Lying in the south west of Gujarat, Saurashtra or Kathiawar region has many interesting locations that are yet not popular on the tourist radar, from the erstwhile princely state of Junagadh to the many places associated with Mahatma Gandhi in Rajkot. The city of Rajkot in fact is a key location in the Gandhi circuit. The most famous landmark in Rajkot is undoubtedly the Alfred High School, also known as Mohandas Gandhi High School. Founded in 1853 this was the first English medium school in the region. The building was constructed by the Nawab of Junagadh in memory of Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh. This was where Mahatma Gandhi completed his primary education. The school is a repository of many unique memorabilias associated with its most famous pupil. Mahatma Gandhi House or Karba Gandhi No Delo is where he lived as a youngster. This place also has an interesting collection of objects associated with the Father of the Nation. Yet another education institution of historic significance in Rajkot is the Rajkumar College. The college was established in 1868 as an education institution for the sons and relatives of erstwhile royalty and noblemen. The list of alumni include illustrious names like legendary test cricketer Ranjitsinhji (Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar) and his nephew Duleepsinhji who played for England.
Pride of Kathiawar
About 14 km from Rajkot is a grand heritage hotel that is located on the top of a hill and reflects in its true sense the glorious past of Kathiawar. Khirasara Palace is today an exclusive property that attracts discerning clientele from India and overseas. It boasts of a history that dates back to more than four centuries. The palace that was in ruins underwent painstaking restoration for almost 15 years before it was opened as a high-end heritage property. The property has 22 suites in different categories – from the luxurious Sur Niwas royal suite to the opulent Maharani Suite. The four F&B options are very popular not only with the guests but the local people too. These include Wind N Waves (24 hours coffee shop), Sheesh Mahal (the multicuisine restaurant), Deep Mahal (an exotic candle-lit dining area) and Jal Vihaar (the pool view cafe). The staff at the restaurants and hotel ensure that you get a true slice of warm traditional hospitality.
A few hours from Khirasara is another destination that has a varied historical legacy. Nestled at the foot of Mount Girnar, the city of Junagadh has a history that dates back to two and a half millennia. The mountain is holy to both Hindus and Jains, and a trek up the 9999 steps is considered auspicious by pilgrims. On Shivratri, pilgrims take a 36 km parikrama of the hills. The major landmarks in Junagadh include fascinating remnants from Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. The Uperkot Fort, Buddhist caves, Ashoka’s rock eddicts, Mahabat Maqbara, Durbar Hall Museum, are to name a few tourist highlights.
Mahabat Maqbara Palace, also called the Mausoleum of Bahaduddinbhai Hasainbhai is a palace-mausoleum which is probably the city’s most famous landmark. It is a masterpiece that epitomises Indo-Islamic architecture with evident Gothic influences. The imposing Uperkot Fort was built by Chandragupta Maurya. It was besieged innumerable times through the centuries. The city has in fact derived its name from the fort (Juna – old and Gadh – fort). The Bhutto family traces its roots to this small town. During India’s Independence, the Dewan of Junagadh was Shah Nawaz Bhutto, the father of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
Tryst with Asiatic lion
Gir National Park is less than two hours away from Junagadh at a distance of almost 65 km. The national park covers an area of about 1412 square km. The Gir forests are the only natural habitat of the Asiatic lion. While the current lion population is reported to be 411, the national park is also home to a wide range of animals – from spotted deer to the black buck to the langur monkey. Hundreds of species of birds and reptiles have also made Gir their home. The topography of the area is rugged – ravines, plateaus and rocky hills. Permits are required to enter the core area of the national park. These permits can be obtained from Sinh Sadan Orientation Centre.
There are many human settlements in the sanctuary. The lion is known to be tolerant of human settlements. Gir, in fact, is the home of the Maldhari community of cattle herders who have a symbiotic relationship with the lion. The Siddhis are the other Gir community who evoke a lot of interest from people because of their distinctive African features. They were brought by the Nawabs of Junagadh from Africa as the elite personal force and also for managing the lions. Today their descendents can be found in the area. For any tourist staying at any of the properties in Gir, a traditional dance performance by Siddhi youngsters in the evening is a must to get the real feel of a night in a forest.
Anybody visiting Gir also takes a short trip to the famed Somnath Temple. One of the 12 Jyotirlingas of Lord Shiva, the temple in its present form remains a unique architectural heritage on the seashore. The best time to visit the temple is during the ‘aarti’ which is done three times every day. The temple complex has stringent security with restrictions regarding carrying mobile phone, leather items like purse, belt, etc. It is advisable to hire a tuk-tuk to explore the many secondary temples in Somnath – Gita mandir and Laxminarayan mandir, Shree Parshuram Temple, Triveni Sangam Snanghat (holy confluence of three rivers – Hiran, Kapila and Saraswati) and others. The most important sacred site near Somnath on the way to Veraval is Balka Tirtha, this is where Lord Krishna was mistakenly shot by an arrow. The temple is called Mahaprabhuji’s Bethak.