I have just driven into Junagadh from the forests of Gir National Park on the advice of the park’s naturalist. He had insisted that to experience the architecture of Gujarat, few places in the state could rival this bustling town. However, unlike other historical towns such as Udaipur or Jaipur in Rajasthan, few people make plans to specifically visit Junagadh. But as I discovered, there are many reasons to visit the city, whether you’re in the vicinity of Gir or not.
The 15th-century Jammi Mosque and other shrines dedicated to Muslim saints reflect the Uperkot Fort’s Islamic influences. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta
I find Kamlesh nonchalantly popping groundnuts into his mouth at the ornate triple gateway to Uperkot Fort, originally built in 319 B.C. during Chandragupta Maurya’s reign. Kamlesh is all of 15 years, but he claims that he is a guide with years of experience. Out of amusement, but more out of respect for his confidence, I engage his services and ask him to hop into the car and buckle up.
As we drive into the fort he points out the mean-looking iron spikes riveted into the thick wood-and-iron strapped gate. This was meant to protect the fort from ramming elephants of the enemy. Kamlesh smirks at my struggle to manoeuvre my car through the path’s right-angle corners, a strategic design element. In case a marauding army did break through the ramparts, it would have had to slow down here, and the fort’s occupants could then attack the intruders from above with boiling oil and rocks. But it never came to that. The fort was besieged 16 times, but it never fell.
Our first stop inside is a little square where a huge cannon, christened “Neelam”, keeps watch over the city: The mouth and fuse aperture, however, have been welded shut in case visitors get any funny ideas. Kamlesh tells me that the cannon is of Egyptian stock, and was abandoned by a Turkish admiral during a naval battle between the Portuguese and the Ottomans on the Saurashtra coast off Diu in the 16th century. Neelam has been at the fort since 1962.
As we drive on, we arrive at the Buddhist caves within the fort. These were carved out in the 2nd century and pottery and coins excavated here date back to the 4th century. As soon as I descend into the caves, I feel the temperature drop by a few degrees. The meditation cells are designed to be cocoons of tranquil solitude. Kamlesh shows me water lines along the walls that speak of an ancient flood that forced the inhabitants to abandon the caves.
Two legends abide about Adi-Chadi Vav, named after two slave girls. The servants were either sacrificed by the king who commissioned the stepwell to appease the water gods, or came to be associated with it because they would fetch water from it routinely. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta
Uperkot Fort complex has a plethora of monuments that belong to ancient and modern historical periods. The first-century Baba Pyara set of Buddhist caves are carved in the Satavahana style, with walls that are full of Buddhist symbols. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta
The fort also has two magnificent stepwells: the 15th-century Adi-Chadi Vav and Navaghan Kuvo. Adi-Chadi Vav’s passage was designed not only to hide an entire army but to allow them to rapidly launch a surprise attack. The water may be green and slimy now, but it once sustained the population through long sieges (daily 7 a.m.-7 p.m.; entry ₹5 for Indians, ₹100 for foreigners).
The stepwell marks the end of my exploration of the fort and I head towards Mahabat Maqbara, Junagadh’s other famous landmark. In its state of forlorn neglect the tomb reminds me of an old but regal movie star who has retained her beauty long after fading from the limelight.
Mahabat Maqbara is Junagadh’s oldest Mughal monument, commissioned by Mahabat Khanji of the Babi dynasty, established in 1748. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta
Built during the 19th century when fusing architectural and aesthetic styles was in vogue, the complex draws on Islamic, Gothic, and European styles, evident from its domes, columns, and delicate carvings. The most striking features of the tomb are the elegant spiral staircases that appear to be wrapped around the minarets. Looking at the extravagant mausoleum and the adjoining Jammi Mosque, I recall a chapter from Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre’s book, Freedom at Midnight. According to the authors, Mohammad Mahabat Khanji III, who reigned from 1911 to 1947, was so fond of his 800 dogs that he organised a grand ceremony to celebrate his favourite Roshana’s “marriage” to Bobby, a handsome golden retriever, in 1922. Fifty thousand people were invited, including Lord Irwin, then viceroy of India, who politely declined the invitation. But 49,999 guests attended, and a princely sum of ₹22,000 was spent on the charade (daily; entry free).
From Mahabat Maqbara I take the road leading to Girnar Hill to arrive at Ashoka’s Rock Edict. As our history books have taught us, Emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism after witnessing the bloody battle of Kalinga. His 14 edicts, based on the teachings of the Buddha, are inscribed on several rocks and boulders scattered around the Indian subcontinent. One of them is at Girnar Hill, on a granite boulder enclosed in a mansion. The walls of the mansion have Gujarati, Hindi, and English translations of the Pali inscriptions. I put my palm on the rock, and feel an immediate connection with the past. I wonder how these writings must have influenced other heroes, other makers of history (daily 8 a.m.–6 p.m.; entry ₹5 for Indians, ₹100 for foreigners. The area is partly under renovation).
If you are high on piety and strong of thigh, then the 10,000 steps to the summit of Girnar Hill will not deter you. The shrine-topped hill, which includes the 12th-century Temple of Neminath, is revered by the Jain community.
The Lotus Hotel has the advantage of a good location. It is close to the railway station, and the city’s business and tourist areas (Station Road; 0285-2658500; www thelotushotel.com; doubles from ₹2,200).
Hotel Indralok provides easy access to Girnar Hills and is popular with pilgrims (Station Road, near Majewadi Gate; 0285-2658511; www.hotelindralok.com; doubles from ₹1,900).
Hotel Harmony can arrange sightseeing tours on request (Prisam Complex, S.T. Road; 0285-2634254; www.harmonyhotel.in; doubles from ₹1,500).
Leo Resorts is close to Girnar Hills. The hotel’s facilities include a gymnasium and swimming pool (Taleti Road; 0285-2652844; leoresorts.com; doubles from ₹4,000).
Appeared in the August 2014 issue as “In an Antique Land”. Updated in October 2016.
Junagadh city is the headquarters of the eponymous district in southwestern Gujarat’s Saurashtra region. It is 800 km/14 hrs northwest of Mumbai and 316 km/7 hrs southwest of Ahmedabad.
Air One of the closest airports is at Jamnagar, which is 143 km/3 hrs north of Junagadh. Air India has a daily flight from Mumbai to Jamnagar.
Rail The Saurashtra Mail train runs daily between Mumbai Central and Jetalsar Junction, which is 30 minutes away from Junagadh. The journey takes around 17 hours. Ahmedabad (7.5 hrs away by train) and Rajkot (2.5 hrs away by train) are better connected with other Indian cities.
Road Sleeper buses ply between Mumbai and Junagadh. The journey takes about 17 hours, and the fare is approximately ₹1,000. There are frequent buses connecting Junagadh with Ahmedabad (7 hrs) and Rajkot (3 hrs).
Local buses connect most of Junagadh, except the old city area. Autorickshaws can take you to most tourist spots.
Junagadh has a mild winter from Nov-Feb, when daytime temperatures are around the late twenties, and can drop to 13°C at night. Between March and June, the weather is dry and the mercury rests around an uncomfortable 35°C. The monsoon hits town in July and continues into October.
Rishad Saam Mehta
is a travel writer and photographer. He is the author of two books, the latest being "Fast Cars and Fidgety Feet" (Tranquebar, 2016).
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