Travel: Long Haul - Build a bridge to heaven

Gandhi was born near Porbandar's boatyard, where Kenneth Wilson met a hundred eager pilgrims

On any normal reckoning, the western borders of the Indian state of Gujarat might seem benighted. The flat land of scrub and salt marsh has a single natural resource - wind. According to the season it blows warm and wet from the sea, or scorching and dry from the desert.

Yet the town of Porbandar here is a place of special significance: in 1869 it was the birthplace of the future Mahatma Gandhi. His house is now a minor pilgrimage site. Set on an ordinary street, it would be indistinguishable from all the others, except that an admirer bought up the surrounding square and demolished the other houses to build a temple.

Today, the house itself is empty. There is only a picture of the great man, and another of his parents, and a swastika set into the floor in the front room to mark the exact point of Gandhi's entry into the world. This isn't "heritage" - there is no sense of wanting to recreate the great man's dwelling. All that is important is to have it clearly identified as holy.

At the top of the house is a cupboard where, you are told, the young Gandhi with big ears sat down earnestly to study.

Porbandar itself is a fishing town. It has two ports, adjacent to each other. In one, a thousand fishing boats, all built to the same ancient design, lie in appearance of idleness. Here and there a few boxes of undersized silver fish were unloaded as I paused to watch. Gutting them is a smelly process; they are then spread out to dry.

The other port, surrounded by military security - though it was the bureaucracy that was more effective at keeping us out - contained two ships. There was a magnificent coal ship of enormous proportions, and a gleaming white gunboat - and vast, empty warehouses.

It is a very long time since Porbandar was a major point of entry for trade with Arabia, but presumably there is still a certain amount of smuggling along the old routes.

Back in town, we passed a row of decrepit taxis - though each had its sleeping driver - and drove on to the Sudamji temple, where I witnessed a strange sight: one hundred Rajastani pilgrims who had each paid pounds 50 for a month's pilgrimage in an old bus. Their merit was being determined by the number of holy sites and offerings they could chalk up, so they had set themselves a cruel pace. After a week they were already looking tired.

They did not go into Gandhi's house, but only touched the feet of his image in the adjoining temple before hurrying off again. For them, Gandhi is a figure of little value. They were more interested in Lord Krishna, whose legends fill this area.

The Sudamaji temple has a miniature stone maze, its alleyways just large enough to put one foot in front of the other. Like bees on a honeycomb, the hundred pilgrims jostled their way around the maze, periodically falling over in their haste. Their purjari urged them on shouting "Jaldi! Jaldi!" - "quickly, quickly". I asked him what it was all about, but he would not be interrupted. Instead, he thrust a plan into my hands and I tried to decipher the misprinted text. Ah, this was not a maze but a complicated mandala whose form allowed us to perform 8.4 million parikramas, or sacred circumambulations, as we traced its route round the central swastika. The same number of sins could be forgiven thuswise, it proclaimed.

And as quickly as they had descended, the pilgrims were gone. Off to Dwarka, along the coast, a holier town where limitless merit can be acquired by those who know how.

Porbandar reverted to its quiet and normal demeanour, an Indian town of no apparent distinction, where no drama occurs worse than a bullock and a bicycle trying unsuccessfully to occupy the same piece of road at the same time. Only under its surface seethes this extraordinary spiritual secret, that out of this narrow and provincial backwater emerged a man who went on to change a continent.

You need time and patience to reach Porbandar. From Britain, the most convenient gateway is Mumbai (Bombay), from where Porbandar can be reach in 24 hours by train via Ahmedabad, the Gujarat state capital. Flights to Mumbai are a good buy at the moment. Quest Worldwide (0181-547 3322) has a return fare of pounds 315 return, including taxes, on Swissair from Heathrow, if you book before 15 January. Trailfinders (0171-938 3366) has seats on Lufthansa for pounds 330, also including taxes

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