This month we drive across a state border and visit two union territories, all in the span of one weekend! These destinations will offer you everything from old Portuguese architecture, a lion and deer safari, sandy beaches and a flame that has been burning for more than 1,250 years. Welcome to Daman, Dadra, Nagar Haveli and Udvada, the sanctified town of Parsis. And although all of them are just a stone’s throw from each other, they are exceptionally contrasting in terms of what they offer, and make for a quick weekend getaway from Mumbai.
The wide and smooth NH8 faces a swift change of scenery as you approach the industrious town of Vapi. Here you take a left and head towards Daman through a bustling 10km stretch that gradually turns livelier as you approach the Union Territory’s border. As soon as you cross Gujarat’s perimeter, there is a strong change in the overall setting and it’s soon clear why Daman is where its neighbours come to unwind. It is quite common to come across vans full of men being drawn to the neon signs above the shops like moths to a flame. But once you scratch out the obvious, there’s a substantial amount of things to keep you interested in Daman.
To begin with, this former Portuguese colony, with its unique antiquated architecture, sets an uplifting tone to your mood, especially during the evenings, when the soft sunlight casts trapezoidal shadows of the abundant palm trees along the narrow roads. Daman, with its Mediterranean influences and picturesque port, is generally conceived as Goa’s lesser cousin. But the lack of foreign tourists means it is not over-commercialised, which helps in keeping the prices affordable. The Daman Ganga river, apart from supplying drinking water to Vapi, divides Daman into ‘Moti’ and ‘Nani’ Daman, and finally flows into the Arabian sea. The former has a more relaxed beach-town air to it with colourful summerwear strung out of shops and numerous resorts lined up right next to each other. The latter has a very strong Portuguese influence as this was the Portugal administrative headquarters.
When people say ‘Daman’, they’re usually referring to Nani Daman, the section of the town that has a long coastline, dotted with decorative holiday resorts. The main attraction here is Devka beach, which is lined with brightly lit restaurants. The beach itself is not as clean as we had expected as people tend to leave plastic waste behind after having a day’s picnic. Shade provided by the numerous palm trees invites you to set up a few newspapers and enjoy a light snack but please make sure you carry along a trash bag to haul back your plastic waste.
There is also a small amusement park where children can sample various mechanical rides apart from live camel and pony rides just outside the park’s perimeter. Just a 10-minute drive from there lies the beautiful lake resort Mirasol, which houses a water amusement park as well as rides in swan-shaped boats. You can choose to stay here as well and they have rooms for a wide range of budgets.
After cooling off with water based activities, the sun gets more forgiving, head about 6km south to St Jerome Fort. This fortification was built by Dom Jeronimo De Azevedo after sensing a danger of Mughal Invasion. The fort’s construction started in 1614 AD on the northern bank of the Daman Ganga river. This eponymous fort gives you a magnificent view of the port that houses many colourful fishing boats. The gargantuan gateway with a huge statue of St Jerome and two human statues, on either side overlooking the river, is a striking sight to behold. Within its high stone walls, it conceals a cemetery and a school side-by-side, which makes for an attention-grabbing contrast. Also, the grand church of Our Lady of the Sea is enclosed within these walls and faces a hefty stone cross perched high up.
As you exit the archaic structure and look across the river, what you see is an imposing outer wall of Moti Daman. Getting to Moti Daman is about a 15-minute drive South across the Rajiv Gandhi bridge. You enter Moti Daman through what is literally a hole in the wall; it’s a narrow entrance that can facilitate just one car at a time. I was eager to see the Cathedral of Bom Jesu which lies right behind this entrance. Built in 1603, it is one of the best preserved examples of Portuguese architecture anywhere. The board outside reads, “The richly carved doorway and the highly decorative interiors together with the lofty celling and burnishing alter, invites aesthetic”.
This is a spot-on description of the glorious church that stood before me. On the inside, the awe-inspiring merger of brick and wood is highly detailed and you can spend a good hour within its tranquil aura. Taking a stroll around the neighbourhood here will be the closest you can get to an early Portuguese colony this side of Portugal. The grand municipal and administrative bungalows are quite ostentatious, especially the Governor’s Palace, with its remarkable flight of stairs and ornate chandeliers.
Moti Daman is a serene place to amble along early in the morning as you make your way through these archaic buildings towards the Daman Ganga river, where you find yourself cushioned between the imposing outer fort walls of Moti Daman and a small boat graveyard of sorts, with some fishing boats of the yesteryears, now resting permanently on the shores. After soaking up a mix of sand, sun and Mediterranean-influenced architecture, proceed to Silvassa, the capital of the Union Territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli. ‘Silva’ in Portuguese means wood and that is where the forest heavy Silvassa gets its name from. Nearly 40-percent of this Union Territory is declared as a reserved forest and that results in ubiquitous parks and tourist points with an abundance of greenery.
Although we visited the UT during the beginning of the summer, it is easy to imagine Silvassa and its surroundings being wrapped in a green carpet during the monsoons and if schedules permit, it would be the ideal time to make your trip. Originally a tribal village, this town has been totally transformed to an industrial hub due to the tax holiday granted by the Government of India to promote development and employment in the region. While this is a positive step in terms of economics, it is hard to ignore the environmental impact this has had on the region. A chemical-like tinge is present in the air at certain areas around Silvassa and that tends to dampen your spirits at times in a town that is otherwise, blessed with spectacular natural beauty.
If you have a limited amount of time on your hands, head about 16km away from the town square to the lion and deer safari at Vasona. Excited, we head out in a rickety old van with mesh frames on the windows into 25 hectares of forest to spot the lions. After driving around the set route for a few minutes, we spotted a lion and a lioness resting rather motionless in the shade, trying to protect themselves, from the strong sun. It was quite disheartening to hear that those two are the only surviving lions out of the five that were brought in from Gir National Park. A few minutes’ drive from there takes you to the gates of the deer sanctuary where, after a few instructions from the Park Rangers, you are allowed to drive in with your own vehicle.
There is an abundance of deer here, which was a relief after our previous experience at the lion safari. Just remember, you’re on their territory, so do not honk or disturb their natural movements in any way. Next, head towards Vanganga Lake and Island Garden which is about 8km away from the town center. This garden has quaint wooden bridges, thatched huts, paddle boats in the lake and a healthy sprinkling of flowering trees. Ducks freely move around the park while the turtles and fish can be easily spotted swimming in the lake.
It would be rather silly if you have to conclude this trip without adding the almost mystical town of Udvada to the itinerary. Centuries old fairytale-like cottages with their extended porches, sloped roofs, intricately detailed ornamental skirting and exceedingly clean lanes welcome you as you enter Udvada after a 32km drive from Silvassa.
This quaint town has a magical aura to it. The moment you enter, you can sense that there is something distinct, very special about the town. That is because, there is. The heart of this town holds the Iranshah Atash Behram, the zenith of the spiritual centers for Zoroastrians worldwide. Enshrined within the sacred Atash Behram, the holy fire has been burning for 1,250 years and Parsis from the world over, come here to pay their respects. Although only Parsis are allowed inside the temple, just a glimpse from the gates of this majestic fire temple with whitewashed walls is more than a satisfying experience. Udvada has been unspoiled by contemporary evils such as pollution and litter as there are no factories, barely any cars and just a couple of hotels in this quaint town and thankfully, the Parsis residing here, intend on keeping it so.
To better understand Zoroastrian customs, culture and history, head to the Zoroastrian Heritage Museum just a few minutes’ drive away from the holy temple. Here, the text on the walls and various artifacts in the museum give you the perfect crash course on Zoroastrianism. Udvada is one of the must-see places in the country not only because it is an integral part of the great legacy and heritage of Parsis in India, but also because as a quiet beach town, only a
handful across the world have such a fantastic experience to offer.
Although we covered these destinations in just a weekend, we’d recommend doing this at a more docile pace and letting it all soak in. Also, remember that these destinations undergo a charming transformation with the onset of the monsoons, so try and plan your trip just after a few showers have lashed the busy roads of Mumbai. You will not be disappointed.