On the map it looks like a little finger of land jutting out into the sea, with a narrow road leading almost to the tip of the finger at Okha on the West coast of Gujarat, the gateway to reach Bet Dwarka. The last bit runs parallel to the sea and was packed with colourfully-painted boats with little flags fluttering in the wind.
At the end was a narrow pier crowded with people under a blazing mid morning sun. People scrambled to get into large boats while boatmen loudly solicited passengers.This was compounded by the squawking of hundreds of seagulls, as they floated on water or flew around frantically.
Stepping into one of the boats was a bit of a feat, crossing a couple of others sometimes. But as the boat gently sputtered away, a cool briny, sea breeze blew across, with an occasional whiff of noxious diesel fumes. However, it was just a short ride to the island of Bet Dwarka.
A tiny island with a few thousand inhabitants, Bet Dwarka is in the Arabian Sea and is believed to be the original home of Krishna. According to legend, this was also the place where his friend Sudhama met him with a handful of rice. Hence the main offering at the temple is predominantly rice.
After the boat docked at pier, a short walk led to a narrow street lined with little shops selling puja items, sweets, semi-precious gems and stones, dried herbs, cowrie shells, puffed rice, boiled peanuts, juice and tender coconut, delicious-smelling bhajias… It was a cornucopia of sound, smell and colour. At the end of the winding street, behind tall walls, sat the lovely Krishna temple.
Made of pink limestone with beautiful carvings and relief work depicting scenes from the epics and mythology, it was more of a temple complex. Apart from the main Krishna temple, there were many others dedicated to Radha, Satyabhama, Jambavati, Hanuman, Rukmini, Shiva and various forms of Vishnu.
Back on the mainland and less than an hour’s drive led to Dwarka which was more popular, much larger and more crowded. Located on the banks of the river Gomti and adjacent to the sea, Dwarka is counted among the Chardhams as well as among the Sapta Puri.
The road leading to the temple was filled with all kinds of colourful shops, sitting check by jowl and doing brisk business. The temple itself, the Dwarakadhish temple, was beautiful, with the main gopuram, all pink and riveting, rising into the sky. It is believed that a temple has stood here for more than 2500 years though the current structure was built round the 15-16th century. Built primarily in the Chalukya style of architecture, the temple was of limestone and almost five stories in height and rested on 72 exquisitely carved pillars while the facade bore thousands of sculptures and relief work. A large flag fluttered atop the temple; interestingly, the flag is changed five times a day, each one an offering by devotees. Depending on whom you ask, there is supposedly a three to five year wait for the offering!
A long queue snaked its way towards the sanctum sanctorum and the courtyard inside was crowded. As I entered the main hall, rhythmic bells sounded and the priests were conducting aarati, which lit up the colourfully draped dark idol rather surreally. Open from 6 am to almost 9.30 pm with a four-hour closure in the afternoon, the aarati is performed a few times during the day and night while bhog (food offering) is offered to the deity at least once an hour.
In contrast to Dwarka, Somnath, also on the coast, was a sprawling temple complex. The temple was eye-catching, especially against the evening sun with the Arabian sea in the background. One of the 12 Jyotirlinga sites in the country, it is a very important pilgrimage centre for Shiva devotees. Though its origin is quite hazy, the temple’s location has been so strategic and its structure so eye-catching that it invited the wrath of almost every invader. The temple has reportedly been destroyed 16-17 times and the existing structure was built after Independence though the design followed goes back to the Chalukya times.
The main gopuram or spire of the temple rose 15 metres and was topped by an 8-metre flag pole. The temple was set amidst sprawling grounds laid with plants and flowering bushes. The entire complex stood on raised land surrounded by the sea. Inside, the temple was simple with the emphasis being on Shiva in the form of a lingam. It was adorned with silver ornamentation, cloth and flowers. Ringing bells, chants and whiffs of aroma from incense and burning camphor and wick hung in the air.
Just by the side of the temple wall, a path flanked by makeshift shops selling all kinds of artefacts, trinkets, shells and eatables led to the beach. Colourfully bedecked camels were giving rides to excited kids while vendors hawked boiled and roasted peanuts and other spicy treats on the beach while gentle waves lashed against the sand. Against the setting sun, the temple stood silhouetted quite dramatically and made for a lasting impression.
Dwarka and Somnath are located on the West coast in Gujarat.
- How to reach: Rajkot is the nearest airport which is connected by flights from all over the country. Dwarka is about 290 km and Somnath about 200 km from Rajkot. Somnath is about 275 km from Dwarka.