Junagadh

Junagadh is mostly known as a base station for visitors to Gir National Park or for pilgrims who make the trek up Mount Girnar – 9,999 steps to complex of 866 Jain and Hindu temples scattered across five peaks. We arrived at the pilgrimage’s base in late afternoon. Climbing Palitana’s 3,800 steps took Dad and I the better part of a day so we decided this time to pay homage from below and explore the Taleti instead. The scene was the opposite of Palitana’s crush. A few pilgrims loitered about, some getting foot rubs from the masseurs who plied their trade en route. But the dholi-wallahs were gone, their dholis stacked alongside a billboard in Gujarati that advertised dholi fees by kilogram. The more you weighed, the more you paid. This seemed totally fair considering the rather hefty  people we saw being carried in Palitana.

Junagadh itself is divided into an old and new town, the older part located mountainside and called “Uparkot.” We visited the old fort/mosque, just down from the temples at Girnar. The fort, which is thought to be 2,300 years old is today little more than walls and ceiling; the sculptures of animals and people carved into pillars are largely worn down by time.

We also visited Adi-kadi Vav, a well built in the 15th century that is carved out of rock down 120 stairs. Legend has it that after the well was found to be dry, the royal priest said that water would only be found if two unmarried girls were sacrificed. Adi and Kadi were chosen and so the well is named after them. Visitors hang colored cloths and bangles on a tree nearby in their memory.

I most enjoyed the part we almost skipped. On paper, the Mahabat Maqbara seemed like another old building left to disintegrate. Built by Bahadur Kanji as a tomb for his predecessor, Mahabat Khan, it is a surprisingly well-kept example of Indo-Islamic architecture. I walked up the spire of this onion-domed tomb taking pictures for longer than I would have expected.

Advertisements

The princely states

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.

Bhavnagar

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.

Palitana

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.

Jamnagar 

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.

Saurashtra road trip

Screen Shot 2013-02-14 at 10.42.23 AM

Two days after Dad landed here, we set off on a road trip. Our plan was to explore Saurashtra, or land of “100 kingdoms,” which before Indian independence was a region made up of many princely states. From Ahmedabad, we headed south and hugged the Gujarat coastline – except for an excursion inland to Junagadh – all the way to Dwarka, the state’s most western point.

DSC_9371The tour company I hired had put together an itinerary for us for nine days of travel, (see map above,) but it was the sight-seeing in between that was no less note-worthy. Along this route there were none of the New India’s multi-lane, modern toll roads. We traversed the state largely along state highways, the surfaces of which varied from fairly decent asphalt to jaw-jarring gravel.

Along the way, we encountered humans using every kind of transport method available: walking,  bullock and camel cart, bicycle, scooter, chhakada, trucks, in addition to passenger vehicles like our own. This being India, the rules of the road are flexible. You overtake from which ever position is the safest and if you need to, driving in the opposite lane is acceptable as long as you are beeping your horn as warning to oncoming traffic.

DSC_9390Driving India’s roads is not for the faint of heart; it’s all about reflexes, knowing how and when to react even when you don’t have time to think about it beforehand.  I have to get on the record that our driver, Gopal, was great. He knew the roads we were on and the ones we were headed to, even though it had been four years or so since he had last driven tourists to these towns. And he also was an active participant in our tour, offering suggestions of places to see that were not on the itinerary and interesting commentary on the castes and customs of the people who lived in the various places.

Seeing my cameras our first day out, he suggested we stop at a village on the way to Bhavnagar to meet with some of its residents. At that time of the morning they were engaged in their usual routine, fetching water, washing clothes, but were friendly, waving and smiling for my pictures. Only the grandfather, below, seemed to be a bit more suspicious.

Our drive illustrated the bounty of Gujarat’s natural resources. We drove by innumerable acres of fields of winter wheat, onion, jeeru, cotton and other crops. The coastline is also home to natural salt farms, mounds of salt like baby icebergs rising up from the ground. (All this abundance is under threat, however. Overmining of limestone and other industrial activities, not to mention a severe drought, has meant rising levels of salinity and other toxic minerals, which makes the water undrinkable and the soil no good for farming.)

Just outside the city limits of Bhavnagar, we saw a roadside stall around which were piles of red chilies lay drying in the sun. The aroma of mirchi grabbed our noses as soon as we opened the car doors; my eyes almost watered.  A few women were preparing the raw chilies for the powdering process, while their children  played alongside. One of the items on the shopping list my mom sent to India with dad was chili powder, so we bought a kilogram. I liked the idea that we were directly supporting this business and, hey, it was half the price for chili powder you find in the market in Ahmedabad.

A divine walk

The muted buzz gives way to the intense, insistent punctuation of words spoken in rapid-fire Hindi as soon as the SUV doors open.

Sahab, dholi chaiyye? Bhen, dholi lijiye, nah?

1,100 rupees. 900 rupees. There are four-person dholis and those carried only by two. You can take turns sitting, they tell my father and me.

We are surrounded by dholi-wallahs. Dad and I grab hands so we won’t get separated as we push our way forward. There’s no way to get through the group clustered around us, so close to see the red smears of chewed paan in their teeth. No amount of Nai chaiyye – or I don’t want – spoken at first dismissively, yet politely, and then rudely, as rude as you can be, dissuades them. The dholi-wallahs close in tighter, accompanying us as we try to move toward the gate that marks the entrance.

It is a jarring introduction to Palitana, the most sacred of all Jain pilgrimage sites and a must-do for the faithful. The climb is more than 3,600 steps to reach mountain-top cluster of 3,000 marble temples carved out of marble over a period of 900 years, starting in the 11th century. From the ground, the temples look like the miniatures you see for sale at handicrafts stores all over India.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

But first, we must find a way out of the suffocating swarm. I try my most rude dismissals in whatever words come to mind – in English and in my special mishmash I’ll call Hinjrati – which fall on deaf ears. I clearly am not intimidating. But even the rejections by dad, who is speaking perfect Gujarati and Hindi, are ignored. Suddenly, my father is yelling at the top of his lungs, telling them to go away, that we have no need for your services. He is shaking.

Dad is surrounded by dholi-wallahs as we walk the steps to Palitana's temples.

Dad is surrounded by dholi-wallahs as we walk.

Alarmed, I begin to aggressively shove against the dholi-wallahs. I don’t know when or if I have ever seen my dad so upset and I am now angry at these human parasites. I protectively encircle my arm around my dad’s and I yell at them to leave, Ja, ja!  I consider suggesting we abandon our excursion. But dad’s shouting seem to have some effect. Most of them walk away, their voices muted, whining that he would speak to them in such a way.

In front of us lay the steps to Palitana, carved out of the mountainside itself. I try to focus on calming down, on forgetting the disturbing swarm and the four or five dholi-wallahs still trailing us. Step 1.

The guidebooks say the climb takes a couple of hours. When we reached about the one-third mark, dad decided to negotiate with the dholi-wallahs still following us. But they insisted on the same price they quoted at ground level. We turned them down, and mercifully, they began to descend, finally leaving us alone. At this point, it’s been about an hour and we are roughly 1,100 steps up.

For the next two hours, Dad and I climb. We take regular breaks to catch our breath, gaze at the scenery and gauge just how much higher we have to go. And, most importantly, we talk.

Time for worship

Time for worship

To be honest, I’m still processing all that I heard and learned that afternoon, and what and how to write about it. (Quick fun fact: Dad encouraged mom to take music lessons and she was learning how to play sitar before she had to give it up when they moved to America.) There weren’t many surprises; it was more like the backstory was being filled in. Context was added to the history of my father’s life and our journey as a family. It was as if it was finally age-appropriate to him to share the full story with me and for me to receive it.  We talked about my mom and brother, but we also talked about my dad’s relationship with his parents and siblings, his life as a young bachelor doctor, his desire to live abroad – including an unsuccessful attempt to migrate to London – and unexpected anguish in the first few months of being a newlywed.  He spoke of dreams and heartbreak, the painful process of accepting life’s deepest disappointments and remaining optimistic anyway.

It’s a cliche to say it but I don’t think I’m gifted enough as a writer to put it any other way. That day, I was able to interact with my dad as a whole person, and not only as my father. I gained a deeper understanding of what motivates him, his passions and dreams, and amazing effort both he and my mother put out to move to America, make a life there and give me and my brother so much more they they had.

The writer in me recognizes a good story, a tale of a family through three generations, one that leaves one country for another and makes a home within a culture so different from their own. But writing about yourself is tricky and I don’t want to hurt either of my parents by writing so candidly about our history. So I’ll let the voices, the characters, the stories, rumble around my head for a little while longer.

I’m glad we didn’t let the dholi-wallahs make us abandon our trek up to Palitana and back. This day was a gift.