Hi 🙂 I hope that you have enjoyed the previous posts of my nine-part series on India’s western state of Gujarat. If you’re visiting me for the first time, here are the links:
In this fifth part of the series, I’m covering Jamnagar the Jewel of Kathiawar, located on the coast of Gulf of Kutch.
Kathiawar (or present day Saurashtra) comprises the south western part of Gujarat. Kathiawar got its name from the warrior tribe of Kathi who migrated to this region many centuries ago. Saurashtra forms the southern portion of the peninsula while the Kutch (or Kachchh) region is to the north. These are the two main regions of Gujarat. In ancient times, modern-day Gujarat had a very flourishing foreign trade with the Middle East and Europe. Greek texts, belonging to first century AD, refer to Saurashtra as Saraostus (or Surastrene). Also known as Kathiawar, this region is endowed with rich history and culture. The Kathiawadi language spoken in the peninsula is a colloquial dialect of Gujarati language.
Read on as I take you to Jamnagar, the oldest city in Saurashtra and my last stop in Saurashtra before I travel north to the internationally famous Kutch region.
Happy reading 🙂
Saturday, 31 January, 2015
It’s around 3:00 pm and Jamnagar is still 1.5 hours away. I’m trying to decide which hotel to stay at in Jamnagar. The owner of The Grand Thaker in Dwarka had recommended a good hotel to me. He had even called up its owner to let me talk to him about room tariffs. I had told him that I would take a look at the place but now I’m thinking otherwise. They have AC rooms only and the room tariff is 1600 rupees, whereas the city-centre hotel that tops my prepared list of good hotels in Jamnagar has a non-AC room at 750 rupees.
The bus has started making halts along the road. The girl seated next to me disembarks. At the next halt, a teenager climbs in. Seeing the vacant window seat, he touches my leg before moving past me into the vacant seat. A minute later, one of the bus staff comes and yells at him to get off the seat and move behind. A woman comes over from behind and settles into the seat.
The bus reaches Jamnagar at 4:30 pm sharp. I had expected a small sleepy town. But no, Jamnagar looks like a metro city. I’m impressed. A few auto rickshaws are parked nearby. “Hotel President” is my immediate response when the nearest driver asks me for the destination. I have chosen to stay at the hotel topping my list. As to the other hotel, it’s not like I had confirmed the booking. I had merely told the manager that I would be coming over to have a look at the place so that’s that.
Hotel President turns out to be a well-located place to stay. The non AC room is at 750 rupees plus taxes while the AC rooms start from 1600 rupees. The room is good. Soon I discover that the hotel owner, Mustak Mepani, is an excellent source of information on the city and a great guide for travellers. His website www.jamnagar.org offers travel information with sightseeing places in and around Jamnagar. And he organizes nature camps and outings too. So I spend some time discussing my travel plans with him.
Keen to share the best of Jamnagar state, Mustak shows me some lovely photos of a pristine beach on Beyt Dwarka, some kilometres away from the jetty. Darn, I missed this! I also missed another interesting place about 5 km from Beyt Dwarka which is again accessible by motorcycle rickshaws only…a Hanuman temple which has images of the deity and his son, Makardwaja.
(Surprised that the celibate monkey-god could have a child, I googled and this is what I found: “According to legend, the celibate Lord Hanuman impregnated a fish with a drop of his perspiration, which conceived and gave birth to a son, Makardhwaja.”)
Tomorrow noon, I’ll be leaving for Bhuj in Kutch. I have set aside the entire morning for a visit to the Marine National Park so I won’t be able to do much of local sightseeing. Even now there is hardly any time left for sightseeing with dusk just 1-2 hours away. If I had only known before that there were interesting places to visit in and around Jamnagar! Mustak tells me that the park’s main attraction, Pirotan Island, is presently closed to tourists for conservation purpose. I’m disappointed. But there is an entry point to the park at Narara, around 55 km from Jamnagar, which has similar marine life and birds. At this place no boating is required. One can walk in the sea and watch the underwater corals…at low tide, of course! Visiting hours depend on tidal behaviour which in turn depends on the moon. Entry is prohibited during high tide. Mustak proves to be of great help to me in providing all the details. He looks up the tidal timings on the internet. Normally it takes around 4-5 hours to see the marine life in the park. Taking into account the road journey of around 1.5 hours if I start for the park early at 6:00 am, I’ll get to spend at least two hours before the high tide comes in at 11: 15 am. The tourist car costs 2200 rupees. I end up spending more than an hour getting all the information for Jamnagar as well as Kutch which Mustak willingly churns out for me while chewing on his ready stock of paan (an ethnic Indian chew usually served at the end of a meal. It’s made of betel leaf filled with a heady mix of areca nut, etc. and sometimes, tobacco. After chewing, it is either spat out or swallowed.) He’s a great fan of paan, which is very popular in Jamnagar…and the whole of Saurashtra, I think.
I need to book a bus ticket to Bhuj and do some shopping. Mustak tells me that there’s a fish market nearby and that I could buy whatever pleases me which the hotel chef would prepare as per my taste. I become immediately enthused about the idea. Some time later, I find myself on the crowded road to the fish market accompanied by one of the hotel desk clerks whom Mustak has told to show me around the place. With no traffic signals around, I find it difficult to dodge the heavy vehicular traffic. The hotel guy crosses over to the other side in no time. On seeing me stranded, he quickly returns to my side. After a few minutes, I manage to cross the road. Phew! The fish market is a very small place with half a dozen shops, and very unlike the ones in Mumbai. The fish on sale doesn’t look fresh and we leave within a few minutes. The hotel guy finds me an autorickshaw to take me to the booking office of Patel Travels before leaving. The office located near a gurudwara is closed so I look for a travel agency and soon find one nearby. There’s a bus leaving for Bhuj at 1:45 pm which suits me fine. The front row seat is available. The bus fare is 300 rupees. Booking done, I take an autorickshaw to Darbargadh Chowk to check out shops selling Bandhani, the traditional tie-dyed fabrics.
Darbargadh was the old royal palace of the Jamnagar kings. It is the city’s most important landmark and the most popular tourist spot. The autorickshaw drops me outside a crowded but colourful market place from where I start my search for Bandhani fabric shops. Walking on, I reach a quiet street where I find a small shop selling Bandhani saris and dress material.
Also known as Bandhej (tying knots in a specific pattern), the art of Bandhani is a highly skilled and time-consuming process which involves dyeing a fabric that has first been folded upon itself a number of times and is tied tightly with a thread at several points, thus producing a variety of patterns (dots, squares, waves and stripes) depending on the manner in which the cloth is tied. The knot is tied to prevent the knotted part from catching colour when the cloth is dyed. It is dyed in several stages using different colours. In the past cloth was dyed in colours extracted from trees and flowers. Today it is dyed by natural as well as artificial colours. The main colours used in Bandhani are red, saffron, yellow, maroon, blue, green, purple and black. No light colours are used and the background is mostly in black or red cloth. When the knots are pulled apart and the fabric is unfolded, it reveals a repeating pattern in a variety of hues. The price of the Bandhani depends not only on the fabric, but also on the number of times it has to be tied and dyed and on the intricacy of the design. An intricate design in a sari would have approximately 75000 dots.
Bandhani is said to have come from the neighbouring state of Rajasthan where the designs and colours are different from the ones seen in Gujarat. In Gujarat, the Kutch region is reputed for the finest quality of Bandhani work while in the Saurashtra region, it is mainly concentrated in Jamnagar and Wadhwan. These internationally well-known traditional tie-dyed fabrics are used for garments as well as bed linen, home furnishings and accessories.
Bandhani material is sold folded and with the knots tied. After selecting a sari and dress material, I hand it over to the salesman who pulls the folds apart for the knots to open. He tells me that it needs to be washed in cold water, and after it gets dry, it has to be ironed. That I have spent 1100 rupees on clothing is one thing, the cumbersome part is having to carry one more bag with me.
By 7:30 pm, I’m at the hotel ready to have dinner in the restaurant. I have already decided on my dinner order some time back: sweet corn chicken soup, grilled Pomfret, and ice cream. Sitting at a window-side table, my eyes fall on the shoe store just opposite the hotel building. Just what I want! Since I’ll be wading through water at the Marine National Park, I’ll need rubber strap sandals. I decide to go there after dinner. With its nice look and nice people, Jamnagar has thrown me a good surprise so I regret not getting to know it better.
Jamnagar (meaning “Town of the Jams (Kings)”) was founded in 1540 AD by Jam Raval, a descendant of the Jadeja ruler of Kutch. It was called Nawanagar and was built around the Ranmal Lake, which has a small palace at its centre. The modern city was developed by one of the all-time greats of cricket and the first Indian to play test cricket, Ranjit Singhji, who was its ruler from 1907 to 1933. During his rule, he implemented European town planning principles under the guidance of Sir Edward Lutyens, the architect of New Delhi. Today Jamnagar is a boom town known as “World’s Oil City” because of the world’s largest oil refinery belonging to Reliance Industries and a smaller one belonging to Essar Oil are located near the city.
Being the industrial hub of Gujarat, the city only attracts tourists interested in exploring the surrounding coastline which is home to India’s first marine national park, unexploited pristine beaches and a wide variety of birdlife. Of the 457.92 sq km Marine Sanctuary extending from Navlakhi to Okha in the Gulf of Kutch, the Marine National Park covers an area of 162.89 sq km. There are 42 islands in total out of which 33 islands are ringed by coral reefs. The rich marine and bird life here is thanks to coral reefs, mangrove forests, sea-grass beds, mudflats, network of creeks and other ecosystems. The best known island is Pirotan. The huge variety of marine life in the park includes corals, sponges, crabs, ray fishes, jelly fish, star fish, sea cucumbers, sea anemones, puffer fish, sea horse, octopus, prawns, sea turtles, lobsters, dolphins, fin-less porpoises, dugong, exotic marine flowering plants, etc. The best time to visit the park is from November to March. Beautiful and serene islands with sandy beaches are an added attraction of the coastline. During winter, the coastal region becomes a bird lovers’ paradise and a favourite haunt of bird photographers. Jamnagar’s numerous water bodies attract a wide variety of migratory birds. The Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary is a unique wet land area with sea water on one side and fresh water on the other. It is the largest bird sanctuary in Gujarat attracting about 300 species of migratory birds each year.
On my way out, when I exit the elevator, I bump into Mustak who offers to give me a tour of the city…on his motorcycle! Thrilled, I immediately drop my plan to shop at the shoe store. It’s a beautiful night for a ride. Mustak drives towards a place with 999 Hindu temples. The temples, including small structures housing an idol, are scattered alongside the road. Not many people know about this place, Mustak confides. He recommends visiting one temple so I climb down for a quick look. It seems to me that he knows each nook and corner of the city. Soon I discover that he’s well-connected and more of an unofficial tourism ambassador of Jamnagar. He says that he knows the present Maharaja (or King) of Jamnagar, Jam Shatrusalyasinhji. But I think that he is closely acquainted with him.
Jamnagar is dotted with several Hindu and Jain temples. I now realize that the place where I had shopped for Bandhani was very close to one of the city’s famous temples, the Mota Ashapura Maa Temple. This temple is dedicated to Goddess Ashapura, the family deity of the Jadeja clan of Rajputs who ruled over this place. There is a Bala Hanuman Temple which is also famous and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for the non-stop holy chanting since 1st August 1964. There are a few 16th -17th century Jain temples built in marble. The area around the Jain temples is called Chandi Bazaar (Silver market) where gold and silver artisans practice their ancestral trade.
It’s an interesting city with vibrant and colourful market places, especially in the central area. As we drive by, Mustak points out ornate, dilapidated buildings displaying the three different styles of architecture left behind by the Solanki kings, the Muslim rulers and the British colonists. In the never-ending line of brightly-lit shops, I happen to see a small footwear shop. I’m looking for the cheapest pair of sandals which I can dispose off after my visit to the marine park. There is a pair of pink Barbie sandals which fit me fine. I get a good bargain at 150 rupees. While I was shopping, Mustak had gone to a nearby store famous for its sweets and savouries. When I return, he presents me with a packet of spicy gathiyas (crunchy and spicy deep fried strands made from chickpea flour dough) to chomp on after hours of walking around in the water at the marine park. So sweet!
With fewer vehicles on the road, the drive gets more enjoyable. We reach the Ranmal Lake in the midst of which stands the beautifully-lit Lakhota Palace, the erstwhile residence of the rulers of Jamnagar. An arched stone bridge with balustrade connects the palace which now houses the city museum with a fine collection of sculptures dating from the 9th to 18th century among other ancient artefacts. Bhujio Kotho, a five-storeyed armoury, stands on the bank of the lake. It partially collapsed in the aftermath of a powerful earthquake that devastated Bhuj in 2001. Till today, it is closed to public. Many of the city buildings were damaged in the earthquake. And so were the royal palaces including the Pratap Vilas Palace built by Jam Ranjitsinhji. Visitors are not allowed here. The present king has three or four palaces in the city which are part of his private property. The road is dark but I’m able to catch a glimpse of two of the palaces thanks to the almost-full moon shining brightly in the sky.
Jamnagar’s unique attractions include a Solarium built by Jam Ranjitsinhji with French expertise. Now rendered obsolete, this slowly revolving tower provided full daylong sunlight for the treatment of skin diseases. It is probably the only one of its kind in the world. Then, there is a Cremation Park, known as the Manekbai Muktidham, built in 1940. The park is artistically designed with statues and murals which represent death as a stage of life and nothing to be afraid of. The city is also home to India’s only Ayurveda University where students learn all about the ancient Indian system of medicine.
It’s been such a great time roaming around the city on a motorcycle and Mustak is wonderful company. Time has passed so quickly. It’s around 10:30 pm. When we return to the hotel, there is a guest waiting for travel advice from Mustak. I’ve immensely enjoyed the tour and feel a bit sorry for Mustak…. Poor guy, I think I disappointed him twice. First time, he had wanted to play with his friend’s German Shepherd out on a walk, and the second time, he had wanted to stop at one of the lakeside juice stalls. I didn’t want the excited dog coming near to me and having a drink at a street stall was a no-no for me so… Still, I did tell him to play with the dog and have a drink at the stall.
Back in my room, I waste no time in getting ready for bed. I have to get up early at 5:00 am so I need to catch up on my sleep.
Sunday, 1 February, 2015
6:00 am. Dressed in knee length tights, I’m ready to leave for the marine park. Fortunately, the tourist car has arrived on time. Since it is early Sunday morning, the roads are empty. Even on the Jamnagar-Dwarka highway there are few vehicles at this hour. We pass by the Reliance Refinery Complex at Motikhavdi but it is a bit dark to take a good look. I’m very excited to visit the marine park so I’m glad that I’ll be reaching there soon. There are no direct buses from Jamnagar to Narara. A few ply till Vadinar, a small coastal town seven kilometres before Narara.
Vadinar is well-known due to the presence of a major refinery belonging to Essar Oil. The offshore oil terminal of the Kandla Port Trust (K. P. T.) is also located in Vadinar. The driver, who looks like a twenty year old lad, tells me that he has taken visiting officials of Essar Oil to its refinery and jetty a couple of times. So he is happy to share with me his knowledge about the oil refineries of Reliance, Essar and Indian Oil.
After reaching Vadinar, the tarred road soon ends and is replaced by a rough track. The driver offers to show me the Essar jetty which is just a few kilometres away. For that we drive along a tarred road, obviously constructed by the company.
The early morning hues obscure the view of the jetty. After a while, we turn back and return to the rough track leading to the marine park.
The park comes under jurisdiction of the Forest Department which has a guest house near the entrance gate. Vehicles are allowed up to this point. The forest office is closed and there is nobody around to make enquiries. The driver has never been to the park before so he has no idea about the place. After walking a short distance, we see a few locals. They turn out to be guides. They ask for 300 rupees to show the marine life. I had read at some online travel forum that the guide fee was 150 rupees, half the rate that these guys are asking. Their excuse is that the park has few visitors so 300 rupees is fair enough to show the marine life. The park is a restricted area and can be visited in the company of a guide only so I agree to the price. The expert among them is an old man with years of experience. I tell the driver to join us so that he too can gain knowledge of the marine life in the park.
We start the very exciting journey towards the shallow intertidal park. A vast plain area greets the eye…
The sea water, which has now receded by five kilometres or so, submerges the entire vast shore of emptiness during high tide.
I gleefully walk in the ankle-deep water. We are the only ones in the park. The water level rises as we walk towards the sea. Wading in the water, I follow the guide as he makes circles in the water with a stick, turning rocks in search of underwater creatures. He shows me some live corals. Wow, here I’m seeing corals without going underwater!
The last time I had seen corals was in the Caribbean Sea of Mexico. Back then, I had taken an underwater trek in the beautiful sea at Xcaret, a famous amusement park in the Riviera Maya. It had been a fantastic experience amidst colourful fishes and sea creatures. And the beautiful colourful corals were like…oh my god!
The water looks beautiful blue from a distance but the algae beneath gives it a green look from near. This spongy creature shrivels up on touch…
The sea looks like a natural aquarium. Through the clear water, I can see a variety of tiny colourful creatures like this tiny red one in the centre bottom of the below photo…
Each time I chanced on one of its kind, it would sense my presence and disappear. I manage to capture it on camera on the 5th or 6th try.
Next, the guide catches a puffer fish and hands it to me for a picture. Locals call this puffy fish dhongi (pretender) because it plays dead when it is caught.
Yours truly holding the puffer fish…
The sly fish plays dead. Even after it’s placed back in water, it doesn’t move.
Algae on rocks and coral…
Video: Marine National Park -1
Yours truly holding a starry creature… Yours Truly… We get to see a few colourful crabs too. Check this one… Sea vegetation… Soon the tide starts coming in. This makes the birds come closer to land. Winters are the best time for bird sighting. A white stork… Video: Marine National Park – 2
Wading in the sea, exploring live corals and marine life, sighting birds…it’s all very exciting! A short while later, the peaceful environment around us is shattered by the arrival of a large group of visitors. Unfortunately, we haven’t been lucky enough to sight the Octopus which is often seen here. But we see a few others like this starry creature…
Wolf crab or hairy crab (or Anil Kapoor crab, as the locals call it)… The new arrivals are accompanied by a few guides and this dog too… Video: Dog wading in water at Marine National Park Yours truly with a sea cucumber in hand… Sea cucumber in water…
The water level has started rising considerably. Check this video of water coming in towards the shore.
We start walking back towards land. It has been a marvellous experience. It is sad that this very fragile ecosystem is exposed to widespread damage and destruction. Industrial growth along the coastline is one of the main reasons.
We reach the large tracts of mangroves near the shore which get submerged during high tide.
Yours Truly in the mangroves…check my pink Barbie slippers!
Mangroves have roots above the ground called aerial roots. These trees maintain the biodiversity of the park and protect soil erosion.
It’s nearing 10:30 am so I return to the car after paying the guide. On the way, a friendly forest guard tells me that I need to pay the park entrance fee inside the office. So I walk inside the now open forest office where the young female forest officer is seated. She welcomes me with a warm smile and asks me where I come from. I have to make cash payment of 350 rupees which includes 250 rupees as entry fee with vehicle and 100 rupees for carrying my camera. Collecting the official receipt for it, I return to the car.
After spending two blissful hours in the park, I feel totally refreshed. When we pass by the Reliance company main gate on the opposite side of the road, I climb out for a quick photo. The company’s gas station and sprawling supermarket is nearby, alongside the road.
The hoarding at the main gate carries a photo of Dhirubhai Ambani, the late founder-chairman of the company, alongside the wordings “World’s Largest Refinery & Petrochemicals Complex”.
Forty-five minutes later, we are at the Ranmal Lake. Not wanting to miss my bus to Bhuj, I take a look at it from far instead of walking along the causeway. Here, motorboats are available for visitors to go around inside the lake. Besides offering scenic views, this lake is an excellent place for bird watching.
On my return to the hotel, I’m eager to share my experience with Mustak but he isn’t around. It is 12 noon now. An hour later, I’ll be leaving for Bhuj so I have an early lunch of sweet corn chicken soup in my room. Some time later, I visit the nearest ATM. After a wonderful morning, one after another three bad incidents spoil my mood.
At the ATM, when it’s my turn to enter, the security guard holds the door slightly open from outside. He says that the AC isn’t working so he’s letting in fresh air for me. Whatever his good intentions, I dislike his lurking behind me and tell him to close the door. I’ve hardly spent half a minute at the machine when I hear a knock on the door. I instantly turn around to see a man making signs for me to hurry up. I’m shocked and stunned. How absolutely rude and disgusting!!! The 40-something fellow, looks like an educated person and still…ughh, such people! My hometown Mumbai is the busiest city in the country where people are always in a hurry to go somewhere. And yet, not once have I ever been told to hurry up at the ATM like this crass chap just did. Seeing my work done, the mannerless creature opens the door and walks in before I’m out. I take in a deep breath. There are two other ATMs just nearby so this wretched being is an ignorant too.
Back at the hotel, when I’m closing the room door before checking out, one of the housekeeping staff asks for the key in a rude manner. I take in a deep breath. The third incident is the limit. A room boy hails an autorickshaw for me, giving the driver the destination. Still the idiotic driver asks me whether I have to go to the airport. There are a few local sights he can show, he says. It is nearly 1:15 pm and I can’t afford to miss my bus which departs at 1:45 pm. I repeat the destination: “Patel Travels, opposite Hotel Bansi and near Gurudwara.” When I ask him if he knows where it is, he says yes. Once again he goes on about showing me a few local sights and I tell him to shut up. I remember, about a year and a half ago, I was travelling by autorickshaw in New Delhi and the driver kept telling me about showing a few local sights on the way, especially a popular shopping area. He was under the impression that I was an NRI (non-resident Indian). I told him twice that I wasn’t interested and not to talk about it. When we were passing by the shopping area he asked me if I wanted to stop which made me lose my temper. I told him to shut up else I would call the nearest policeman. He asked me one final question before remaining silent throughout the journey: “Madam, are you from Mumbai?” Now I’m wonder why this stupid specimen in Jamnagar cannot understand that I’m from Mumbai. We haven’t travelled for five minutes when he stops at a place and tells me the office is closed. Now, that’s not possible! I don’t see any Patel Travels office around or Hotel Bansi, for that matter. “Where is Hotel Bansi” I’m running out of patience with this thick head. “You’re looking for Hotel Bansi?” That’s it! I just explode, blasting the living daylights out of him. The 40-plus man starts crying and pleads that I let him take me to the place opposite Hotel Bansi at a little extra cost. Infuriated, I ignore him. I hail a passing autorickshaw and plonk my baggage and myself in it. Without a word, the driver takes me straight to my destination. Paying him the fare of 30 rupees, I hurry towards the bus company office. My bus has yet to arrive but when I show my booking receipt at the counter, I’m in for a shock. The guy tells me that the booking has been made for yesterday’s bus and there are no vacant seats in today’s bus. WHAT??? Taking a deep breath, I sternly tell the guy to ring up the travel agent who has booked my ticket and sort out the matter immediately. There is no vacant seat in the room so I wait outside the office with the other bus passengers. Within five minutes, I see the travel agent getting off the pillion seat of a bike and sprinting towards the office door with a worried expression on his face. A few minutes later, he comes up to me saying that everything is alright and that my bus will be arriving very soon.
Half an hour later, the Volvo AC bus starts its six-hour journey to Bhuj but my racing heart has still not calmed down. The adjoining front row seat is vacant. I make myself comfortable and munch on a pack of potato chips to while away time. It’s a pity that after such a lovely time in the city, the last hour had to go bad.
Moving on, I can’t wait to reach Bhuj and discover the internationally well-known destination of Kutch. Its popular Rann Utsav (festival of the Rann of Kutch) which attracts numerous domestic as well as international tourists is currently going on so I hope that I can get a nice room at some nice budget hotel.
Right now I can only hope…
Coming next: Gujarat Travelogue – 6: Bhuj & Northwest Kutch