The western Indian state of Gujarat, to the west of Mumbai abutting the border with Pakistan, is one of the least-traveled regions of India. Its northern neighbor Rajasthan, on the other hand, is one of the hottest tourist areas in the world.
Gujarat's major cities are Ahmadabad, Vadodara, Surat and Rajkot. The rest of the state is principally rural, although some of the "smaller" towns can have a population in excess of half a million.
The towns and villages are mazes of narrow streets lined with tiny shops. It seems nothing is ever discarded: Tires, inner tubes and every bit of metal is recycled.
Ahmadabad, the major city of Gujarat, has a population of nearly 5 million and is a bustling metropolis straddling the banks of the Sabarmati River.
Mahatma Gandhi, born in the coastal town of Porbander, lived in Ahmadabad for many years during the struggle for Indian independence. Tourists can visit the peaceful ashram he used as his base (he led the famous Salt March from there in 1930).
There are two outstanding museums in Ahmadabad. The Calico Museum is a collection of old and modern Indian textiles. It's open only in the mornings, so visitors should be there at 10 a.m. The City Museum, housed in a stark building designed by Le Corbusier, covers Ahmadabad's history. Entrance to both museums is free.
The temple tour
Gujarat has some of the most amazing temples in India.
At Palitana near Bhavnagar, south of Ahmadabad, lies one of holiest sites of the Jain religion. On top of a hill dominating the surrounding countryside is Shatrunjaya, a collection of nearly 1,000 temples. It is reached by climbing 3,473 steps for more than 2,000 feet.
Another imposing temple is at Somnath on the south coast. It has had many incarnations, the latest dating from 1950. The site is on a cliff above the sea.
Perhaps the most imposing single temple is the Sun Temple at Modhera, north of Ahmadabad. Built in 1027, it is similar to the famous Sun Temple at Konark in Orissa state and is intricately carved on both the outside and inside.
At nearby Patan is a wonderfully intricate baoli, or step well, and the town is known for the dazzling patoli silk saris, although the number of craftsmen who do this tie-dye process is rapidly diminishing.
North of Somnath, the Sasan Gir Wildlife Sanctuary is famous as the last place where Asiatic lions can be found; just over 300 remain.
On our first morning safari in the sanctuary, we were lucky to hear a great roar. Two male lions strolled along a dusty road, stopping occasionally to strut, pose and spray their scent before ambling off into the undergrowth.
We stayed at the Lion Safari Camp on the outside of the sanctuary, in comfortable tented accommodations beside a river, from which the safaris left early each morning and in the late afternoon.
One of the highlights of Gujarat is its food. With its agricultural base, the state is a vegetarian's paradise. Local markets are full of fresh produce, and the displays of spices and herbs are mouthwatering.
A Gujarati thali, a selection of five or six different vegetarian dishes plus breads and pickles, allows you to sample a variety of tasty dishes.
Delights of Diu
The Portuguese established many trading posts throughout India when the spice route was being opened up in the 16th century. The best known to modern-day travelers is Goa; lesser-known is Diu, a small island off the south coast of Gujarat that was established by Nino da Cunha in 1535. It remained in Portuguese control until ceded to India in 1961.
The eastern end of the 6-mile-long island is dominated by a fort, the first building constructed on the island, surrounded by moats and thick ramparts, bastions, cannons and the remains of churches.
The Diu town area has a distinctly Portuguese feel, with some attractive, brightly painted houses. St. Paul's Church is the main functioning Catholic church on the island, while another church, St. Thomas, now houses the interesting Diu Museum.
There is a long sweep of protected beach at Nagoa, on the western end of the island, and this is popular with tourists as a place to relax while touring Gujarat.
The Radhika Beach Resort is a good choice there, offering comfortable rooms, a pool, a pleasant garden and an excellent restaurant.
Some U.S. and Indian tour operators include Gujarat in their brochures.
Delhi-based Travelmasti offers a raft of standard tours and custom itineraries handling all arrangements for hotels, car and driver. Visit www.travelmasti.com or call (877) 463-4207.
For general information on Gujarat, go to www.incredibleindia.org.