Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Gujarat: The ultimate Gujarat experience

Book: Gujarat
Editor: Anjali Desai
Publisher: India Guide
Pages: 416
Price: Rs 649

Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Tuesday, March 22, 2011 at 01:56:17 PM

The concept of independent travel is fairly new to India. We prefer travelling with our parents, friends or relatives. We stay with people we know. We fiercely protect our bags, money and food. And we tend to carry half the contents of our wardrobes and kitchens so that we can feel at home many miles away! For Indians, travelling independently to another region of this vast country is a feat. And finding a guidebook that helps such travel is like retrieving a treasure from a shipwreck.

Luckily, for those who are interested in Gujarat, India Guide has come up with a gem. Editor Anjali Desai and her team of editors, writers, researchers, travellers, photographers and especially skilled map designers collaboratively worked for a year to bring out the second edition of the guide that offers 'the ultimate Gujarat experience'. Described by one reviewer as, "The Lonely Planet on steroids", Gujarat is packed with statistics, legends, anecdotes, pictures, stories and facts that help you maneuver round those roadblocks that keep cropping up when you travel on your own. 

Since you are not expected to read this book from cover to cover, it has been divided into parts for easy reference. The first part is about Gujarat – its history from the time of the Indus Valley Civilisation that flourished around Dholavira in Kachchh (yes, that's the official spelling) and Lothal near Ahmedabad to the formation of the separate state from the erstwhile Bombay State in 1960, its economic growth and industrialisation, its ecology, religions, tribes, dances, arts and crafts. Then there are two special interest pieces, "In the Footsteps of Gandhiji" and "The Birding Trail". Next is a section on the much-celebrated festivals such as Navratri and Diwali and also the little-known village fairs. Then come the six sections that cover Ahmedabad, Southern Gujarat, Eastern Gujarat, Northern Gujarat, Saurashtra and Kachchh. Each section covers in detail the district(s) that fall in that zone and share common culture and/or ecology. The descriptions of each place include its history, the main attractions, other interesting destinations within the district, and non-profit organisations where you can volunteer. Then comes ‘Nuts and Bolts’, the very resourceful section that gives information about the climate, what to pack, transport, visas and documents for foreign travellers, health, money, toilets (including a rather interesting piece on how to use the squat toilet), tourist information, accommodation, shopping, Prohibition and liquor permits, etc. It also stresses on responsible travel. The Resource Guide comes up at the end with chapters on craft, cuisine, language guide, glossary and index.  

Unlike most travel books on India, this book celebrates the colour and rawness of the Indian countryside. While pages have been dedicated to cities such as Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, Rajkot, Jamnagar, Bhuj and Bhavnagar, the guide eggs you on to check out the little-known places such as the Jambudweep Temple in Palitana where you can learn "Jain Mathematics" or Jesawada village in Dahod where you can watch unmarried girls beat boys with sticks at the Gud-Gadheda Festival or the Bahuchara Mata Temple at Becharaji in Mahesana, which has a large following amongst hijras. Legends such as the one that follows are woven in to make the text more interesting to a lay reader.

“Hira Gate is relatively well preserved with painstakingly fine carvings. The gate is associated with the legend of Hiradhar Shilpi, the architect of the Dabhoi Fort, who was madly in love with a beautiful woman named Ten. While constructing the fort, he secretly built Ten Talav (10 km away) for his lover. Accused of misappropriation, he was sentenced to death and buried alive under the arch adorned with a carved elephant.”

While it is indeed a very handy navigation guide, the book has some flaws. The Modhera Sun Temple on the cover pales in comparison to the picture grinning man on the first edition's cover.  And though the editors have done well to introduce cross-referencing e.g. "Mrugi Kund (see Fairs and Festivals)”, the omission of page numbers of the sections that you need to refer to doesn't help you much, especially if you are in a tearing hurry to move on to something else. Also, unlike in the previous edition, the brilliant photographs in this book have not been captioned. And don't be surprised to find dollar signs on the city maps and American spellings all over! This book is targetted mainly at the international audience.

Shortcomings there may be, but they hardly take anything away from the joy of reading Gujarat. The effort that has been put into research, the carefully drawn maps and documentation of the rich and often-conflicting oral histories, is remarkable. As the Government of Gujarat campaigns hard to woo tourists, the state will need more books like this one. The rocky heights of the Sahyadris, the Rann of Kachchh, 5,000 years of civilisation, rich wildlife reserves, exquisite architecture, merchants and craftsmen make Gujarat an explorer's delight and India Guide shows you the way.

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