The view from the window has an unrelieved binary quality -- salt pans alternate with grasslands dotted with thorny scrub, and little else. Accustomed as I grow to the sere landscape of Saurashtra flanking mile upon mile of the highway, I do a double take when a curious hybrid judders alongside us. It appears to be a rejiggered motorcycle, with its seat raised a couple extra feet and attached at the back to a wheeled cart. Painted floral designs and desert-at-dusk scenes swarm over its metal body, and plastic adornments form an opulent halo around the headlight. I rubberneck, but we are veering off the highway and the resplendent vehicle vanishes as abruptly as it appeared.
Then the stunted trees and scorched land return, which makes me wonder if I have just seen my first mirage. We drive on until we reach Lothal, where an Indus Valley seaport town flourished 4,000 years ago. Now it is little more than excavated ruins set in alluvial plains stretching to the horizon, with only a remarkably preserved dockyard testifying to its nautical past.
This dockyard, according to the signboards, once held up to 30 ships of 60 tons each, and the ruler of Lothal supervised the unloading of cargo from the roof of a warehouse. Today it's merely a large tank, 218 metres by 37 metres, but its serene lapping waters and the flight of cranes over its green surface make it the centrepiece of Lothal. The archaeological site seems unexpectedly small, but the arrangement of houses, bead-maker's kiln, coppersmiths' shops and water-filtration systems lives up to textbook descriptions of orderly urban planning.
We proceed from Lothal to the coastal town of Alang. A rash of grimy sheds with names like Kailash Marine, Priya Marine and Mittal Marine -- all traders of ship machineries and spares -- crop up as we approach the township, infamous for the hazardous ship-breaking work done by migrant labour. We drive past these shops and enter the centre of Alang, which is chillingly sanitised. The yards where ships are reduced to scrap are obscured by picket fences and concrete walls, but homilies painted everywhere exhort workers to engage in safe practices 'Suraksha ko lao, kutumb ko bachao'. It is only through the gaps between fenced yards that beached ships can be seen, as well as workers attacking mammoth machinery with primitive steel bars, hammers and gas cutters.
The disgorged furnishings of razed ships get a new lease on life in Alang. Ordered rows of lifebuoys, mattresses, sofas, mirrors, bar stools, wine glasses, crockery, leather chairs and industrial- strength washing machines blossom like surreal desert flowers in an endless chain of roadside sheds. We stop at a shop called Sai Shakti. The owner, Rajesh Tejasi, says he buys selection items for our furniture line at shipyard auctions. Tejasi once sold a sofa for Rs 70,000. "It was softy leather," he says proudly. In his three years in the trade, the 20-year-old has seen the number of shops grow by 25 percent to 500. "Today only I sold 20 pieces Vincent (van Gogh prints)," he says. "It's gone to Mumbai, Sangli."
Junagadh follows Alang. We arrive early evening and pass by the Mahabat Maqbara, the exquisite mausoleum of a nawab that was completed in 1892 and is considered to be one of the finest examples of post-medieval Indo-Islamic architecture. I climb to the top of the adjacent Bahauddin Maqbara, via a spiralling minaret staircase, for another view of the Mahabat's crest of myriad cupolas.
Junagadh, like other towns in Saurashtra, has a wealth of heritage buildings that now serve as school or hospital or police station. And its residents, like those we encounter elsewhere in the region, have little knowledge about the history of the structures amidst which they live and work. Near Circle Chowk, I inquire after a cathedral-like post office, and the garlic sellers and tea stall owners reply, graciously but unhelpfully, 'Jooni hai'.
We proceed to the city's Uperkot Fort. The rooftop of the Jama Masjid, which lies within the fort walls, offers a spectacular 360-degree view of the town. But the neglect and vandalism of the property is heartbreakingly evident. A signboard outside the entrance is so riven with rusty holes that it is quite unreadable, paan stains are splattered inside the mosque's pillared hall, trident symbols made with sindoor desecrate a mihrab, the carved niche representing Mecca and graffiti on the walls memorialises the visit of Ramesh, Dinesh, Ashok, Asvin.
It is a relief, then, to get away from the site and sink into the cool depths of the Adi Chand Vav, an ancient subterranean stepwell that seems forsaken by all except swarms of fluttering, guttural pigeons. A long, shallow flight of stairs leads down to the tank fed by an underground spring. Standing at the edge of the tank, I notice vaguely the scum and litter that cover the surface of the water. Instead my eyes are drawn to the stone walls which rise fortlike and reveal only a wedge of sky. As graceful as they are immense, these walls have been sculpted by natural erosion so that they dip and swell in ochre and grey striations.
From Junagadh we head for Porbandar, passing by chikoo orchards, fields dotted with bonfires after the wheat harvest, and camels pulling carts with towering gunny-wrapped bales of cotton. Midway, we spot the vehicle that had earlier piqued our curiosity. I ask the driver what it is called and he replies laconically, 'Rickshaw carrier'. He tells me it costs Rs 1.35 lakh, but is disinclined to chat. We continue towards Porbandar, the coastal city that is the birthplace of Gandhi, but I feel oddly dissatisfied with what I have learnt about this exotic species of motorcycle.
Porbandar announces itself with an overpowering smell of fish, which pursues us from the main approach road to the main commercial area. We escape it as we wander in quest of Kirti Mandir, Gandhi's house and museum. The building looks exactly like a temple, with a tricolour dome and walls embellished with charkhas, swastikas and lotuses.
Despite its apparent reverence for the Mahatma, the museum wears an odd air of apathy and impersonality. The exhibit rooms on the ground floor showcase 401 mouldering volumes of 'The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi' a print of 'Gandhiji Ancestral Tree' (Gandhi is a yellow mango, his kin are green mangoes) and cryptically labelled historic photographs (Pose of Wooden Bed of Gandhiji in Kochrab Ashram announces one).
Interspersed with the charkhas and khadi yarn in the display cabinets are objects that seem to have been culled from every showcase in every Indian middle-class home -- miniature marble Taj Mahals, wooden elephants, clay birds, metal vases with fabric flowers. I wonder if the museum officials ran out of Gandhi memorabilia and stuffed the shelves with any handicraft they could lay their hands on. My scepticism isn't shared by two visitors who stare reverentially at the Australian honey and mouldy animal skins. "Yeh museum hai," they say earnestly.
The adjacent green-and-cream multi-storeyed house where Gandhi was born manages to impress with its stark simplicity, and despite the continuing use of mystifying labels. The swastika painted on the floor, we are told, marks the exact place where Gandhi was born on 2nd October, 1869.
We move on from Porbandar to Morbi, the last stop on our tour of Saurashtra. Morbi, poised on the banks of the Macchu river, was evidently an eminent town during the British Raj, as indicated by the palaces, administrative buildings and myriad statues of horses, elephants, bulls and lions. These heritage structures may testify to a grand past, but the Morbi of today is a run-of-the-mill small town, teeming and dirty.
The former Willingdon Secretariat, opened by the Viceroy Earl of Willingdon on 13th January 1936, comprises a main faccedilade flanked by two wings. Every inch of the mammoth structure, four storeys high and about the size of a New York City block, is carved with floral motifs. Elaborate stone jharokas with intricate trelliswork adorn the outer walls. In the soft morning light, the building glows golden. But decay is everywhere -- warped girders jut out from the walls, windows are either boarded up or lacking in panes, and missing structural fragments lie smashed on the ground. A signboard warns that entry is not allowed into Mani Mandir, and the doors are locked.
The grounds of the Secretariat now shelter migrant labourers. A dishevelled woman sits astride a parapet and spits on the steps. A statue of a portly, one-armed Queen Victoria, facing the Secretariat, seems to contemplate the ruin of Empire. Atop the building's dome, where the Union Jack once likely flew, a new-looking trident soars in triumph.
I leave Morbi feeling deflated. The trident and its triumphalism bother me I cannot see what there is to celebrate. But my mood lightens on the drive back to Ahmedabad when we spot those flamboyant vehicles that seem native to Saurashtra.
We stop to speak to the drivers and finally learn its local name chakda. Each also has a personal name, such as Bansuri or Chandni or Kanhaiya. The bike-and-cart hybrid isn't a rejiggered motorcycle after all, but the original design of a Jamnagar factory. Even the lavish paintwork is factory-bestowed, but some drivers go the extra mile to decorate their vehicles and adorn the headlight with shiny accessories called mukut and kaan.
The chakda drivers are somewhat bemused by our attention, but are just as curious about us as we are about their vehicles. Are you foreigners? No. Where from then? Bombay. Don't you have chakdas there? No, I reply, but I wish we did.
LOTHAL: The journey from Ahmedabad to Lothal (78km) takes one along an excellent four-lane divided highway. The road that branches off NH8A to the archaeological site soon meanders into fields where signs to Lothal are scarce. But the local residents are helpful with directions. The Lothal museum contains artefacts found at the site and a detailed history of this former Indus Valley town. There is no local accommodation, and most visitors tend to stay at Ahmedabad or Bhavnagar or the lodge at Velavadar National Park, famous for its blackbucks. Another star attraction for wildlife enthusiasts close by is the Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary.
BHAVNAGAR: Most tourists to this 18th-century cotton trading post only stop to check out the Gandhi Smriti Museum (the Mahatma attended university here) and the Takhteshwar Temple with its great view of the Gulf of Cambay. But the former Alfred's High School (now the Shantal Sheth High School for boys) is worth a visit -- it's a deliriously domed, arched and spired affair, replete with floral stucco work and wooden staircases that are home to hundreds of pigeons. The most atmospheric place to stay here is the Nilambag Palace Hotel (0278-2424241).
ALANG: The road from Bhavnagar to Alang is a two-lane undivided highway through some scenic rural landscape that quite fails to prepare one for the grittiness of Alang. The checkpoint with tricolour barricade seems intimidatingly bureaucratic, but we managed to proceed inside without having to produce passes or permits. To get into the ship breaking yards, however, a permit is a must. Alang, like Lothal, lacks accommodation for visitors, so Bhavnagar is the base of choice.
PALITANA: This raucous little town, 51km southwest of Bhavnagar, is a gateway for the hilltop pilgrimage site of Shatrunjaya, with its 863 Jain temples. It's a challenging climb -- a 600m ascent, some 3,000 steps and a distance of 2km. Or travel in style -- well, sort of -- in a doli shouldered by grimacing coolies for a few hundred bucks. There are plenty of pilgrim dharamsalas, or stay at Gujarat Tourism's Hotel Sumeru (02848-252327).
JUNAGADH: The road from Palitana to Junagadh is marvellously free of potholes and tar patchwork. There is no straight road between the two towns, so the only option is a route that almost doubles the journey time. Besides the unmissable Mahabat Maqbara, Junagadh has some lovely heritage structures clustered around its Durbargarh or Durbar Hall area. The best view of this ancient city (the Ashokan Edicts nearby date from 250 BC) is to be had from the rooftop of the Jama Masjid in the Uperkot Fort, itself reportedly built in 319 BC by Chandragupta. Basic accommodation is freely available, try Gujarat Tourism's Hotel Girnar (0285-2621201).
PORBANDAR: Junagadh to Porbandar is a 94km journey that offers a pleasant contrast from the largely arid landscape in much of Saurashtra. Here, one finds chikoo orchards, wheat fields and fields ringed by mountains. There is a police checkpoint enroute -- the coastal town is notorious for smuggling activities. The town offers little besides the museum dedicated to Gandhi and his former house. Some residents have distinctly African features -- they are the Siddis, African-Indians who have lived here for centuries, since the times that Porbandar was a flourishing trading post between India and Africa and the Gulf. The most plush place to stay here is Hotel Moon Palace (0286-2241172).
DWARKA: The highway from Porbandar to Dwarka (75km) is in abysmal condition, which is partly due to road-widening projects. Dwarka is a temple town with narrow, teeming streets and cacaphonic religious processions. The dam behind the main temple is an ideal spot from which to watch women feeding fish with balls of atta, old men playing bara kakdi, a board game drawn on the ground and played with ceramic chips, and a coast with perfectly aquamarine waters. If you want to stay overnight, try the Toran Tourist Bungalow (02892-234013).
MORBI: Morbi, a rather nondescript town on first appearance, has a wealth of inspiring statues -- equine and leonine, of governors and earls -- along key public routes and in the amazingly impressive Mani Mandir, the former Willingdon Secretariat. It also offers a great vantage point to appreciate Morbi's own Durbargarh, a once-stately building that once occupied pride of place along the once-glorious Macchu river.