British rule over Gujarat was not whole. They only controlled about a fifth of the state, largely confined to the larger metropolitan areas such as Ahmedabad and Surat. The remainder of Gujarat was Saurashtra, and its “100 kingdoms” – it was actually about 200 – was ruled by individual royal families, albeit in cooperation with their Raj neighbors. In fact, these kingdoms were generally supportive of the British; they had signed pacts of cooperation with the British East India Co. in the early 1800s. Indian independence leaders’ activities excluded Saurashtra and the Congress party did not decide to formally include the region in its struggle until 1938, just nine years before the British quit.
The region is also known as Katiawad and the locals speak a lilting Gujarati, a sing-song quality that brings a “sweetness” of tone is how my dad describes it. I can hear it faintly. I think it will be a while, if ever, before I can distinguish among the dialects in the Gujarati language. Katiawad also has its own culinary specialities, which we ate throughout our travels. These foods include rotlo, a flatbread made of buckwheat. (I liked the way my Madhukar kaka, or father’s brother, prepared it: Crispy top peeled off in order to place a layer of gor, or jaggery, on top. Unlike many Indian men, especially of his generation, my uncle is good in the kitchen!) Vegetable preparations included ringun oro, an eggplant preparation, and tamata/sev, a mixture of tomato and sev, small crunchy noodles made of chickpea flour. It was all delicious and we ate it for nearly every meal without tiring of the tastes.
Madhukar kaka’s wife, my Asha kaki is from Bhavnagar, one of Saurashtra’s biggest cities, and so it makes sense he knows his Katiawad food! They were both there,visiting my aunt’s mother, the night Dad and I were in town so we could skip a restaurant in favor of a home-cooked meal. For its time, Bhavnagar’s rulers were progressive, setting up a modern system of civil and criminal justice, civic amenities and schools. The last ruler of the Gohil dynasty, Krishnakumarsinhji, was closely involved with the independence movement and so was one of the first rulers to submit to the new state of India.
There is not a lot these days to see in Bhavnagar; it’s a mid-sized Indian city striving for modernity like many of its peers. We did drive up to the Takhteshwar Temple, which has 360-degree views of the city and the Gulf of Khambhat below.
Somewhat out of turn, I already wrote about our visit to Palitana, home of the Jain temple complex. It was also its own princely state and its mountain-top location helped it defeat invaders, whether they were expansion-minded Muslims or fellow royals.
Former royal municipality turned Oil City of India. Jamnagar’s now figurehead prince lives in the Darbargadh Palace and the former summer residence in the middle of Lakhota Lake illustrate the city’s royal heritage. But the world’s largest oil refinery, operated by Reliance, is the main economic driver. The Indian air force, army and navy all have bases here, due to the proximity of the border with Pakistan. Our hotel would not allow us to check in without filling out special “Arrival of Foreigner in Hotel” paperwork and showing our passports.
After a week or so amid the villages of rural Gujarat, Jamnagar reintroduced us to the chaos of city life. Lakhota lake is the city’s main square and, in the evening, the perimeter became a market/fair, with food stalls, shop carts and mini-amusement rides for children. Another market area was around the city’s main mosque, Ratan Bai Masjid, with its distinctive green-and-white minarets.
What was nice to see were all the Hindu names on the shops around the mosque, showing, at least in the matters of commerce, an interaction among those of different faiths. I’ve been reading a lot about the history of communal tensions in Gujarat, and a disturbing trend is the increased polarization of the communities and the lack of the sort of everyday contact that helps promote tolerance.
Another of the city’s landmarks is the Bala Hanuman temple, where devotees have chanted, “Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram” for 24-hours a day since August 1, 1964, earning it a place in the Guinness World Book of Records. During the afternoon we visited about a half-dozen men and women were sitting, chanting God’s name.