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Gujarat

Population:   41 million
Languages:  Gujarati
Capitol:          Gandhinagar

It is in Gujarat that Mahatma Gandhi was born and in Ahmedabad that he was based as he waged the long struggle for Independence.  In that city he established his ashram and from there, in 1930, was launched the famous act of civil disobedience known as the salt march, protesting the British monopoly on the production and sale of salt.

Gujarat is also a centre for the Jain religion, with one of Jainism's holiest pilgrimage places being at Palitana and another at Girnar.  It is at least partly due to the Jains that Gujarat is one of India's wealthier states, and that its textile industry is the largest in India.

Gujarat is naturally divided into three main areas, with the Gulf of Cambay dividing the eastern mainland area from the flat, mostly barren central area of Saurashtra (Kathiawar Peninsula).  That area, in turn, is divided from the western area known as Kutch by the Gulf of Kutch.  In the mainland area are situated the three major cities of Ahmedabad, Surat and Baroda.  While all display fine examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture (a blend of Hindu and Islamic styles) they are otherwise congested, highly industrialized cities.  Ahmedabad does boast the International Kite Festival which takes place in mid-January, and is the largest event of its kind in the world, drawing kite enthusiasts from many other countries.  Under the Moghuls both Ahmedabad and Surat flourished, the former described as India's most beautiful city, and conducting a thriving trade with Europe.  Surat was the west coast's main port (until upstaged by Bombay) and one of India's wealthiest trading cities, as well as an important staging point for Muslim travelers to Mecca.

Large parts of Saurashtra, the central area of Gujarat, are barren, with the Gir Lion Sanctuary covering 1400 square kilometres of dry scrubland.   The western Kutch area is, at least during the monsoons, actually an island.  Because of its high salt content the land, except for a few slightly higher areas of lower salinity, is almost totally barren.  The conditions are right during the winter months, however, for it to be a breeding ground for pelicans and flamingos.

History

Between 2500 and 1900 BC the great Indus Valley civilization, with its orderly, prosperous and sophisticated cities, took hold and spread from the borders of what are now Afghanistan and Iran, to Kashmir, Haryana and as far as southern Gujarat.  These communities in the delta areas of Gujarat flourished until they were finally swept away by a series of floods leaving archeological remains at more than forty sites in the state.  The largest of these sites in Gujarat is at what was the wealthy trading city of Lothal.

The influence of Ashoka, the 3rd century BC Buddhist Mauryan emperor, also extended as far as Gujarat and one of his inscribed pillars is found near Junagadh, in Saurashtra.

The Kutch area, as well, was under Ashoka's influence.  Later this area fell under the control of the Greek Bactrians, and later still it was controlled by the Guptas.  By the 10th century AD the Jadejas, or Samma Rajputs, had taken over, and they retained power through to Independence.

Between 997 and 1030, the ruthless Mahmud of Ghazni swept down from Afghanistan and plundered the wealth of many towns and cities.  Gujarat has been the scene of many such incursions by Moghul rulers and in the course of it's later history the periodic shifting of control between the Moghuls and the Marathas was a significant source of instability in the area.

In 1411 Ahmed Shah took control of Gujarat and established his capitol on the Sabarmati River, naming the city after himself.  For the next two hundred years the area flourished, conducting a vigorous trade in luxurious fabrics with Europe.  The incursions of the Marathas, combined with a severe famine in 1630, precipitated a decline in the area's fortunes and many merchants and traders left for Bombay.

Surat, in the 'mainland' part of Gujarat, was founded in the 12th century by the Parsis, five centuries after they came to the area to escape persecution in Persia.  By the 1500s it had developed into a successful trading centre, and was raided and destroyed a number of times by the Portuguese.  In the late 1500s it fell to Akbar and became a prosperous mercantile centre under his influence.  Early in the next century the British received permission from the Moghuls to trade in the area, making Surat their first mercantile outpost in India.  They soon routed the Portuguese though two small areas, Damen and Diu, remained as Portuguese enclaves within Gujarat till 1961 when they were forcibly taken over by the Indian government.  The French and the Dutch who followed the British into the area had their warehouses and properties sacked by the Marathas, and only the British endured.  By the end of the 1700s, they had gained full control over the town and the shipyard.  Surat declined after fire and floods destroyed much of it in 1837, and the advantages of Bombay attracted many of the Jain and Parsi merchants out of the area.  (Surat continued to decline until an outbreak of bubonic plage in the early 1990s shocked the local authorities into launching an extensive and effective cleanliness campaign which has apparently dramatically improved both the look of the town and the health of its inhabitants.)

The machinery introduced by the British into Gujarat's textile manufacturing process increased output and therefore wealth but left many workers unemployed.  With Gandhi's help, in the early 1900s labour unions were formed to try to improve working conditions in the factories.

Saurashtra, the central area, was never part of British India, remaining divided into two hundred princely states until Independence.  At that point they became part of Bombay State, but a redivision along linguistic lines occurred in 1960, setting the current boundaries between Gujarat and Maharashtra.


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