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If you don't like crowds, don't go to a major Hindu temple on a festival night of the full moon.

Per our driver's suggestion, we squeezed in Ambaji temple on the way back from Mount Abu. Many shops line the roads around Ambaji temple. The shops sell everything a pilgrim needs to make an offering, including cocumb (sp?), huge piles of the red powder used to mark the heads of religious pilgrims. Our driver bought incense and a coconut.

Ambaji's large temple attracts many Hindu pilgrims to its gold-topped turrets. This was a festival - Sunday night, the night of the full moon after the Navaratri festival. There were long lines of people waiting, winding around like the queues for an amusement park but much more tightly packed. We went through security (metal detectors and armed guards).  The guard took Alkesh's incense away; I'm not sure if it's contraband or if it would be offered later.  We left our phones and camera in the car (photography is prohibited there).

Imagine a crowd packed more tightly than a Metro train at rush hour, but with the chaos of a mosh pit and the zeal of a Pentecostal church. We were caught in the thick of it. The drums were beating and the Hindu pilgrims were in high religious fervor. We were buffeted forward and almost lifted off our feet in the waves of swaying people pushing forward and pressing behind and all around us. The crowd ebbed and flowed in time to the hypnotic rhythm of the drums. Every so often, the loudspeaker blared chants that were suddenly answered with loud shouts from all the people surrounding us.  Some people near the sides prostrated themselves; most were just standing and slowly moving forward in the crowd, getting as close as they could to see the place where the idol would sit, if there were an idol there. (It's a kind of decorated alcove; the lack of an idol there has religious significance.)  After maybe a half-hour, we somehow were pushed toward the side and out of the surge. We made it out to the cool night air and just breathed.

The beggar-children outside the Ambaji temple spotted us. Visnagar kids may follow us around, but the Ambaji kids were much more aggressive. They physically tapped and poked at us to get our attention. They followed us to our car and tapped on the windows all around us. Our driver actually slapped one child on the cheek when the boy would not let him get to his car.  The driver then somehow maneuvered it away.

We had dinner at a Gujarati dining hall. The waiters must not see Westerners often. They gathered around our table, refilling our dishes, constantly dishing out food so it was hard to actually eat.  The mutter paneer was done a different way than I make it; theirs had a thin rather than a thick creamy sauce, but I liked it.  I also liked the palak (sauteed spinach).

We would've appreciated Ambaji more if we had not gone on a festival day.
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Today we left Gujarat for Mount Abu, and saw a wild crocodile and some elaborate medieval Jain stone-carvings.

We made a day-long excursion north into Rajasthan. Rajasthan is the Indian state just north of Gujarat, the land of innumerable Mughal princes and marble palaces. We visited Mount Abu, in the southern tip of Rajasthan.  We left early in the morning and rode the three-hour drive or so.

State borders are not trivial here.  In the US, or even much of Europe, a border is typically a sign saying "Welcome to So-and-So".  In India, states are organized along language and cultural lines, not just geography. There's an actual border crossing checkpoint to cross between them. Drivers pay a licensing fee to the state. National permits are available, and the brightly painted "Goods Carriage" trucks proudly advertise that status. At the border, the signs all changed instantly from Gujarati to the Hindi alphabet (much easier for us to read).  Transliterated English is common in Hindi too. For instance, the border from Gujarat to Rajasthan has dozens of businesses selling the local building materials, beautiful marble stones, with Hindi signs transliterated from phonetic English "MARBL BILDEN MATARLS."

The road up Mount Abu is very scenic, if you're brave enough to look out the window. The mountains are beautiful, studded with palm trees. The countryside, and the road, looks a lot like Yellowstone National Park--complete with big drop-offs down cliffs. The Indian cement blocks serve as guardrails, but have occasional wide, ragged gaps about the width of a car (hmm).  There are constant hairpin curves.  Many have signs posted with a picture of a horn, to remind you to signal to the hidden, incoming vehicles. Alkesh, our driver, blared the horn at every blind curve; almost constantly. There were several times when we rounded a bend only to see a tourist bus blithely straddling the middle line and hurtling straight toward us. Somehow we made it up to Mount Abu.

Mount Abu is a major tourist attraction and pilgrimage place. There are many Bhramachaya centers there, like the "Center for Universal Peace." There's also a modern Jain temple with mosaics in tiny mirrors and cut glass. You can see what your image must look like to a spider, as you see your reflection in hundreds of little mirrors. There's a large, pretty lake; we walked around it a bit. A couple pilgrims came up, young men dressed all in white. They spoke excellent English and talked to Michael and Alkesh.  They talked and walked with us for over half an hour, and never said one word to me. I don't know if it's because I'm a woman and it would break some religious taboo of theirs, or because they assumed that, as a woman, I'm not worth speaking to. They invited Michael to their temple (we declined), but didn't ask for money. It still reminded Michael of an old Opus cartoon.

The medieval Jain temples at Mount Abu were the best part. There are several of them, two built between a thousand and eight hundred years ago, and other modern ones being added onto today.  Centuries ago, these temples were composed of elaborately carved marble, with dancing girls and figures representing the major Jain religious figures. The temples are free. It's forbidden to take photos, eat or chew. Large signs also warned menstruating women from entering. The temples closed at 6 PM, so we were glad to catch them before the day ended. The temples were relatively quiet, and we easily walked around between the large tour groups that had been bused in.

The Jain temples were covered in ornate stone carvings, made by hundreds of stonemasons over decades. In the center of a temple is a mammoth Buddha-like idol with gemstone eyes, and in front of the idol are a herd of marble cattle and animals. Around the periphery are about 50 or 60 cells, each one with a smaller idol inside.  Every surface is carved with translucent marble flowers, geometric tessellations, and dancing girls clad only in beaded jewelry.  The temples are quiet. Even the busloads of pilgrims walk quietly and pray silently.

We saw the wildlife sanctuary, but only one animal of note. We went on foot, walking for a couple hours, but we still didn't see any animals but one shanty's domestic chicken.  The sounds and sights were still good, though; we heard strange jungle birds calling and saw many beautiful flowers and some giant many-limbed ancient trees.  At the end of the trail was an artificial lake. A good-sized crocodile was lurking at the edge of the water, right under the guardrails. Michael suggested I jump in and wrestle it, and when the croc heard that it must've been scared because it immediately slipped away into the lake. Michael says that's proof that crocodiles must fear me!
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This past weekend we went on a long distance road-trip (10 hours) to extreme western Gujarat.  We saw Gir, Jahdtapur (sp?), Diu, Junagadh, and Somnath.

Unfortunately, Gir was closed for maintenance; it was all under construction. Turns out Gir National Park closes every summer/monsoon season, and it doesn't re-open this year until October 15. They weren't letting anyone in, no matter what. The large signs proclaimed in three languages that it is a point of pride that these public servants do not accept bribes or tipping. So we may go back and try to see the Asiatic lions in November.

We visited the large, famous Hindu temple at Somnath. There has been a temple on this spot continuously since about 300 BC. The site was a frequent target of raiders. Over the centuries, a couple Muslim mosques were also built at the same location. The current temple is about 60 years old, and controversial; they razed the latest mosque to build it. Maybe that's why there are guards with automatic machine guns at the gates. The temple does not allow any kinds of photography or mobile telephones, so we left our cell phones in the car.  As with all temples, you have to take off your shoes to enter. Michael and our driver, Alkesh, were barefoot. I was wearing socks and was just fine, but when the guys stepped on the sun-heated marble in their bare feet, they moved along quickly. Somnath was also my first sight of the Indian Ocean. There's a marker where from that point south, all the way to the South Pole, is completely ocean. Michael speculated that from that point north, all the way to the north pole, might be completely land.  We walked down and dipped our hands in the water.  Farther down the beach was a camel wading in the water and a stray dog playing in the surf.

The road to Diu was okay near Somnath, and then deteriorated. Our car rolled along for a couple hours through rural fields. There were field-worker camps nearby, with tarps propped up as makeshift tents. Part of the road, including a couple bridges, was under construction and our car followed detours diversions down into dry riverbeds and back up again.  There were even a few horses; our car swerved when two of them got away from the teenage boy who was holding them. We passed many auto-rickshaws and the occasional cycle-rickshaw or camel-pulled cart, but most of the traffic was motorcycles, Tata trucks, bullock-carts, and tractors pulling huge heaps of vegetation on trailers. I still can't get used to the traffic here.  When we got into the last town in Gujarat, we were directed along the better of the two roads to Giu.  The land gradually changed, finally becoming marshy estuary.  I smelled the sea air and it reminded me of home and the Chesapeake.   We finally rolled and bumped through the potholes to the checkpoint at Diu. 

Diu is its own independent little district; it's not part of Gujarat. Gujarat is a dry state (no alcohol), and Giu is not. The bars advertised their alcohol in neon lights. But away from the tourist strip, it's a lovely little seaside village with dozens of fishing boats pulled up on land in low tide. The old fort was especially picturesque, with waves crashing on the carved stone blocks. Michael had a cute little brown calf come up to him, as friendly as a puppy, and licked at his pant legs.  We saw the sun set over the old fort.

On the way back that night, we saw some sort of local traditional procession, with men dressed in long garments and covered in red streaks (paint? blood?), all hollering and carrying bamboo sticks. Our driver said he guessed this was some kind of local tradition for Navaratri (the goddess festival). It still felt wild when the traffic stopped and the apparent mob surged through, including directly around our car, with the men shaking their staffs and all shouting some unknown language.  They moved on, then so did we.

We bumped our way back to Junadgadh and stayed a second night at the Hotel Indralok. It's a good Western-style hotel there, with bathtubs and toilet paper. Cost is around 40 dollars a night for a super-deluxe air-conditioned room.  And all the plastic wastebaskets, buckets, pitchers, etc. said "Flora" all over them. :-) We considered driving back, but our driver had been fasting all day, and been up since 6 AM and would have been driving all night.  We found out why our driver had not liked the hotel the first night. He is not normally a driver, and he had to sleep in the driver-room barracks (cramped, with bunk beds). Alkesh is a successful businessman, the owner of his car-rental business. (In India, rental cars always come with a driver.) With the holiday, Alkesh had not been able to have one of his normal employees drive, so he had to take us himself. He didn't mind too much (he likes to travel). But he had not wanted to go back to the hotel and share a room with the other drivers. So we paid for his private hotel room ($14 for a non-AC room) and he was much happier.

The next day we took a longer stroll around Junagadh's historic fort and mosque. Those were beautiful, with elaborate carvings.  Michael went down to the very bottom of the early stepwell there; I was hot and went down part way and rested in the shade.  Michael said the well reminded him of dark caverns he's seen only in dreams.  We also went into the Buddhist caves there. The pigeons were thrumming in deep tones in the underground caverns, and it gave it the right atmosphere. We saw our first cobra, a small yellow snake peeking out of the fort wall. I also saw a lovely big lizard sunning itself in a hole in the rock.

I think my husband is part mountain goat.  After the fort, he insisted we go to the nearby mountain, Girnar. There's a guru there, at the top of a staircase of what locals call 9,999 steps. Both Hindu and Jain believers make pilgrimages there and climb the steps to the top; elderly people included.  It was already afternoon, and there was no way we could even think of climbing it; but Michael went up for about 20 minutes anyway, and came back down. Alkesh marveled at his boundless energy.  I remarked on it later, and Michael says his attitude is, "What would Michael Palin do?" That sounds like the right attitude to have in this country. 

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