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State of excitement in Gujarat

Tipped by Lonely Planet to be one of the hottest destinations for 2019, Amar Grover visits the little-visited Indian state of Gujarat.

'Step’ and ‘well’ might not sound like a particularly promising tourist experience but the Rani-ki-Vav, or ‘Queen’s Stepwell’, in Patan – the ancient city in the north-western Indian state of Gujarat – is an extraordinary slice of engineering and architecture. Once common across Rajasthan and Gujarat, stepwells aimed not just to manage and conserve water, but served as cooler meeting places, too. Most have decayed and stand forlorn and unused but, built by an 11th-century Solanki queen as a memorial to her dead husband, Rani-ki- Vav is among the largest and finest such wells in India.  

Essentially a giant trench joined to a circular shaft one hundred feet deep, in scale and execution it resembles an inverted temple ‒ a shrine to the sanctity of water and an astonishing blend of aesthetics and practicality. For centuries after the nearby river flooded, it lay covered and preserved by tonnes of silt. Excavations in the 1950s and 60s unearthed its grand proportions along with rich and unblemished sculpture adorning walls, niches and pillars. Finally, in 2014, it became a Unesco world heritage site.

Descending several flights through multi-storey colonnades, I join a group of young photography students on a field trip. They’re having a fine time with their cameras; suffused light, soft shade and harsh shadow bleed subtly with the arcing sun across a thousand or more sumptuous carvings of dancers and divinities. The mythological and religious imagery is profoundly sensual, almost playful, yet strangely enigmatic.

Eventually I head up back into the real world and blazing sunshine. It’s even busier now, yet there are no foreign visitors. Gujarat, home state of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, feels surprisingly overlooked by international tourists. Yet, stretching away from south-western Rajasthan towards the heel of Pakistan and with Mumbai just down the road (today a four-lane highway), it’s neither hard to reach nor lacking sights. I’d begun in Mahesana, a useful springboard for destinations like Rani-ki- Vav. But first a short, whimsical detour: Prime Minister Modi was born and grew up in nearby Vadnagar, an ordinary slice of small-town India. Indian media suggested that the nondescript town was set to become a place of pilgrimage for Indians, with local operators creating ‘Modi tours’.

The smooth, well-signposted road leading there passes pretty fields of sugar cane and mustard. Reaching Vadnagar, there’s a distinct lack of party banners or adulatory Modi portraits. On the surface at least, there’s nothing to suggest his connection with the place. I’ve got a checklist of ‘sights’: there’s B.N. School, as modest and playground-dusty as it was in his day; and the humble family tea shop, which changed hands years ago and now sells farm machinery. At Sharmishtha lake, you might contemplate how (as depicted in the hagiographic comic book Bal Narendra: Childhood Stories of Narendra Modi) the young, bold Modi reputedly defied crocodiles to save a drowning friend here?

In the earthy but friendly old quarter, veined with streets barely wider than a bullock cart, I finally locate his former home. Its current owners have apparently changed the narrow and modest configuration beyond recognition while, in a tiny shop opposite, a couple of chaps claim to remember his family well.

Back on my more conventional itinerary, Modhera’s famous Surya, or sun temple, beckons. Built in the 11th century by a Solanki dynasty king, it has long been a monument rather than an active place of worship. Fronted by a deep, sacred water tank picturesquely lined with 108 miniature shrines, a flight of stone steps rises to an ornamental archway. Behind, the temple and its separate assembly hall stand adorned with friezes, panels and pillars of exuberant (though now much weathered or mutilated) sculpture, mainly depicting gods, goddesses, dancers and animals.

For a while I have its idyllic, faintly eerie tranquillity to myself. A youth hunkers down with his sketchpad. A woman in a white sari floats by, silent as a cat. The spell is interrupted briefly by a local guide determined to show me some socalled ‘erotics’ ‒ carvings of athletic if not ambitious couplings harking back to a notably less prudish age.

Some of Gujarat’s wildest and most austere scenery starts barely forty miles from here. The Little Rann of Kutch is a vast, salty marshland, which, together with the even larger desert-like Rann of Kutch, effectively renders the Kutch region an isolated peninsula. At almost 5,000 sq km, the Little Rann’s Wild Ass Sanctuary is the last stronghold of Indian wild asses, though it abounds with other wildlife from wolves to desert foxes and nilgai, a large species of antelope. In winter it hosts thousands of migratory birds, particularly breeding flamingoes, and it’s possible to take morning and afternoon safaris in open-topped vehicles.

Kutch’s historic isolation – it’s also the most westerly part of India – made it a world apart. Bounded by the Arabian Sea and the featureless Ranns (which often flood during the monsoon and remain difficult to cross in the dry season), the region and its seamen often looked west to East Africa and the Persian Gulf. In 1930s Bhuj – Kutch’s medieval capital – ruler Maharao Khengarji III still insisted the chunky keys of its five locked city gates were delivered to him every evening and only returned to their gatekeepers for opening the following morning. This ancient ‘watch and ward’ system was applied in many other walled Kutchi towns. Even in the mid-1990s, visiting villages barely twenty miles from Bhuj required rubber-stamped police permission – some permits are still needed today. Ironically, 2001’s devastating earthquake, which also damaged the city’s palaces, proved a catalyst for long-sought development and change.

Yet, Kutch’s notable ‘tribal’ culture remains largely intact, even if some distinctions are gradually being blurred. Often these generally pastoral and semi-nomadic groups and clans – Rabari, Ahir, Mochi and Meghwal to name a few – are identifiable only by subtle differences in dress: varying styles of embroidered skirts and blouses, or the colours and folds of turbans and shawls, distinguishing one community from another.

There’s also a rich tradition of handicrafts, particularly embroidery and fabrics; on village tours you’ll very likely visit communities of leather workers or cobblers, jewellery-makers, cloth block printers and potters. The vernacular, too, is particularly attractive – bhongas, or adobe-walled roundhouses with thatched roofs and immaculate yards, tick every environmental and sustainable box. Their beautiful decoration, from bold whitewashed patterns to a colour-fest of arabesque and geometric motifs, is often employed in similarly styled tourist camps and resorts dotting the region.

After otherworldly Kutch, Ahmedabad, the state capital, seems a bit of a shock and it feels more a place of transit than a destination. The one-time ‘Manchester of the East’ still boasts a vigorous mercantile community that’s bolstered the state’s long-standing entrepreneurial outlook, and one of their sprawling homes is now the city’s only ‘boutique’ hotel. The House of Mangaldas Girdhardas, or ‘House of MG’, is an Ahmedabad institution after the characterful 1920s mansion with several wings was lovingly restored following decades of neglect.

I head to Agashiye, its busy, open-air rooftop restaurant, for possibly the finest thali meal you could ever hope to eat and beautifully served on traditional copper and tin trays. Waiters patiently explain each dish as if I was a Michelin critic and, as is customary, if you want more you simply get more. Although Ahmedabad probably isn’t to everyone’s taste, I happily embrace its preposterous urban madness and vitality: the comically zany driving where absolutely everyone has right of way, the almost tidal ebb and flow of its stoical people. The Calico Textile Museum (whose premises alone are an intriguing blend of salvaged architecture) holds an unrivalled collection of Indian fabrics, textiles and costumes. Bhadra, the city’s original 15th-century citadel, survives amidst a knot of dense bazaars and a vibrant outdoor market.

The long quest for India’s independence is honoured in Mahatma Gandhi’s riverside Sabarmati Ashram, whose simple cottages and halls are now a fascinating, copiously illustrated museum. On nearby Ashram Road, a statue depicts the ‘Father of the Nation’ striding purposefully while holding his distinctive staff. In March 1930, Gandhi led eighty followers down this same road, then a modest track, to launch his famous Salt March in protest at the Raj’s despised salt tax. The pacifist, nonviolent traditions of Jainism, one of India’s smallest faith groups, had a profound influence on Gandhi and his politics. Gujarat remains a Jain ‘stronghold’ and one of its ‒ and India’s ‒ most extraordinary temple complexes stands in Palitana, 120 miles southwest of Ahmedabad near the Gulf of Cambay.

It’s the perfect antidote to the big smoke. Nearly 4,000 steps climb almost 2,000ft above the plains to Shatrunjaya, a twin-peaked hill studded with hundreds of Jain shrines and bristling with the soaring towers of at least a dozen substantial temples. Some pilgrims, typically the old, infirm or just lazy, opt to be carried up and down on rudimentary litters slung beneath wooden poles. I, for one, wasn’t going to miss the charming ninety-minute walk through peaceful road-free countryside.

Sanctified for at least a millennium, its oldest structures only date from the 16th century and many are far younger. From afar, the place resembles a curious fortress since wealthy families and merchants erected temples in individual fortified enclosures or tuks. Once through the main gate, it feels more like an intricate templecity with steps and platforms leading off to yet more shrine-filled nooks. The views, too, are tremendous.

A handful of yellow-robed priests flit between courtyards, hallways and chambers. Thousands of marble statues of crossed-legged tirthankaras ‒ the twenty-four Jain gurus ‒ populate its uncannily still and silent shrines; most have lipstick-red lips and a piercing glasseye gaze. For a few hours here, I’m caught wandering in a strange, compelling orbit somewhere between earth and sky.

Discover the architectural wonders of western Rajasthan and neighbouring Gujarat, from the magnificent Modhera sun temple and the colourful havelis at Sidhpur, to the imposing forts of Jodhpur and the monumental Taj Mahal.

To find out more or plan a tailor-made itinerary, speak to one of our India experts.