Visiting The 'Isle Of Calm' At The Southern Tip Of Gujarat

A 2015 advertisement inspired writer Sumeet Keswani to check out tiny Diu island. He didn't expect it to hold many surprises but he was pleasantly proved wrong
Evening at Diu
Evening at DiuFlickr: Abhishek Kumar Devjibhai

In early 2015, the Diu Tourism Department launched an ad that branded the small island at the southern tip of Gujarat as Ilha de Calma (Portuguese for "isle of calm"). The visuals conveyed a seamless tranquillity that offered a welcome break from the city chaos. The breathtaking sites put Diu on the tourist map, so I found myself visiting the tiny island, which was full of surprises.

Mornings in Diu were eerily quiet. The view from the first-floor balcony of my guesthouse was a window to the island's skyline. Amid the many short and multi-coloured Gujarati homes, three prominent churches stood tall with their crosses and bell towers. Near the coast were the Hoka trees, also called doum palm, who quietly watched over the stirring morning.

A Gujarati haveli in Diu
A Gujarati haveli in DiuFlickr: foto_morgana

These peculiar trees looked like a bunch of men with the same perm joined at the hip and bore an eccentric red fruit with a hard skin and an even harder seed. Guide Valjibhai Solanki boasted that even a fully loaded truck couldn't crush the seed, which the locals used as firewood. Local legend said that the tree was indigenous to southern Egypt and was brought by the Portuguese to the island. Baskets full of hoka, or gingerbread fruit, were discovered in King Tutankhamun's tomb in 2007.

We spent our first day visiting the famed churches. You could immediately tell that they must have looked majestic in their prime, but their current appearance spoke of indifference. St Paul's Church was built in 1610, maintained its elaborate baroque marble facade and held mass every day, but the other churches didn't enjoy the same fate. The St Francis of Assisi Church, which was built in 1593, functioned as a government hospital for years but was now closed.

The St Thomas Church
The St Thomas ChurchFlickr: Hans Hendriksen

The St Thomas Church, now home to the Diu Museum, was built in 1598 and was an example of how things can go wrong. The wall paint had peeled off, but inside were wooden sculptures of saints that were 400 years old. The sculptures were covered in dust and lit by hideous LEDs and questions about their origins drew a blank as the guards and the caretaker simply repeated the words on the plaque outside. The caretaker's job was solely to restrict tourists from taking photographs of the relics.

That museum was still in better shape than the Church of Our Lady of Remedes in Fudam which was now populated by a thriving colony of pigeons.

Diu Fort
Diu FortWikimedia Commons: Zocdoclesson

The second day was overcast, so we spent it exploring the Diu Fort, which was replete with cannons, bastions and a moat. Our guide, Solanki, was an old man whose hands were burned in a stove accident years ago. One of the three government-approved guides at the fort, he gave us an account of the wars fought and won by the Portuguese there and the day in 1961 when they surrendered Diu to India. Interestingly, some prison cells were still functional inside the fort and now housed local criminals for petty crimes.

Most of the restaurants in the city served Gujarati, Punjabi and Chinese food of average quality. The main attraction here was the cheap alcohol in dimly-lit bars so the weekends witnessed a rush of tourists from the neighbouring dry state of Gujarat. Diu's local culinary specialties hid in the most inconspicuous of places: the O'Coqueiro restaurant behind the Diu Museum was one such lucky find. The owner, Kailash Pandey, learnt recipes from a local and had a scrumptious Portuguese Comida section on the menu.

Naida Caves
Naida CavesWikimedia Commons: Dr.kpsingh111

Our third morning was blessed with ample sunshine. We headed out to the Naida Caves, which are a network of hewn tunnels located just outside the Diu city wall. Said to have been carved by the Portuguese as they dug for building materials, these caves had a mysterious aura accentuated by gigantic banyan tree roots and early morning sunlight that lent a golden hue and cast spotlights on the rocky site.

While the highlighted sites on the tourism map made for a mixed bag of experiences, some unofficial sites were pleasant surprises. While beach hopping on the third day, we came across a bunch of fishermen on Gomtimata beach fashioning a fishing net out of nylon rope, while the seagulls nearby fished with their natural tools. In the distance, a green hillock by the shore was dotted with colourful huts. One of the fishermen, Lakhabhai, told us that it was a memorial built for 140-odd fishermen who had died at sea during the 1998 cyclone.

Nagoa Beach
Nagoa BeachFlickr: India Shor

We decided to see it for ourselves. A barely noticeable right turn on the highway from Gomtimata to Nagoa ended in a clearing. On the left, the green hillock rose seductively, and on the right was Gomtimata beach. What looked like huts were actually miniature structures that resembled the city's Gujarati houses. Most had inscriptions of the names of the deceased along with the dates of their death.

While this memorial started initially recorded cyclone casualties, it had now come to commemorate any death at sea and those that happened in town. Each hut had stones inlaid with sacred threads tied around them. The aroma of incense sticks hung in the air. Walking amid the tiny huts was akin to being in a graveyard, except the dead weren't buried there: they were still out at sea.

A signboard for the Seashell Museum
A signboard for the Seashell MuseumFlickr: Ghostface Buddha

After a sombre lunch, we headed to the one Diu attraction that every review seemed to be ambivalent about—the now defunct Seashell Museum. Located near the airport it was a blink-and-miss site with a modest green structure that looked more like a garage. Much to our chagrin the shutter was closed. The front yard was littered with hoardings declaring in wretched English the 5,000-odd types of seashells that were the property of Captain Devjibhai Fulbaria.

A few minutes later an old man in boxers and a vest arrived on a bicycle with a satchel made of nylon net and three freshly caught fish hanging on his back. He pulled up the iron shutter and ushered us in. Inside was an overwhelming assortment of seashells of all sizes, star fish, crabs, flying fish, dried octopi, clams and even barnacles attached to manmade items.

Western Reef Heron near Diu Fort
Western Reef Heron near Diu FortFlickr: east med wanderer

The caretaker was anxious about the electricity consumption during our visit. When we inquired about the owner behind this fascinating collection he looked perplexed: it was Captain Fulbaria himself. The stooping old man pulled out an old merchant navy cap and put it on; a shadow of the man in the signboard.

Captain Fulbaria was full of stories but he chose to focus on the exams he had failed in the merchant navy because of his poor English. (The signboards made sense now.) He had served from 1959 to 1995 and spent those last five years as captain. While on excursions in international waters he collected everything that intrigued him. Before we exited, the captain handed me two beautiful seashells and switched off the lights hurriedly.

The cliffs of Diu
The cliffs of DiuFlickr: east med wanderer

It was the dawn of our last day so after a short walk amid the ancient Gujarati havelis in the old city, we went to the Diu Fort again so as to witness the sunset from a vantage point. The coastline near the fort is made of jagged rock cliffs and standing on top of them I saw their perpetual erosion in action. Waves carved out caves beneath my pedestal. Egrets swooped down on a bed of yellow and purple wildflowers. Jungle babblers preened themselves nearby. Out here on the isle of calm, even they did not break the sanctity of silence.

Getting There

Air India connects Diu to Mumbai while Indigo Airlines runs a service from Ahmedabad to Diu. The nearest railway junction is Veraval some 90km away. A cab ride from Veraval to Diu will take an hour and a half while a taxi from Ahmedabad to Diu will take over seven hours.

Where To Stay

The writer stayed at Heranca Goesa, a family-run guesthouse, whose proximity to attractions such as the churches, museum and fort made it a convenient location. The Dream Vision Guest House is 2km from Chakratirth Beach, a stone's throw to Diu Fort and 6km from the airport.

Where To Eat And Drink

Behind the Diu Museum is a cosy little garden restaurant called O'Coqueiro that serves good seafood. Check out their Portuguese section on the menu. The waterfront restaurant Apana Foodland has the best view of Diu's shimmering water but the food is average at best.

What To Visit

The Naida Caves outside the city wall are worth visiting on a sunny day so that you can see the chiaroscuro at play. Enter the old city through the grand brick-red Zampa Gateway and take a walk through the narrow lanes.

The Gangeshwar Mahadev Temple in Fudam village is tucked inside a naturally formed cave where five shivalingas were believed to be installed by the Pandavas.

Climb atop the roof of the Church of St Thomas for a panoramic eagle eye view of the city.

The Diu Fort is a must-see but don't forget the Fortress of Panikota which is a peculiar ship-shaped structure one nautical mile offshore.

The popular Nagoa Beach offers water sports such as parasailing, banana boat rides and waterskiing.

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