Women in Rasada Dance, Dwarka, India

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Heated in the north by the blistering deserts of Pakistan and Rajasthan, and cooled in the south by the gentle ocean breeze of the Arabian Sea, GUJARAT forms India’s westernmost bulkhead. The diversity of its topography – forested hilly tracts and fertile plains in the east, vast tidal marshland and desert plains in the Rann of Kutch in the west, with a rocky shoreline jutting into its heartland – is challenged only by the multiplicity of its politics and culture. Home to significant populations of Hindus, Jains, Muslims and Christians, as well as tribal and nomadic groups, the state boasts a patchwork of religious shrines and areas steeped in Hindu lore. Gujarat is the homeland of Mahatma Gandhi, who was born in Porbandar and worked for many years in Ahmedabad. Having long lived by his credo of self-dependence, Gujaratis are consistently at or near the top of the chart in terms of India’s economic output, and have also fanned around the world to settle abroad. The region’s prosperity dates as far back as the third millennium BC, when the Harappans started trading shell jewellery and textiles, with the latter Jain-dominated industry remaining an important source of income to the state. India’s most industrialized state, Gujarat also boasts some of the Subcontinent’s biggest oil refineries; thriving cement, chemicals and pharmaceutical manufacturing units; and a lucrative ship-breaking yard at Alang. Kandla is one of west India’s largest ports, while much of the country’s diamond cutting and polishing takes place in Surat, Ahmedabad and Bhavnagar. Rural poverty remains a serious problem, however, and health and education developments have not kept pace with economic growth.

Gandhi’s primary mission – to instigate political change through nonviolent means – has not always been adhered to in Gujarat, and Muslim-Hindu tensions have boiled over to violence on a cyclical basis. In 2002, the state suffered India’s worst communal rioting since Partition, with around two thousand people killed. The fighting came on the heels of the devastating January 2001 earthquake, centred in Kutch. These events added to the woes of a state already beleaguered by severe water shortages and drought.

Nevertheless, Gujarat has plenty to offer those who take time to detour from its more famous northerly neighbour Rajasthan, and it’s free of the hassle tourists often encounter there. The lure of important temple cities, forts and palaces is balanced by the chance to search out unique crafts made in communities whose way of life remains scarcely affected by global trends. Gujarat’s architectural diversity reflects the influences of its many different rulers – Buddhist Mauryans, Hindu rajas and Muslim emperors.

Ahmedabad, state capital until 1970 and the obvious place to begin a tour, harbours the first mosques built in the curious Indo-Islamic style, richly carved temples and step-wells dating from the eleventh century. Just north is the ancient capital of Patan and the Solanki sun temple at Modhera, while south is the Harappan site, Lothal. In the northwest, the largely barren region of Kutch was largely bypassed by Gujarat’s foreign invaders, and consequently preserves a village culture where crafts long forgotten elsewhere are still practised.

The Kathiawar Peninsula, or Saurashtra, is Gujarat’s heartland, scattered with temples, mosques and palaces that bear testimony to centuries of rule by Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. Highlights include superb Jain temples on the hills of Shatrunjaya, near Bhavnagar, and Mount Girnar, close to Junagadh. The temple at Somnath is said to have witnessed the dawn of time, and that at Dwarka is built on the site of Krishna’s ancient capital. At Junagadh, rocks bearing 2000-year-old Ashokan inscriptions stand a stone’s throw from flamboyant mausoleums and Victorian Gothic-style palaces. There’s plenty of scope for spotting wildlife, too, in particular the lions in Gir National Park, blackbucks at Velavadar National Park, and the Indian wild ass in the Little Rann Sanctuary. Separated from the south coast by a thin sliver of the Arabian Sea, the island of Diu, a Union Territory and not officially part of the state, is fringed with beaches, palm groves and whitewashed Portuguese churches.

Brief history

The first known settlers in what is now Gujarat were the Harappans, who arrived from Sindh and Punjab around 2500 BC. Despite their craftsmanship and trade links with Africans, Arabs, Persians and Europeans, the civilization fell into decline in 1900 BC, largely because of severe flooding. From 1500 to 500 BC, little is known about the history of Gujarat but it is popularly believed the Yadavas, Krishna’s clan, held sway over much of the state, with their capital at Dwarka. Gujarat’s political history begins in earnest with the powerful Mauryan empire, established by Chandragupta with its capital at Junagadh and reaching its peak under Ashoka. After his death in 226 BC, Mauryan power dwindled; the last significant ruler was Samprati, Ashoka’s grandson, a Jain who built fabulous temples at tirthas (pilgrimage sites) such as Girnar and Palitana.

During the first millennium AD, control of the region passed between a succession of warring dynasties and nomadic tribes, including the Gurjars, from whom the state eventually derived its name, and the Kathi warriors of Saurashtra. Gujarat eventually came under the sway of the Solanki (or Chalukyan) dynasty in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a golden period in the state’s architectural history as the rulers commissioned splendid Hindu and Jain temples and step-wells. Many of these structures suffered during the raids of Mahmud of Ghazni in 1027, but Muslim rule was not actually established until the Khalji conquest in 1299. Eight years later, Muzaffar Shah’s declaration of independence from Delhi marked the foundation of the Sultanate of Gujarat, which lasted until its conquest by the Mughal emperor Akbar in the sixteenth century. In this period Muslim, Jain and Hindu styles were melded to produce remarkable Indo-Islamic mosques and tombs. Contrary to impressions encouraged by recent sectarian violence, particularly in Ahmedabad, Islam never eclipsed Hinduism or Jainism, and the three have lived side by side for centuries.

In the 1500s, the Portuguese, already settled in Goa, turned their attention to Gujarat. Having captured Daman in 1531, they took Diu four years later, building forts and typically European towns. Fending off Arab and Muslim attacks, the Portuguese governed the ports until they were subsumed into India in the 1960s.

The British East India Company set up its headquarters in Surat in 1613, and soon established their first factory, sowing the seeds of a prospering textile industry. When British sovereignty was established in 1818, governor-generals signed treaties with about two hundred princely and petty states of Saurashtra. Under British rule the introduction of machinery upgraded textile manufacture, which brought substantial wealth to the region but put many manual labourers out of business. Their cause was valiantly fought by Gujarat-born Mahatma Gandhi. After Partition, Gujarat received an influx of Hindus from Sind and witnessed terrible sectarian fighting as Muslims fled to their new homeland.

In 1960, after the Marathi and Gujarati language riots (demonstrators sought the redrawing of state boundaries according to language, as had happened in the south), Bombay state was split and Gujarat created. The Portuguese enclaves were forcibly annexed by the Indian government in 1961. After Independence Gujarat was generally a staunch Congress stronghold, until the fundamentalists of the BJP took control in 1991. The communal violence of 2002 reopened an old chapter of history by pitting Muslim and Hindu neighbours against one another. Nine years on, the communal tensions continue to cast a long shadow, with neighbourhoods often divided along religious lines and Muslims marginalized and discriminated against.

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