It was with a bit of apprehension that I decided to make a detour from my pilgrimage to Somnath and Dwarka to visit the historical town of Junagadh in Gujarat. And I did not have any regrets.
Driving down from Somnath on the Somnath-Ahmedabad highway, I reached there to be greeted by glimpses of towering minarets, domes and the gigantic fort. The picturesque Girnar Hills towered over the town in the background, strewn with several small temples at its summit.
I engaged a local guide to save time and ensure that I do not miss out on any major attractions. The fellow started off as an archetypal history professor. The Babi dynasty of Junagadh was founded by Muhammad Sher Khan Babai in 1654. His descendants, the Babi Nawabs of Junagadh, expanded the boundaries by capturing surrounding kingdoms.
In 1930, Junagadh became a princely state, declaring independence from the Mughal governor of Gujarat. But in 1807, it became a British protectorate. At the time of India's independence and partition, the last Babi dynasty ruler, Muhammad Mahabat Khanji III, decided not to merge Junagadh with India. However, the Hindu citizens who formed the majority revolted, leading to a plebiscite, resulting in its integration into India.
It is interesting to note that the history of Junagadh started much earlier, during the Maurya dynasty, as is evident by the origin of the famous Uparkot Fort here, said to have been constructed by Chandragupta in 320 B C. The town got its name, 'Junagadh', meaning 'ancient fort', because of this.
I proceeded towards the Uparkot Fort. Entering through the triple-arched gateway at the outer walls, we drove uphill on a cobbled pathway flanked by trees and shrubs on both sides to reach the summit. We passed by small shrines of Ganesha and Hanuman on the way. Standing majestically against the backdrop of the Girnar Hills, the fortress of over 2,300 years old stood majestically with walls as high as 20 metres. It had a deep moat, once inhabited by crocodiles. A flight of 40-50 granite steps led me to the main entrance. A decoratively carved massive door stood there, and just as I entered, I could see the insignia of some early rulers in crevices, justifying the fort's Hindu origin. Near the entrance were two cannons, pointing to the town below, named Neelam and Manek, said to have been made in Cairo and brought by the Turks.
The fort is said to have been in use until the 6th century, and then abandoned and covered with wild growth for 300 years. It was rediscovered and cleaned up in 976 AD.
Inside the fort were the remains of a majestic palace, with a durbar hall having 140 carved stone pillars and several arched windows. A queen, Ranakdevi, had been staying there for a long time. Later it was converted into a jama masjid. It is believed that there are secret underground passages from there into the town.
As I alighted the steps of the fort, my guide pointed to a small gate below with the Archaeological Survey of India's notice: 'Prohibited Monument'. Here was an excellent example of Buddhist rock-cut architecture with steps going down below up to three tiers, containing a small well, a bath, prayer halls and meditation chambers cut out of rock and supported by stone pillars. They were built to provide natural ventilation and light even in the lowest tier. The floral decorations carved at the entrance, the carvings on the ornamental pillars, and the prayer hall reflected Buddhist influence without any doubt.
According to my guide, those caves, known as Khapra Kodia, were carved out as early as 500 BC, and are reckoned the earliest monastic settlement in these parts.
A little away from the caves was a large underground granary cut out of natural rock. Its massive size and storage capacity would have allowed the occupants to withstand the extended siege of the fort without any scarcity for food grains.
After treading on history at the fort, I drove to the centre of Junagadh town and reached the next major tourist attraction. This was located beside a busy street but had an abandoned forlorn countenance. Stepping inside the courtyard, I was nonplussed by the stunning architectural beauty of two majestic historical monuments that emerged before me - the Mahabat Maqbara, also known as the Mausoleum of Bahaduddinbhai Hasainbhai, and the Jummi Mosque.
Mahabat Maqbara was once a palace used by the nawabs of Junagadh as their home and was built in 1892. Its construction was initiated by Mahabat Khanji and was completed by Bahadur Khanji. It was not open to the public due to litigation. But I could peep in through the gaps on the door and see two tombs inside, of Bahauddin Maqbara and Mahabat Khanji. The decorated exterior of this monument is a feast for the eyes. The architectural style used is a fine blend of Hindu, Islamic and European, with beautiful stone carvings, vertical columns, arched windows and domes. The small mosque has also become a tomb. Its architecture is typical Gothic and Indo-Islamic styles with a domed mahal at the centre and four tall minarets on its four corners with pirouetting staircases.
My next halt was at the famous Darbar Hall Museum. An old but well-preserved palace of erstwhile nawabs has been converted into the museum, and many treasures, artefacts, weapons, armour, palanquins, chandeliers, howdahs, carpets, jewellery, royal dresses, etc used by Junagadh rulers were preserved there. The most attractive part of the museum was the well-maintained Darbar Hall. There were decorated sofas for the chieftains and a beautiful throne meant for the nawab on a raised platform.
For the felines
My last stop was at the Sakkarbaug Zoological Gardens. This zoo started as a private venture of the Babi Nawabs in 1863 and had a reasonable collection of animals and birds. Today, it plays an important role in conducting captive breeding programmes for Asiatic lions. The cubs, when old enough, are released in the Gir Forest which is close by, the only natural habitat for Asiatic lions. The zoo also has a breeding programme for white-backed vultures, which is another endangered species. The only sad thing about the zoo was that some enclosures for tigers, lions and panthers were small and the majestic felines resembled hapless prisoners.
Late in the evening, before leaving Junagadh, I stopped on the highway to have a last glimpse of the ancient city. The rays of the setting sun had lit up the innumerable minarets projecting into the sky, as well as the majestic Girnar Hills in the background, creating an unforgettable vision.