Gujarat - The last place where Lions live in the wild outside Africa
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The mass of saris advancing towards me seemed to consist of every colour of the rainbow. Vibrant shades of reds, yellows, pinks and purples clashed and at the same time blended with greens and blues, most had sequins or tiny mirrors sewn into their gold edges that dazzled and flared as they caught the morning sun.
Then as we met, just as if I were snorkelling in some tropical sea they parted and washed around me like a shoal of fish allowing me to swim through their midst almost as if I wasn’t there. This took place on my way to visit to Ghandi’s house on the banks of the wide Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad in India’s western province of Gujarat. Now a museum the house has become a place of pilgrimage to many Indians as has the Mahatma’s birth place in nearby Porbandar.
Four days earlier I arrived in Gujarat on a quest to see the Asiatic Lion. There are some 700 animals now living in the Gir Forest national park and their numbers are gradually increasing. This is the only place in the world outside Africa where lions still breed in the wild and you are virtually guaranteed to see the lions up close when you get here as the guides go out at first light to locate the prides and radio in so that the safari jeeps can easily locate them.
The forest where the lions and their prey live is vastly different to the open savannah of Africa and more like an English woodland. The Green Bee Eaters and Black Ibis sitting on the tree tops looked down on the spotted deer with their mottled camouflage strolling warily through the filtered sunlight from the canopy. At the same time the monkeys with their huge curving tails arching above their heads running and leaping between boughs really do make this an experience to remember.
Crocodiles opened one eye and watched us lazily as we drove across the occasional ford and then rounding a corner there was the first pride stretched out in the sunlight no more than thirty yards away with the cubs making a nuisance of themselves as they vied for their mothers attention. After some twenty minutes of silently watching in awe we moved off down the forest track to discover a Crested Serpent Eagle clutching a snake in its talons, releasing its prey it flew effortlessly up into a tree to wait for us to depart before returning to its meal.
Sasan Gir Lion sanctuary is definitely one of India’s success stories and is also home to one of the largest leopard populations in any park in India. Back at our lodge with our tea and sandwiches (The Raj may be long gone but its legacy lives on as all sandwiches have the crusts cut off before being served or packaged up for sale.) we could only discuss in wonder and awe at how privileged we had been.
The lodge consisted of a series of bungalows clustered around a manicured green perched high above the falls of a wide river. As I walked towards the pool I heard a chattering and squeals of laughter from below and looking over discovered one of those timeless moments that make India so complete. Clothed in vivid blue and yellow saris, women were pounding their washing against the rocks whist they cleaned and bathed their children at the same time.
The next morning saw us set off on the long bus trip to Ahemdabad the capital of Gujarat. You can fly or catch a train to explore the state but although the bus takes time I would strongly recommend you do this. Not only do you see the life in the country side, from the storks and spoonbills in the fields watching the oxen pulling the plough, to the women’s heads bobbing up every now and then as they pick the cotton but you encounter the people themselves.
Gujaratis are a warm friendly people and because the tourism trail has not really discovered the state they love to have their picture taken with Europeans. We met a wedding party and were photographed standing next to nearly every member of the family. Even the old man making garlands on a sheet of tarpaulin was over the moon when he saw his image on the back of the camera.
As we entered Ahmedabad another aspect of Indian life struck us. Traffic congestion and bad drivers on your way to work yesterday morning? You haven’t lived. Motorbikes carrying entire families, none of them wearing crash helmets, are joined by thousands of others weaving between cattle or camel drawn wagons and the odd municipal bus.
Then there is the noise, Indians sound their horns every few seconds as a matter of pride and courtesy and the cows which can be sitting in the middle of the dual carriageway or at the exit you need at the roundabout add enormously to the motoring experience. There is no right of way here and both pedestrians and the feral dogs seemed to have learned to keep on walking and in theory they will be safe.
Early next morning we took a “Tchuk Tchuk” one of the hundreds of cheap, small three wheeled taxis that whiz around this city like bees in a hive, to the Swamainarayan Temple. Orange robed monks watched us dismount as did the monkeys sitting above the vegetable stalls with one eye on us and the other on any unguarded pieces of fruit. Here each morning at 8 a.m. for 360 days of the year a two hour walking tour sets off taking you through the labyrinth of the old city.
I would strongly recommend you taking this walk as it peels back the layers of time and culture. Women ironing with huge irons, you last saw in museums in Britain stop every now and then to top them up with hot embers from fires outside private temples in ancient courtyards. Jain nuns in their white robes carrying all their possessions in a muslin bag on a stick slung over their shoulders argue with cows blocking the narrow streets are just one of the memories you will take back with you.
The tour winds it way past the spice stalls, with the mutilcoured piles rising from aluminium bowls like some mini mountain range and finishes at about 10.30 at the Jama Masjid mosque once the largest on the sub continent, which as luck would have it is just the same time as all the market stalls are setting up. Indeed Manek Chowk is an experience for all the senses, connected to the main square the side streets have assorted markets selling cloth, silver, religious paraphernalia, brassware and other everyday objects so necessary to city life.
At night the city still thrives with stalls open and the sparks from spot welders shops arc onto the street as men repair bikes similar to those I went to school on and are probably just as old. Have a look too at the dazzling night market lit by kerosene lamps which stretches down Law Garden road – complete with colourful rugs, intensely embroidered wall hangings, costume jewelry and vendors waiting to haggle.
There is so much to see here especially in architectural terms, from the city’s pairs of shaking minarets to the incredible stepwells, unique medieval water buildings. We visited one in the village of Adalaj, close to the city. Imagine an area half the size of a football pitch quarried down to a depth of some two hundred feet. The well at the bottom converted to a swimming pool and water source with hundreds of intricate carved steps leading down. Built in 1499 by a Muslim king it is intricately carved and is five stories in depth and provided basic water needs for drinking, washing and bathing. How on Earth this has not been awarded World Heritage status is totally beyond me.
There some 120 of these wells scattered around Gujarat which I found to be one of the most wonderful, vibrant places I have ever visited. The people are very friendly, the colours of the women’s saris even amongst the poorest people are simply stunning and it seems everywhere you go you find something breathtaking around the next corner.
WHEN TO GO
November to February is the best time to visit. It is nice and warm (29 degrees even in winter) However do pack a coat or jumper for the early mornings which can be bitterly cold especially if you are on the back of a safari jeep on your way to the parks. This is also the wedding season and it’s great fun watching the ceremonies, quite often you will get invited to join in as we did, Gujaratis are a very sociable people.
WHAT TO AVOID
• Under no circumstance accept a bottle of water where the seal has been broken. Insist on one with the seal intact. It is not unknown for old bottles to be filled with tap water and passed on as mineral water with all the health hazards that can bring.
• Always confirm the price with the taxi or rickshaw driver before you set off. They have a meter as well that you can use. Most are very honest but it’s a good idea to check with your hotel before you go on the suggested charge.
• Never give money to beggars. They are few and far between but if you do a crowd will quickly gather around you demanding the same.
• In local restaurants only eat with your right hand. To eat with the left is considered offensive and polluting.
You are strongly advised to travel to India with a travel agent so that if something does go wrong you have the back up and support for the entire length of your trip.
J N Rao Travel Consultancy Services (+91-79-26402875-77; www.jnraoindia.com) have been organising packages in Gujarat for some considerable time and are specialists in putting together tailor made wildlife, historical and cultural packages to your own specifications. They make all arrangements from International and domestic ticketing & reservations, hotels reservations, transportations and transfers, foreign exchange, travel Insurance and rail bookings.
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