Millennium Post

Allure of Jamnagar

The Bala Hanuman Temple had made its way into the Guinness World Records with the non-stop recital of Ram naam or Akhand Ram Dhun that began on August 1, 1964, when it was inaugurated, writes Chitra Ramaswamy.

The air is split by the excited laughter of kids as their kites soar and quivered above the city's skyline. Strains of old Bollywood numbers in their remix avatars echo in the streets, already abuzz with activity. Vendors on cycles and pushcarts stir up the dark beige-coloured dust as they peddle their wares.

The mellow sunlight of a breezy winter morning is flooding the skies as we enter Jamnagar to the nostril-tickling aroma of frying jalebis, puris and cooking undhiyu. Our salivating palates are difficult to contain at the mere thought of the gastronomic thrills to come as we enter a modest restaurant. We can barely keep our fingers from dipping into the spice-scented undhiyu and bite into the crisp, juicy, ghee-fried jalebis as our order finds its way to the table.
Our tongues and tummies sated, we are ready to romance the princely state of Navanagar, as Jamnagar was once called. The city, built around the Ranmal Lake more popularly known as Lakhota Lake, and located on the 200 km long coast of Gujarat's Saurashtra Peninsula, enjoys a significant sporting history. That its ruler the legendary Ranjitsinhji, an acclaimed Test cricketer who played for the English team, lent his name to first-class cricket in India, the Ranji Trophy, is well known. Apart from being a haven for migratory birds, Jamnagar is a bustling town today known for its brass industry, zari work and bandhni prints. The town founded in 1540 by Jam Rawal, a descendant of the Jadeja ruler of Kutch, still retains its old charm as palpable by the absence of malls, multiplexes and outlets screaming branded outfits. We get to see glimpses of its traditional past, especially in the teashops in its alleys. The brew is poured, not into cups, but straight into saucers from which tea lovers slurp it with relish.
Jamnagar is another little-touristed but interesting city in Gujarat, brimming with ornate, decaying buildings and colourful bazaars displaying the town's famous, brilliant-coloured bandhani (tie-dye) – produced through a laborious 500-year-old process involving thousands of tiny knots in a piece of folded fabric.
Before Independence, Jamnagar was the rich capital of a princely state. Today too, Jamnagar is quite a boom town, with the world's biggest oil refinery, belonging to Reliance Petroleum, not far west of the city. The whole central area is one big commercial zone, with more brightly lit shops and stalls at night than you'll find in many larger cities. A plethora of historical landmarks including the renaissance-style Pratap Vilas Palace, Lakhota Palace Museum on Jamsarovar Lake, the sculpture-ridden Darbargadh Palace, Sidhanath Mahadev Temple, and the Jama Masjid beckon tourists who appear in no hurry to drink in their splendour. We soak in the ambience of old Jamnagar by taking a stroll along the periphery of Lakhota Lake in the centre of the old part of the town.
As we continue our amble, snaking our way between stalls and pushcarts vending an assortment of objects, from foods to toys to clothes, we are drawn by chants of "Sri Ram, Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram". The vibrant sounds emerge from the Bala Hanuman Temple close by. The shrine, we learn, has made its way into the Guinness World Records with the non-stop recital of Ram naam or Akhand Ram Dhun that began on August 1, 1964, when it was inaugurated, and continues to date! It is the local belief that the temple deity protects them from all suffering.
We were equally drawn to Lakhota Fort Museum in the middle of the lake, accessed by an arched stone bridge with balustrades. As we walked the path to the museum, we noticed a wide variety of winged creatures, hovering above our heads, dunking heads down in the lake waters, or lazily wading in it. A local who is a regular at the lake environs strikes up a conversation with us and regales us with tales of how 'Jamnagaris' enjoy a visual treat when over three score and more avian visitors descend on the lake during the winter months. Upon his suggestion, we return to the lake at night to see it shimmer with the illuminations. The ambience is paradoxically serene and noisy, calm and vibrant, with people of all ages relaxing under a moonlit sky, leisurely sipping chai, or spooning mouthfuls of chaat and kulfi from kiosks.
It is in the early hours of our second day in Jamnagar that we drive to Khijadia Bird Sanctuary, a manmade park created in 1982. We embark on the 13-km trip from our hotel and see a muster of storks darting across the sky. The scene takes us by surprise. But that is Jamnagar for you – birds are everywhere in and around the city – in the lakes, sanctuaries, reservoirs, rivers, salt pans, and its coast.
Khijadia is a veritable bird watchers' paradise where the resident winged creatures, both marine and aquatic, play gracious hosts to migratory visitors that flock to this unique wetland, that has both salt and freshwater habitats. The avian abode, which is located at the confluence of the Ruparel and Kallindi Rivers, lies sprawled over 605 hectares of mangroves, tidal mudflats, agricultural land, scrub, and rivers with fresh, brackish and saline waters. We learn that Khijadia's star attraction is the black-necked stork and that it is a great breeding ground for the Great crested grebe, Little grebe, Purple Moorhen, Coot, Black-winged stilt and Pheasant-tailed Jacana. Zealous bird watchers have routinely spotted raptors – hawks, falcons, eagles and other members of the family. We go up one of the sanctuary's three watch towers to get a better look at our surrounds. Though we are unable to identify most of the fliers, many of which show off their bright-hued plumage, we enjoy the mesmerising aerial displays they create with their manoeuvres. The scene before us is ever changing and we find ourselves unable to shift our visual focus with the speed of the feathered gymnasts. Much as we would like to spend the day here until sunset and watch the spectacular vista of roosting cranes, we bid adieu to this wonderful world of birds, promising ourselves another visit in the near future.
We reserve the best for the last – Narara Marine National Park, a 30 km drive from our hotel in Jamnagar. A light satin drape of fine drizzles drops its tresses through the dense tree canopy even as we feverishly hope and pray that the droplets will not gather momentum. We hope to catch activity well before high tide at India's first marine park. This shallow inter-tidal zone of 170-km, which remains completely submerged during high tide, stretches from Okha to Navlakhi on the coastline of the Gulf of Kutch. It is one of 42 protected islands in the gulf, sprawled across 458 sq km area and contains in its bed 52 species of corals, besides a variety of marine life.
Providentially, as if in answer to our prayers, the rain god turns benevolent. He abandons his earthward march as we reach our destination in good time to have a rollicking rendezvous with creatures of the ocean. In keeping with protocol, we obtain the permit from the Forest Department to visit Narara and undertake the Coral Walk, which actually happens for about 3 hours during the dry spell between two high tides. As we approach the shores of the islands, we observe some avians feeding on the mudbanks. The sea, with all its secrets, its unusual Piscean species and psychedelic coral, reveals itself in all glory at low tide and we get to see marine life, up-close.
Narara is a living museum waiting to be explored in a host of ways. Take canoe rides to thrill at its mangroves, sunset cruises to discover its exotic avian world, or the biking trails along its embankments to get dazzling views of the ocean. No scuba diving, no snorkelling or other sophisticated gear here for us – we wade through a foot and a half of water, stepping on pebbles, rough stones and rocks, sporting thick-soled shoes. A lone structure, a segment of what was probably a fort, stands in ruins, less than halfway to the distance we walk on the seabed. Shrimps, crabs, jellyfish, puffers and schools of fishes race between our feet, bounding over coral formations, unmindful of the weeds, algae and other sea vegetation that threaten to ensnare them in their fine meshy, mushy bodies.
We thrill to an out-of-the-world experience as we walk in the midst of algae-covered rocks, translucent seaweed, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, sponges and swiftly moving fishes in brilliant hues. We have close encounters with exotic marine flora and fauna as we cover a little over 3 km of the ocean bed. Every now and then we see some creatures scurry with the frantic grace of frightened animals as they elude being captured on our digital devices.
We hold our breath as we spot sea anemones wave their tentacles and hope to catch sight of the much sought-after octopus, Narara's star attraction. Our guide, obviously a seasoned guy, is very much at home in the midst of members of this aqua world. With a swift, yet calculated move, he suddenly bends low and like a magician who whips up objects with a flourish of his wand, brings up a vicious looking crab. We are excited to see a species we have hitherto not seen, except in documentaries and books. Our excitement reaches a crescendo as we come upon pufferfishes wriggling their way between our feet to make a dash for safer realms. Our guide picks up one of these slimy beings and holds it in his hand for us to click away with our cameras as it plays dead! "They are deadly guys, very zehrilae, poisonous", he tells us, his voice, a bare whisper. "You know these fishes can actually hold their breath and bloat their bodies by filling their bellies with water in the face of danger!" he adds. We are certainly mesmerised by its huge, glassy, marble-like eyes. We return to the car park, a trifle disappointed at not being able to see the prized octopus! There's no denying the thrill of this one-of-a-kind experience. By now the call of our bellies is compelling and we satisfy the rumbling organ by partaking of a sumptuous and steaming hot vegetarian thali meal. It's simple fare with puffed rotis, dal, aloo sabzi, papad, pickle and rice, whipped up in a makeshift kitchen at the site, set up to cater to the park staff and guides.
Jamnagar certainly entices us with its food scene, especially around Chandni Bazaar. We polish our platters clean, washing the crispies and crunchies down with Lakhota Lake. The heart of the old city is known as Chandi Bazaar (Silver Market; which it is, among other things) and it contains heaving markets and three beautiful Jain temples. The larger two, Shantinath Mandir and Adinath Mandir, dedicated to the 16th and first tirthankars (great Jain teachers), explode with fine murals, mirrored domes and elaborate chandeliers. The Shantinath Mandir is particularly beautiful, with coloured columns and a gilt-edged dome of concentric circles.
Around the temples spreads the old city with its lovely buildings of wood and stone, peeling, pastel-coloured shutters and crumbling wooden balconies. Willingdon Crescent, a European-style arcaded crescent, was built by Jam Ranjitsinhji to replace Jamnagar's worst slum. It now houses an assortment of shops, and is commonly known as Darbargadh, after the now-empty royal residence across the street.

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