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Hi 🙂 I hope that you have enjoyed the second part of my nine-part series on India’s western state of Gujarat.

If you are visiting me for the first time, here are the links to the earlier posts:

Gujarat Travelogue -1: Ahmedabad

Gujarat Travelogue – 2: Junagadh

In this third part of the series, I’m covering the ancient temple town of Somnath and the beautiful Diu Island which is part of the Union territory of Daman and Diu.

Happy reading 🙂

Thursday, 29 January, 2015

8:00 am. The hired car for Somnath has already arrived at the hotel.  After a light breakfast, I check out from the hotel and embark on my journey to Somnath. Sasan Gir is 60 km away.

Nine months ago, I had planned to visit Gujarat just to see the Asiatic lions at Gir. Although visiting wildlife sanctuaries is not my thing, I have been to a few of them. My sudden obsession with lions had prompted my interest in Gir, which is the last home of the Asiatic lions. I longed to see them in their original habitat. That trip didn’t take place but this time when I checked the Gir website for online booking of permits for the morning safari, I found that all the available permits for this date had been booked. Morning Safari (6:00am to 9:00am), is considered to be the best to sight lions in the wild besides getting an early morning glimpse of the serene and picturesque surroundings and of course, view the sunrise. My only option was to queue up at 4:30-5:00am at the office counter in Sinh Sadan 30 minutes prior to the start of the safari. Preference is given to those staying at their guest house. Visitors are grouped together so the safari jeep cost is shared equally between them unlike in online booking where a single person has to bear the cost of the entire jeep. I had read that sighting a lion is not assured, many visitors return disappointed. Some pay extra money to the guide to ensure a lion sighting. The disappointed ones visit Gir Interpretation Zone at Devaliya 12 km from Sasan, where they can observe lions and a wide variety of birds and animals in an enclosed forest area, and gain insight into the Gir ecosystem.

Gir is a popular international tourist destination mainly for lion sightings but it also enchants visitors with its rich biological diversity, hills and valleys, rivers and floral bounty. The Wildlife Sanctuary encompasses an area of 1153 sq km while the National Park covers an area of 258 sq km.

The car driver tells me that last night he has seen lions at close quarters outside a friend’s farmhouse, deep in the forest. He shows me the videos and photographs on his smartphone. The first photo takes my breath away… a lioness sitting regally, facing the camera with her eyes glaring right at it! Behind her, two lions are making a meal out of a buffalo covered in blood. She looks so dangerous!  Others photos show all of them feasting on the kill. It looks disgusting. How did this fellow click such close up photos? Wasn’t he scared? Didn’t the lions scare him off? The youngster says no, that they don’t harm anyone unless provoked. Lions are docile creatures. The lioness is more feared, especially when she is with cubs. After seeing the photos and videos, I feel as though I have just been inside the forest with the lions. All of a sudden, my obsession with lions vanishes. It is replaced by deep admiration for the lioness.

In an hour, the car enters the Gir forest…

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It’s a scenic drive through the dry forest. Twenty minutes later we reach Sasan, a small village in the middle of the forest. This is Sinh Sadan, the place from where the safaris begin…

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Safari jeep parked alongside the road…

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Budget accommodations are limited to this main market area. All the high-end hotels and jungle resorts are located farther away from here. But it must be really exciting to stay in a private farmhouse deep in the forest with lions and other wild animals for company. I ask the guy whether the lions enter the village. Yes, they do. They wander around but they don’t harm anyone. The villagers are used to their presence. Wow, life is so strange and beautiful. Perhaps someday I’ll visit Gir again just to say hello to a lioness…

Driving on for half an hour, the forest is soon left behind. Alongside the road, I see piles of dry red chillies for sale. The driver tells me that chillies of this region are very popular with tourists My favourite among chillies is the deep red coloured Kashmiri chilli which is medium-hot but adds awesome colour to food. Still, I climb out to check.

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The seller has three varieties of chillies – Kashmiri, hot and medium-hot local chillies. He has a grinder too so I ask for half a kilo each of ground Kashmiri and hot local chillies, and half a kilo of whole medium-hot local chillies.

Video: Chilli grinding machine

The chilli powder is emptied in a container and then packed in plastic bags.

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Thankfully, I’m able to resist the temptation to buy a few other locally produced spices including turmeric. I wonder whether my first purchase will prove to be cumbersome in the course of my travels over the next eight days.

Around 11:15 am, the car reaches Somnath which is close to Veraval town. I have a few hotels in mind but then I see a few nice-looking buildings located along the road. It is the accommodation facility provided by Shree Somnath Trust, the temple trust. The sprawling guest house complex houses a vegetarian restaurant, a nationalized bank, a travel agency and a few ATMs. I like the place at first sight. The non-A.C. room tariff in the newest building block is 700 rupees which is good enough.

View of the guest house quadrangle… DSC00224

My room is nice but the bathroom is small and not to my liking. The view from the balcony is excellent.

View of the dome of the sacred temple of Somnath from my room balcony…

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View of the Arabian Sea in the far distance…

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The next thing to do is hire a car to Diu. Tomorrow, early in the morning, I’m going to leave for Dwarka. So I have to make an early start for Diu within an hour or so to return back before 10:00 pm. To check out a travel agency would take some time so I ask the driver, who is waiting, if he can take me to Diu. Someone in the hotel tells me that a private car to Diu would probably cost me 1800 rupees. The driver isn’t happy with that amount since the distance between Junagadh and Somnath is almost the same as between Somnath and Diu. I had paid him a two-way fare of 2200 rupees for the one-way drive to Somnath so I have to haggle a bit over the fare for Diu. Later, he agrees.

I return to my room. I need to hurry to the temple to witness the 12:00 noon aarti (prayer ceremony). I’m already longing to see this most sacred of the 12 jyotirlings (essence of Lord Shiva) which are spread across India.

The Somnath temple is the first among the 12 holy shrines which are mentioned in the ancient sacred Hindu scriptures. Located on the shore of the Arabian Sea, it is one of the busiest pilgrimage destinations in Gujarat attracting a large number of devotees every day. The Gujarat Tourism brochure has this to say… “Somnath carries many mysteries with its presence and among the wonders is the place where the idol called Somnath was placed. This idol was in the middle of the temple without anything to support it from below, or suspend it from above. This floating idol in the air became an amazement then.” According to legend, Somnath is as old as Creation, built by none other than Soma, the Moon god. The town is also known as Prabhas Patan. In its past, the temple, famed for its glory and wealth, was ransacked and destroyed seven times by Muslim invaders and rebuilt each time. In 1026 AD, Mahmud of Ghazni having heard of its fabulous treasures raided and carried away camel loads of jewels and gold. The shrine suffered incessant attacks.  But each time the temple was rebuilt with perseverance. In the end, it was demolished by Aurangzeb. In 1783, Queen Ahilyabhai Holkar of Indore built a new temple nearby. After Indian independence, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel brought back the lost glory of this biggest pilgrimage. He got the temple re-constructed despite objections from Nehru and other leaders who felt that it would break the secular fabric of the new-born nation. So thanks to Sardar Patel, the present temple was built on the original site along the coast in 1951.

The temple is just a short walk away from my accommodation so I leave my handbag in the room and carry only my wallet, mobile phone and camera. Cameras and mobile phones are not allowed inside the temple premises. However, free of cost locker facility is available near the entrance. The temple is open from 6:00 am to 9:00 pm while the aarti timings are 7:00 am, 12:00 noon and 7:00 pm.

When I reach the temple complex, I’m pleased to see the surroundings clean and well-maintained. The place is quiet and peaceful. Fruit sellers and other vendors line the path leading down to the beach. I was expecting long queues at the entrance. There are plenty of visitors around, but thankfully, no long queues. Pigeons fly around while I take a few photos.

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I walk over to the locker room and hand over my camera and mobile phone. A token is given to me, which I safely put in one of the pockets of my cargo pants. Next, I go to the shoe stand and hand over my shoes. Being a sacred Hindu temple, tight security measures are taken in the wake of terror threats from Islamic militant groups.

There are many visitors around but there is no rush or queue so I pass the security check soon to enter the temple precincts. I’m immediately bowled over by the beauty of the place. It is enchanting! The tranquil blue waters of Arabian Sea form a fabulous backdrop to the lovely exteriors of the temple and the impressive sprawling lawns. Inside the temple, the 12:00 noon aarti is on. The interiors are simple but the faith and devotion of the devotees inside is worth observing. Amid the bobbing heads and shoulders of the crowd, I struggle to catch a view of the simple but beautiful inner sanctum.  And when I finally get a closer look at it, I take my time admiring the Shiva linga adorned with sandal paste and colourful flowers. There is no place to sit down for a while so I step outside. Somewhere around, I discover an amazing bit of information. An inscription states that there is no land in straight-line between the point where the temple is situated and the South Pole – Antarctica. The next 15-20 minutes quickly pass by looking around the place and admiring the sea view. I find out that every night, between 8:00pm to 9:00pm, there is a sound and light show at the temple. Shucks!  If only I had known about this before! I won’t be able to return from Diu before 9:00 pm so I’m going to miss the show. Well, at least I will be able to enjoy a bit of the night illumination from my room balcony.

This old temple built by Queen Ahilyabhai Holkar of Indore in 1783 is just close by to the main temple…

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When I return to my room it is around 1:00 pm. I feel hunger pangs but lunch would take up some time. Besides, I have a few packs of potato chips with me to munch on the way. I’m already thinking about a sumptuous seafood dinner with drinks waiting for me at some nice restaurant in Diu. Half an hour later, I’m on my way to Diu, which is 90 km away. A historically important island, Diu had been under Portuguese occupation since the late 1530s before it became a Union territory of India in 1961. It is a two hour long drive but a punctured tyre delays the journey by 40 minutes. I realize that I have erred in not checking out the travel agency in the guest house complex. The driver is beginning to get on my nerves and to make things worse he doesn’t even know the way to the sights in Diu!

It is 4:00 pm and the roads look deserted. Unlike Goa, which had also been under Portuguese occupation, Diu is a small island and appears to be sparsely populated. It is one of the most popular sea side attractions on the coastline of alcohol-free Gujarat so during weekends this duty-free territory attracts plenty of alcohol lovers from the state. What impresses me the most is that it is very clean unlike many tourist destinations in India, and the roads are excellent too. After making enquiries, I finally get to see the Diu Fort, which is the island’s main attraction along its south-eastern coast. I don’t see any guide around as I walk towards the entrance. Entry is free.

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A bit about the history of Diu Fort…

The island of Diu was occupied by the Sultan of Gujarat at the time of the Portuguese arrived in India. Realizing the strategic significance of this small island on the western tip of Gujarat, the Portuguese sought to build a fort here to strengthen their flourishing spice trade. However, their attempts to capture Diu failed several times till opportunity knocked on their door in 1535. Facing a strong attack from the Mughal Empire, the Sultan sought Portuguese help which resulted in the signing of a treaty whereby the Portuguese got permission to build a fort in Diu. The existing fortifications were demolished and a formidable fortress fort was constructed in record time. It was constantly strengthened till 1546, by which time the repeated attacks (including a Turkish attack in 1538) from the Gujarat Sultanate had stopped. Finally in 1961, India put an end to Portuguese occupation in Goa, Daman and Diu. There were only 350 Portuguese soldiers garrisoned in the fort at that time.

Surrounded by sea on three sides, this formidable fortress covers an area of 56,700 sq metres. It is circular in shape with 20 feet high and 12 feet thick walls. The brilliance of Portuguese military architecture is seen in the additional security provided by the double moat between the outer and inner walls.

The outer walls of the fort are built along the coastline with the outer moat…

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A 16th century Portuguese cannon rests on the landing pier. In the far distance, the tall tower like structure is the Martyr’s Memorial. It was built in commemoration of the Indian soldiers who laid down their lives to liberate Diu from Portuguese rule in 1961.

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Video: View from Diu Fort landing pier

Just opposite the fortress, in the middle of the sea, stands Panikotha (or Fortim-do-Mar) a former prison.

View of the Panikotha from the landing pier…

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The fortress is defended by seven bastions (named after Catholic saints) with several cannons mounted on them. The St George bastion, the oldest part of the fort, protects the landing pier and the inner gateway.

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After passing the inner moat, this is the inner gateway decorated with Portuguese plaques and sculptures of lions…

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Inside, there is a courtyard to the right of which stand a few buildings. This is the Diu prison. The path to the left leads to the fort precincts. The nearest landmark is the St George bastion. I climb my way up to it and my eyes are greeted by the sight of centuries-old cannons and lovely scenes.

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Video: View from St George bastion at Diu Fort

View of the landing pier and Panikotha from St George bastion…

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As seen from the St George bastion, Martyr’s Memorial and the bridge connecting Diu with Gujarat…

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It is so exhilarating to see antique pieces lying around in the sprawling fort. Well preserved cannons and cannon balls lie scattered around the place. I see a few Portuguese stone inscriptions too. Several abandoned structures are covered in overgrowth. Yet, many others remain intact and well preserved to provide a good look into the defences of the fort. The fort was well-equipped with arms and ammunition, food and water to withstand long sieges. Water cisterns named “cisterns of the kings and queens” collected rain water.

Unfortunately, the memory space in my digital camera gets filled up by the time I reach the Armoury, the place which attracts my maximum interest. So I have to delete a few videos and stick to taking photos only, except for a video of the Armoury.

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Video: Armoury at Diu Fort

A lighthouse stands high at one end of the fortress. It is considered as the highest point of the island.

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View from bastion near the lighthouse…

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The southern wall of the fort commands a magnificent view of the open sea…

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I find this small place very interesting. It is at the southern end of the fort facing the open sea…

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The striking façade…

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View from window inside the room… DSC00277

I think it houses the tomb of a high-ranking Portuguese officer…

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Since Portuguese is a bit similar to Spanish (which I speak), I try to figure out the faintly visible Portuguese inscribed on a stone slab standing in the centre of the small room. It describes the officer who rests here. (All the online articles that I have read on Diu Fort refer to this place as a ruined chapel.)

All this while, I have been blissfully unaware of the passing time. When I finally check it, I realize that an hour has passed. It is 5:00 pm and I still have to visit Naida Caves, Dui Museum and the beach before sunset.

Returning to the car, I tell the driver to start for Naida Caves. The dull fellow doesn’t know its location but seeing that I’m determined to visit it, he drives on with an air of discontent. We pass the 17th century St Paul Church on the way.  The locals give out confusing directions and a few aren’t even aware of the caves so we spend half an hour touring the town in search of it. On the way, I see an impressive-looking white building built on a height with a long flight of steps leading towards the entrance. It looks like a church but the driver tells me that it is a hospital. It was the Church of St. Francis of Assisi built in 1583, the first of the three churches built in Diu, the other two being St Paul Church and St Thomas Church. Now it is a hospital. Similarly St Thomas Church is now a museum displaying antique artifacts made of petrified wood, mostly statues of Catholic saints, from the Portuguese era.The building is currently undergoing restoration and there is not much to see inside.

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Just opposite the museum is this beautiful park with fountains and animal sculptures…

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It is a residential area with lovely, colourful bungalows… DSC00291

Diu is a beautiful laid-back place. Roaming around on a rented bicycle, bike or scooty is the best and most enjoyable way to get to know this small island. We pass a few foreign tourists on bicycles along the narrow, deserted lanes. My search for Naida caves continues. It is disappointing that even the locals have no idea about Naida Caves. Neither did I see any road signs indicating its location. At times like this I wish I had a smartphone with me.

We are now driving along a beautiful seaside road. The promenade is deserted and so is the road. There are road signs to a temple and INS Khukri Memorial but nothing for Naida Caves. That’s when I realize that we are looking for it in a wrong place. It is past 5:30 pm so I decide to proceed to the beach instead. At least I got to see the breathtakingly beautiful sea landscape and the sunset point. Next time, I most definitely have to spend two or more nights in Diu.

Nagoa Beach is the island’s most popular beach among tourists so that is where we are now off to. Driving through the lovely palm-fringed roads of Diu is a refreshing experience and more so when there are hardly any vehicles around.

Being a Thursday I didn’t expect many people on the beach but to my surprise I’m wrong. I guess on weekends it would be quite a crowded place. My attention is drawn up towards the sky where someone is parasailing.

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Besides swimming or just splashing around in the gentle waves, a good variety of activities are available for visitors: parasailing, water skiing, water scooters, banana boats, speed boats and all-terrain vehicles.

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Climbing up the small hill towards the right side of the beach, I get a good view of the sunset.

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The high tide slowly comes in and submerges the rocky stretch alongside the beach leading to this place with a neon-lit “DIU” shining in orange, white and green…

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It is 6:45 pm. The driver tells me that the best restaurant around this place is the one in Radhika Beach Resort which is a few metres away. While waiting in the lounge, I check out the hotel’s tariff card. Single room starts from 4650 rupees plus taxes. It seems to be a very popular hotel on the island with so many guests around, most of them NRIs and foreigners. When dinner service begins at 7:00 pm, I place my order: Grilled Pomfret and Carlsberg Green beer.

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It’s a delicious meal which leaves me happy and content. Around 8:00 pm I’m ready for the return journey to Somnath. The roads are excellent in Diu with hardly any vehicles in sight. But, after Diu, road traffic delays the journey.

At 10:30 pm, I’m back in my room. I haven’t yet made a booking for tomorrow’s morning bus to Dwarka. At the hotel desk, I’m told that private buses start at 8:30 am. After my bad experience in the private bus to Junagadh, I have no desire to travel in air-conditioned buses but public buses are always crowded and make several stops. There is one which leaves at 6.30 am and another at 9.00 am. The first one is too early and the second, too late. On the other hand, private buses stop to show three well-known temples on the way and take around seven hours to reach Dwarka. The travel agency in the complex is still open at this hour but the guy there tells me that just for one seat he cannot make the reservation. He says that I can get the ticket at the stand itself in the morning. So I return to my room hoping that my next day’s 249 km long journey to Dwarka turns out to be a pleasant experience.

Coming next: Gujarat Travelogue – 4: Dwarka  

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