States: Gujarat, Daman and Diu Union Territory
Distance cycled: 376km / 234mi
Elevation cycled: 1,039m / 3,409ft
Distance hiked (barefoot): 8.8km / 5.5mi
Elevation hiked (barefoot): 490m / 1,608ft
We gave the History Channel a run for its money this week, as we traversed centuries of history along the Gujarati coast. Usually we have to cycle hundreds of kilometres between sights we have pinpointed on the map. But this week, we got lucky. The last 376km has offered up eight-hundred-and-sixty-four temples, a few beaches, a fort, palace, mausoleum – and beer. It’s been epic.
We started the week watching sunrise over Mahabat Maqbara. Some of you may have seen this picture on Instagram already. Don’t worry, I won’t just repeat what we posted. I actually unearthed some juicy gossip which you may not know…
Built in Junagadh in 1892, Mahabat Maqbara is the palace-mausoleum of a chief noble Nawab. A Nawab was an honorific title given to commanders in the Mughal Empire. They would rule districts of the empire, semi-autonomously, for the reigning Mughal Emperor. We’d never heard of the Mughals, which is surprising, as their empire spanned modern day India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, between the early 16th to mid 19th century.
Interestingly, when India got independence from the British in 1947, Junagadh – which had been ruled by the Nawabs – was given the choice of joining India or Pakistan. Although theoretically they were given a free choice, Earl Mountbatten, the Governor-General of India, advised them that with no common border with Pakistan, they should really chose India. Ultimately, however, he couldn’t enforce this and the Muslim Nawab ruler of course chose to join Pakistan, arguing that they could access it by sea. Sadly, the India government did not accept this ruling and after military intervention, it became part of Indian and the Nawabs fled to Pakistan.
Here’s where the gossip comes in. Earl Mountbatten is none other than the uncle of Prince Philip and second cousin once removed of Queen Elizabeth II. Yes. The Queen and her hubby are distantly related. Funny old stuff that royal blood. Told you it was juicy.
There’s also a funny story about how we got the above sunrise shot of the Mausoleum. Instagrammers, sorry again for the repeat… Dan and I arrived at Mahabat Maqbara at 6am, so we could watch the full sunrise. We noticed one other group waiting around in the darkness too. We assumed – never assume – that they were also tourists waiting for a sunrise snap. When golden hour started, however, the little group of tourist-lookalikes turned into a full-on wedding shoot, complete with multiple couples, a drone, hair and makeup, and lighting equipment. There was no chance we were going to get a clear shot now. Although Dan seized an opportunity when he spotted the director fretting over something behind the scenes, leaving the mausoleum free, bar the lovely couple dressed in evening wear. We think they make it though.
The next stop was about 90km down the road: Somnath Temple. There was so much anticipation to see this Hindu temple, as when we told locals that we were heading there, they were so overjoyed. Somnath Temple is the main pilgrimage in Gujarat. It is believed to be the first among the twelve shrines of the god, Shiva. Also, Soma, the moon god, is believed to have lost his lustre due to a curse and bathed here to regain it.
In all honesty, we’ve seen better temples. Maybe it had been hyped up too much? Don’t get us wrong, its sheer size and location is impressive, but the temple itself isn’t so pretty. Since you’re not allowed to take pictures inside Somnath – we had to drop our phones back at the hotel, as they’re not allowed in either – we don’t have any close-ups. We only have the wide shot below. For you curious cats out there, click this image search to see Somnath up close.
After Somnath, we bombed along the coast to Diu Island, where we’d planned to have a day off. Unless you fly, you can only access Diu via a bridge from Gujarat, but Diu’s actually a separate state. That means it doesn’t have the strict prohibition laws that exist in Gujarat. There’s alcohol everywhere – and it’s cheap. But it wasn’t just the £0.80 Kingfisher that lured us to Diu, the tiny 40km² island has a fascinating history and plenty to see and do.
Once upon a time, Diu was strategically important and a major port on the old trade routes. This made it a very attractive asset. In the early 1500s, many countries tried to occupy it, including the Portuguese. Yet all attempts failed. In 1535, however, the Sultan of Gujarat created a defence alliance with the Portuguese against the Mughal Emperor – think back to Mahabat Maqbara – allowing them to construct Fort Diu and maintain a garrison on the island. He later regretted this decision after the alliance unravelled. In an attempt to take back Diu Island, he was kill by the Portuguese. Diu remained in their possession from 1535 until 1961 – 1961. It was taken back by the Indian Military after the Battle of Diu on December 19 1961, which involved overwhelming land, sea and air strikes against the remaining Portuguese in Fort Diu. To be honest, by then, Diu had lost its strategic importance due to the development of Bombay (Mumbai).
Today Diu Island acts as a museum of bygone times. You can still visit the fort the Portuguese built, which is mostly intact. And the three Christian churches they also built, which are bizarre to see after seeing so many Hindu temples and mosques. There are also caves we’d read about, but we didn’t have the time to visit them. Then of course there are beaches. Strangely all the action – i.e. the alcohol – is on the north side of the island, which is the beachless side that faces the mainland. The south side, which faces out to the Arabian Sea and has all the beaches, has no bars or restaurants around it. They’re really missing a trick there… Oh, and all attractions are free: caves, fort, churches, museum, lighthouse. Ideal for budget travellers like us.
The final stop on this week’s sightseeing bonanza was the city of Palitana. Here, nestled atop the nearby Shatrunjaya Hill, are nearly nine-hundred marble-carved Jain temples, making it the most sacred pilgrimage site for Jains. It’s thought to be the world’s largest temple complex.
A quick side note about Jainism: Jains are often confused to be Hindus – guilty – but it’s very different from Hinduism. It’s an ancient religion from India, more akin to Buddhism, as they share many of the same features, terminologies, and ethics principles; they just emphasise them differently. One of the main differences is the development of the ‘non-violence’ Jain vow, in which every Jain now lives a vegetarian lifestyle, so as not to harm any living creature. Since Palitana has a strong Jain presence, it became the world’s first totally vegetarian city in 2014.
We assumed (when will we learned?) the temples were in the city centre. It didn’t click they’d be up a hillside, despite seeing plenty of pictures of them obviously on a hillside. Dan and I got quite the shock when we realised we had to take a rickshaw 4km outside the centre, then climb 3,550 steps to reach the main temples. On top of that, you’re not allowed to wear shoes, so we walked 8.8km barefoot. And you’re not allowed to carry food or water inside. They do provide drinking water and cups along the way, but we didn’t pack our filter, so we didn’t want to risk it. It was a three-hour roundtrip (we probably would have stayed longer had we drank something). By the time we reached the bottom again, all we could think about was glugging an ice cold bottle of water.
It was definitely worth the dehydrating slog though. The Palitana Temples are something to behold. Built over a period of nine-hundred-years, starting in the eleventh-century, they really need to be seen to be believed. Nearly nine-hundred temples in one place is astounding. It was easy to get lost in the sprawling complex, which so often just towered over us. We had planned to visit at sunset – you know how we love a sunrise or sunset shot – but the temples actually close at dusk. Jains believe that no one should be on the sacred hillside at night.
So that concludes our manic week of sightseeing. Dan just pointed out that this week’s blog is rather history-heavy when I read it out to him. So here are a few cycle funnies to end on.
We arrived in a small village exhausted and ready to just close our bedroom door and sleep. Nilesh, a friendly local who had helped us arrange the guest house, invited us for dinner at his home. We rarely get dinner offers, so we probably should have made the effort to go, but we were just too tired. We politely declined his offer, explaining that we’d be getting an early night to be up at 5am.
Around 6pm, we popped out for a quick bite to eat. Somehow Nilesh found us at the restaurant and seemed quite upset that we weren’t going to his house for dinner, even though we had explained several times earlier in the day why. He hung around and watched us eat. It did get a little awkward. When we’d finished, he refused to let us pay for our meals and insisted that we at least meet his baby. So we did. Despite being pressured into the invitation, it was actually very sweet to meet his family. There was about twenty-five of them, including his mother. We stayed about an hour or so, posing for selfies and trying some home cooked food.
For the last ten-days we’ve spotted various sized road signs written in Gujarati with pictures of lions on them. Since we knew there are no wild lions in Gujarat, we thought it was the local government promoting tourism, by partnering with the local nature reserve. Smart idea. More like stupid cyclists… A local in Khambha told us that there was in fact over five-hundred wild lions in the southeast of Gujarat, which are known to attack humans, steal livestock, and prowl around villages at night. Someone else showed us a video he’d taken on his phone of him driving behind three lionesses on the road to his house in Khambha. He also said that one of his buffalo had recently been taken. This leads me onto the last funny.
We had stopped in Khambha as we’d saved a few accommodation options on Google Maps. Two were restaurants again, and one was an apartment block. Over lunch in the town, we got chatting to some locals. They said that there was no accommodation in town and that it was another 32km to the closest lodge. We didn’t have the energy for that. We asked about camping in the village, that’s when they told us about the lions, and said camping was a NO, NO. The guy offered us to sleep in his office, which we gladly accepted. Then another guy, who had disappeared for a wee while, said he had spoken to the local government bod and we could stay in the government guest house. Brilliant.
We weren’t exactly sure what type of government building it was, as there was a stream of about twelve kids that kept running through our room, but it was spot-on for us. Some guys we had met earlier even brought us some chai tea and quizzed us about our trip around Gujarat. As we were saying goodnight, the chief told us to keep the door locked as lions have been known to enter the compound. I felt so sorry for Dan on his midnight wees. His bladder must had sensed danger as he only ended up going for one.
Now the race is on to get out of Gujarat for Dan’s birthday next week, so he can have a birthday beer. We’ll try and catch a short ferry across the Gulf of Khambhat, as it cuts about 300km off our ride out of Gujarat. Although we have just read online that it’s sold out until December 11. We’re hoping to get lucky. If we don’t make it, this will be Dan’s first dry birthday in a long ol’ while.