Saurashtra must be an old name. It does not feature in my map that’s more political than geographical. It is that part of Gujarat below the Gulf of Kutch. With its open mouth it gulps the gulf like a feeding pelican. I hardly expected to cover the coast in a day but that’s how this turned out today.
The problem in arriving too early at a place is same as arriving too late. In both cases it is rather difficult to find accommodation. So when I arrive at six this morning, I look for a suitable room in vain. The only rooms available are the expensive ones left over from last night. Dharamshalas do not give rooms to singles. Hotels make big business at Dwarka from the constant inflow of pilgrims. After all, this is the capital of Lord Krishna’s erstwhile kingdom.
So after unsuccessfully wandering the dark streets for about an hour, I join a group of early pilgrims and head straight to the main temple. The narrow lanes are just starting to shed their darkness in the first light of dawn. Shops are rolling up their shutters. Street vendors are unpacking their wares. At such an early hour, they are yet to impose their selling tactics on the pilgrims. The temple looks mediocre at first. When the sun comes out in all its morning glory, the real beauty of the Dwarkadish Temple stands out.
I dump my backpack, mobile and boots at the counter. I join a long queue. For some reason a guard comes and pushes some of us to a shorter queue for men. Women with their handbags and packets of offerings take longer to clear security. I pass some small shrines. With folded palms I go with the flow of the crowd. Darshan is a quick affair as is expected in such places of popular pilgrimage and belief. I hardly take note the idols enshrined within.
The shikara of the main temple is lofty. It is lean and tall with terraced projections of smaller shikaras on all sides. The mandapa is entered by entrance porches which rise five floors with elaborate sculptures, reliefs, balconies and parapets. At such a height the mandapa is covered by a pyramidal shikara.
Dwarka is not as busy as Puri or not as chaotic. The priests do not appear to be as corrupt either. Queues snake into the mandapa for that glimpse of Krishna. Women stand on the pedestals of pillars to get a glimpse from far. The idol is small and dressed in pink. There is nothing else I remember about darshan. I am more overwhelmed by the entire experience of being here. Families gather in circles and sing bhajans. A women sit down in corners and read slokas. Devotees place their foreheads against pillars and pray with their eyes closed. The vendors outside make steady business.
Down by the river, past herds of stray cows, pilgrims are bathing at the ghats. The filth of the river or the ghats do not deter their beliefs and rituals. I have to concede that the place is cleaner than similar ghats seen elsewhere – Sangam near Srirangapatna, Pathala Ganga at Sri Sailam. Vendors are here too trying to sell flowers and camphors to be floated down the river. A puppy is howling nearby. Someone has just beaten it. Indians are not animal lovers per se. It is only religious injuction that forces them to respect cows. A couple of weeks ago I saw a puppy run over by a bike. It went lame. It is common to see many lame stray dogs and puppies on Indian roads.
I stop at a decent restaurant for breakfast. I order idlis and uttapam. Idlis are alright but the tasteless uttapam is more a pancake than anything else. The sambar helps me to swallow it down. Don’t expect good South Indian food in North India. The only exception is Hotel Truptee in Bhubaneshwar which I still rate as the best restaurant in all my Indian journeys.
A two and a half hour bus ride brings me to Porbandar. I pass a wharf, old fishing boats and the smell of fish. I get off a little before the bus station, walk past a khadi shop and go in search of the house in which Gandhiji was born. I try to imagine what this place would have looked in 1869. Perhaps some of these buildings were here 140 years ago in a different form. Perhaps the street was not as packed as today. But Gandhi would have walked the same road back then. By chance I look up and discover the name of the road – M.G. Road. Almost every major city and town in India has a road by this name but at Porbandar we may say that the name is appropriate and well-deserved.
I enter Manek Chowk, a busy little square with arched gateways on three sides. At its center stands a marble statue of Gandhi garlanded in bright orange flowers which the locals call kadalias. Turning right I enter a lane and within a few paces I reach a white building with pilasters painted in earth red. Pilasters of rounded columns are topped with a lion capital each. The entrance gateway has a serpentine arch with pendants. Reliefs of spinning wheels decorate the twin doors. Little square kiosks continue the upward movement of square pillars. A little shikara, like a mini gopuram, crowns the gateway. This place is like a temple. It is called Kirti Mandir and Gandhi is almost a god.
The entrance is packed with footwear. It is clearly a popular place with tourists. The quadrangle is bright and cheerful. The floor is white marble. To the left is a small door. Above the lintel these words appear<blockquote>BIRTH PLACE OF MAHATMA GANDHIJI</blockquote>
I enter it to find a small enclosure bounded on three sides by a three-storey building. There is an entrance to the right. It leads to a room where to the right is the symbol of a swastika painted on the floor. Above it is a modern oil painting of Gandhi at his spinning wheel. The swastika marks the spot where Gandhi was born. Visitors pay their obeisance to the portrait and the symbol on the floor. Some prostrate. Others kneel and touch. Others utter quiet prayers. I really wonder if these people know the tenets of Gandhian philosophy. Are they truthful? Are they vegetarian? Are they non-violent? Are they satyagrahis in the Gandhian way? Perhaps they are but the only thing I can really conclude is that Indians are good at prayers.
Narrow wooden stairs lead to the upper floors. One room claims the honour of being Gandhi’s study when he was a boy. Gandhi did not live long at Porbandar since he moved to Rajkot in his boyhood. The other interesting thing about the house are wall paintings. Decorative geometric or floral friezes frame windows, niches, doorways or entire walls. A similar building in an alley nearby is Kasturba’s family house. It too is three-storeyed and has wall murals.
‘This is disappointing,’ complained a visitor. ‘There are no photographs of how the buildings were in Gandhi’s time or the work of restoration to its present status.’
In the 1870s no one would have thought of taking a picture of the house. Who would have known that this little boy will one day be the Father of the Nation? There is a plan of the house. In a museum on the first floor across the quadrangle is an exhibition of photographs digitally restored. The snaps are nothing new to me. It is a repetition of those I have seen at Sewagram and Sabarmati. A little more information about the building itself or a guided tour might have been interesting.
With one more item ticked off my list, I stop for lunch – a superb Gujarati thali at the Moon Palace. I ask the cashier at the restaurant about Sudhama Mandir.
‘Porbandar is where Sudhama was born,’ she says.
‘Who is Sudhama? A relative of Gandhi?’ I ask.
‘Sudhama is Krishna’s sister,’ she says with some boredom. It is clear that no one has asked her such silly questions before. She cannot imagine someone as dumb as I am.
I collect my change and walk to the bus station. It’s better to leave Sudhama alone, not with Krishna but with the visiting crowds, while I head to Somnath.
‘Is this going to Somnath?’ I ask the conductor.
‘You can get off at Patan. Somnath is only a kilometer away,’ he says. Doubts play on my mind. Is this the Patan I had visited about a week ago? Is he talking of the same Somnath that I intend to visit? I bring out my map and check. Apparently, there is another Patan in Gujarat and this one is next to Somnath. So this is really my bus.
When I reach Patan it is already dark. I take to a lane and walk past a bazaar. Fresh fruits and vegetables are being sold. Barbers are busy with beards and blades. I reach the temple and nothing prepares me for what I see.
I had expected some sort of a ruin but I find a modern temple building beautifully lit. This is no ruin. It is a place of pilgrimage. Crowds are swarming about the temple. There are queues everywhere – for toilets, for luggage counters, for footwear, for storing mobiles and cameras. I begin to dislike Somnath.
The problem of finding accommodation plays on my mind. I ask around. There are no single rooms and double are costing no less than eight hundred. Hoteliers make good business in this holiday period and singles are not their preferred customers. It is half past seven. With no room yet, and having missed a good sleep on the bus from Mandvi last night, I am thinking what to do next.
‘Is this all at Somnath? I thought there is an old temple here,’ I ask someone.
‘Yes. The old temple is to the left facing the new one,’ he guides me.
I return to the crowds but the old temple is shrouded in darkness. It appears small and any interesting sculptures cannot be appreciated in the dark.
‘That’s it for Somnath,’ I say to myself and leave without even a darshan. I walk back to Patan and take an auto-rickshaw to Veraval. I find a good room here. In many of these places they ask for a photocopy of a photo-ID. I do the needful and go out for dinner. Dinner is greasy and disappointing. I hit the sack not really knowing where I will head out tomorrow.