Jaw-dropping Junagadh

Nature and history combine to make Junagadh a unique destination
The Junagadh hills rise suddenly above the flat dullness of the dry Kathiawar landscape. It’s a dramatic setting, in contrast to the tedious monotony of the rest of the Saurashtra countryside.
These craggy hills, wild and mysterious, were part of the Junagadh principality ruled by the Afghan Babi nawabs for over 200 years. One can easily imagine why they loved the place; the untamed and rugged hills perhaps reminding them of their homeland. A little bit of Afghanistan in dry and flat Gujarat.

The Junagadh hills rise dramatically from the flat Kathiawar landscape; that’s Mount Girnar with ancient Jain temples and Amba Mata on top
The Babi nawabs made Junagadh one of the most progressive princely states in Gujarat. And they also left us a remarkable legacy of eye-catching monuments and architectural oddities to enjoy.

The history of Junagadh is as old as the hills

Junagadh has for centuries been defined by the Girnar hills and its pilgrimage centers. Just how ancient its history is can be gauged by the Ashoka rock edicts and Buddhist stone caves that take us back millennia. It’s remarkable that the Mauryan empire had stretched all the way to western Gujarat from east India. And, even more amazing that we can still see its built legacy.
Following the Mauryans were the Rajput Chudasma kings who reigned from the citadel-like Uparkot fort for a long 500 years. And in the 13th century the Muslims arrived as rulers. Delhi Sultanate’s Muhammad bin Tughlaq conquered Junagadh in 1350, which began a revolving door of different dynasties. Mehmud Begada captured Junagadh in 1472, followed by the Mughals, until finally Bahadur Khan Babi declared himself independent of the Mughal governor in 1730, and began the Babi era.

Lets start at the very beginning…

Emperor Ashoka’s rule over Saurashtra is attested to by his famous fourteen rock edicts, engraved on a granite boulder at the foot of Girnar hill.

Ashoka the Great (273-232BC) speaks to us with his engraved rock edicts
This was the first time I had seen anything so ancient and was totally in awe of what was in front of me. The fourteen edicts, hand-chiseled in Brahmi script, are royal orders by Emperor Ashoka on a range of issues; against the slaughter of animals (“no living being should be killed or sacrificed”), sermons on morality (“obedience to mother and father, liberality to friends, moderation in expenditure”), facilities for medical treatment (“wherever there are no herbs that are beneficial to men…they were caused to be imported and planted”) and interestingly, the appointment of reporters “…who would report to me the affairs of the people at any time : while I am eating, in the women’s apartments, even in the cowpen, in the palanquin and in the parks”.

The many treasures of Uparkot fort

The still-imposing Uparkot fort dominates Junagadh, and has been fought over and occupied by all regimes that set foot here.

It has a string of “must-sees” within its walls. First is the other-worldly Buddhist rock-cut caves that were carved during Emperor Ashoka’s period and may even pre-date the famous Ajanta and Ellora caves. These caves were carved from stone, going down 3 levels, and used as monks’ quarters eras ago.

The ancient Buddhist rock caves of Uparkot fort were cut from stone and used as monk’s quarters
I climbed down its time-worn stone stairs marveling at the stone-hewn pillars and carved entrances. There was a tank for storing water, holes in the floor for crushing pulses, a kitchen with a chimney that lets light in and smoke out.
At the bottom tier I could feel the temperature suddenly drop. These were the meditation rooms and monastic cells for the monks to stay. Here the rock ornamentation was more complete; the pillars carved on top with lions, apsaras in the middle and elephants at the base.

Rock-art from centuries ago; lions (top), apsaras (middle), elephants (bottom)
Outside the Buddhist caves were two medieval vavs (baolis or stepwells) that were part of the water management system for the fort.
Compared to the larger and more ornate baolis I have seen in other parts of Gujarat or Delhi and Rajasthan, these vavs were simple affairs. The Adi Kadi vav was built by the Chudasma Rajputs in the 15th century. According to folklore, when the stepwell did not yield water, two young girls named Adi and Kadi were sacrificed and thus the name.

The second step well, Navghan Kuvo, is older and deeper. What sets this vav apart is its ingenious system of managing the pigeon menace. The vav’s entry is pockmarked with little squares cut in the rock-wall, encouraging pigeons to rest here and not foray further into the deepness of the well. It seems to work, cleverly solving an annoyance as effectively today as it did centuries ago.

A solution to solve the pigeon menace is as relevant now as then

When Mehmud Begada conquered Uparkot to expand his Gujarat Sultanate, he converted a palace inside the fort in to a mosque, Jama Masjid. And beside the masjid is an interesting medieval canon, said to be built in Egypt, that was used in battle against the Portuguese in Diu in 1538. When the Portuguese won, the cannon was abandoned and later bought to Junagadh to be installed at the fort.

Mehmud Begada’s Jama Masjid within the fort was converted from a Rajput palace

A heritage walk inside the old city

It is in the old city, which spreads outside the Uparkot fort, that we can see the legacy of the Babi period. Many buildings are now decrepit and falling apart, but just looking at them tells the tale of their past glory.

There are two types of structures to see; religious and palatial or administrative. Close to the fort is the city’s oldest Ram temple. I entered the temple complex, built in parts over different eras, to meet the well-spoken Rajnikant Agravat who explained the history of the temple to me. It was initially built in the mid 1600s by Govardhan sadhu who came here from Chittor in Rajasthan. At the time this was dense jungle. When the Babi nawabs started ruling from 1730, they became patrons of the temple and often visited themselves. Whenever threatened by invaders, the temple would be hidden and the nawabs erected a small sign so that devotees could find it. Rajnikant pointed out the sign to me; a round emblem mounted high on the wall, beside the road.

The Babi nawabs granted the temple a village for revenue. This was stopped by the government since independence and replaced by an annuity instead. The Ram temple still gets rupees 6600/- per year as annuity. Rajnikant spoke about his plans to convert part of the premises to a museum for displaying interesting family heirlooms collected over the ages.

From here it’s a short walk to the Peerzada haveli. When the Babi nawabs established themselves in Junagadh they wanted a spiritual guide or advisor of distinction for their kingdom. They invited Pir Shamshuddin, a leader of the Syed community from the Kodinar dargah, near Somnath. He was given Peerzada house as a residence and his descendants still live here.

The Indiana Jones-like entrance to Peerzada haveli; magic and charisma

The entrance to the haveli has a distinct “Indiana Jones” feel to it; decrepit and run-down while also magical and charismatic. Across the road from the haveli are two small graveyards where the pirs are buried, including Pir Shamshuddin himself. Some of these little tombs are noticeable for their Junagadh dome, an architecture style that is distinct to this city – a bit like a squashed sphere which is set on a narrow drum and topped by a crown, with decorations and fluting running down it.

The Junagadh dome is unique to city; sits on top of a tomb for the pirs

The Rang Mahal was the residence of the Junagadh nawabs. When the last of the Babi nawabs, Mahabat Khan III, left India for Pakistan in 1947 this building was taken over by the government. Sadly, it is today a skeleton of its former self.

The Babi era had lasted over 200 years. They were years of stability and prosperity, with Junagadh emerging as one of the remarkable capitals of princely India with modern civic amenities, hospitals, colleges, railways and spectacular buildings.
During the run-up to Independence in 1947, the diwan for Junagadh state was Shahnawaz Bhutto (father of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto). He had been appointed by the nawab to manage affairs of state. Bhutto was a wealthy landowner from Pakistani Sindh, and perhaps this is the reason for his persuading Mahabat Khan to opt for Pakistan over India. Ultimately, the nawab left for Pakistan and Junagadh was integrated in to India.
I stood looking up at the façade of the palace. Despite the ravages of time it is still lovely with the finest and most delicate stucco work. Soaring balconies, buttresses and carved doorways were decked with brilliant masonry. I could imagine Bhutto walking through these ornate doors, hurrying towards his meeting with the nawab.

The Rang Mahal was the nawabs residence ; its brilliant stucco-designs still sharp and arresting

Saving the best for last

The most famous architectural masterpieces of Junagadh are situated in the heart of town. The Mahabat Khan maqbara and Bahauddin maqbara are side by side, and with their eye-grabbing mix of Indo-Islamic, European and Gothic elements mashed together, seem designed to astonish.
It is appropriate that Mahabat Khan and his vazir (chief minister) Bahauddin are buried close together. Nawab Mahabat Khan II ruled for a long 31 years (1851-1882) and his vazir Bahauddin Hashambhai outlived his boss, with his own death in 1914. They were friends and also relatives, with the nawab marrying his vazir’s sister. Together, they were a successful pair contributing much to the happiness and prosperity of the subjects and responsible for many of the public buildings that still exist.

The fantastical Bahauddin Maqbara is designed to astonish
The Bahauddin maqbara is the more eccentric and unique of the two buildings, with four prominent minarets that have external spiral stairs winding towards the top, like creepers hugging a tree. It looks like a fairytale.
Beside it, the Mahabat Khan tomb is built over the graves of the nawab and his family. I entered its central hall, the floor tastefully patterned in black and white marble with floral inlay work. There were eight graves under an ornamental dome with koranic verses ringing the ceiling. The nawab was at the center, with the remaining graves being his family members. I stood beside the graves reflecting on the Babi nawabs, Junagadh’s ancient and rich history, the wonderful legacy of which I had seen today.

The Mahabat Khan Maqbara is next door to his vazir and friend Bahauddin

Nawab Mahabat Khan II rests with his family members

How to Get There :

  • The closest airport to Junagadh is Rajkot (a 2 hour drive away on NH27)
  • At Junagadh, I stayed at Hotel Bellevue Sarovar Portico, Station Road. It’s modern, clean and comfortable.
  • You can cover most of the Junagadh attractions within a (long) day
  • Within driving distance from Junagadh are several places of interest : the Gir forest, Somnath, Porbandar.

Adil Ahmad

India Heritage