I recently got back from Gujarat in the northwest of India, a state that receives far fewer visitors than popular Rajasthan, but has just as much to offer! Known for its incredible textiles and diverse ethnic groups, Gujarat's appeal - like most places in India - can really be found in its wonderfully hospitable people. But the state also boasts a dazzling array of landscapes like the Great Rann of Kutch, a range of different arts and crafts and some more offbeat, unique experiences. Here, I've summed up the best things to do while you're in Gujarat.
Stay in a heritage home
There’s something about staying in a heritage home that makes you feel like you've just been transported through time and sometimes, into another world altogether. You could be driving through a bustling town or market area, with motorbike horns resounding and the din of daily life pulling your attention in every direction, when suddenly you’re walking through a flowered archway into the serenity of a heritage home's garden, where all you can hear is the serene music of birds chirping and leaves rustling.
These old colonial buildings are bursting at the seams with charm, often dotted with antiques, lattice windows, heavy wooden doors and old fashioned decor. India can be chaotic - it’s what makes it so enthralling - but amongst it all, you do feel a sense of peace no matter how manic it gets, so a stay in a heritage home provides a wonderful setting to wind down within walls that hold a thousand stories. There’s nothing more romantic.
Visit the Great Rann of Kutch
The bizarre landscape of the Great Rann of Kutch will make you feel like you’ve landed on another planet. The desert fills up with rainwater during the monsoon season but once it evaporates, it leaves behind salt flats as far as the eye can see. Walking across it feels like crunching through snow, except against the horizon you see a lumbering camel adorned with colourful pom-poms and tassels...not something you'd expect of a winter wonderland.
Visit in winter and make sure you’re there for sunset when the whole sky is brushed in pastel colours and the sun burns a bright orange as it descends. It’s otherworldly, peaceful and a complete contrast to most of the landscapes you’ll see in India.
Get up close to the arts and crafts of the region
Gujarat is world-famous for its textiles and you’ll soon see why. The intricate, colourful designs come in a huge variety of embroidery patterns that are unique to the different ethnic groups in the region.
Whether you have an interest in textiles or not, it's fascinating to see the difference and the sheer skill that goes into every quilt, shawl, skirt or wall hanging you come across. A visit to Shrujan Museum allows you to get behind the scenes and witness the process, diversity of style and all the in-depth details about the different ethnic groups. The popular motifs hold their own stories, the different costumes for different occasions and the evolution of their function over the years.
The region abounds in different arts and crafts like Ajrak block printing, Karad weaving, Rogan painting, woodcraft and pottery. Quite often these skills are being practised by one or two families and you can visit these experts to see them hard at work creating and explaining their craft. The painting by hand is particularly mesmerising - you’ll wonder how they have the patience and dedication to make such beautifully detailed works of art with an almost nonchalant, precise flick of their wrist.
Experience unique wildlife
If you like bird watching, Gujarat has a plethora of interesting birds to look out for. From seeing flocks of flamingos standing ethereally in a lake to being absolutely captivated by a kingfisher diving for fish in a nearby stream, it was fascinating even for amateurs (i.e. me). We also saw egrets, cranes, drongos, an owl and of course, plenty of peacocks.
The Rann of Kutch is also home to some rather unique wildlife and taking the jeep on a safari to the arid deserts - where it looks like anything would struggle to survive - we visited the Wild Ass Sanctuary to see the Indian Wild Ass. They’re now only found in this protected area but once ambled across all of north-west India, as well as Pakistan and Iran.
Visit temples and mosques
Jain temples, Hindu temples, mosques - the great thing about India is that so many religions live side by side and are a joy to discover. Interestingly, the architecture and details of these places of worship heavily influence the others. So you’ll recognise Islamic domes and arches in temples and Hindu-influenced open lotus flower designs in mosques - it pays to keep your eyes peeled for the beautiful details in these buildings. That’s half the fun!
The other half is just enjoying the peaceful ambience when it’s quiet. When it's not, relishing in the energy emanating from the drum beats and rhythmic chanting while pressed up against other worshippers. People are always keen to welcome you into these ceremonies and seem eager to explain certain practises. One highlight was participating in an evening aarti, where we sang with devotees and passed hands over a candle flame to receive the deities blessings.
If you can brave the uphill pilgrimage of 3500 steps on Satrunjaya hill in Palitana, you’ll be rewarded with the impressive Jain temple complex consisting of more than 900 marble temples. Considered the most sacred pilgrimage site in the Jain community, the construction of the temples took roughly 900 years to complete. Enter the lesser-visited site by taking the right turning when you reach the fork in the path. It’s quieter and the view over the main temple site amongst the clouds is staggering.
Witness a dhow being built
It won’t take long to have a look around Mandvi’s dhow building yard but it is definitely worth it. Seeing the skeletons of these immense boats lining the river, you couldn’t quite tell whether they were being dismantled or built anew. The 400-year-old tradition of building these cargo dhows is on the decline and some of the ships sit partially done for months as funding runs out, but it’s hard to wrap your head around how it’s even possible for them to be hand-built at all.
It all starts from a single beam of sal wood that makes up the base of the ship's hull and the planks that form the ship's body are gently bent over fire into shape. The craftsmen that build these dhows don’t even refer to a blueprint, let alone use complex machinery. Climbing up into the belly of a 50+ meter long dhow with a capacity of up to 2,000 tonnes, it’s hard to comprehend that a wooden beast of that magnitude could even float on water. The gaps are stuffed with cotton dipped in fish oil to make it water-tight. It’s a truly impressive feat.