India is a slattern - a colourful, unkempt, slow-moving earth mother. Her dusty skirts trail through a glorious history of battles and triumphs, invasions and defeats. Her cultures are various, her religions an awesome muddle of gods, her rewards infinite for those who visit her with an open heart.
She can be overwhelming, surrounded as she is by exotic animals, squalor, beauty, wide skies and a wild nature which pours baking heat, savage winds and drenching monsoons without mercy on her people.
But there are enclaves of calm, where peace comes gently. Such a haven is Diu, a small island attached by a causeway to the coast of the north-western state of Gujarat.
A mere six and a half miles (11 kilometres) long by under two miles (three kilometres ) wide.
If you are looking for the new Goa, the relaxed escape without too much tourism this is where you come. Diu, like Goa, was a Portuguese colony until 1961, when Diu finally became a territory of the sub-continent. Her Portuguese origins bestowed manifold gifts, not the least of which went to her citizens who were given Portuguese passports. The men left in droves for Lisbon where they worked as waiters, labourers and merchants - they still do. Today, Diu is an island of women and children. Husbands and fathers spend the better part of the year in Portugal, only returning for fleeting visits. It's rare to see a man over 20 anywhere - they all go abroad where the financial rewards are rich compared to the lowly salaries of the sub-continent. On one side, Diu is bordered by salt pans and marsh, on the other, fringed with long white sands lapped by the blue, clean waters of the Arabian Sea.
If you are looking for the NEW GOA,
a relaxed escape without too
much tourism THIS is where you come.
The beaches are still reasonably deserted and provide both good swimming and frequent sightings of dolphin pods playing just offshore. Palm and coconut trees and great masses of oleander and bougainvillea are everywhere, and the flat terrain is ideal for cycling. You can walk or cycle everywhere in Diu. Nagoa Beach is the most popular, but there are lots of rocky coves where you can play Robinson Crusoe, and be alone. Peddle out to the Shiva Temple at Gangaeshwer tucked away under a lonely cliff ledge. It is awash with floral offerings and candles which all bob out to sea when the tide comes in, then wander on to Fudam Village where 99 per cent of the men are in Lisbon, and the women will give you a cool drink, or slash the top off a coconut for you to try.
The glory of Diu is found in her crumbling liquorice allsorts-coloured houses festooned with balustrades and turrets, barley-sugar twist staircases, high ceilings and great arched balconies. The narrow, twisting alleys of the old town are a true legacy of Portugal - fountains, shaded courtyards, little turrets and towers casting black shadows in the high heat of noon. Some are falling into disrepair due to the absence of their owners, and the unrelenting climate of the sub-continent but the women sweep and polish, and the streets are pristine. All are ripe for development into the kind of court-yarded bijoux boutique hotels you seen in Goa or
The GLORY of Diu is found in her crumbling liquorice allsorts-coloured houses festooned with balustrades and TURRETS and
barley-sugar twist staircases...
The town winds back from the fishing fort in a tangle of serpentine streets lined with washed blue, mauve and faded ochre houses - some of which have open doors inviting exploration - but watch where you put your feet, as floors tend to dissolve beneath you. Late afternoon is probably the best time to stroll through the lanes, for then the women sit in their doorways, calling hello to the tourists and locals taking their evening
passeggiatta, bestowing smiles, even on strangers.
Dominating the town is a vast 16th-century fort with a double moat, one tidal. A 15-minute stroll from Diu's centre, the fort is fascinating - ancient cannons punctuate its sheer stone walls dropping straight into the sea and there were once hundreds of cannon balls littering the place, although most have now been turned into garden borders. All the signs warn you not take photographs, but no-one minded when I whipped out my camera - indeed, some of the fort custodians moved their bicycles for me so my aim was better.
Other things to do include a visit to St Paul's, the great white Portuguese cathedral, and a turn around the former Church of St Francis of Assisi, now a museum full of wonderful icons, statues and guards who, uncharacteristically for India, won't take tips.
The Portuguese legacy also means that food is delicious and varied so you won't get curried-out. We eat delicious Portuguese/Gujarat food potato cutlets stuffed with fish, then fried in cumin and coriander oil, and sweet local lobsters.
Diu survives on its fishing industry and alcohol. Gujarat is a 'dry' state and the no-booze rule is strictly enforced. However, Diu has dispensation, and each weekend absorbs thousands of drinkers who come to imbibe legally. Apart from the drinking, nothing much happens here. A Diu visit is a perfect, relaxing 'add-on' to a Mumbai jaunt, which lies just an hour to the south. Travellers who remember visiting Goa in the good old days will find many similarities in Diu ... glorious beaches, blue skies, good food and calm.
The state of Gujarat is shaping up to tourism and is well worth exploring. Within a day's drive of Diu you can visit the awesome Jam temple complex of Palitana, whose cluster of Jam temples date back to the 11th century. But be warned - you have to climb up a little more than a mile (two kilometres) of shallow steps to get there. Dont stay in Palitana itself - the local hotels are hell. Instead, bed down at the Nilambag Palace Hotel in Bhavnagar just 31 miles (50 kilometres) away. It's the former home of the local maharaja, and although it isn't by any means luxurious, despite its royal connections (which is reflected in its budget tariff) its great dining room, colonnaded halls and Roman-style swimming pooi, reminds you of its former glory days.
Visitors to Gujarat can also clap on their pith helmets and head for Sasan (Gir), the last home of the Asiatic lion. There are only 304 of these lions left in the world (we managed to find eight - great excitement). The only other people you are likely to come across are the Maidhari, the local tribals who have special permission to graze their cattle within the park. There's a splendid chef at the Lodge too, who'll rustle up vast tastings of local food for you. The Gujaratis have a sweet tooth, and many dishes feature jaggery. It takes a bit of getting used to, but is worth persevering with for its heady blend of sweet and sour ingredients.
Diu may be the jewel in the crown of Gujarat, but the rest is well worth the sometimes hazardous journey. Go soon, before the secret is a secret no longer - Mother India just loves welcoming visitors.
Words: Jill Mullens, Photos: Frank Mullens. Updated 4/4/10