Within another 20 minutes of trundling over dry, rocky scrub and burbling streams, we came face to face with a whole pride gorging on a high tea of wild boar.
"Now I find you leopards," Mitain beamed, struggling to hide his excitement. Sadly this would prove beyond him, but on our tour we'd already seen numerous peacocks, kingfishers, spotted deer, antelopes and wild boar.
The park has been such a successful sanctuary for big cats that the population has almost outgrown its natural resources. Some have migrated beyond the park in search of fresher pastures and more available game.
Notwithstanding the inevitable friction this has caused with local inhabitants on the park's perimeter, some of the creatures have shown great taste in their choice of new habitat. Lions have been sighted as far away as Junagadh, 50 miles to the north, in the Girnar Hills, the site of the awe-inspiring Jain temples and an important religious centre.
Leopards have been seen in the hills around Palitana, 100 miles to the east, and home to yet more enchanting Jain temples. A lion was even tracked strutting along a palm-fringed beach on the island of Diu, 50 miles to the south.
Junagadh is a fascinating small town of narrow, winding streets, crumbling relics from colonial times and a skyline of shining domes and minarets. We spent a lazy afternoon exploring dusty lanes lined with small stores selling everything from ropes and hooks to mounds of colourful spices.
Its most celebrated attraction is the rather daunting 10,000-step climb that winds up Mount Girnar, to a chain of superb Jain temples near the summit. Its peak is the highest point in Gujarat and on a clear day the view stretches almost as far as the sea, some 50 miles to the south. Before you lie the dry rolling hills and lush fertile planes of the Saurashtra Peninsula, punctuated by the occasional hulks of fuming chemical factories and modern manufacturing plants. Happily, these do little to detract from the surroundings' natural beauty but are reminders of the country's rapid industrialisation.
Gujarat provides the visitor with perhaps the best insight into the new India, where rapacious economic development and modern consumerism rub shoulders with extreme poverty, spiritual and religious diversity, and tribal and nomadic ways.
Travelling south to the coast, we passed oxen pulling hay carts, while across the road gleaming new combine harvesters cruised through golden wheat fields.
The descent down the mountain took such a toll on our ageing legs that we struggled to make it out of bed the next day. However, there was a sense of satisfaction in having done something to work off the mounting effects of Gujarat's delicious cuisine. Its sweet thalis are memorable, the largely vegetarian diet makes full use of a rich mix of local spices, and the fresh fish on the coast is a delight.
If temples are your thing, just outside the busy town of Palitana there are more than 900 of them. The holy hill of Shatrunjaya (which translates as "Dawn to Dusk") is India's principal Jain pilgrimage site and attracts worshippers from all over the world.
It is a much shorter and easier climb than Girnar, at just 2,000 steps, but for the lazy or infirm, pall-bearers are at hand to carry you up for a small fee. We made it in less than one hour, led by the clanging of bells and murmur of rites from the great citadel above.
At the summit, this city of temples proved a breathtaking sight of spires and towers, hemmed in by mighty protective walls. Despite the crowds, it felt wonderfully peaceful and afforded beautiful views over the flat pastureland below.
When religious fervour and city chaos became too much, the palm-fringed beaches of Diu Island were a welcome relief. Along with Goa and the nearby sea town of Daman, Diu was a colony of Portugal until the Sixties and is just about the only place you can drink alcohol in the dry state of Gujarat.
The island is tiny: barely two miles by eight, but we could have spent an age lolling on its golden beaches.
A short walk from our hotel at Nagoa and we had a whole beach to ourselves. The only interruption to our solitude was a stray dog taking sleepy respite in the shade of a palm tree. As the tide drifted out, women in colourful saris appeared to comb the exposed rock pools for shellfish.
The next day we explored Diu Town, a colonial relic with a maze of colourful narrow alleys and an imposing fort that looks out over the Gulf of Cambay. The streets were full of dilapidated houses painted in fading pastel colours. Sea blues and mustard yellows and ochre reds provided hints of former glory.
Nearer the great fort we stumbled across the glorious white façade of St Paul's church, with its attractive turquoise-patterned ceiling. When we arrived, wardens were busily chasing roosting pigeons out of its interior.
Heading back to the town centre we came across travel agent Jorge, one of many village elders whose mother tongue has remained Portuguese. To judge by the expletives levelled at his fellow agents in neighbouring Rajasthan and elsewhere, he clearly cherished Gujarat's quainter attitude to tourism.
"Where else can you find lions in India?" he barked.
For the moment he has a point, but moves are afoot to relocate some of the animals to the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh to ease overcrowding at Gir.
Some fear this may reduce Gujarat's draw – and it may, but happily there is much more besides to India's most westerly state than its big cats.
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