Sunday, February 19, 2012

Gujarat day 5 and 6: Gir

28-30 December 2011

Continued from Somnath

Today we will be travelling to Gir, the land of Asiatic lions. It is just 45km from Somnath and we need to reach there by noon. So there is nothing to hurry. We wake up lazily and get ready by 10AM. The taxi had already arrived by that time. Quickly we check out and say good bye to Somnath. The focus shifts from religion to wildlife!! The journey took us an hour and by 11 AM we were at our resort in Sasan Gir!!

The only reason people come to Gir is to see lions and we were no exception. We had just two days to spare and decide to utilize it completely. We will be going on all four safaris. Whether we see lion or not but that is the only way to enjoy Gir forests!!

Some information about Gir
Gir National forest is the only place in the world where you see Asiatic Lions in wild!! And it is also only place where Lions roam freely in India. Forest department allows 3 safaris per day. They are between 6AM – 9AM, 9:30AM – 12:30PM and 3PM – 6PM. The timing varies a little in summer. A limit of 45 Jeeps per safari is imposed by forest department. There are 8 safari routes and each Jeep will be assigned one of them. There is no online booking facility for safari. Permits are given 24 hours before at forest department Office at Sasan Gir. Standing in queue for permits can be tedious and painful as Gir always is overcrowded with tourists. And then the Jeeps need to be hired. The hotels or resorts take care of permits if informed in advance. They charge an extra for their service.

For seeing Lions in captivity, one can go to Gir interpretation zone at Devalia. Lion sighting is guaranteed but it is very similar to Banneraghatta National Park in Bengaluru.

The two safaris were uneventful. In first safari, we just saw few sambar deers and peacocks. The driver and guide seemed to be incompetent for their job. I was outraged when I saw the Jeep driver smoking “beedi” in middle of the safari. Such people should be banished from the forests. The guide seemed to be lost and remained aloof throughout the safari. After safari, I clearly told the resort people that I would not like to see those two people again!!

My wife and daughter decide not to come for morning safari on next day. I shared the Jeep with an American couple. This time we get the best driver and guide. But unfortunately luck was not our side. We saw pug marks of a lion that passed ahead of us a few minutes ago. The best sight of the morning safari was a family of wild boar!!

The first lion sighting
I was bit frustrated by the end of second safari. Lions are less shy compared to tigers but the animal was elusive for me. It took me several years to sight a tiger but then there are many forests still where tigers are found. But to see lion, I have to come back to Gir!!

But things began to turn better in third safari. The first lion sighting was to happen. It was a huge male lion sleeping after a heavy meal!! To our luck it was sleeping very near to the road. The forest department people were not allowing all Jeeps to surround the lion. They made sure that only one vehicle is allowed at a time near the lion. It was surprising to see the lion sleeping unmindful of noises created by humans outside.

The second lion
And we saw the second lion after some time. A tracker informed about a lion sitting on top a hillock. The Jeep takes a detour from the safari route to go near the lion. Again, this lion was least bothered about human presence. What surprised me was that the tracker and guides getting down from the vehicle and walking. This was a common sight in Gir where guides get down from the vehicle to see the lion. Such things do not happen in tiger territory!!

And while coming back we again see the sleeping lion. The lion had now moved very close to the road and was getting ready for another “day”!!

Lions and more lions!!
It was the third day in Gir and also my last safari. The jungle was very silent with only noise coming from the Jeep. A lady in the Jeep asks the driver to stop the vehicle to take photograph of a spotted deer. And I see something yellow creature moving far away. A lion!! Driver also sees it at the same time and immediately pushes the accelerator. It was a male lion walking on the road. We follow it from behind at a respectful distance.

And then a second lion joins it!! I mistake it for a lioness but guide informs be that it was a young male without mane. But by now more Jeeps start coming in. The lions do not like it and drift away.

But still one of them walks on the road and we follow. The two jeeps behind us overtake from both sides and go very near to the lion. The lion shows its anger and comes very near to our vehicle. Seeing lion from an open Jeep at such a close distance was too much. Scolding other drivers for foolishness, our guide asks the driver to reverse the vehicle. The lion gets some space to move in and quickly joins the other one. And then they slip into the forest.

This was the greatest time in my Gujarat trip. I had never expected to have such an experience. The experience during last 5-10 minutes will never be forgotten!!

Few minutes later, we see a leopard hiding behind a bush. But the leopard never came out of the bush.

Last words
Unlike Africa (though I have not seen) where there are grasslands, Gir is a forest and hence lions sighting are not guaranteed. The best time to visit is the summer months when scarcity of water makes the animals to concentrate at few water holes. The park is closed during monsoons.

There are plenty of hotels and resorts in Sasan Gir. One can choose any depending on his budget. Sinh Sadan forest lodge maintained by Government is the best choice and also the most economical one. But booking procedure is complicated.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Gujarat day 4: Somnath

27 December 2011

Continued from Rani Ka Wav, Patan

The night journey on Ahmedabad – Veraval Somnath express was uneventful. The sun was about to rise when train stopped at Veraval station. Being coastal area, we were expecting hot and humid weather. But to our surprise the weather was cold and dry!! The jackets and shawls were pulled out of our bags.

The outside of Veraval station was filled with Autos and taxis. Since the weather was cold we decided to hire a taxi and reach Somnath that was 8 km away.

Trouble at hotel
Most hotels in India have 12PM as check-in time. The timing is suited if you reach early in the morning. But usually there will be few rooms free. Some people also check out early. Hotels tend to give rooms in such cases. We hoped for such a situation in Hotel Sukhsagar where we had booked rooms. But the person at the reception informed us that there were no rooms free and hence we had to wait till noon. With no other option we sat on the sofas put in the reception.

But reception guy had other plans! A family comes in, talks something and gets the key from reception guy!! When I go and ask how others can get rooms while we are waiting, he answers that they had booked from previous day so that they would not wait till 12PM. It was hard to believe as I had heard some words like “We need only for fresh up” and “will leave by 11AM” from the tourist guy. Now, I and my wife decide to be more attentive and make sure it does not repeat again! After some time a family checks out. But the hotel person says that they were staying in “Suite”. Ah!! We thought. This guy has do not want to give us rooms!! Few more tourists come and ask room for “fresh up”. But now under our constant observation he had to tell them that there were no free rooms. This he says with a pain (on having missed some quick money!)

And then 4-5 families check out. As soon as I get up from my seat, hotel guy says that our room is ready!! He could not find any more excuses or he was fed up with us. Whatever it was we got a room!

The hotel itself was quite good and decent. The restaurant also served some good south Indian breakfast.

History of Somnath
We decided to take rest for the first half of the day. It was required as the last 3 days were very hectic for us. After lunch we took an auto to reach the Temple (2 km from hotel). I am not much inclined to visit religious places but Somnath was an exception. It is one of the 12 Jyothirlingas of Shiva but more importantly it is a symbol of National pride where the wrong has been made right and shown that the power of reconstruction is always greater than the power of destruction (the last one is from the words of then President Rajendra Prasad). The Temple was destroyed several times only to be rebuilt again.

  •           The first Temple of Somnath existed from very old age. The Yadava kings of Vallabi replaced the Temple on the same site during 649 CE.

  •           725 CE: Junyad, Arab governor of Sind sent his armies to destroy the Temple. In 815 CE, the Temple was reconstructed by Gurjara Pratihara King Nagabhata II.

  •           1024 CE: The infamous Mahmud Ghazi raided and destroyed the Temple. 50,000 people died while fighting to save Temple. Mahmud Ghazni personally destroyed the decorated Linga and made sure that the pieces were put on the steps of a Mosque in his homeland.
  •           1296 CE: Allauidin Khilji’s army destroyed the Temple again.
  •           1375 CE: Muzaffar Shah I, sultan of Gujarat destroys the Temple again.
  •           1451 CE: Mahmud Bedga, Sultan of Gujarat destroys the Temple again.
  •          1701 CE: Mughal Emperor Aurangazeb destroys the Temple and builds a small Mosque to make sure that it is not reconstructed.

Post Independence
After Junagad was integrated into India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel visits Somnath and takes an oath to rebuild the Temple. This was supported by several people including Mahatma Gandhiji. The objection came from Nehru but with Iron Man like Patel at the helms of the affair, the reconstruction was taken forward. The Mosque built by Aurangazeb was moved several miles away and the Temple was reconstructed. Unfortunately Patel could not live long to see the installation ceremony of the Temple.

Today, Patel’s statue rightfully stands tall in front of the Temple.

The present structure is built with Chalukya style of architecture. Nothing much remains from old structures due to the repeated destructions of the Temple. Sadly, cameras are not allowed inside the Temple and hence could not take any close-up shots.

The unique feature of this Temple is that it stands at the point which is the first land mass from South Pole in that longitude!!

My experience with Jyothirlingas was not always great. I was bothered by crowds and people trying to loot in the name of religion. That seemed to be absent in Somnath or least I did not experience it. There were hardly any people when we entered the Temple which gave us ample time and opportunity to view the Temple. Being just next to sea makes the Temple picturesque.

My daughter was continuously asking us to take her to the beach. She spent a long time in enjoying the waters!! Kids always love water!!!!

The biggest worry while travelling with kids is about health. Always carry medicines. Here my daughter started showing some signs of illness. From experience we knew what it was but unfortunately we had not carried the particular medicine needed to cure it. We had simply not anticipated it. And we could not find any medical shop in Somnath!! When informed the same to Hotel, they promised to arrange the medicine and promptly delivered to us after sometime! That made us forget the bad things we had with receptionist.

Somnath is also the place where Lord Krishna met his end by an arrow hitting his foot. The place is called Bhalka theerth.