Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Gujarat, intimate and eccentric India.

The Sunday TimesFebruary 3, 2008
Richard Green

So far largely untroubled by tourism, Gujarat is India at its intimate and eccentric best

The Maharajah of Wankaner likes chatting with his guests. Tonight, he’s come down from the main palace and is delightedly sharing his whisky and nostalgia for the Raj. Even his guest palace has a gravel drive, an immense garden folly and a wonderful art-deco swimming pool. These days, it’s a heritage hotel, homely in style, with 12 vast rooms; and today, I’m the only visitor.

Gujarat is reminding me of my first trips to India 20 years ago, when everything was so fascinatingly “other”. Rajasthan and Kerala may have become slick and hassley, and, dare I say, almost predictable, but Gujarat – still largely ignored by tourists – is India at its intimate and eccentric best.

I’d started in the mythical-sounding Great Rann of Kutch – actually desert that floods annually, which is home to the most traditional of tribespeople. They build their huts on man-made mounds, but after that their lives get a little less practical. To enhance their beauty and show off family wealth, the women wear stupendous hand-embroidered blouses and startling jewellery: nose rings with the same circumference as coffee mugs, and earrings that weigh up to 2oz apiece.

As I strolled into a remote village, a young mother snatched her crying baby from the courtyard and flashed me a look as though I’d just wetbiked through its paddling pool. The mite was terrified of my outlandish skin colour and scary blue eyes, according to my guide. No tour buses here, then.

The headman, somewhat embarrassed, sheltered me in his circular mud hut. It was bare except for folded bedding and a collection of plates on a wraparound mantelpiece. The plates were status symbols again, for festivals and weddings. He puffed with pride when he saw I’d spotted them, so, out of politeness, I asked how many he had. He was completely taken aback and clearly hadn’t the faintest idea – so I turned to his wife. Before I could speak, she laughed, saying, “Twenty-three.” I didn’t ask who did the washing-up.

The tribal people came through the 2001 earthquake Great Rann relatively unscathed. They live near the epicentre, but their huts buckled relatively harmlessly. To the south, the city of Bhuj fared less well. The quake struck on January 26, 2001, and killed an estimated 15,000. My guide is Vimal Shukla, who was in the city that day. I asked him how it felt.

“Sitting in the car, I was hearing the noise first, then quickly slipped off my shoe,” he said. “I don’t know why I did that now. The ground was moving a lot. It was like standing between two train carriages where the metal floors slide against each other, the train going top speed. Very frightening.”

Stroll by the lake and gaze over the city at sunset, and Bhuj’s skyline is rather beautiful, but walk into the old city and cracks appear – literally. Many buildings were destroyed. The local maharajah’s Prag Mahal (New Palace) survived, although it now sports a lightning-fork-shaped gash across its bell tower, several collapsed roofs and has screes of masonry lapping its walls.

I risked entering anyway. The Durbar Hall was magnificent: hammy as a Hammer horror house, with cobwebs between the stuffed deer’s antlers, chipped plates in the dressers and vast chandeliers, teetering as though about to avalanche their crystal. Two lime-green parrots screeched in through a broken window, as though they had been thrown in, and panicked. So did I.

The quake made it unsafe, but the dust was already decades deep and, like many other properties in Gujarat – even far from the earthquake area – the trickle of tourists is still too small for the hotel developers.

An exception is at the Gir National Park, where there is a luxury tented settlement. It’s run by Camps of India, the company responsible for some of the iconic camps in Rajasthan. The draw is the last 359 wild Asiatic lions on earth. They used to roam free from Greece to the banks of the Ganges, but are now holed up in 100 square miles of Gujarati forest.

I was all set for several hours of expectant whispering, but the sawn-off safari 4WD was far too noisy for that – several body panels were hanging on like loose teeth and the driver seemed overawed by the machine. Over the roar of his comedy clutch, the park ranger and my guide conversed very loudly in Gujarati.

My timing wasn’t great either. I’d arrived just after the monsoon, when the grass is tall and water plentiful, so even if I weren’t on the noisiest safari in the world, my lion-spotting chances were slim. Still, it was a beautiful misty morning.

Suddenly, the teenage ranger flung himself to the floor. He must have seen something. Or perhaps the din wasn’t enough for him and he was reaching for a bag of flutes. But no, he’d just dropped his mobile phone.

Further on, the 4WD drew to another cacophonous halt, like a one-man band in a slow faint. To my astonishment, there was a lioness. She sat, sphinx-like, in a clearing about 100ft away, ears pricked and staring our way.

Asiatic lions are slightly smaller than African ones, and tawnier too, with more modest manes, but this lion thrilled me more than any I’d seen in Africa. I didn’t even know India had wild lions until a few weeks ago.

AFTER BUMPING around the desert and the park, it was refreshing to reach the sea. Gujarat has almost 1,000 miles of coastline, and a newly opened luxury camp at Mandvi has 1½ miles of sand and 750 acres of bush all to itself.

The 10 tents are fitted with air conditioning and plumbed-in bathrooms, and there’s a simple restaurant down by the beach. It’s the only hotel for many miles and there’s nothing to do but swim, relax and watch the dhows glide over the Arabian Sea, right on cue for sunset snaps.

Although not for sunset schnapps – did I mention the state-wide prohibition? Foreigners can get a free alcohol permit, which means you can drink in your room, or you can drive over the border to the former Portuguese microstate of Diu. It’s a laid-back little island with a Goan torpor: palm trees, beaches and whitewashed church facades, only one decent hotel and plenty of bars.

Back to the dhow silhouettes, though – the local shipyard is a few miles from the luxury tents, up a tidal inlet that was once central to the southerly Silk Road, and I went to have a look.

A man with baggy white trousers and impossibly thick forearms was teasing his thick moustache and commandeering the shade. He was Salim, ship’s captain, and a shoo-in as any panto pirate. He showed me inside the skeleton hull, all huge timbers. The 150ft dhow had been damaged by fire off the Somali coast and he was overseeing a team of rebuilders. A new boat takes two to three years to build, and will sail 750-ton cargoes of onions to the Gulf. Salim looked glum as he told me he’d be landlocked for another 18 months, then barked some orders at his men, which perked him up a treat.

It is trade, not tourists, that has made Gujarat rich. Visiting foreigners are just a bonus, and, unlike in more tourist-dependent Rajasthan, there’s little begging or hassle from shopkeepers.

Except at Palitana, that is. At this Jain pilgrimage site, 3,500 steps lead to a complex of hilltop temples – more than 1,000 of them – and 500 coolies swarm around the first step, hoping to carry you to the top in a sedan chair. They are basic models, though – just an old fold-up chair lashed between two bamboo poles, and they are really for the large or the lazy. There were rumours of an impending cable car, but any labour-saving device in India, whether blender or transportation system, doesn’t save your toil but someone else’s, and the Jains don’t have the heart to ruin the coolies’ livelihood.

Back in Wankaner, the evening draws to a close when the ageing maharajah rises to leave.

Stumbling slightly, and suddenly looking older than his 73 years, he shuffles back to his car. The guesthouse staff line up under the portico and stand to a ragtag attention. Then the car pulls away and His Highness fades into the moonlight, emblematic of tourism in Gujarat – teetering between the current heart-warming genuineness and the inevitable succession of a more modern, less eccentric experience.

Richard Green travelled as a guest of Pettitts and British Airways

Getting there: for Bhuj and the Rann of Kutch, Air India (020 8560 9996, www.airindia.com) flies nonstop from Heathrow to the capital of Gujarat, Ahmedabad, from about £500. Or fly to Mumbai and connect to one of Gujarat’s seven domestic airports: Expedia (www.expedia.co.uk) and Opodo (www.opodo.co.uk) have fares from about £550, from Heathrow with British Airways and then Jet Airways onwards. Where to stay: in the Rann of Kutch, the excellent, eco-aware, community-run Hodka (www.hodka.in) has luxury mud-hut-style doubles from £36. The Beach Camp (www.mandvibeach.com) at Mandvi has air-conditioned double tents for £76, half-board.

To stay at the Oasis Guest House in Wankaner costs £60 per night for a double room, full-board. Mention to the staff that you’d like to meet the maharajah, and he’ll probably join you for dinner.

Gir National Park: if travelling independently, an entry permit and a three-hour 4WD safari with a guide costs £20. Sasan Gir town is by the park entrance. The Lion Safari Camp (www.campsofindia.com) has double air-conditioned tents for £75, full-board.

When to go: the best time to visit is from October to March, when daytime temperatures are in the high 20s.

Tour operators: Pettitts (01892 515966, www.pettitts.co.uk) can tailor-make itineraries throughout Gujarat and India. A 15-day tour costs from £2,700pp, visiting Bhuj, Ahmedabad, Gir National Park and Gondal. This includes all flights, B&B accommodation in heritage-style properties, full-board at the national park, and a guide and driver throughout. Or try Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000, www.coxandkings.co.uk) or TransIndus (020 8566 2729, www.transindus.co.uk).


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