A 'Magic Mountain'
I first encountered Girnar long ago, in the Amar Chitra Katha volume on 'Ranak Devi' (*). Many years on, I read somewhere about a rock edict put up by Emperor Asoka (3rd centure BC) near there. And the only thing I knew about the more modern town of Junagad, which lies at the foot of Girnar, was that it almost became Pakistan during Partition - the local Nawab initially opted to 'go across' and was forced to stay back in India.
A couple of weeks back, I read in my travel guide book that Mount Girnar is a 1100 meter extinct volcano(!) and has several Jain and Hindu temples at its summit and is quite a challenge to climb.
September 21st 2007: Our car leaves Veraval in the morning. The plan: as our main party will explore Junagad and its Nawabi monuments, I shall go off and try to trek up Girnar. I have never seen a volcano before, even an extinct one...
The 100 km drive from Veraval to Junagad is thru flat country. There has been excessive rain this year(some of which showers on us as we proceed) and there is greenery all around. But the driver/guide tells us the downside of it: "all the peanut crop has rotted away!"
We pass country men wearing the exotic 'khadiyun' and 'Mer topis' ( a costume, minus the topis, heavily favored by dandiya dancers in urban India), Kathiawar cattle with big and gracefully curving horns and yes, 'Shakat Rikshas' carrying dense masses of people(**). A cluster of massive hills rises up ahead - Girnar.
The climb begins at the base of the hill at 9 am; the driver says: "the entire pathway is neatly stepped, in fact it is like 4-5 steps, then a flat stretch, then 4-5 steps, like that; there are chai shops all the way. The only real issue is your fitness... or faith; actually both!". As I start off past a gateway and a crowd of shops, he wishes me luck with a 'Jai Bhole Baba!'.
The weather is moderate and cloudy and that should help...
The path climbs thru a forest of broad-leafed trees; a gloriously colored peacock generally loiters in a clearing. About 20 minutes from the start, I see written on a step: "500". Before long, I see a "550"; clearly the number of steps passed. Initially, it is reassuring to see your progress precisely quantified thus but soon after, it begins to irritate and then depress: "1000, 1050, 1100,..." progress seems too slow and the legs start complaining; and some folks I easily overtook a short while ago steadily file past me, among them a tough young fellow carrying a cargo of 60 filled soft drink bottles ( yes, I counted them, they were neatly stacked). All confidence in my physical fitness has evaporated...
After around 1500 steps, one is above the treeline and the grassy slopes begin. The path hereon is a lot steeper; it is now "10-20 steps, then a flat, then 10-20 steps". By around 2000 steps, I am struggling. Then, I start seeing successive groups of villager pilgrims coming downhill; must be those who climbed early in the morning for the temple Darshan. Many of them, while passing me wish: "Jai Girnari!". I hear myself gasping the same slogan, first as a matter of courtesy, and then it becomes something of a necessity, a lifeline...
At 2500, a soft drink vendor says: "Ambaji (goddess) temple is at 5000. Thereon, it is an up and down journey - not all the way up - to first Gorakhnath and then Dattatreya temples." It is already an hour from start; I say to him bravely: "Guess in another hour I will reach Ambaji. I will do at least that!"
Soon afterwards, there is a surprise benediction: a stiff breeze starts and riding on it, a mass of clouds pass over with a gently refreshing shower. Soon it clears and vast views open up below, a swathe of forest, the sprawl of Junagad town and the limitless stretch of countryside beyond... slopes with millions of strawberry colored blooms alternate with sheer rock faces. The energizing breeze persists and I sort of find a second wind within. Before long I reach a plateau at 4000 - here is a cluster of over a dozen Jain temples, elegantly proportioned, intricately carved, many with domed ceilings with ornate mosaic patterns. Several of these temples have been left unmaintained and grasses and moss have sprouted all over - making them strangely more beautiful than they would otherwise have been. I don't tarry but proceed, pausing only occasionally and very briefly to enjoy the views. Almost precisely at 2 hours, I reach Ambaji, take a quick snap of the centuries old stone built temple, gulp down a bottle of 'limca' and strike out for Gorakhnath. The views are now practically 360 degree; one can see several dozens of kiometers of green plains in all directions, fading far away into a blue obscurity; there are no other hills anywhere near the Girnar cluster(perhaps the closest and the only other (and much smaller) group in the entire Kathiawar are the Shatrunjay hills at Palitana, almost 150 kilometers away).
The path from Ambaji is initially down (about 200 steps); then a sharp climb of well over 500 steps takes you to Gorakhnath. Some strange sadhus hang around this small temple. I pause to look back at Ambaji and ahead at Datta. The latter is particularly impressive, an almost pencil thin crag of granite thrusts up from a ridge running on from Gorakhnath and the Datta temple itself seems just an outcrop from the very tip. I am reminded of pictures of the Meteora and Mount Athos monasteries in Greece.
Though exhausted, I proceed. Again, the initial direction is downwards. The path twists down in stretches of up to 50 steps at a time and one cannot make out how far it is going to descend before climbing up again towards Datta....
At almost 1000 steps down from Gorakhnath, there is a small pond called 'Kamandal Kund' and the climb to Datta finally begins; stepcount wise, it is equal to the descent from Gorakhnath and, if anything, even steeper - the 'Jai Girnari's of oncoming villagers spur me on.
(I must say here, at least a third of the several hundreds of trekkers I see today are women - I hear one of them tell a companion, "I made a vow to come hear to ward off an evil spell". Separately, at least a quarter of the trekkers are 40 plus - and I saw several 70 plus couples, patiently working their way uphill, armed with little more than a stick. These men and women have amazed me far more than this very remarkable mountain itself).
Perched at the top of the 'Datta crag' is a temple, housing a big idol of Dattatreya - and guarded by a tough looking Sadhu and a pushy cop. Up close, the temple is an ugliness of tin sheet and concrete and worse, blocks out a full three quarters of the view from there. I pause briefly at the summit and look out into the remaining open quadrant, straining my eyes to catch something familiar in the distance. There is some cloud cover. I venture to ask the cop if one can see the sea (80 kilometers to the south, by the map) on a clear day. The incredulous answer is: "The sea?? where is the sea here?? ... go to Veraval or Somnath!"
Even the sense of achievement of having climbed all the three peaks of Girnar is of little help while negotiating the return to Gorakhnath and then to Ambaji, the most arduous part of the entire trek. Creaking joints, painfully twitching muscles, dehydration...; even a water bottle and camera feels like a ton; the superb views are no real help... and it is a long while before I stagger onto the the abode of the 'lady of the mountain' (***). It is 1 pm - the round trip from Ambaji to Datta and back has taken two full hours. I need to begin the final descent immediately; I have told 'High Command' that I would return by 2 pm and am behind the clock...
Presently, the Jain temple complex appears below, a fresh wave of clouds lapping at it. I climb down as fast as I can and pass them once again (there is unfortunately no time left to explore them) and I proceed, wishing "Jai Girnari" to fresh climbers struggling uphill; progress is mercifully quicker than expected, the step count falls fast and soon I am below the treeline. As I hasten to reach the base, I again encounter the peacock I saw in the morning at almost the same spot. And 2.10, the trek is finally over at the archway.
The driver is impressed with my 'progress report': "I have never gone past Ambaji in many attempts. My condition gets too bad by then." he says. I respond: "My condition was bad as well; but unlike you, I dunno if I will ever get another chance so forced myself to do the whole thing." (Today, almost a week down the line, the legs ache..)
After a short break to look at Asoka's edict(****) at the foot of the mountain, we begin our return to Veraval. On the way, we ask a villager whether we can buy his kind of 'Mer topi' anywhere. He says (driver's translation): "Only in villages you get it. Anyways, what use is it to you city people?"
Afterword: Is Girnar really a volcano? There is no 'fire and brimstone' anywhere; the mountain probably is the eroded stump of what must have been once upon a time, a gigantic mass of granite - yes, granite is a volcanic rock all right and Girnar might even be the remnant of the 'frozen' magma chamber of some long gone volcano; but is that enough to say "Girnar is a volcano"? I dunno! Overall, appearance-wise and feel-wise, Girnar is like a much bigger (and in parts, much more rugged) version of 'Ananganmala', a tight group of granite hills which sharply rise to around 1400 feet from the plains of north-central Kerala.
(*) The story of Ranak Devi, which I found quite depressing when I read it as a highschooler, goes like this: Ranak is the beautiful daughter of a village nobleman and is betrothed to Siddharaj, king of Gujarat. Khengar, the king of rival Sorath (Saurashtra, approximately, Kathiawar), falls in love with her, she too falls for him and they elope and get married. In a sequence of events reminscent of 'Iliad', an angry Siddharaj beseiges Sorath; the battles drag on for years, during which Ranak becomes mother to two sons...
Finally, thru deceit and trickery, Siddharaj scores a decisive victory, kills Khengar in battle and marches triumphantly into the citadel where Ranak waits prayerfully for her husband. And when she comes to know her husband's fate, she says rather matter of factly: "I will commit Sati. My husband will be avenged by my sons". Siddharaj promptly kills her sons; then he drags Ranak out on to the battlefield, where lies the slain Khengar. She begs him to arrange for a funeral to her husband, but Siddharaj decapitates the body and makes off carrying the head; Ranak tags along, begging him to give it back so that she can become a Sati but he does not relent. That night, Siddharaj has a nighmarish vision and scared, tells Ranak that he will finally arrange for the funeral.
In the morning, he sets up the pyre, and a large crowd gathers; Ranak sits atop the pyre with Khengar's head in her lap. But then in a final twist, Siddharaj warns: "Anybody who lights the pyre will be beheaded!". No one steps forward. An outraged Ranak curses the villagers causing a perennial river nearby to dry up forever. Then, she tearfully prays to goddess Amba and the pyre miraculously lights up. Once the flames die down, having consumed Ranak along with Khengar's head, the villagers scramble to pick up the holy ashes. Ranak Devi is still venerated in these parts as a noble 'Sati'.
Now, where is Girnar in all this? While following the triumphant Siddharaj's caravan, the distraught Ranak calls out to a huge mountain which is on the way: "O, Girnar, are you blind? Do you not see your Queen's fate?". Suddenly, a terrible avalanche of rocks begins, threatening to tear the mountain apart. Ranak says: "Enough, Girnar! Please do not destroy yourself!" and the rockfall miraculously stops...
Btw, Ranak cursing the hapless villagers (rather than Siddharaj) is reminiscent of Kannagi burning down the entire city of Madurai just because its king unjustly had her husband executed - of course, in that story, the king too perishes, overcome by guilt - and Kannagi finds her 'assumption' with Indra himself coming down, chariot and all, to receive her!
(**)The 'shakat riksha' is a centaur-like combination of a diesel powered Bullet mobike and a simple cart. It can carry upwards of a dozen people at moderate speeds with a lot of sound and smoke. In these parts of Gujarat, very poorly served by the state owned buses, these rikshaws form the backbone of the public transport. Almost all of these rikshaws are lovingly decorated with brightly painted landscapes, floral and other designs and pictures of heroes like Rana Pratap and Sivaji. This ornamentation reminds me of the highly ornamented Pakistani buses, which I have of course, seen only in pictures.
(***)The word 'Girnar' is probably a corruption of 'Girinagara' ('mountain city'), a pre-Christian town that flourished in the same area. The word 'Girnari' can be taken to mean either "the (male) resident/lord of Girnar" ( could apply to Gorakhnath or Datta) or alternatively, "the nari (woman/lady) of the giri ( mountain)" (goddess Amba of course).
(****) The Asokan edict of Girnar is one of his 'major rock edicts'. The inscriptions are in Brahmi on a large, smooth, elephant-sized rock. Among other things, it talks about Dhamma and has a passage about kindness to animals: "...in our royal kitchen, hundreds of animals used to be killed everyday (quite an abattoir, wasnt it?); now only two peacocks and a deer are killed per day and this will also be curtailed eventually..."
Wonder if 'King Piyadassi, the beloved of Gods' himself regularly feasted on the 'pea-chicken' and venison while the rest of the palace-folk were forced to adopt vegetarianism! I am reminded of the splendid specimen I saw on the foothills of Girnar...