A 4-week trip around Gujarat at Christmas 2012 and the New Year


Pithora Painting


Murals covered the interior of the farmhouse

We took a short drive just to the north of Chhota to find some pithora paintings.

Off a side road we walked to a farmhouse to meet a farmer who paints in the afternoon. Man Singh had painted a mural in the Chhota Udaipur museum and had decorated the interior of his house – a basic mud-floored building – with colourful pictures of trains, galloping horses, guns, birds and animals, processions, and farm activity.

The paintings contain elements drawn from oral history, tribal legends and fantasy; silhouettes of galloping horses, birds and animals, people, village life, hills and landscape.


Man Singh at work on the wall of his barn


He sold us a painting outside for 3,000 rupees; a more colourful one was cheaper but far too large to bring home.



A sacred grove


Travelling east from Chhota we approached the Madhya Pradesh border. Our driver unexpectantly stopped by the side of road.

votive2Getting out of the car we first heard and then looked up to see the shuffling of a large colony (that’s the proper collective noun) of fruit bats stirring themselves up ready for dusk.

Below, among the fig trees were piles of broken pottery, discarded over many years. As well as the usual terracotta horses there were leopards, elephants and other animals.Under one tree was a blue painted stone figure, garlanded with marigolds.

This was a sacred animist place and hugely atmospheric. The area is known for a series of tribal festivals that take place around Holi in March. There were photos in the museum.


The central statue







Palitana6The temples on Palitana Hill are considered the most sacred pilgrimage place by the Jain community. Wikipedia says it’s the world’s largest temple complex. Every devout Jain aspires to climb to the top of the hill at least once in their lifetime.

Palitana9The hill itself is not too daunting. Perhaps 90 minutes to climb. But we only had to make a single circuit. At this time of year, over a period of a month, devout Jains are invited to make 99 circuits – that’s about 3 ascents and descents a day. As we leisurely climbed at 9am the path was packed with people jogging up the steep steps and running down, aiming to get a couple of circuits before the it got too hot.

Most surprising was that the majority of the pilgrims were young women, apparently because this was a pilgrimage most easily achieved before you were married. Some men and women were dressed all in white, carrying no more than the bag of rice and salt they would need at the top, protection from the sun and a garden spray of water perfumed with rose petals. Many of the pilgrims were staying a month in the hostels of Palitana or various monasteries around the base of the hill. No-one is allowed on the hill after dark. Often this is part of a much wider pilgrimage to other temple complexes around Palitana, including ones that are still being built.

There are two parts of the hill separated by a dip. One very sacred and where silk and leather are banned. While a temple complex the obvious old remains were a wall and defensive towers.  Shoes were checked-in and foreigners are directed to an office which dispenses a series of rules.

Temple buildings right and left. There was a purification area before the temple. Purity is of key importance, from the pure white robes of the pilgrims to the little face masks to prevent inpure breath on the idols of the tirthankars. More prestigious temples were built of marble and stone; others of stucco and cement. All seemed covered with carvings of dancing girls. There was a process of constant restoration; the age of the temple becoming irrelevant, though the site dates from the 11th century. Often it was easiest to restore the carvings with cement versions though in many places we could watch the masons at work.

Palitana4Much chanting of the name Adinath, the first Jain enlightened tirthankar, who came here. The central temple was thick with people, trying to touch the sacred incense burner or the lantern, and looking at the idol through a mirror rather than directly. People sat with small trays ritually arranging five small mounds of the rice that they all carried in shimmery, brightly-coloured bags. The top mound was divided into shapes of the sun and moon, and the bottom mounds into a swastika. Separate queues of men and woman waited for blessings at the midday puja.

The temple authorities didn’t seem to have a problem with us climbing up above the domes of the temples and around the fortifications to get a better view of everything. We could climb above the crowds in the central temple and look down at the activity.

Palitana7It got even livelier at the puja. The priest got onto the roof of Adinath’s temple and conducted a ceremony of the replacement of the flag by yellow-clad helpers. A cheer when the flag finally unfurled and the queues were let in for the blessings. Again we could observe this from above, from the balcony under the main dome.

There are two main sects of Jains. In the minority here are the naked Jains. We tracked down the single temple of these Digambara monks, but it was empty save a few of the posters of the beaming naked gurus that we’ve seen pasted up all over Gujarat.



I wasn’t expecting a great deal from Diu. Like Goa, Diu and its companion town Daman are old Portuguese colonies which only become part of India in 1961, when the army invaded. It’s a small island separated by a muddy estuary teaming with cranes, pelicans and flamingoes. Diu immediately feels very different; quiet and immaculate roads, a lack of rubbish or sprawl, brightly-painted and affluent houses, and a surplus of bars. Diu and Daman are the only places in Gujarat where alcohol is legal. (Unless you’re a foreigner. And have a licence. And you drink in the privacy of your hotel room.)


View from the fort towards Diu town

The beaches are nothing like Goa, but Nagoa Beach was a sweeping, sheltered and sandy bay. On Christmas Day it was packed with holidaying families playing and some roving all male groups walking up and down the beach.Drinking is banned on the beach, so there was no obvious breakdown in civilisation, as promised by the guide books. We met one family who had come in (by coach?) on a short break from Nagpur, which is about as far from the sea as you can get in India. Once again we were popular subjects for their family photo albums.

Lots of somewhat scary action sports including para-ascending towed by a speedboat for about £10. They managed to drag one guy through the water and everyone had the indignity of having a group of young kids jump up and grab their legs to ensure they landed. Safety straps were untied and tied at F1 speeds to ensure maximum turnaround.

The fort


St Paul’s Church, Diu

I’ve been to a number of old Portuguese colonial port towns – Galle, Malacca, Kochi, Olinda, Colonia del Sacramento. Diu deserved its place. The town sits behind a vast wall, though much of the area has now returned to pasture and park. Winding, quiet and clean roads, the houses not especially old, several massive whitewashed churches; one now a hospital, another a museum and another a school.

St Paul’s Church was barn-like and full of 17th century baroque carvings. The exterior – blinding in the sunlight – mixes European stucco columns with native figures and symbols.

The fort itself is massive. Built in 1535 it was used by the military for over 400 years and still houses a jail. Over the years it kept both the Sultans of Gujarat and the Mughal emporers out. Still a formidable maze of walls, moats and bastions. A mass of bronze cannons and lots of Indian tourists. We were stopped every few yards to have our photos taken with out-of-town men.

fishmarket4The fish market

The highlight of Diu for me was the fish market at Vanakbara. We tend to visit lots of fish markets on holiday, but this was the best ever! I don’t know if we were lucky – we certainly weren’t early – getting there at about 10am.

It had everything: large piles of fish and shrimps sitting on the concrete dock while fishwives shouted at each other. People walked warily avoiding the pools of water, piles of ice and fish of dubious provenance.

fishmarket5Long-beaked egrets and storks hung around in vast numbers waiting for the chance to pilfer the odd fish. One or two large fish ignored in corners; several mantra ray and a massive sail fish.

And it was so colourful. The background of boats were covered in pennants and painted weather vanes and hung with racks of silver, drying fish. The women – who were doing most of the trading, were dressed in their brightest saris and salwar karmeez. Nets were being mended and ice men were delivering blocks. Trolleys and rickshaws were painted in primary colours, and the boats hauled out of the water for maintenance, glistened with new paint and tar in the bright sun.





We rather flew through Junagadh, a town enroute between Diu and Gondal. It looked like it deserved a bit more time.

Uperkot Fort

At the top of the town is the citadel; a fort, an old mosque, some buddhist caves and a couple of step wells. Uperkot Fort has a complex gate and walls up to 20m high. A signed Turkish cannon from 1531 was dragged here from Diu and sits outside the old Jama Masjid (Friday mosque). The Buddhist caves had a few carvings but no paintings and were disappointing.


Adi Kadi stepwell

The step wells were impressive. The Adi Kadi Vav is the famous one, allegedly names after the two girls sacrificed here to ensure the water was found.

It’s a simple slanting shaft driven 40 meters into the sandstone. You walk down worn step past eroded layers.

But round the corner is a better one that the guide books miss out. The Navghan Kuvo is a vertical shaft around which winds the access steps. Dark and dank and impossible to photograph. 52m deep and possibly 1000 years old.

The fort looks north to the Girner Hills, the highest point in Gujarat and another Jain pilgrimage site; taking three times as long as Palitana to reach the top.

The town

We whisked tantalisingly around the upper town. A proper walk would have been rewarding, but it was pretty hot.

Despite being surrounded by India the Nawab of Junagadh decided to accede to Pakistan at the Partition in 1947. Pressure from India and a referendum (when only 91 out of 201,457 voted for Pakistan) meant the family fled across the border and his property transferred to the State. One of the buildings, his darbar hall is now the dusty museum. The visitors book showed a trickle of foreigners – a handful a week – but it was packed with Indians. The main hall contains a mass collection of European chandeliers, some tribute gifts from the British and some enormous silver-covered furniture. There was a room of paintings, including the viceroy and the government agent, some arms, and some textiles including a pearl and gem carpet and a coat given to him by the British for siding against the mutiny. Best of all, but behind a locked grill was around eight silver palaquins. Probably the best I’ve seen in India; they looked in superb condition.

mausoleum-junagadh1Lower down in the town are more walls and gates, a massive palace (now a school) and an extraordinary building, the Mohabbat Maqbara. A mausoleum of one of the Nawebsmausoleum-junagadh2, it’s a confection of Moslem, Hindu and European styles. Some of the carving could have come straight from a gothic cathedral.

Edicts of Ashoka

The Edicts of Ashoka, a 3rd century BC emporer, can be found carved into several pillars and rocks across India. The version at Junagadh is one of the most important, the first to be rediscovered in the 19th century and is the version that is reproduced outside the National Museum in Delhi. The carvings were cut into a 10m black granite boulder sited on the road between Junagadh and Girner Hill.

The edicts are largely about moral principles; respect for animals, kindness to prisoners, and tolerance and understanding between religions.