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Indian pilgrimage sites don’t come more spectacular than Mount Girnar, an extinct volcano rising from Gujarat’s Saurasthran peninsula, whose craggy summit encapsulates everything that’s most compelling about a journey to Western India.
Getting to the top of its pinnacled ridge, up a flight of 5,000 stone steps, is a breathless adventure, punctuated by pauses at cave shrines that have been objects of veneration for two-thousand years or more. Accompanying you on the climb may be parties of ‘sky-clad’ Jain monks, camel herders from Kutch, Sufi mystics, or IT professionals from the city. And when you finally haul yourself on to the ridgetop, the views over the plains can be savoured from the terrace of a temple where dreadlocked sadhus, smeared with blue-grey cremation ashes, pull yoga poses under plumes of hashish smoke.
The distant past is never far from the surface in this part of the world. At Lothal, an Indus-Valley (Harappan) site in central Gujarat, archeologists have uncovered the remains of a port that flourished on these shores more than four millennia ago. Ashokean rock inscriptions, carved in the third century BC, attest to the existence of trade routes extending from the west coast across the Arabian Sea and beyond, while the murals of Ajanta in neighbouring Maharashtra show pilgrims and merchants adrift in sailing ships almost identical to those taking shape today in the dockyards of Mandvi, on the seaboard of modern Gujarat.
Foreign trade continues to underpin the region’s prosperity, driven by the economic powerhouse of Mumbai. The Maharashtran capital, however, is merely the latest in a succession of cities that have boomed on India’s western flank. One such metropolis arose five centuries ago at the mouth of the Mandovi River in Goa, where a handful of giant churches, peeping above the palm trees like a phalanx of misplaced space rockets, are all that survive of the former Portuguese capital.
For a wind-down after a tour of Western India’s rugged interior, you’d be hard pushed to find anywhere as relaxing as one of Goa’s beaches, where the surf is warm year round, the sand golden, the palm trees heavenly and weather dependably dry and sunny throughout the winter.
Some of the finest Indo-Muslim buildings of medieval India lie hidden amid the narrow streets of Ahmedabad’s old city, dating from the rule of Sultan Ahmed Shah in the 15th century.