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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. 


Sep. 19th, 2009 10:08 pm
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Patan has very old Hindu carvings

This was Sweetie's excursion on Saturday, accompanied by Bhavesh, the MBA professor and our faculty coordinator's best friend. I was at home sick with GI issues, though I recovered by lunchtime and put in almost a full day of work. Michael still hasn't reviewed this, but I'm posting it anyway. I may edit this later and move some details around if I mixed up anything.

The Temple of the Sun

The Mughals are famous, but you never hear much about India's Hindu kings. Like the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Hindu rulers claimed to be descendants of the sun gods--no longer actively worshiped even in the long-running Hindu religion. The temple was outstanding. There were many carvings and pillars. The sun at its zenith shines through a particular window and marker at certain times of the year.

Lake of a thousand temples

This was sad. It should be called, more accurately, a thousand former temples. They've all been vandalized and toppled down. Bhavesh said there used to be at least some temples in the middle of the lake, when he was a teenager. But now they're all down, vandalized. India has an incredible wealth of cultural heritage. It seems like there's so much emphasis on looking forward, there's not much value on the past. Given the choice between a modern shopping mall and centuries-old temples of long-forgotten gods? They'll take the shopping mall.

Patan Step-Well

Patan has the largest of the step wells in western India, the Ran Ki Vav carved in the mid-1000s. These wells were the major sources of water for people in the surrounding towns.  They're multiple stories deep, with elaborate carved steps going down and walls decorated with gods and worshipers. I went to a different well with Michael earlier that week, and write about that separately.

Most of the Patan stepwell was closed off that day; the apparent reason was because another tourist had been severely stung by bees or something. But it helps to have an American along who came thousands of miles for this trip. So Bhavesh and the driver pleaded, and the guards looked the other way while they ducked under the ropes into the restricted area.  (The group behind them also went, but they bribed the guards outright with some good haggling; the price went from 20 dollars to 20 rupees, or 40 cents.) 

The carvings were outstanding. This whole area was only recently excavated in the last few years. The carvings have persisted for centuries,
buried, but now are unprotected from the elements and vandals. It's not certain that they'll persist. Even the architect's original carving and site plan was still preserved, scratched into the wall. 
There were also many detailed carvings showing ritual acts of honoring the gods. In the interests of keeping this blog safe for work I'm not posting pictures, but there were all kinds of combinations and configurations: men and women, women and women, groups of people, people and animals, gods and humans. The actions likely have religious significance, but it's not certain if they were done primarily for fun or for worship or both. It was enough to make one of our Indian friends lament the prudishness of modern-day India, where the police will arrest even married couples for kissing in public. 

I'm hoping we will go back there together. Patan is relatively close to Visnagar, less than two hours away, so it's day-trippable.
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The Kadi university faculty and a couple MBA students got a car and drove Michael to the local tourist sites.  There were two local sites, one a nice big Indian temple.  Michael enjoyed the temple, but he really got into the well.

The Kadi stepwell was a dark, evil ruin of glory; it was the best thing Michael had seen yet this trip, and the most interesting landmark he'd seen in India. Imagine an underground temple, totally subterranean, going down and down and with all the intricate sandstone carvings we remember from Fatepuhr Sikrhi and the Red Fort.  There is a giant circular amphitheater with balconies, going up hundreds of feet. You go down all the way to the giant well at the bottom; way way way up above is the sky. But it's a dark creepy well, and filled with screeching sounds from bats flying in every direction shrieking constantly.  It looked exactly like Khazad-Dhum in the Lord of the Rings.  There were stone cut spiral staircase going down; you couldn't use your hands to guide you through the darkness because you'd grab a bat.

After that, Michael said I would have to see it. But his guides said no, this is nothing. The one in Patan is even bigger and more elaborate.

[ETA: Turns out, Patan has even better carvings, but it's not as dark and dismal and foreboding. I want to see both.]

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