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Junagadh - In the Shadow of the Holy Girnar

A highly revered pilgrimage which attracts thousand of pilgrims every year, Junagadh is one of the most picturesque town in India.Dotted with historical monuments and religious places, the small town at the base of the holy Girnar mountain makes on interesting destination.

Junagadh is one of the oldest towns of India. Located at the base of the holy Girnar mountain in Saurashtra, Gujarat, it is a quaint fort town of walkable dimensions and a population of around 1,50,000. For Gujaratis, the town’s significance lies mainly in its proximity to Girnar, which is a highly revered pilgrimage. Yet it is an interesting destination for the culture-vulture type of traveller too. It is easily one of the most picturesque towns of Indian and second to none in antiquite and historical importance.

The city takes its name from the fort that sourrounded it until very recently. It is said that the city was deserted from 7 A.D. to 10 A.D. and was discovered, completely swamped by the jungle. It was then named Jirndurg, meaning old city, by its discoverer Rah Grahar. Later, as the city was fortified against marauders, the name was modified and changed to Jirngadh, meaning old fort. Over the centuries, the name got polished by usage and emerged finally at Junagadh.

There is a lot to see in Junagadh. However, the chief attractions of Junagadh can be broadly classified into two categories: historical monuments and religious places. Foremost of the historical sights is the old fort known as Uparkot, the ancient citadel around which the fort of Junagadh was built. Although extensively renovated and extended many times during the course of its long chequered past its antiquarian outlook remains intact. When Rah Grahar found it in the 10th century, he had the old rubble cleared and in its place built a new palace. The battlements were fortified and the fort was provided with all that would be required in the event of a siege. So sought after was the fort that it was besieged as many as 16 times and one, for a full 12 years, unsuccessfully.

High walls, at times 20 metres high, surround the fort. One enters it through and ornate triple gateway that is worth more than a passing glance. Inside, the first curiosity is a colossal five metre long cannon called Nilam. It was cast in Egypt in 1531 and left behind by a Turkish admiral who was assisting the Sultan of Gujarat against the Portuguese at Diu in 1538. The first building that one sees is the Jami Masjid, which in spite of its magnificent backdrop stands sadly disused. Even a little Vandalized. Close by the mosque are some Buddhist caves that the said to be more than 1500 years old. The caves are not natural but ingeniously carved into the hillside. The double storey complex (below ground level) has several chambers with carved pillars and curious water passages (possibly some kind of ancient air conditioning system) running along every chamber. After the caves, come the stepwells, the most impressive feature of the fort. Known as Navghan Kuvo adichadi Vav, they were both commissioned by Rah Navghan I (1025-1044 A.D.), and are in excellent condition even today albeit in need of a thorough cleaning.

Apart from the caves and the Jami Masjid, there is no other building in the fort that could have been used for living in. Although excavations have revealed the existence of places, swimming pools, theatres and arenas dating back to even before 250 B.C., There is nothing to suggest that the place has been inhabited in the recent past. The last time Uparkot was inhabited by the reigning monarch was in 1451 A.D. by Rah Mandlik III, a direct descendant of Rah Grahar and the last of the Rah rulers of Junagadh. In 1472, the Sultan of Gujarat Mohammed Begada annexed Junagadh to his kngdom and caused the construction of many palaces and gardens in the town outside Uparkot but still within the fort of Junagadh. The old palace was converted into a mosque and the new, rulers stopped living in Uparkot, preferring to live in the more luxurious city palace.

There were two city palaces and both of them now house Government offices. A section of the old city palace is however open to the public. Known as Durbar Hall, it offer a brief glimpse into the pomp with which the Nawabs of Junagadh lived. Apart from the weapons and armour that such museums usually display, one can also view a large collection of chandeliers from the last century, silver furniture, ornamental clocks, medals, howdahs, palanquins and paintings of the Nawabs.

There is another fine museum in the compounds of Junagadh’s zoo.The Sakkar Bagh which incidentally is remarkably well stocked with exotic birds that include flamingos and of course all the big cats, with pride of place, going to the famous Gir Lions. Of great interest in the Sakkar Bagh museum are the remnants of Junagadh’s pre-Mughal past which they excavated from Uparkot. They also have an impressive collection of miniature paintings and ancient coins.

Amongst the other historical monument, the most important are the mausoleums of the Nawabs and petty princes of Junagadh. There are several of them, spread all over the city. The two main groups are on Gandhi Road, opposite the law courts and at the head of Dhal Road. One can identify them easily as muslim structures by the elegant minarets they usually sport. But the ornamentation is clearly, deeply influenced by the Hindu and Jain ethos of the majority population.

A little out of town, on the way to Girnar, in a small roadside building, is a huge boulder that bears irrefutable testimony to the venerable age of the site on which Junagadh stands. Inscribed on the rock are 14 edicts of the Emperor Ashoka. Dating back to around 250 B.C. they are written in Pali script and lay down the moral strictures of the Emperor. Later inscriptions were added in 150 A.D. by Rudrama and in 450 A.D. by Sikandagupta. The later inscriptions are in Sanskrit and refer to recurring floods destroying the embankments of the holy Sudarshan lake which was nearby. In spite of repairs, as mentioned in the inscription, the embankments were eventually totally destroyed and the lake does not exist anymore.

The last item of this jaunt in Junagadh is the holy Girnar mountain. This five peaked mountain hill is studded with Jain and Hindu temples and attracts thousands of pilgrims from far and near. The temples are amongst the oldest in the land and highly venerated by all who visit them. It is a 1,118, metres ascent to the summit, up 10,000 stone steps which, according to a local story, were built from the proceeds of a lottery. It takes three to four hours to reach the summit with breaks at the frequent refreshment stalls all along the way. The old and infirm can make use of a Dandi, a very basic palanquin carried by two men. It’s a pleasant walk, through a scrubby forest with plenty to see, both on and off the path.

The pilgrimage to Girnar begins with a dip in the Damodar Kund. Legend has it that it was built by Vajrnabh, the grandson of the God Krishna. The saint poet Narasinh Mehta (of Vaishnav Janato… fame) is said to have had a vision of Lord Krishna here. Most pilgrims however give the dip a miss and satisfy themselves with just a visit to the Krishna temple at the site.

The first group of temples on Giurnar mountain appears after 6000 steps. This is the focal point of all the Jain pilgrims who come here. The largest and oldest of these temples is dedicated to Neminath, the 22nd Jain Tirthankar. A mammoth black image of Neminath with outsized eyes of gold, dominates the central shrine. There are scores of other shrines with smaller images all around the temple. Nearby is the triple temple of Mallinath, the 19th Trithankar. All the temple exteriors are exquisitely carved and look their age but the exteriors have been painted and plastered so often that they hardly look like the 700 years old temples that they are supposed to be. Still, they are a beautiful sight to behold and a fascinating insight into Jain religious rituals. The outward similarity with Hinduism is remarkable. Just as in a Hindu temple, the pilgrims here too offer flowers, leaves, fruit, grains, vermilion and sandalwood paste to the deity, amidst chanting of mantras and ringing of bells. Once the pooja is done, they too adorn their forehead with generous daubs of vermilion and sandalwood paste and offer money for the upkeep of the shrine. As with the Hindus, the Jains too have a complicated ritual of ablutions before the pooja and the men are required to wear unstitched clothes only. The women however, are allowed in, in their normal clothes.

At the summit of the mountain is the temple of Amba Mata. This Hindu temple is dedicated to an incarnation of the mother Goddess. Newly married couples come here to be blessed by the Goddess and thereby be assured of eternal conjugal bliss. There are several other temples in the vicinity which are probably older than the Jain temples but, once again, frequent renovation has robbed them completely of their former beauty. Most notable of them is the Gaumukhi Ganga temple. It is built around a natural carving of a cow, from whose mouth flows a perennial stream of water.

Girnar has been an object of pilgrimage for a very long time, even before the temples were built. It is mentioned even in the Puranas, the oldest Hindu scriptures. It is an ancient. Power place, especially suited to the anchorite, a man who has chosen to follow the spiritual path. Great Sadhus have come here to perform penances and rituals on their onward path of spiritual evolution. In addition to the Jain Tirthankars, Guru Dattatreya, Gorakhnathji and Ramanandji, are but a few of the great people who have been here. Even today, a peak known as Gabbar, a inhabited exclusively by Yogis and other Sadhakas. According to a local belief, a rock known as Bhairav Jap has magical properties. It is said that whoever commits suicide by jumping off this rock, is reborn as a prince! While there is no way of Verifying this belief, there is nonetheless an amazing coincidence. If all those who commit suicide were to be reborn as princes, the most logical place would be Junagadh, because it is right there, at the base of mountain. Uncannily, Junagadh does seem to have had a most unusually large number of prices.

Getting There

By Air

The nearest airport is Ahmedabad which is approximately 300 kilometres from Junagadh.

By Rail

Junagadh is connected by rail with Ahmedabad and Bombay. The journey takes approximately eight hours.

By Road

Well connected by road with all major towns. Gujarat Roadways buses ply frequently to Junagadh. Private taxis easily available from Ahmedabad, Surat and Bombay.

Local Transport

Auto rickshaws and taxis with no metres. Tongas also available. The best way to get about town is to walk. A map of Junagadh is displayed outside the Post Office in Diwan chowk which is very useful.