The Prince and the bogus guru. India

 “Come with us” the Prince said, and with a royal invitation I feel compelled to follow him and three other men.

Down the ancient steps, past Ahilya temple, past widows, their hands out for alms, past stones identifying extreme monsoon levels, and further down, we reach the 300-year old ghats where women are washing clothes. Others proffer water, in cupped hands or in a container, towards the sun, and as the water runs through their fingers they are reciting sacred verses.

Beside Nandi the bull and Shiva lings that mark the cremation sites of various nobles, we climb onto a flat-bottomed, traditional boat on which white plastic chairs sit. The prince is taking us upstream to another temple that belonged to his ancestor.

Mediatation on the banks of the holy Namada River, Maheshwar.
Meditation on the banks of the holy Namada River, Maheshwar.

Twenty–two generations ago, Maharani Prince Shivaji Rao Holkari Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore, the celebrated Indian Queen (died 1795) renowned for her piety, charity, and statecraft, built Ahilya Fort at Maheshwar on the banks of the holy Narmada River. Now her direct descendant, Prince Shivaji Rao Holkar, son of the last Maharaja of Indore, allows a few guests in his fabulously restored palace. After weeks of backpacking, I value the luxury.

part of the palace from the holy Namada river
part of the palace from the holy Narmada river

Another guest in this boutique, royal-homestay, is Sam Adams Green who, incidentally, introduced Andy Warhol to his muse – society girl Edie Sedgwick – and also gave him his first exhibition when he was director of the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. Now founder and director of Landmarks Foundation, which works at protecting global sacred sites: our destination is one of those sites.

Two young men, standing at the rear of the boat, move us upstream with large paddles; we have tea and biscuits that the prince produces from a picnic basket, watch life on the riverbank and cattle cooling in the water, as we glide towards Kaleshwar Temple, a 12-century temple complex. “It has been a site of Hindu pilgrimage destination since the beginning of time and memory,” Sam tells me.

There are 7 holy rivers in India, including the Ganga in the north and this one, the Narmada, in the south – it divides the north from the southern peninsula of India.

The southern bank is ancient Gondwanaland, which, as it moved north collided with the Central Asian landmass. Between the two, a rift valley was created and through which the Narmada flows over some of the oldest rocks in the world. The north – where the palace and temple are – is made of hilly sedimentary sandstone while the southern bank, peninsular India, is flat igneous basalts.

Parikramavasis, a thousand-mile circumambulation of the holy Narmada traditionally takes 3 years, 3 months, and three days to walk. Starting 3000 feet above sea level and finishing some 1300 miles later at the Arabian Sea this is the only Indian river where a parikrama of the entire course is performed. (the top photo is of a young pilgrim)

In ‘Sacred Virgin Travels along the Narmada’ by Royina Grewal (whose own sacred journey began in 1993) says: ‘depending on where you meet her and how, the Narmada can mean different things to different people. For the many turbulent stretches, she is called Rewa, derived from the Sanskrit ‘rev’, to leap. Of her many names, this is my favourite. But she is also called Manananda, who brings eternal bliss, Rajani, the spirited one, and Kamada who fulfils desire, Vibhatsathe the terrifying one, and Manasuardhini who craves the lifeblood that she has nurtured. Ferocious, insouciant, benevolent.’

Prince Richard tells me that where the holy Narmada flows only Shiva is worshiped for he is the only god who has the tranquillity to calm her

Approaching Kaleshwar, we see two sackcloth clad, and orange wrapped devotees standing on stone fortifications that have tumbled down from the temple to the waters edge after a high monsoon.Prince Richard of Indore has ambitious plans for the rejuvenation of this ancient temple and dharmasala – a pilgrim’s rest house – and those who make donations over $US5000 towards its restoration are invited to tour the princely state of Indore and stay as his guest in his 18th century palace home.

Currently a bogus guru is holding up the process, effectively denying a free place to stay for some 50,000 pilgrims annually.

A couple of years ago this ex-army man asked the prince if he could stay at the temple for a few months. Soon he had set up a health clinic and was giving fake injections to cure many ills. Eventually chased out of town, he came back, ran up many bills, was run out of town again and when he next appeared was wearing the saffron robes of a holy man. Moving back into the temple, he has gathered a few devotees around him and intends to stay: it seems squatters have rights here and he cannot be evicted. Money has been offered for him to go but even this honey has not sweetened a move.

Prince Richard and the Landmark Foundation must be feeling like Henry 2nd when he said of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, ‘who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ as they too wonder what to do with this man who happily poses for my photos – an incongruous guru with a mobile phone hanging from his neck.

Back at the rivers edge the holy men who are walking the length of both banks of the river have washed and re-covered their bodies with ash.

India is vivid and varied, a melting pot of religions and people from central Asia, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions and here, with a, prince, a fake guru, and genuine devotees” it’s just as Sam said: ‘these guys could have walked straight out of central casting for a Bollywood movie.”

Gujarat: salt plains, wild ass, and I hope we’re not lost!

 

Although it’s a few years since I visited the huge Little Rann of Kutch (staying at The Royal Safari Camp when it was 18 months old) my memories of staying there are still vivid and I often tell people to put Gujarat on their bucket-list.

We enter the ‘camp’ through a traditional red arch and into the facilities by huge one hundred-year old doors. Among some of the fabulous pieces of furniture is a carved wooden chest which, when I ask, I’m told “this is a family heirloom. It was carved from one piece of wood: my father-in-law gave it to us.” Still having my hand-written notes and notebooks is a great resource!

It's a harsh life for these people
It’s a harsh life for these people

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Covering nearly 5000 sq. km, the Little Rann of Kutch is a unique landscape and includes an official Sanctuary to the beautiful wild ass. Related to the zebra, this is the world’s last population of these ass.

Believed to once been a shallow sea, we take a tour of the bare surface of dark silt, encrusted with salts which evidently transforms into a spectacular coastal wetland after the rains and is considered to be a transitional area between marine and terrestrial ecosystems. In the monsoon, it gets flooded for about a month. With no, or little, vegetation, except on the fringes, the ground-cover which requires little water, is dominated by short-living plants.

The land is so arid, I hope we’re not lost!

Jon records a piece to camera
Jon records a piece to camera

 

Note: it was while we were here that fellow travel writer Jon Haggins got the tittle for his book, Chasing Wild Ass

 

Near Camp Zainabad, Gujarat
Near Camp Zainabad, Gujarat

Until I went to Gujarat, India, I did not realise how big birding was in the world – as well as birding blogs, see a blog I wrote about Desert Coursers  the resort at Zainabad, Gujarat, India where I stayed a few days.

India is much more than slums: Gujarat is one of my fav spots

Chaos, slums, beggars, pollution and poverty: India is so much more than this and I recommend you put one of the least visited states, Gujarat, onto your must-see bucket list.

Birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, a long coastline, this largely vegetarian area is astonishingly varied with huge cities, national parks, bird sanctuaries, majestic monuments, and temples – as well as locals who are extremely welcoming to travellers.

 

Ahmedabad (founded in 1411) is the largest city and has some of India’s finest Hindu and Jain temples along with Islamic monuments. The guided heritage tour of the ancient walled city is a necessity to appreciate the old ethnic diversity of the area. Up and down narrow streets we walk, into even narrower lanes and through secret passages these few hours flew by – some of us repeated the tour days later we loved it so much. The volunteers who are the guides are charming and informative – but keep your eye on where they are – turn the wrong corner and you will be lost! When your expedition is over, stay in Manek Chowk to explore the market and taste the food – then jump on a tuk-tuk and leave him to find the way back to your accommodation or next sightseeing destination and adventure.

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This huge bustling city is a good base for day trips to explore nearby temples, step-wells and even birding areas: Gujarat has some 40% of India’s bird species and with large numbers of migratory birds also, it’s an excellent venue for bird watchers.

Known for their slow but steady success in protecting the last surviving Asiatic Lions in the wild, Gir National Park is a popular destination. There are some 350 lions now compared to the 20 when the park, their only home, created 100 years ago, and with a reliable water supply, it is also home to many other creatures – this is worth more than one days worth!

Interestingly, the Sasan Gir area, in the south of the state, is also home to village of African migrants who have lived there for generations. As well as living alongside, and in harmony with, the lions and leopards of Gir, they perform wonderfully energetic, traditional dances. People come from all over India to offer their prayers to the Peer (priest) who I understand is contacted through the gymnastic-like Dhamal dance.

 

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One of my favourite areas was a corner of the 5-thousand square km area known as the Little Rann of Kutch, home to the beautiful and endangered Indian Wild Ass (Ghudkhur) of which there are only some 2000. Few other animals can survive this harsh environment, although, as these desert salt flats flood to a depth of a metre every monsoon, it’s also home for over 350 species of birds, and where I saw the rare, and shy, McQueen’s Bustard.

Also endangered, in different ways, are the families who live in this arid setting, eking a subsistence living from harvesting salt for eight-months each year. My small donation for their hospitality seemed meagre despite being told it was appropriate, and enough for a ‘big bag of dhal” according to my guide. Next time I will take a gift of jandals (flip-flops) and milk too. I visited two families on different safaris and was charmed by their friendliness, and their willingness to share stories of generations of being salt-workers. (Agariyas)

The salt is produced by pumping, with small pumps, the underground brine up about 14 metres: it then takes four months to crystallise, a harvesting technique unchanged in centuries.

In their shack, right beside the pump, lives an inter-generational family who serve me tea in the old Indian way, on a saucer.

“Because we work in the saltpans, our feet become septic and they absorb the salt. Nobody lives more than 50 or 60 years,” a grandfather tells me – through my guide.

Locked into a religious and cast system that seems impossible to move out of, he sees no way for his family to escape the cycle of poverty and poor health. Despite the low wages and appalling conditions, they will continue to leave the villages on the edge of the desert to labour all day for eight-months each year.

women of the salt plains gujarat

The history of Gujarat goes back to the times of the Indus Valley Civilisation in 2500BC and the culture, architecture, food and history have amalgamated to create an exciting region.

India is a land of contrasts and colour, of culture, festivals and seductive cuisine and Gujarat has it all: I recommend making a list of places or types of things you want to see, contact a local tour company and ask them to create an itinerary from that list, or make recommendations, and for ease of travel, supply a car and driver for much of your trip.

A must-do is the free walking tour of Ahmedabad and see my posts – search Gujarat on right 

NOTE: For my Gujarat travel arrangements I used J.N.Rao Tours, Ahmedabad.

Tip – to say Ahmedabad – sound it out like this “arm dar bad”

Recommended places for bird watchers

  • Khijadiya
  • Porbander Bird Sanctuary
  • Thol Sanctuary
  • Little Rann of Kutch
  • Sasan Gir

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