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Savannas of India

In Saurashtra, a three-day break leads to an ASI site, black bucks and weaving traditions that take your breath away

Adventure
Tour & Taste
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Ancient & Historical

At Sayla, we meet a 40-year-old man who gives us a little peek into the local culture. “The Kathi darbar are a hot-headed lot,” he says, playing with the gold chain that’s barely hidden by his bright pink shirt. While speaking of his clan, he admits with certain pride, that the community keeps illegal guns, and that its people don’t hesitate to use them. “If someone overtakes our vehicle, if we don’t like the face of a person or if we nurture an old enmity, we don’t forget. Marvu ke marvu (to kill or get killed),” he adds.

Also read: Take a leap of faith in Sasan Gir

A black buck from the surrounding sanctuary in Velavadar eats savannas in the Black Buck Lodge. pics/phorum dalal
A black buck from the surrounding sanctuary in Velavadar eats savannas in the Black Buck Lodge. Pics/Phorum Dalal

We have landed in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Ram Leela. Quite literally — the portrayal of the Rajadis (Raveer Singh’s celluloid family) was inspired by the Kathi darbar. Fortunately, they live in Sudamda, across the highway. And, here in Sayla, a former princely state in Surendranagar district, there’s nothing aside from the rustle of leaves to disturb our peace.

A Patola scarf with a Marilyn Monroe weave
A Patola scarf with a Marilyn Monroe weave

Sitting with us on the steps of the Bell Guest House, an Indo-European building that once served as a homestay for visiting Europeans, Yuvraj Somrraj Singh Jhala (prince and now owner of the estate) smokes his first beedi of the day, as he talks of how Sayla has become little more than a stopover for travellers on their way to the popular Gir forest, Junagadh, Porbandar, Rajkot, Jamnagar, Dwarka and Somnath.

The Navlakkha temple in Sejakpur gets its name from the nine lakh carvings on the structure
The Navlakkha temple in Sejakpur gets its name from the nine lakh carvings on the structure

The only event that drew in the crowds recently was when a team from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) that arrived to restore the Navlakkha temple in Sejakpur. We decide to follow them.

The two-hour drive through the savannas is replete with the spotting of kingfishers, blue babblers and turtle-doves on electric wires. When 30 minutes into the drive, we don’t spot a single board for the ASI site, panic sets in. Fortunately, our guide and driver points to his left, where we can see a stone structure rising, increasing in size as the distance closes in.

Identical mauve-coloured houses, clean roads and cows relaxing under trees tells us that we have entered Sejakpur village.
We stop at a metal fence surrounding the ASI site. A woman appears, her face covered with a pallu, unlocks the door and walks off, leaving us to explore.

The Navlakkha temple gets its name from its nine lakh carvings. Till a few years ago, the structure stood in ruins. In a process to restore it, the ASI team pulled it down, and pieced it back stone by stone after treating them. On closer inspection, we see that numbers have been given to each column, stone and structure.

Beyond the smell of bat poop, what we see is beautiful. On the stone are carved soldiers at war, dancers and servers, gods and goddesses. None of them smile. A stone-carved Ganesha sits alone between two structures, as if watching over the site.
After a brief visit to our host’s ancestral home — where his 85-year-old father still lives in a crumbling structure adorned with old photographs and a taxidermied tiger in a glass cage and the empty rajgadi of the Jhala dynasty — we return to the guest house for a meal of olo, sev tameta nu shaak and rotla with dollops of ghee.

The morning is announced by peacocks perched atop trees.

On our itinerary of the day is the Shree Nageshvari Patola Arts work shop owned by Mukesh Vala. Patola art originated in Patan of north Gujarat, and was originally reserved for royalty. Each silk saree is a double woven ikat that can take up to a year to make. While traditional designs are sought-after worldwide, a familiar face catches my eye — Marilyn Monroe. And, she is pouting from a black patola scarf. “The idea is to keep the art alive, and modern is the way to go,” Vala tells us, adding that veteran singer Lata Mangeshkar is a regular client.

Next stop, black bucks
On the third day, a one-hour drive takes us to Velavadar. Here, spread over 100 acres is the Black Buck Lodge. Twenty acres are for the bungalow cottages, and the rest are grasslands for the black bucks — known to be the most beautiful of all deer.
As we get cosy on an easy chair in our room’s balcony, we feel we are being watched. Surely enough, a few metres away is a black buck with curly antlers, a chocolate-brown body and a white under belly. Afraid to see it go, we freeze in our seat and watch it graze.

The next morning, we set out of the room at 5 am with our binoculars. Birds are as much an attraction here as the black bucks. The sanctuary is shut, but our guide tells us a visit to the periphery will do. Our first sighting is the Indian roller, with a Prussian blue crown and vent with a brown body. Beside it are a few skinny larks. Overhead, a shikra flies past.

Our location is perfect for more sightings — there’s the savanna on our left and a lagoon on our right. There are pink flamingos, pelicans with gunnybag beaks, painted storks, ibises distinct with its stooping black body and red head.

The spoonbills delights us the most — as it picks fish with chopstick beaks.

As the jeep moves on, we spot a kingfisher in flight. The bright blue on a drab green background is quite a sight. On the grassland, black bucks are in herds. In one cluster, I spot a lamb — snow white, red eyes. “That is our one and only albino black buck,” the guide announces.

Fact File

To reach Sayla from Mumbai, take a flight or train to either Bhavnagar  or Ahmedabad. The princely state of Surendranagar is 130 kilometres from both by road

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