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Driving along India’s western coast in Gujarat, the landscape is a mish-mash of bare fields, lush greenery and occasional glimpses of the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Kutch fronted by golden sands. It’s a drive that can make you drowsy.

But sweeping into Jamnagar city instantly banishes that. The first impression is that of a city with a rich and long history, as evidenced by stunning buildings and architecture that are indicative of several influences.

But spending a few days and weaving leisurely through the city adds layers and complexity to the first impression. So it is only apt that the city is called the jewel of the Kathiawar region.

This is the city of cricket player Sir Ranjitsinhji, after whom the famed Ranji Trophy is named, and former ruler of Nawanagar, which later became Jamnagar. Famous Indian cricketer Ravindra Jadeja is also from here.

Jamnagar has also been in the news recently as it is set to host the pre-wedding celebrations of Anant Ambani, the youngest son of Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani, one of the world’s richest men, and Radhika Merchant, the daughter of industrialist Viren Merchant.

Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited operates one of the world’s largest oil refining complex in Jamnagar and is developing what is set to be the largest zoo in the world on the outskirts of the city.

Top Bollywood stars, world leaders, as well as heads of some of the world’s biggest companies, including Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, are set to attend the three-day festivities, which is rumoured to include a performance by pop star Rihanna.

None of these aspects are front of the mind as I wander around the city. Rather, it quickly becomes apparent that Jamnagar is a beautiful amalgamation of rich history, ornate forts, culture, art, craft and delectable cuisine.

It was founded in 1540 by Jam Raval, a Jadeja Rajput leader. While on a hunting trip in region, variously referred to as Kathiawar and Saurashtra, Raval’s hunting hounds were supposedly intimidated by hares that chased away the dogs. Impressed and deducing that men born on such land would be superior to others, he founded Nawanagar or New Town, which served as the capital of the eponymous princely state, which held sway for more than four centuries. In his honour, the name was later changed to Jamnagar.

While the story fascinates, and it is tempting to look to for brave hares and heroic men, it is soon evident that Jamnagar’s heartbeat lies in its warm and welcoming people whose hospitality reflects the essence of Gujarat’s cultural richness.

In a city of exquisite palaces and stunning forts, it is a difficult to choose where to begin, but the best place to start is at the Lakhota Palace and Museum. This early 19th-century marvel, rising amidst Lakhota Lake, was once a majestic fortress with the lake acting as a moat. It depicts a mix of architectures, but is predominantly Rajput in style, which draws from Iranian architecture.

I wander around the expansive fort, marvelling at the four watchtowers. Built as an early warning system against invaders, the towers offer 360-degree views of the surrounding areas. A museum within the palace also houses a fascinating collection of archaeological finds, weaponry and paintings, narrating Jamnagar’s royal past. I am especially fascinated by the life-sized elephant carriage and listen transfixed to stories of royal goings-on narrated by a docent.

With my head reeling from regal tales, I step out and get a rush of another kind. A fiery and delectable lunch comprising rotla (pearl millet bread) with spicy curries and khichdi engages the senses. Suitably fortified, I head to my next stop – Bhujiyo Kotho.

Dating back to the second century, these ancient Buddhist cave temples, carved into sandstone cliffs, stun with their intricate carvings that depict the life of Buddha, as well as scenes and episodes from the Jataka tales and other legends. Among one of the earliest Buddhist monuments in western India, the caves make for a mesmerising experience.

Like the establishment of Jamnagar, there is a fantastic story surrounding this place too. According to legend, the king of Jamnagar and Bhuj were brothers who had established their kingdoms about 300km apart. It is believed that Bhujiyo Kotho was the entrance to a secret passage from Jamnagar to Bhuj, used by the brothers to keep in touch.

As the sun sets, I escape the city’s rhythm at Ranmal Lake Park. Named after King Ranmalji, another illustrious ruler of Jamnagar, it is an artificial lake that dates back to the 15th century. For centuries, it served as the city’s main water source, but is now the perfect spot for tranquility. The sprawling lake surrounded by lush greenery is ideal for a relaxing stroll or a scenic boat ride.

There’s another attraction here as well – a sound and light show that narrates the saga of the Jadeja rulers. After the show, I binge on more Kathiawadi fare at Hotel Aram restaurant, including dhoklas, a spongy snack made of gram flour; kadhi or onion fritters; and undhiyo, a mix vegetable curry.

It is time leave the next morning, but I try to delay it as much as possible to pack in a few things, such as Shree Subhash Market in the heart of the city. A vibrant 18th century market, it pulsates with energy and has a variety of offerings, including fresh produce, spices and local handicrafts and vibrant textiles.

I have to tear myself away from the enticing goods on display but succumb a few times. And while at it, I also sample local snacks such as gathiya, a deep-fried snack made from chickpea flour, and fafda, another snack made from deep-fried gram flour.

From here, I make a quick stop at Darbar Gadh, also known as Willingdon Crescent, a 19th-century fort famed for its stunning European-inspired architecture . As I wander around the fort, I also make plans for destinations nearby.

These include the Khijadia Bird Sanctuary, which is home to more than 220 species of birds – including pelicans and spoonbills – as well as Dwarka, Little Rann of Kutch to see flamingos and the beautiful city of Bhuj, plus the salt flats of the Rann of Kutch.

But I momentarily set aside the plans as I leave Jamnagar, my senses reeling with stories and sights from its rich history, vibrant culture and unforgettable cuisine.

Updated: February 26, 2024, 10:18 AM

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