Sunday, 20 November 2016

Heads or Tails – Udupi Coin Museum is a Winner

Money makes the world go round but it is also making you walk barefoot spellbound among beautiful displays in a museum loaded with yes, lots of money. There are coins seemingly made of gold that glint and currency notes so large that you wonder how big the wallets were in the past. This is Haji Abdulla Memorial Heritage Museum housed in Corporation Banks’s Heritage Museum and Financial Research Centre near the famous Krishna Temple in old Udupi.

Udupi Coin Museum

Museums have been a mixed bag in my travels ranging from some of the disappointing government run archaeology museums to the scintillating ones in Kurukshetra and Shillong. Few minutes ago, the guard at the gate had politely asked me to come in but not before taking my shoes off. The curiosity was certainly piqued by several notches.

Udupi has been serving surprises all right. While it is common knowledge that Udupi lends its name to the neighbourhood restaurants serving cheap and hygienic South Indian food, what is not widely known is that Manipal, the El Dorado for students across the country, is a next door neighbour to Udupi. And the big surprise is that apparently Udupi is the banking cradle of the country. Corporation Bank, Karnataka Bank, Syndicate Bank, Vijaya Banak and Canara Bank - where you still remember the manager in New Delhi’s Chanakya Puri branch counting the coins you had saved to open your first bank account - were all founded in Udupi.

This museum with an old world charm is actually beautiful and lovingly put together. Under the wooden beam ceiling, exhibits glint in soft light. The neat exhibits of coins are a numismatist’s delight and for anyone who has ever carried currency notes or coins in their pockets and purses. All the exhibits are painstakingly researched and their explanations displayed. I am joined by the earnest curator Mr. M. K. Krishnayya whose passion for the museum and its contents is seen to be believed. In addition to being a numismatics expert, he is also a thematic philatelist. The curator’s rich stories of money come pouring out like the rains all morning here today in Udupi. The history and story of money is indeed interesting.

The Coin Museum has a heart warming story just like the several philanthropic stories heard across the country. The halls housing the museum were once the home of Corporation Bank’s founder Haji Abdulla Saheb Bahadur. He established Corporation Bank in 1906 to fulfil the long felt needs of banking for the people, to free them from exploitation by the money lenders and to inculcate the habit of saving. It is said that Saheb Bahadur would donate his wealth – a little every day – to the poor. And when there was nothing left to give, he chose to take his own life. The founder’s lofty ideals and ethos seem to echo as we walk barefoot in the halls. Yes, the practise of walking barefoot is prevalent since the times when everyone took off their shoes while walking through the lane in front of Haji Saheb’s house.


We are on the money trail. The coins date from 400 BC and run through times and dynasties of Mauryas, Shakas, Kushans, Satavahanas, Guptas to assorted Sultanates, Mughals, Marathas and the British. Mahajanpads of early historic times like Gandhara, Kuntala and Kuru issued their own punch-marked coins called Puranas. The coins of different shapes and sizes are made of gold, silver and copper. Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth made her appearance on coins as early as 2nd century BC. You can see coins with symbols, motifs, scripts, legends and images of rulers and deities. The prized possession of the museum is one-rupee silver coin weighing 11 gms called Rupaya which was introduced in 1540 by Sher Shah Suri who besides building the Grand Trunk Road also ran Humayun out of the country. 


As money evolved from barter system to where currency was introduced as metal pieces, the evolution of terminology of money from the Mughal times to independence is pretty interesting.  Three Phooti Cowries made a Cowrie – yes, there actually was money that was called phooti cowrie made of sea-shells and is believed to be the longest and most widely used currency in history; ten Cowries made a Damri; two Damris made a Dhela; two Dhelas made a Paisa; 64 Paisa made 16 Anna and 16 Annas made 1 Rupya! You can certainly recall proverbs where these names for money have been used or in the movies where the father threatens the heir with not deserving a single cowrie, dhela, paisa or rupya as inheritance; the nomenclature changed over the years!


The museum has currency notes too some in the denominations of Rs 5000 and Rs 10000. One exhibit has profiles of all Governors of Reserve Bank of India. The curator is a distinguished stamp collector too and some exhibits display his love for philately. One of his favourite themes is stamps with flags. There is an exhibit that shows how our Tricolour evolved over the years. The museum is indeed multi-dimensional unlike a two-sided coin.


Launched in 2011, the museum is the fruit of labour of two employees. Most of these over 1500 coins belong to Mr. Radhakrishna Kumble, who has collected these coins over a period of 25 years through his own salary while the stamps belong to Mr. Krishnayya. The Udupi Coin Museum has put love of museums back in my life. The museum is a glowing example in today’s cynical world where two selfless individuals carry forward the legend of their bank’s founder. This is all about passion which thankfully no amount of money can buy.

The Museum Curator Mr. M. K. Krishnayya’s contact number is 9945271614

A version of the story appeared in the Spectrum supplement of Deccan Herald on 15th Nov 2016

Decoding the Past Through Coins
http://www.deccanherald.com/content/581063/decoding-past-through-coins.html

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Gossamer Magic – Raas Leela of Manipur (a Photoessay)

So while the Manipuris punch above their weight in the boxing rings – as in, Mary Kom and Dingko Singh - here they weave silky magic with their delicate and gracious moves. You have carried these images of dancers with their bamboo basket like skirts from the sepia days of Doordarshan. And then on a breathless smoggy day, the dancers step out before you in all their colourful glory.

You are attending the North East Festival for the second time in two years conducted in the heart of Lutyens Delhi at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). And then these women dressed in delicate veils step on the stage to display one of the most gracious dance performances that you have ever seen.


The dance takes the breath away – let the photos do the talking

Raas Leela from Manipur at North East Festival, IGNCA, New Delhi
Krishna with gopis at IGNCA New Delhi
In the tradition of Vaishnavism of Manipur Raas Leela is depicted within the classic Manipur dance











A detailed story on the dance will follow soon - until then feast on the photos!

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Asirgarh – Key to Deccan

The road lazily winds through the hills as you leave the fringes of the Yawal Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra behind and enter Madhya Pradesh. You are making your way to the impregnable fort of Asirgarh beyond the historic town of Burhanpur on border of Maharashtra and MP. As we negotiate another turn the view ahead is both arresting and overpowering.

Jami Masjid rising over the Mama Bhanja Talao - Asirgarh in MP
This ridge rising high over the other hills has unmistakable fortifications on the scarped edges. And if this was not intimidating enough, you can discern twin minarets soaring into the blue skies. The saying ‘building castles in the air’ has just lost its meaning. A tingle runs down the spine. Forts and that too little known ones have this effect on you. The fort plays peek-a-boo at every turn heightening the excitement into the red zone.

Dramatic View of Asirgarh from the approaching road
Asirgarh built on a spur in the Satpuras range and rising to 850 feet above the hill base commanded over the road from Hindustan or Northern India to Deccan during the medieval times. The kings of Faruqi Dynasty turned the hill into an unassailable fort as they ruled over Khandesh since the dynasty’s inception in 1382. Twenty kilometres to the south was their capital city of Burhanpur on river Tapti; the Gateway to Deccan. In the sixteenth century Asirgarh was regarded as the strongest fort ever built; its reputation further attested by travellers from across the world who had not seen a fortress so strong which had enough provisions and ammunition to withstand a long siege. Asirgarh was the coveted Key to Deccan and the Faruqis were not going to hand over the key yet. Not even to the Mughal Emperor Akbar.

You love the signage put up by MP Tourism across the state
Directed by the excellent MP Tourism signs you are making your way up the hill even as the fearsome battlements keep peeping through the tree cover; never letting you out of sight. Every metre on the way up it seems you are being watched from the battlements. Not a stretch of the road goes that is not visible from the bastions above – if not from the main fort but then from the intervening two additional levels of concentric fortifications. If this was not enough, some outlying hills with names like Koria Pahar and Nawara Dongar or the Bridegroom Hill have been scarped into natural bastions. No wonder King Bahadur Khan felt safe in the fort even as the 200,000 strong Mughal army kept up the artillery barrage. But then he should have known that rock fortifications and cannon balls are no match for human deception and betrayal.

The last few kilometres climb up the dirt track is thrilling as the hill fashioned into a bastion keeps any eye on you
It was the twilight of Akbar’s glorious career. He had to take care of some unfinished business in the Deccan. In the beginning of year 1600, Akbar rolled into Khandesh from Malwa. The Faruqi King Bahadur Khan refused to pay tribute to Akbar and duly took position inside the impregnable Asirgarh. After taking over Burhanpur, Akbar returned and the Mughal forces laid siege to the fort in April while Prince Daniyal was engaged in quelling Chand Bibi in Ahmednagar. The emperor could not bear the defiance of a small king on the all important route to Deccan. Intelligence confirmed that the fort had ample supplies of water, food and ammunition. Akbar knew subjugating the fort will take time and time was one luxury he did not have. He will have to employ trickery and intrigue.

The minars peep
Akbar invited the King Miran Bahadur Khan for negotiation. Despite his officers’ concerns, Bahadur Shah accepted Akbar’s invitation to meet in August. However, despite assurances and oath that no harm will be inflicted, the King was seized. But still the princes in the fort did not capitulate and the siege continued; the siege was now six months long. Akbar knew that the siege could continue for years while Prince Salim threatened to take over the Empire. He had to return to Agra but not without completing the conquest. So when treachery failed it was time for bribery. The garrison officers were bribed with gold and finally the fort capitulated in January 1601 after a siege and intrigue games that played out for ten long months. Akbar returned triumphantly to Agra but soon died in 1605 without realising his dream of reclaiming Central Asia of his forefathers or conquest of Golkanda and Bijapur.

The exhilarating views of the track and the plains beyond from top of Asirgarh
You are finding the going as hard as Akbar. The narrow metalled track soon turns into an even narrower dirt track seemingly hanging by the side of the hill along with your car. And then there is a loud pop. Was that a canon shot? Have you just time travelled? Apparently, the front left tyre had burst hitting a pointed rock on the shoulder. The fort will have to wait as the wheel is replaced.


The parking lot at the third level of Asirgarh
Twenty minutes later you are at the car parking. Just beyond a gateway opens up to spectacular vistas of Nimar below; Nimar being the south-western region of Madhya Pradesh that has been carved into modern districts now. A long series of narrow steps brings the visitors from the plains below to the first level of fortifications called Malaigarh and then here to the central level of fortifications called Kamargarh through a series of five gateways. This was the original entry path into the fort which was later augmented by a road built by the British and where you just had the tyre burst. It is time to climb a few vertical flights of steps to enter Asirgarh, the greatest fort of the sixteenth century.

Walking through the overgrown path to Jami Masjid
The monsoons have turned the fort into an overgrown riot of greenery. But is the looming structure in front that reels you in. The structure whose minars acted like beacons to bring you up in this sixty acres fortified campus protected by walls that soar to 120 feet over the formidable hill looks imposing.
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Also Read: Aurangzeb in Love
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The Imposing Jami Masjid of Asirgarh

The Jami Masjid, built by the Faruqi King Raja Ali Khan, is a handsome structure with stone steps leading to its high three-arched entrance. Inside, the courtyard is flanked by cloistered halls or arched passages. The west facing qibla wall has thirteen decorated mihrabs with lattice screens, most of which have been lost. Flanking the western hall are two slender minarets that have kept you company as you approached Asirgarh on the highway.


The resident snake of Asirgarh
You sit here for some time enjoying the breeze and the vistas spread before you. As you look down at the ramparts on the southern side unfurling right below, you are taken aback. A huge snake is sunning itself on the wall. Sensing your movement the snake slithers into its hiding. This is the first time you are encountering a snake in a fort. But then you did have a feeling someone was watching you on your way up! Well the snake sighting means that you will have to be careful walking around the fort in the tall grass.

Zinnia flowers bloom under the brilliant sun and blue skies
Leaving the mosque you make your way on the faint trails. The crisp sunny day with blue skies and wispy clouds is excellent for photography. All around here are the unmistakable ruins of colonial structures.  The fort along with the Faruqis, Mughals and Marathas has British connection too. British soldiers and their families stayed in these barracks and houses with chimneys. Such houses are common in the railway colonies of small towns across India. There is a cemetery too here with several tombstones of soldiers who probably died storming the fort as they tried to wrest it back from the Marathas.

Through the overhanging branches you come to the twin water tanks popularly known as Mama Bhanja Talaos. Getting to the edge of the tanks is treacherous and you try to stay away from the edges. It was these water tanks that supported a population of almost 40000 people that came out of the gates of the fort when the fort fell. You can see paths leading to underground structures that probably were used as granaries.



Since there are not many built structures here, you focus on the skies and on the ground. After the past few days of grey monsoon skies, the skies have turned cheerful blue even as the clouds create lace patterns on blue sheet. Inching my way to the edge of the escarpment, the views are dazzling – the hill and the rolling plains are awashed in brilliant green even as the lace embroidered skies seem to be in easy reach. The dirt track can be seen inching through the tree cover. All around on the ground studding the luminescent green grass are the purple balsam and pink zinnia flowers swaying in the breeze. Standing under the shade of a tree this is a brilliant day to be out here on a fort which has been witness to a long history of bravery, deception and yes, the fort has connection to mythology too.

Looking towards Nimar plains
Firishta, the Persian scholar, attributes the original construction of fort to Asa Ahir, a local chieftain.  Historians call this incorrect as the name Asir is mentioned by the Rajput poet Chand. The name Asir could have originated from the Asi or Haihaya kings who ruled over the Narmada river from Maheshwar. In 1295, Alauddin Khilji returning from one of his sacking tour of Deccan killed all the ruling Chauhan Rajputs of Asirgarh. The Faruqi Dynasty, an offshoot of the Bahmani Sultanate, ruled until the aging Akbar decided to show up on his last conquest outing. Later in 1803, the fort under Maratha occupation by captured by General Wellesley’s army in the Second Anglo-Maratha War.  

Temple where Ashwathama comes to pray to Lord Shiva at Asirgarh
There is one last thing to do. Walking through the ruins I run into two men who are frequent visitors here. They lead me to the Shiva Temple with connections to Mahabharata. The temple is supposed to be Mahabharata character Ashwathama’s temple. Ashwathama, according to popular folklore, who has been condemned to eternal roaming by Lord Krishna, comes to the temple every morning to pray to Lord Shiva or Mahakaal to relieve him from his misery. Fresh flowers are reportedly found inside the sanctum every morning. Taking off your shoes you descend into the step-well where the temple is built along the side. In the small sanctum, Nandi looks reverentially towards the ling. You have just stepped into the times of epics.

Hitch a ride, drive, walk, or come piggy-back riding - just get to Asirgarh in Madhya Pradesh
Asirgarh has been a revelation. You have a feeling you will be back here, perhaps in a different season to uncover more subterranean structures and connect with even more stories. And next time, you will take the steps from Kamargarh to get down through the fortifications. But now Burhanpur beckons where the love story of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz played out on the moonlit nights over Tapti.

Getting There:
Asirgarh in Madhya Pradesh is 160 kms from Indore and 30 kms from Burhanpur. Aurangabad in Maharashtra is 240 kms away.

What else to see:
Burhanpur to the south is a veritable treasure for heritage lovers. It was in Burhanpur that Mumtaz Mahal died giving birth to her fourteenth child in the Shahi Qila and was buried in Ahukhana just outside the city while her grand mausoleum was being built in Agra by a heart-broken Shahjahan. And in another little known episode, a much married middle aged Aurangzeb fell in love with a girl in Zainabad near Ahukhana.

Khandwa, 50 kms to the north, is the birthplace of the famous playback singer Kishore Kumar where a memorial has been built for him.

A version of this story appeared in the October 2016 issue of the Go-Getter magazine which is the inflight magazine of Go Air Airline

http://go-getter.in/asirgarh-key-deccan/

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Celebrating Mahanavami in Hampi

While the living Virupaksha Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and his two consorts towers over Hampi, it is Lord Ram and Ramayana that have the most associations with this evocative World Heritage Site. Anegundi, the village to the north across Tungabhadra, is where the story of Vijaynagar Empire began and where large parts of Ramayana played out. This was the Kishkindha Kingdom when Ram and Lakshman came looking for abducted Sita and met Sugreev and his Chief Minister Hanuman. Here Ram killed Sugreev’s brother Vaali and helped him get back his kingdom. It was in the Pampa Sarovar where they bathed and on the banks met Sabari who fed berries to Ram.

The Ruins of the Day - The Magnificent Mahanavami Dibba in the Royal Enclosure, Hampi

Later the capital was shifted to the other side of the river to Hampi. On the Hampi side, it was on the Matanga Hill that Sugreev had taken shelter and it was on the Malyavanta Hill that Ram and Lakshman waited out the monsoons before marching to Lanka. And it was exactly during these months of September and October when the rains subsided that the grandest festivities took place in Hampi. The festival was called Mahanavami when for nine days the capital would host the most opulent celebrations.

Mahanavami too has association with Ramayana. Ram had prayed to Goddess Durga for victory just before the final battle with Ravana. The rulers of Vijaynagar too worshipped Durga praying for strength to subdue their enemies. Military campaigns were initiated after the Mahanavami celebrations when the display of power and wealth would make any future belligerent wary.

The View of the Royal Enclosure from top of Mahanavami Dibba in Hampi Karnataka
All tourists begin their visit to Hampi by paying obeisance at the Virupaksha Temple before they make their way to Royal Enclosure. In the aftermath of Battle of Talikota, the capital was sacked and pillaged. Today, the Royal Enclosure besides some fortifications and later excavations is bare except the dominating three-tiered platform called Mahanvami Dibba. It was on this platform that the King was seated as he witnessed the grand celebrations during the nine days of Navaratri.

The rich relief carvings on the walls of the Mahanavami Dibba in Hampi

On a monsoon day you circumambulate the platform. The lower two levels probably constitute the original granite stages of the platform that was built along with the royal enclosure in 14th century. The relief carvings are a delight. There are processions of horses, elephants and camels. The kings are shown in their courts, on other occasions they watch wrestling matches, dance performances and then they go hunting deers and leopards. Foreigners are seen in plenty indicating that the fame of the glorious kingdom attracted foreign emissaries, traders and soldiers over the years. Foreigners in pointed hats lead horses, hold clubs and even play tambourines.

Grandeur and the Splendour of the days gone - Royal Enclosure in Hampi
Two series of stairs – one in front and one in back – bring you to the top of the platform. The view from here is quite exhilarating but you cannot but feel sad about the way the glorious empire ended in an orgy of plunder and destruction. While temples and structures elsewhere have survived, the royal enclosure bore the full brunt and everything seems to have been flattened. On the top of the platform there are extant pillar bases which indicate that wooden columns supported a grand mandap in which the King sat watching the proceedings. In the aftermath of the cataclysmic battle everything was burned down and looted. Now along with the mandap almost everything in the royal enclosure is lost including the possible 40 pillared Diwankhana where the King held talks with his chiefs.

The beautiful Hazara Rama Temple in Hampi


The outer compound walls profusely carved with scenes from Navaratri Celebrations - Hazararama Temple in Hampi Karnataka

If the Mahanavami Dibba is indicative of association of Lord Ram then the Hazara Ram Temple fully reinforces it. Built by King Deva Raya I in the early 15th century in the core of the Royal Enclosure, it was the royal temple of the Vijaynagar’s kings. The temple is striking in its design and decoration with beautiful mouldings and pilastered walls. The outer compound walls are profusely decorated with similar scenes as in the Mahanavami platform. There are bands of relief carvings of processions of horses, elephants, military contingents and dancing women with sticks reminiscent of Gujarat’s Dandiya Raas. At the entry there is an image of Durga as her fierce aspect of Mahishasuramrdini. The inner compound walls depict Ramayana episodes. The main temple is situated in the middle with a mandap. The mandap walls have 108 scenes from Ramayana including fire sacrifice of Dashratha, coronation of Ram, demon king Ravana in an aerial chariot and Hanuman leaping over the ocean. 

Coming back to the Mahanavami celebrations, the impressed foreign visitors to the Vijaynagar Empire have left glowing accounts of the biggest annual celebrations that took place during Navaratri.


Fernao Nuniz, a Portuguese horse trader who spent three years (1535-1537) in Vijaynagar has written rich chronicles of the life in the empire. The Portuguese based in Goa had taken over the horse trade from the Arabs. The nine day festival according to Nuniz was the most lavish and elaborate. The days were marked with great feasts and pageantry. On the first day, nine castles – probably tents - made of rich cloth were erected in front of the royal palace for the nine principal captains or governors of the empire. Sacrifices of animals were carried out. During the ceremonies the King was seated on a throne made of gold and gems. This was the only time during the year when the king sat on this throne on top of Mahanavami Dibba. Nine horses and nine elephants bedecked with roses and silky trappings and accompanied by a great number of attendants saluted the king and when all the governors and commanders would descend into the capital to partake of the celebrations and pay tribute to the King.

The celebrations continued for nine days when each day rivaled the other with extravaganza and pomp. Abdur Razzaq, ambassador of the Persian ruler Shah Rukh, visited Vijaynagar in 1443 during the reign of Deva Raya II. He says that Ashtavana or the Revenue Department was abuzz as all the Captains or Nayakas descended on the capital to partake of the grand celebrations and to pay tribute and pledge allegiance, money and soldiers to the King. The Nayakas were given a part of the land in lieu of military assistance and annual tribute.

Domingos Paes was another Portuguese traveller who visited Vijaynagar around 1520 during the reign of King Krishna Deva Raya when the empire was at its zenith. Paes’ chronicles are supposed to be the most detailed of all accounts that have been written about Vijaynagar and he corroborates the enthusiastic account of Nuniz. Paes also describes the magnificent celebrations during the nine days of Navaratri. He identifies the Mahanavami Dibba as the House of Victory which was erected after the victory over Orissa and on which the King is seated during the celebrations.

Women Dancing - Mahanavami Dibba at Hampi

Paes is also dazzled by the extravagant display of opulence. It seems everything from horses and elephants to queens and the dancing women are heavily weighed down by the huge amounts of gold, rubies and pearls they are carrying on their heads and limbs. In some cases, attendants help them by supporting their arms. The royal enclosure was accessible to only the captains and chiefs and was entered through a series of secured gateways. The inside of the enclosure was a grand show of handsome cloths, Mecca velvet, silks from Persia and brocades of China. Great slaughters of animals took place in the mornings after which prayers to the idol were carried out. The feast began in the afternoons. When the night descended thousands of torches were lit turning the night into day. Festivities continued as wrestlers went about their business of disfiguring faces. The women dancers are burdened with diamond collars, bracelets and armlets of rubies and pearls, series of heavy girdles that hang down till their thighs and anklets with all imaginable precious stones that it is difficult to believe how they could amass such wealth. The king is seated on the throne. The captains salute and pay their tributes. And then the night sky is lit up with an eye popping display of fireworks. The festivities continue for nine days, the intensity and scale growing grander each day.
The Splendour of Royal Procession - painting from the ceiling of Virupaksha Temple - Photo Credit NID

Standing on top of the platform at dusk you survey the ruins around the royal enclosure. With the detailed description given by Paes it is not hard to go back 500 years to imagine today as one of the Navaratri days. Happy people are dressed in their best, priests chant shlokas, and governors size each other up. The King resplendent in his white embroidered clothes jokes with the numerous beautiful women all around him; his jewels catch the light of the thousands lit torches even as his mind fine-tunes his next military conquest. The trained horses prance and the caparisoned elephants trumpet at the command of their masters. For nine days, the plundered and barren capital of Vijaynagar Empire relives its old glory days.


A version of the story appeared as the Cover Story in the Spectrum supplement of Deccan Herald dated 20th Sep 2016.

Revisiting the Past Grandeur


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Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Coral Walking in Narara Marine National Park

Wading in the ankle high water, I have stumbled upon a marine life wonderland. A wonderland, I had resigned to my fate, I could only watch on the infotainment channels on TV. Someone who is scared of swimming, leave alone snorkelling or scuba diving, I knew there was no chance of ever watching live the spectacularly colourful marine life. Things are about to change.


The Wonderland of Narara Marine National Park in Jamnagar Gujarat

The Narara Marine National Park and Sanctuary in Gujarat has come as a pleasant surprise as I road trip across Gujarat. I have visited National Wildlife Sanctuaries, National Parks and lately even a Geological Park and Jurassic Park but this is the first time I am hearing about Marine National Park. I am heading west towards Dwarka from Jamnagar along the Gulf of Kutch. This is the petrochemical hub of India with sprawling refineries and related paraphernalia of mushroom like storage tanks and lines of tankers snaking around. It is hard to imagine a marine park co-existing with oil - oil and water simply do not mix.
Dirt track leading from Vadinar to Narara National Marine Park near Jamnagar

Narara National Marine Park
Turning right on the highway towards Vadinar, just past the Reliance refinery and few kilometres ahead, the creeks of Gulf of Kutch make their entry parallel to the dirt road that leads to the marine park. Birds tiptoe on their long slender legs poking into the water. Stopping at the reception to buy entry ticket and to engage a guide, I am on my way to the promised land or rather the promised waters. This is the low tide time that stretches for twelve hours between two high tides and the perfect time to explore when the water is about a foot high. These tips came from the nice hotel owner in Jamnagar.

The ridged sand surface during low tide times
We make our way through a barrier of mangrove forest with aerial roots spurting through the ridge patterned sand banks to emerge into the vast reef. The Gulf of Kutch wraps us all around as it extends deep into the horizon.  Established in 1982, the Narara Marine National Park is India’s first Marine Park sprawled over about 160 sq km and is part of the Marine Sanctuary that encompasses a group of 42 islands ranging from the well known Pirotan Island to Dwarka Beyt. But here is the beauty of Narara. There is no need to ride boats or wrangle for permits. All you need is to arrive at low tide times and simply start walking. Narara turns into nature’s marvel when waters recede and the flatlands come alive with marine life around your feet.

The dancing sun light on the water surface creates magic at Narara National Marine Park in Jamanagar Gujarat
About walking for a kilometre we arrive at the shallow waters. I am finally going to fulfil my wish to see the incredible world of marine wildlife and that too by just walking and splashing in the water. The show has begun as I walk around the rocks draped in wavy algae. Creatures of the sea dash around my ankles. Sun light creates magical shifting patterns on the rippling waters.  The disturbed sediment on the bed settles down even as I watch and the water again turns spectacularly clean. In the company of refineries and chemical plants, I can only marvel at the crystal clear waters.

Now this is a beauty!

The guide has bent down and is poking the rock with his stick. Holding in his hand is the first catch of the day! He has a crab in his hand flailing his chelipeds or pincers. The marine creatures are masters of disguise but it is only the trained eyes of a guide who can spot them as they seemingly blend in with the background. After the little guy is photographed, the guide gently releases it into the water.

Couple of Brittle Stars
There is a whole world below these rocks
Here at your feet is wonderland of sea life. The waterscape is littered with these rocks that have green algae or sea lettuce clinging to them. The sea lettuce being rich in proteins is a source of food for both sea animals and humans. Some rocks seem to be wrapped in the cellophane like lettuce. The rocks that form this reef are actually corals formed by secretion of calcium carbonate and over time have taken the looks of these grey and dark rocks. But once upturned these rocks reveal the multicoloured corals underneath. There is a whole world of animals embedded on their uneven surface - brittle stars related to starfish cling to the rock with their whip-like five arms even as a sea cucumber is trying to burrow into a hole.

The Ultimate Catch - The tentacley Octopus



A Sea Cucumber
The furry Wolf Crab


A Coral at Narara National Marine Park
The Incredible Waterworld of Narara


Sea Grapes - not sure if they will yield wine!
The guide is just warming up. Scanning the waters he picks up variety of creatures – there is a furry wolf crab looking like all dressed up for a trip to tundra; a colourful crab lights up the day as the showstopper, a sea cucumber looking as interesting as, well, a cucumber. It takes time to find one but soon the guide is duelling with the tentacles of a slimy octopus! Seeing an octopus is a marvellous surprise. Once released, it glides through the waters. There is brown sargassum weed eclipsed by the luminescent flowing green algae. Clumps of bead like sea grapes, another variety of green algae, bring in variety to the vegetation. And then there is whole another world of corals – a brown coral that looks like a human brain, while another looks like a flower with purple petals and then there is this coral that looks as if the contents of a pink paint tube have been squeezed on to the rocks.
On the way these neat looking boards with photos of marine life - at Narara

We have walked several kilometres away from the mangroves. The afternoon is cool as I survey the vast waterscape all around. So far I have walked and trekked through national parks; this is the first time I am splashing around in water and getting dazzled by this colourful littoral marine world which I had no hope of ever witnessing up this close and personal.

The Puffer Fish that binges on water in case of a threat and turns into a plastic ball! At Narara MArine National Park
My reverie is broken as I see the guide darting around. Is there a crocodile chasing him? No, it is apparent that he has spotted another slippery animal. Finally, he bends down, scoops up his catch and presents it to me triumphantly. My eyes pop out. The guide is holding an almost spherical creature which from its pouty mouth should be a fish with plasticky skin armed with spines. This is the puffer fish which in event of being threatened by a predator drinks up on water to suddenly look not so edible. In fact the blob like appearance looks intimidating. Even as the fish is held in the hands, water is leaking water from its mouth. Apart from sudden evasive burst of speed – no wonder the guide had a hard time catching it – the sphere like fish looks pretty unattractive to a would be hunter. The sullen looking ball of a fish is lowered into the water and it almost immediately transforms itself into a regular fish swimming away.
Group of school kids holding a Starfish in Narara
Narara Marine National Park is a little secret tucked away behind refineries and surprisingly, below these absolutely clear waters, pipelines bring crude oil from tankers berthed in the high seas that feed the refineries. For once I am happy that Gujarat Tourism is not promoting the park. The vast sight of unspoilt and clean waters with its cornucopia of marine life will fare better without us.  The puffer fish would prefer fewer drinking binges. 


Getting There: Narara Marine National Park is about 55 kms from Jamnagar in Gujarat. Remember to turn right towards Vadinar just beyond the Reliance Refinery. Jamnagar is about 300 kms from Ahmedabad.

Travel Tips: Find out the low tide timings before visiting. You will need 3-4 hours to completely enjoy the park. Wear sandals/floaters as you would be wading in about knee deep water. Carry water if you visit in hot months.

Marine Parks of India
Surprise Surprise! Narara Marine National Park is not the only Marine Park in India - there are five such Marine Parks and Water Sanctuaries. Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park in Andaman & Nicobar Islands, about 30 kms from Port Blair has reefs and is a breeding ground for different turtles including the Olive Ridley Turtles. Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park near Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu is a group of islands that are home to Dugong, a vulnerable marine mammal. Malvan Marine Sanctuary is located near Malvan in Maharashtra and if lucky you can spot dolphins here. Gahirmatha Marine Wildlife Sanctuary in Odisha is the beach where mass nesting of Olive Ridley Sea Turtles takes place.


A version of the story appeared in the October 2016 issue of Rail Bandhu. Rail Bandhu is the on-board magazine of Indian Railways available on Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duranto express trains.



Story in Rail Bandhu




Visit to Narara was part of the Great Gujarat Road Odyssey

Related Links on this blog

The Great Gujarat Road Odyssey


Day 1 - Viratnagar

Day 2 - Pushkar

Day 3 - Vadnagar
Day 4 – Siddhpur
Day 5 - Dholavira
Day 6 - Lakhpat