Friday, February 4, 2011

Girnar and Junagadh

I get up to the 530 alarm at my room in Sasan. I put a 530 alarm with the intention of catching the 6 am bus to Junagadh from where I would go to Girnar hills. But after the alarm, I would then continue sleeping for another hour after which I manage to be on time for a 7am bus to Jungadh. I manage a small nap between the one and a half hour ride before I reach Junagadh. There I get off the bus and catch a share auto to Girnar hills for a fare of Rs. 10.

The auto leaves me at the foot of the hills. As I make my way to the hills, there are shops on both ends which sell tapes, cds, pictures of deities and other things that you would find in shops near temples. Apart from that, they were also renting lathis or sticks which one could use to climb the hill. Even though no one as young as me was holding one, I thought I’d go for one. I thought I would need one in due course of time as I had a slightly heavy bag to carry too. The stick costed me Rs. 20 out of which Rs. 10 was refundable once i returned the stick.

As I enter the hill, it’s a series of steps in front of me. I thought the steps would be for some distance after which the real hill would start. But later on it turned out to be steps all the way to the top. So I went sprinting up the huge steps with all my might. After around 500 steps, I took my first break, had a lemonade and then moved up. After I reached 800 steps, it was time for the next break.

One good thing about the hill is that after every few steps, there’s a lemonade/cold drink/mineral water shops. The bad thing however is that they sell Bistar and Blisteri brands of mineral water. I get a cold drink at my 800 step break and ask the lady at the shop how many steps were left. She asked me where I wanted to go and I replied that i had no clue, which really was the fact. So she enlightened me that there was a jain temple after 4500 steps, an Ambadevi temple at 5000 steps and at the top, a Shiv temple which was a whopping 9990 steps!

800 steps and I already was exhausted. I thought of calling off the plan. I thought I’d return down and go back to Ahmedabad or plan anything else to do. But something made me go for at least the Jain temple. Let’s say shame. Later I decided to move slower and take fewer breaks in between. But as per my plan, I moved slower but against the plan, I again took a lot of breaks in between. After around 2500 steps, I take a long break and nearly doze off when a man comes and wakes me up for no reason. He said chalo so I thought I’d get started again.

As we climbed the stairs he asked me where I’d come from. On saying Ahmedabad, he replied saying Nagpur, Maharashtra as though I couldn’t even take my wildest guess at where Nagpur was. He asked me where I was headed. I said, I guess the Jain temple. He said ‘Now that we’ve come here, we must go all the way to the top’. ‘We’ll do it together’. So We continued climbing the stairs.

After a few steps, an old white couple was climbing down. He stops them and asks ‘aapke desh me aisa hai?’. No points to guess who had to translate it. They replied no, they had the Eiffel tower but it couldn’t be compared to this. ‘Vous avez francaise?’ I said to which they were really happy. They said they hardly got to hear any French in India to which I replied Nous ne parlons pas francaise a l’inde, we don’t speak French in India. Mr. Nagpur interrupted by saying there’s some temple in Maharashtra. Now I had no idea how I would translate that. So I explain that he’s come from Maharashtra, a state south to this state of Gujarat and he’s saying about so and so temple which he says is a must visit. Just as i completed the translation, I could see Mr. Nagpur gathering his thoughts and itching to ask his next question. I hurriedly look at the couple and say ok then... bye, au revoir. The reply au revoir with a smile and I get moving along with the Nagpur baggage.

A few steps later, I take a picture of the cliff. Just as i do that, Mr. Nagpur says ‘arre unka photo lene ka tha’ you should’ve taken their snap. I said there was no necessity for it. So he called out to the couple who were a few hundred steps below ours. ‘Hello Sir’ he called out. I didn’t even look at his face and went sprinting. I have no idea how but the next 1500 steps was a piece of cake. I only stopped on seeing an entrance which looked like the entrance of an ancient house. As we move through the door, we reach a couple of Jain temples. The temples display striking architecture and intrinsic carvings which are a delight to the eyes. Moreover, they’re very peaceful inside; something I’ve always liked about Jain temples. So after a short visit to the Jain temples, I decide to go downhill. Let’s just say I got over the shame.

While moving down, the energy level was not much of a problem as it was to control the speed of descending. There was this urge to keep jumping the steps and roll down all the way to the end. But there was something strange about my knees trembling during the descend. I don’t know if anyone else felt it. So I had to take a few breaks in between. I had planned at doing it with just one break. But I had to take 2-3 more. There was something about the starting 1000 or so stairs. They’re the hardest to climb up or down. Don’t ask me the logic. By the way, I met Mr. Nagpur while descending. He was still going up. He luckily caught someone else to bore.

Once I finished the trek, It was 1 pm. So I take an auto back to the Junagadh railway station. I decide to take the next train/bus to Ahmedabad. I had a ticket for 915 pm but decided to cancel that and go for the next train/bus instead. On my way to the railway station, towards the end, I ask the autowallah about places to visit in Junagadh. He took out a card with some 7 places of interest in it. He said he would show me around the places in 3 hours if I didn’t have to catch a bus or train immediately. So I agreed and decided to take my 915 train.

Just opposite the railway station, is a monument known as the Sardar Patel Gate. The gate with a clock on it looks like the entry into a fort. As we move into the area, he shows me a monument to my side. He said it wasn’t on the itinerary but it’s a beautiful monument. I couldn’t disagree on the fact that it was beautiful. But I couldn’t believe how it couldn’t be on the itinerary. The Mahabat Makbara looked like a decolourised Constantinople.

The Makbara of the sixth Nawab of Junagadh, Mahabat was a specimen of medieval Islamic architecture in India. Besides the Nawab’s Makbara was another equally beautiful Makbara of his Prime Minister or Vazir Bahauddin. The minarets to the Makbara were straight out of a fairy tale. It was as if Rapunzel would out of the blue, let her hair down from one of those things.

I would next be taken to the Sakkarbaug Zoo. As I had just visited the Gir Sanctuary the previous day and I knew I couldn’t expect anything more from the Junagadh zoo as compared to the Delhi Zoo, I just click the picture from outside. The next was a Narsinh Mehtaji ni Choro. I have no idea what that is. The autowallah told me about it but even that didn’t seem to help. Because I thought it was a temple dedicated to the Narsimha avatar of Lord Vishnu. But the idols inside turned to be of some other deity. Nonetheless, I move on with the itinerary.

The next site would be Uparkot Fort. I had to hire a guide for Rs. 100 which is compulsory at the fort. The guide tells me the for was built over 8000 years ago by Maharaja Ugrasen, the maternal grandfather of Lord Krishna. After a grand archway through which we enter the fort, the guide shows me around the place. He shows me a wall besides me with no signs of plastering or joining or bricks or rocks of any kind. He said the entire fort was carved off a hill! Surprisingly the reason to believe him was right in front of us, though a lot more of reasons and evidence was destroyed by the Nawabs who would rule Junagadh and destroy the fort around the 15th-16th century.

The fort covered a distance of 6 kms inside, out of which the guide would show me some 6 places of interest. The first was a pathhar ki khai, a big hole dug in stone. Apparently, those stones were used to build the surrounding fence of the fort. The hole was then filled with water and dangerous animals were reared in them for protection of the fort from any attacker.

The next things shown were two cannons. They were brought from Iran by the Nawabs of Junagadh. The larger one had the Nawab of Ahmedabad, Ahmed Shah engraved on it. The next thing to be shown was the Queen’s palace during Maharaja Ugrasen’s reign, which was later converted to Jumma Masjid. The guide told me that a few pillars inside the palace, which served as a temple mandap were broken and placed on top of the palace to give it the appearance of mosque with minarets. The palace also had a couple of tunnels that led to places 5, 10 and 20 kms away, the 10 km away one being the Jain temple I had earlier visited atop the Girnar hills. One interesting trivia that the guide told me is that from the palace, the Girnar hills resembles the face of a sleeping man. I’ve tilted the picture of the hill so that you could see a man’s face on the hill.

The next to be shown were Buddhist caves. During the Ashokan reign, he built caves in his kingdom all over the country, where people could meditate. The well lit cave was supposed to be very peaceful but thanks to a bunch of school kids who came out of nowhere, there was none of it. They were getting their pictures clicked instead of the caves.

Next was the Adi Kav Well. The 162 stepped well was completely carved out of rock. 81 m long and 41 m deep. The sides of the wall resembled the grand canyon. Many of the withered rocks have now been replaced by new stones. Especially on the staircase. But it makes for a beautiful view. The well had pure drinking water at one point of time. Now, all it had were bottles, plastic bags and pigeon droppings. The 162 step climb took a toll on my already tired legs and I now quickly waited for the fort to finish and soon, it did.

Next, I was shown the Swami Narayan temple, a Gayatri temple and a Damodar Kund, three popular temples in the area. Another important sight shown was an Ashokan Edicts. The boulder kept during the Ashokan era had engraved messages of various teaching of Buddhism. But unfortunately they were in the ‘Brahmi’ script which is not known today. It is believed to be written in the Ujjaini.

After having seen all the ‘places of interest’ in Junagadh, I spend another 3 hours at a cyber cafe to while time while waiting for my 915 train. Anyone who knows me would know that 3 hours on the internet is not much of a task for me. But anyways, I was in no condition to walk or move anywhere. So I get the train right on time and sleep in no time. Thanks to the 4500 steps!

Gir Wildlife Sanctuary

My last week in Gujarat, I plan to set out to the famous Gir Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary, 395 kms from Ahmedabad is the only existing habitat of the Asiatic Lions. On Tuesday night, I catch the 2200 hrs Somnath Express to Junagadh, the nearest railway station. From the station, I would then have to catch a bus. As I reach Junagadh at 5 am, I’m told there’s a train for Sasan Gir at 745. I thought I would take a bus instead, as that would reach pretty late. I’d read that tourists who reach early had a better chance at catching a glimpse of the lion. So I take an auto to the bus terminal. The autowallah tells me that its better to wait at the beginning of the Sasan road, A road that leads to Sasan Gir, as the sanctuary is known better. That ways, I could hop on to any bus going in that direction.

So at 530, I’m standing near a roundabout from where buses turn towards the sanctuary. After a half hour wait, I get on to a bus, catch an hour long nap before I finally reach my destination at twilight. As you enter Sasan Gir, you have to first go to the government’s registration desk where you can hire a jeep to go into the sanctuary. I reach there at 7:07 and I’m late by a few minutes for registration. Now the charges for every group that enters the forest are, Rs. 400 for permission, Rs. 100 for a guide, which is compulsory and Rs. 800 for a jeep. Each Jeep carries up to 6 people. The groups that registered there at 7:00 am were already in multiples of 6. So I had to wait for the next round of registration. With another half hour in my hand before the next registration, I decide to go out and have a tea.

As I have tea, I break into a conversation with the chaiwala, Arif. He tells me that apart from the sanctuary, there’s a small caged area called Devaliya where I could spot a lion for sure. It would be an hour long ride for Rs. 75. Well, fortunately or unfortunately, that day being a Wednesday, it was closed. Apart from the lion reserve, he told me about Jamjir waterfalls at a distance of nearly 50 kms and a village named Jambur with African settlements. He said he would hire an auto to take me to both places for Rs. 700. He gave me his number so I could contact him for any help in going around the place.

As the clock strikes 8, I again head for the registration centre. As I enter, there’s a family of four ready for registration, an elderly couple with a son and daughter. The son who was in charge was nearly my age. So the guides approach him asking them if they could take me along with them as the capacity is 6 and one more person would mean splitting the charge. The son however was snobbish and was giving me and them a cold shoulder. One of the guides calls me to the side and says, it’s better not to go with them. They’ll be a headache.

As he tells me that, two other guides run behind the office. The guide who was talking to me also runs behind them and calls me along. I had no clue so I ran along. The guide later on tells me that they heard a deer’s ‘danger call’. That meant I could probably see a lion before the Safari itself. We run through the backyard of the office, cross a railway track and enter the forest. A forest guard says there was a leopard. But to our dismay, we couldn’t see anything. I felt they might have done it to distract me, but it was fun nonetheless. As we walk back, they show me a brown woodpecker which was hard to spot as it camouflaged itself on the tree trunk. One of the guides had its voice recorded in his mobile phone and tried to call it but nothing worked. But in the stroll, we managed to catch a glimpse of the black naped Indian hare which ran away from us.

The guides are quite a smart lot. Not only do they know a good deal about the forest and all animal names in English, but they also know how to do business. As we walk back towards the registration desk, one guide again tells me about the Jamjir falls and Jambur village. So I find this the best chance to get a bargain. I tell him about Arif, the chaiwala and that he agreed to take me around for Rs. 700. And as expected, he told me he would get me a better deal. He also told me that now that the 8:00 batch was over, I would probably have to go in the 3 PM batch. So I could meanwhile visit the nearby places. On requesting for an earlier ride, he said he would arrange it earlier if possible.

So as we enter the registration office again, there’s a family of three, 2 parents and a school-going girl who were done with their registration. The guides requested them to take me along and the agreed. So I gave them my share of Rs. 1300 which turned out to be Rs. 325 and got on to a jeep. The guide sees a camera in my hands and says, oh this would be another 100 Rs. To which the other guides tell him to ‘manage’. He obliges.

It is said that during the reign of the Nawabs, lions were constantly hunted in the forest. Later on, Lord Curzon requested the Nawab to ban hunting. The Nawab who obliged, later on marked the area as a wildlife sanctuary. Back in the day, the lions were counted and census back then said they were less than 20 in number. Today, there are over 411 of them.

Our jeep enters the sanctuary at 9:00. The park is 1412 sq km of deciduous forest interspersed with semi-evergreen and evergreen flora, acacia, scrub jungle, grasslands and rocky hills. There are 8 tracks that are 40 kms long that run through the forest. Apart from lions, that are the main attraction, the forest is also a natural habitat for leopards, hynas, jackals, langurs, porcupines, Indian hares, Sambhar deers, spotted deers and the Nilgai among many others.

As the jeep enters the sanctuary, we’re welcomed by langurs and peacocks. But having seen them so often in Ahmedabad, they had started to appear normal to me. Nonetheless, it was nice to see them in their natural habitat. A few minutes later, there was a group of spotted deers. As we think of clicking them, a jeep coming our way tells our driver to hurry. The guide tells us that we’ll find deers again. We have to hurry now. In a couple of minutes, there’re a couple of forest guards sitting at a point with stick in their hands. The show us 5 lions! Luck struck early! They were all feasting. The guide at first said it was a buffalo, but after a closer look he said it was a Sambhar deer. Well, if it was one, that was the only one I saw in the entire safari.

It was a great sight to see the 5 lions, 2 males and 3 females sitting royally and feasting on their prey. The guide told us the two lions were brothers. It is observed that two Lions can not be together unless they are brothers. They would fight or go separate ways. Our Jeep slowed down and took us closer to the wild cats. We were told not to make much noise. The lions would’ve seen us coming but they were least bothered. A forest guard also came walking along with the jeep to give us a closer look. Once we all had seen the lions and clicked our share of pictures, we then moved on the trail. We were allotted trail number 7.

The forest was rather dry and according to the guide, remained so throughout the year, except for monsoons. And during the season that lasts from June to October, the sanctuary is closed. So in case you want to visit, the best time is between December to May. The guide told us that later on, in summer the forest would go even dryer. On the ride ahead, we would spot loads of spotting deers. As we move ahead, we later on stop on a small bridge over a stream. From the stream, we would be shown the Indian Robin and the white-chested Indian woodpecker. A few snaps later we would keep going till we catch a sight or crystal clear blue water surrounded by beautiful hills.

We had reached the Kamleshwar Dam. It was a rather large waterbody where Indian Crocodiles, Muggers and many species of birds could be found. As we enter the lake, we catch a glimpse of a family of deers drinking water from the waterbody, which made for a beautiful sight. The jeep then goes till the other end of the waterbody where a watch tower is located. From there, one can have an overview of the entire sanctuary. There was a village we could spot from there. There are some maldhari tribes who live inside the sanctuary. They make a living by tending to their cattle which graze at the forest.

The Kamleshwar Dam was a beautiful sight with misty mountains as a backdrop. The crystal clear water could not be accessed by people and it was quite evident. We caught glimpse of crocodiles (just their eyes and a part of their snout sticking out of water) swimming and birds like the Indian snake bird which is called so, as it has a long neck.

After the hault, our jeep heads back. The jeep enters and exits from different points. So now we head towards the exit. And on our way back, we spot a few more spotted deers. The males have distinct long branched antelopes. One of them had a branch stuck to his head and was struggling to get rid of it. Well, soon we would be on our way out. The four hour ride was a nice rendezvous with the wild. Though we didn’t see many animals apart form the lion and spotted deers, it was a great time. Having spotted 5 lions was still a great feeling. In addition, our forest guide was nice enough to pass on video clips of lions in the recent pass over bluetooth to us.

Once out of the sanctuary, it is now time to head for the Jamjira falls. A forest guide gets me an auto, or rather a 6 seater to take me to the falls. He said that en route, the autowallah would be taking other passengers. I felt it was fine. In fact it helped get rid of the monotony of the bumpy ride. The auto rode through the beautiful Gujarati countryside which was a good mix of dry deciduous forests and green fields. As we moved on, there were quite a lot of negroes along with the local brown fellows. The blacks dressed, talked and behaved just like us.

It was nice to see another race as locals. It’s a rare sight in India. As we move ahead, I would then break into a conversation with a fellow passenger who hails from Rajkot. He was working there at a village 30 kms from Sasan (the area of the sanctuary) at a construction site. As we talked about lions, he took out a picture of him standing besides a lion. He said that the lion had reached the village in search of easy prey and was no harm to humans. He said that if you bother it, it first warns by roaring. If you still don’t listen, you wouldn’t have to listen... to anything, every. One more thing he advised is, not to run away on seeing a lion. If you behave normal, it would remain put. Even though we managed a conversation, there was something strange about the hindi of people in Junagadh district. After a few words, it was hard to follow.

The auto later enters a village named Jamvada. By then all the passengers who had got in mid-way had alighted. The village was a very bumpy ride. On entering the village, the autowallah goes asking directions. He takes me to a dead end where it was there was a dried river. Women were washing clothes in some remaining puddles and there were buffaloes walking over the rocks which were supposed to be a riverbed. I was wondering where a waterfall could come out of the dried rivers. The autowallah then tells me that it was his first time too. I did not know how to react to that. After a 2 hour bumpy ride, he tells me he’s not sure. Anyways, I had no time boundations and nothing to lose. So I go walking along with him in the deserted area. We then move along and finally, a couple of narrow streams merge and fall off the cliff. It was like a waterfall out of nowhere! It was a nice sight in the quaint village. At a distance, there were buffaloes, sheep and goats grazing on whatever the could find.

The waterfalls were barely 30-40 feet high. Just before a stream fell off the cliff, it created a depression which made it like a small bath tub. I leave all my belongings near a rock and go take a leisurely dip in the stream. I had an urge to jump down the falls but then I wasn’t sure of how I’d get back. My inability to swim only made me stick to a dip in the stream. It was a great relief in the heat of the noon. Luckily it was just February. Otherwise the sun would be hotter and the water would’ve dried up.

Once that was done, we headed back to Sasan. The autowallah had told me he would take me to Zambur, the village where negroes had settled down, at the beginning of the ride. So as we ride, suddenly the auto goes inside a lane and stops in front of a dargah. He points to two middle aged black men and says ‘photo kheench lo’, take their pictures. It was an embarrassing moment. So I thought of taking pictures with them, as though I had never seen black people in my life.

I then break into a conversation with one of them. He works as a tourist guide at Sasan and he spoke in very bad Indian-guide English. Even though my questions were in Hindi he replied ‘ We is a Nigeria is a Nawab is a Junagadh is a hardware is a Hyderabad is a Tanzania. We is a tribal dance is a perfrom is a Hotel is a Ahmedabad is a Diu is a ...” Several failed attempts to strike a conversation in Hindi went in vain. They probably only knew Gujarati. So as we leave, I smile and say bye. He smiles back with a smirk, a verbal translation of which, would be “I’m not a show piece, you @#@% tourist”

Now we ride back to Sasan. Soon luck would strike again! I happen to catch a jackal crossing the road. Though I couldn’t manage to catch a snap, I had a good glimpse of it. In half an hour, we’re at Sasan After a hard time with the 4 hour jeep safari and 4 hour boneshaker auto ride, I decide to retire for the day. But just before that I squeeze in a visit to the crocodile farm. It’s a small caged area where crocodiles are reared before they’re left in to the Kamleshwar Dam. There were a couple of small Indian Crocodiles, less than 1 m in length, lazing and lying over one another. I click their pics and head for a guest house where I get a rather decent room for Rs.300 which seemed to be pretty reasonable. Maybe it was easily available as it was a working day and not peak season. I would then take rest for the next few hours.

At around 8, I go for dinner. Though being warned about the pathetic food at Gir, I have a gujarati dal with rice and a ‘tamatar sev’ curry, a local kathiavadi dish made out of tomatoes and namkeen. It was so spicy and oily that it served as a pickle. Once done with dinner, I hit the bed at 830. The next day I had to catch a 6 am bus and climb one of the highest hills in Gujarat.