State of Independence

FOOD & TRAVEL MAGAZINE, 2007

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Gujarat may not be as well known as neighbouring Rajasthan, but Léa Teuscher
finds the birthplace of Gandhi is a colourful and picturesque state, full of dramatic sights and home to a distinctive vegetarian cuisine

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Little bowls of beaches, temple spires on steep hills, white baroque churches, vibrant markets and magical 11th-century stepwells… all are just waiting to be sampled by the visitor to Gujarat. After centuries of trade with Arabs, Persians, East Africans, Chinese, Indonesians and Portuguese, the only rare foreign variety here is the European tourist, who tends to flock to popular neighbouring Rajasthan. Gujarat, in the north-west of India on the Pakistan border, is one of the most prosperous states in India – Gujaratis are two and a half times wealthier than the average Indian.

It’s a land of decaying palaces and bright bougainvillea, where camel-carts overtake multicoloured tuk-tuks and holy cows race with them on the highway. On this dry earth juicy mangos, soft cotton and shiny Shiva temples grow, while pink flamingos invade the salty marshes. People drink spicy tea straight out of saucers, and meat-eaters are as scarce as water. Women wrap themselves in five metres of fabric; men sport golden earrings bigger than their wives’, and children wear a black kohl line under their eyes.

Things are usually less crowded down on the palm-fringed island of Diu, off the southern coast, but today it’s party time in the fishing village of Vanakbara. The streets are packed; rainbows of saris and lucky ashoka palm leaves hang between the whitewashed buildings. All the boats are out of the water, and it’s so busy it’s hard to glimpse the Arabian Sea between the drying wooden vessels. Chotila and Chamunda, the twin lion-riding warrior goddesses, famed for their extraordinary prowess and victories over men, are being blessed by a beautifully orange female priest in a brand new temple.

From the tiny Shiva temple nestled in between the ragged cliffs, where worshippers have to brave the waves, to the old green mosque in Diu old town, Divechis are spoilt for choice; they even have a Catholic option. The baroque façade of the 17th-century St Paul Church, the most elaborate of all Portuguese churches in India, with its white volutes and shell motifs, is not as out-of-place as it first appears. Diu was Portuguese for more than 400 years, and only became a union territory of India in 1961. Divechis people can still apply for Portuguese passports, although very few still speak Portuguese.

Bollywood directors (Diu is only a couple of hours from Mumbai) have fallen in love with the imposing Diu fort; the exotic European-style fortifications, complete with cannons and pirate tombstones, always look good on camera. But behind the perfect setting, it is the relaxed and simple life of the island that charms. Walking in the old town’s narrow streets past pastel walls, admiring the abandoned havelis (wealthy residences), it is possible to imagine a rich Lusitanian merchant taking in the ocean view from his ornate balcony.

On Goghla beach, fishermen repair nets and sari-clad women jump in the waves with their naked children. Dogs and chickens and ducks and goats run around; cats are in fresh fish paradise. Only the cows remain stoic, squeezing in the narrow shadows. The island is intoxicating; indeed, it is the only place in Gujarat where you can drink alcohol. Yet many will prefer a sip of the island’s sweet coconut juice. Round the coast to the west, past salt pans, wading birds and palm trees, is the famous temple at Somnath, near Veraval. It’s said to be as old as creation, built by the Moon God himself. The shrine is revered as one of 12 which are particularly associated with the worship of Shiva. It’s a high security temple, 17 times destroyed, each time rebuilt. The cycle of pillage and reconstruction lasted for seven centuries, culminating in 1026, when 50,000 people died trying to protect Somnath from the Afghan warlord Mohammed of Ghazni.

Heading inland past peanut fields and red-brick factories brings you deep into the southern region of Saurashtra and keshar mango country. The refreshing green-orange fruits are used in delicious desserts (like the mango fool, aamras) or lassis. Popular in a variety of pickles, sour green mangos are seasoned with garlic, chillies, molasses and spices like aniseed, mustard and fenugreek. At the heart of the region, the ancient fortified city of Junagadh, in the shadow of the Gilnar hill, lies quaint and peaceful, perhaps still under the influence of the born-again Buddhist king Ashoka, who converted from tyrant to monk after he married an enlightened girl. Don’t miss the remarkable Uparkot Fort which dominates the city.

A few kilometres east and the city of Gondal can also offer an enlightened ruler tale. Sri Bhagwat Sinhji, the local maharaja, installed phone and railway networks and made female education compulsory decades before the creation of modern India. In the current maharaja’s library, old volumes on the Imperial Visit of India and the history of the British Empire cohabit with the likes of Europe on 10 Dollars a Day and a Playboy anthology. The huge earthquake which struck Gujarat in 2001, claiming more than 20,000 lives and injuring another 200,000, left its mark on the 18th-century Naulakha palace, but you can still see its collection of precious silver caskets, while vintage cars are on
display in the royal garages. Make time for a visit to the century-old bhuvaneshwari ayurvedic pharmacy to check out herbal and natural products, like the Medicated Hair Oil for ‘hair falling, headache, burning eye, insomnia, and hair greying’.

Further east still, in the town of Palitana, you may well need a tonic before you tackle the 3,000 steps leading to the white-spired temples on Shatrunjaya Hill. White nuns run down the steps in the early morning, while dolis toil under the weight of affluent Jain worshippers. Undoubtedly symbolic of Jain wealth and power, Palitana’s 863 16th-century Jain temples and their delicate carvings are also a tribute to the Jain doctrine of non-violence and its gifted sculptors.

On the western coast, the Little Rann of Kutch is a national park, a salt-marsh sanctuary for the Indian wild ass (khar). When we arrived the villagers of Ambala were gathering around the well, hurrying to collect water before sunset. You may enjoy the privilege of being invited into the homes of the Rabari people, offered tea and smiles, and asked to take pictures. Women showed us their delicate mirrored embroideries with pride, while husbands rocked the baby’s cradle. A few fields away, in the stark beauty of the desert plains, we saw wild pink flamingos perched in the wetlands that were not so long ago the Arabian Sea.

In the north of the state lies Patan, where the unique and delicate Rani-ki-Vav step-well was built as the female counterpart to the Modhera Sun Temple 30 kilometres to the south. Erected in memory of King Bhimdeva, it is less a giant mausoleum than a celebration of woman power. On the seven-storey deep platforms and galleries, Queen Udaymati ensured that the 800 detailed carvings represent women on top: all around are towering goddesses, reading love letters or drying their hair, looking down on men not even half their size.

Finally to Ahmedabad, a city as big as London, associated with Gujarat’s most famous son – Mahatma Gandhi. Ahmedabad was the home of the Indian Independence Movement, the beginning of the defiant 1930 Salt March, and the place from which Gandhi orchestrated the final struggle for India’s freedom. His spartan ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati river is open to all, as was his house during his lifetime. The maze of dusty medieval streets in the old town and the cocktail of Hindu and Islamic architecture are captivating. After a wander through the crowded bazaars, we headed to the Calico museum and its collection of 17th-century textiles. Here you can see the inside of a beautiful wooden haveli, and learn the story of Gujarat through the fabrics that travelled the world: the patterned patola weaves exported to Bali for Indonesian queens, the hand-embroidered curtains sent to Portugal, the cottons shipped to Egypt to wrap artefacts in tombs.

The tour ended with a memorable meal in the city’s most talkedabout restaurant, Vishala. Seated comfortably around huge thalis, we watched as one waiter after another piled more and more food on our dried banana leaves. Crisp khakra wafers and chapatti breads, rich dals and local undhiyo (roasted sweet potatoes, beans and aubergines), and delicious kadhi (split pea and yoghurt soup) were finished off with khichadi, a rice hotchpotch with five kinds of lentils. The shrikhand, a yoghurt dessert spiced with saffron, cardamom, nuts and candied fruit, simply would not fit on the table.

WHERE TO EAT

Vishala, Ahmedabad (00 91 7964 30357, vishalla.com). An ideal place to experience Gujarat’s culinary traditions, Vishala encompasses craft stalls, a puppet theatre and a beautiful utensils museum as well as the atmospheric restaurant. Guests are seated on the floor and are served typical vegetarian thalis. Relax on charpois (Indian rope beds) while listening to traditional live music. Unlimited dinner for INR 189 per person, INR 84 for children.

Agashiye, Ahmedabad (00 91 7955 06946, houseofmg.com). Opposite Siddi Saiyad Mosque, this lovely terrace restaurant at the top of a grand mansion serves seasonal Gujarati cuisine, including all-you-can-eat thalis, fruit juices, sweets and home-made icecreamamid contemporary décor. Dinner from INR 250.

Apana, Old Fort Road, Diu (00 91 2875 52112). Lively terrace restaurant overlooking the water and located near the town’s night market. It serves good breakfasts, South Indian and Chinese dishes, but the speciality is fresh seafood (don’t miss the tandoori pomfret). Dinner around INR 300.

Resort Hoka, Nagoa Beach, Diu (00 91 2875 53036). This friendly and welcoming restaurant is perfect for a light lunch near the beach. Simple but delicious food is served in a courtyard shaded by colourful fabric and hoka palm trees. Fresh coffee and banana lassis recommended. Dinner less than INR 300.

Essel Garden Restaurant, Rajkot Road, Junagadh (00 91 285 2660900). Located opposite the zoo, this charming outdoor restaurant is popular with local families thanks to its wide choice of delicious vegetarian food and traditional thalis. This makes a good stop on the way to Gir National Park and its rare Asiatic lions. Dinner less than INR 300.

 

 

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