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Kutch by Road ! An Exciting Drive Through the Native Culture and Traditions

Why Kutch? people asked me.
Why not Kutch I said. I am glad I did.

Kutch is synonymous with parched land and destruction due to the earthquakes. On closer look you realize that it is a living museum – a riot of colours, where stitches weave into exquisite embroidery and a lot more.

Google Kutch, specifically Bhuj, and the results would be both brief and unreliable. Luckily for us, one of our friends had a skeletal itinerary from their trip. Taking that as a guide, we headed out to explore this last frontier in our five-day road trip.

Reaching there

We drove down to Bhuj from Jamnagar, stopping at a pure vegetarian hotel for a piping hot lunch of typical Gujarati fare. The 8-hour drive is brightened by several bridges, water bodies, windmills, thorn bushes and nomads. Bhuj is the largest city in Kutch and is well connected to major Indian cities by railways. The closest airport is Jamnagar airport which has daily flights to Mumbai.

Tryst with Royalty

Doing touristy sight-seeing in Bhuj does not take more than half a day and Old Bhuj is just the place to explore.

Aina Mahal was built in the 18th century by Maharao Shri Madansinghji Saheb, the last king of Kutch. Except for One wing that houses the museum, the rest of the wings are closed or are under renovation due to damage caused by 2001 earthquake.

The museum had three parts viz. Aina Mahal (mirror palace), Hira Mahal (diamond/precious stone palace) and Fuvara Mahal (fountain palace). It was in the Aina Mahal that the King entertained his guests. Today the mirrors in the Aina Mahal are old and have lost their sheen, but just imagining the yesteryear grandeur gladdens the heart. The artifacts such as paintings done in real gold with jewels embedded in them, elephant tusk door, ari embroidery, gold painted Chinese cupboard and chest are worth seeing!

Hira Mahal was the state bedroom. It also covered with mirrors and one candle can light up the whole room (we should use this trick to save electricity!) One piece of advice though, don’t expect the grandeur of Rajasthan while visiting Kutch palaces because then you sure will be disappointed! As such the charm and beauty of Kutch and Rajasthan are of different genres.

Aina Mahal also houses the Rani Vas and Prag Mahal. Prag Mahal. Rani Vas was the Queen’s palace and is in a pretty shoddy shape. Prag Mahal is stunning from the outside, while inside is so poorly maintained that you can save your Rs. 12 entry fee and you won’t miss out anything, for that matter you’ll be safe from the stench and pigeon shit!

Some parts of the songs from the movie Lagaan were shot here, perhaps they’d have touched up the whole of the interior for that!

Sharad Baug Palace is another must-see in Bhuj. It belongs to Madan Singhji whose ancestors now live in Mumbai. The moment we walked into the palace complex and into the garden, the cool environment welcomed us and the breath of fresh air felt- obviously fresh!

The garden is perfectly mowed, and the palace is small, but beautiful. The main palace is closed down because the quake shook its very foundation; however the dining area cum kitchen complex is open to public and is presently a museum. Most artifacts in this museum are very recent and very well preserved. The ones that caught my eye were two huge elephant’s tusks, a silver basin, dining table chairs and coffin. The authorities of Aina Mahal must learn something about preserving artifacts from those of the Sharad Baag one’s!

Sea, Sand and Palace – Mandvi

Water indeed is liquid life. After so much heat and desert like terrain, a beach is the perfect respite! Mandvi is a quaint little sea-side town, 3-hours away from Bhuj. The drive to Mandvi is an experience in itself with its alternating desert-coastal vegetation, refreshing sea breeze, smooth road and sparse traffic.

One can spot tourists in shorts and flowery shirts giving Mandvi a Goan charm. The beach stretches through the length of the town, as the coconut and palm trees dotting the shore sway to the breeze. The beach is not as magnificent as the beaches at Diu or Goa, it is in fact quite crowded on weekends. But the sunset from this far-off western beach of India is glorious. Apart from watching the sunset, one can take a camel ride, pose in front of giant windmills and splash in the water and get squeaky clean again thanks to the bathing and changing room facility, which though are not so clean.

15-minutes away from the main stretch of the beach is the Mandvi Palace. The Palace is a relatively new one in terms of the age of the historic monuments. It is also a small palace when compared to the gigantic palaces that still stand proudly elsewhere in Gujrat and Rajasthan. It was the residence of the Raja of Kutch. Now, the palace and the in-house museum are open to tourists. If you recall Aishwarya Rai, sitting on a swing, against the backdrop of her Haveli in the movie Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, this is where it was shot.

The rules that the Palace authorities have advocated are remarkable. The palace is a pollution-free and a noise-free zone. Honking is banned, so is disturbing the animal and bird life that it houses. From the top of the Palace one can get a panoramic view of this coastal town. Adjoining the palace complex is the Mandvi Beach Resort offering luxury stay in cottages, on a private beach in a complete five star style. However, be ready to shell out those extra bucks.

A Scoop of Spirituality

Gujarat, as such, has no predominant religion. Muslims, Hindus and Jains reside here in peace and sometime in disagreement. Kutch is not only vivid in history and culture, but also in religion. Through our 5 day road-trip we got a varied scoop of spirituality.

Bare-foot Mata No Math pilgrims

We encountered a lot of traffic on the road to Lakhpat. Further, we came across many pilgrims walking bare feet, and several tents providing food, drinks and shelter to these pilgrims. We drove on guessing that there must be a temple around – we were right! About 90 kms from Bhuj, located on the road to Lakhpat is Mata No Madh, the temple of Ashapura mata which is a ‘kul devi'(family God) for many Kutchis and also Jadeja Kings. The temple is visited by numerous pilgrims on a daily basis-many of who come bare foot. The temple complex is like most Indian temples, but like they say, the Shraddha (devotion) makes it grand, so be it! There is a dharamshala in the temple and toilets for pilgrims. If possible, avoid using these toilets as the hygiene level is zero; instead do some good to the flora of Kutch later, on the roadside.

Narayan Sarovar

Narayan Sarovar is about 31 kms from Lakpat. The road is pot-holed in most patches. It even peaked and fell creating a roller-coaster effect!

Narayan Sarovar stands for Lake of Narayana aka Vishnu (a Hindu God) and is a very sacred place for Hindus. There are five sacred lakes here and the temple is built on one of them. The sarovars are rain-fed bodies of fresh water situated just 2 kms from the salty water of the Gulf of Kutch. The lake ghats are used to take holy dips and perform pujas. The temple building is very colourful and was a welcome change in the mono-coloured Kutch surroundings. Sadly, we could not enter the temple and had to do with praying from outside, with no view of the idol, as the temple remains closed from 1 PM – 4 PM.

Ocean on Two sides – Koteshwar

Koteshwar temple-3 kms from Narayan Sarovar-has the ocean on two of its sides; one side being an open sea and the other having a jetty where prior to the drying up of the Sindhu River, trading used to be in full swing.

Koteshwar temple has a beautiful, spic and span complex. The temple has a tree where women tie a bangle with a holy thread and stick a bindi when asking for a mannat (granting of a wish). There is an ancient story attached with this temple. Ravana wanted to be immortal and did tapasya to God Shiva. Lord Shiva gifted him a Ling the worship of which would make him immortal. But he dropped the ling, which on touching the ground turned into a thousand Lings. King Ravana could not recognize the original ling and so the Gods of heaven decided to build a temple and name it Koteshwar.”

We did the customary darshan and enjoyed the ocean views, which were awe-inspiring! A must-take photo is a 360 degree panaromic view from the highest point of the temple!

Where foxes are welcome…Kala Dungar

Ideally one can visit Kala Dungar before or after India Bridge. Our brand new Tata Indigo car did well on the mountain terrain as we traversed the steep path to the temple. On the way we saw many women and children dressed in kutchi attire, most of whom were carrying water in steel matkas (Pots of Water).

Kala Dungar (Black hill) is the home to the Duttatreya temple. It overlooks the spectacular Rann of Kutch where one can spot white foxes. These foxes respond to the call of beats of a steel plate and shouts of ‘langa’ and come and eat the food/Prasad of rice laid down for them by the priest. The temple Bhojanalay (Cook House) prepares food even for the pilgrims, should you decide to stay back for a meal.

We saw about 30 foxes converge at a cemented area to eat the food much to the delight of the pilgrims/tourists. The foxes, apparently, are harmless. We even witnessed the aarti as the sun set on the mirages of Rann of Kutch..

72- Jinnalay

10 kms from Mandvi, on Mandvi-Bhuj Road, stands an impressive white structure whose flags flap in the gentle breeze. It is a Jain temple, neatly maintained, very peaceful and lit up by candles only and a must visit place. Photography and videography is strictly prohibited. The temple won me over and sub consciously I began comparing a Jain temple with a Hindu one. I preferred the former.

Cultural Cauldron –

One reason why Kutch continues to enthrall the tourist is for its culture – food, arts, crafts and traditions – that have been carefully preserved.

Despite the mushrooming of small and big places for South Indian, Chinese and junk food, it is the Kutchi food that is still the first choice of residents and tourists. Kutchi food revolves around local ingredients like brinjal, tomatoes, sev, fresh butter and a lot of spices. The must try dishes are Baingan bharta (Brinjal), Sev Tomato Subzi, Kachoris, random snacks at the road-side shacks and buttermilk.

If you crib about too much variety in a Thali meal and inability to finish it all, try the thali at Hotel Annapurna that let’s you choose what you want to eat from the designed thali menu, as well as pay only for the items that you’ve eaten! Also try the thali-all for Rs. 125-at Shaam-e-sarhad resort at Hodka on the way to India Bridge amidst the traditional village-like setting and thali at Hotel Prince (Bhuj City) which is sumptuous, affordable at Rs. 100 and very filling!

You do not need to be the arty-smarty to enjoy the arts and crafts of Kutch. All you need is a little time to explore the treasures that Kutch holds and a little appreciation for the same. Bhujodi, about 15 kms short of Bhuj is one such treasure. Is a traditional craft village hosting a handicraft mela all year long. The mela is open daily from 10 AM to 8 PM. Handicrafts are sold from small huts or round houses known as bhungas. All the handicrafts are typical to Kutch area and include embroidery, mud work, metal work, wood work, terra-cota, potteries, block printing, bandhani shawls etc. Terra-cota pots with human faces and the bandhani shawls are a must-buy as it is hard to find these in other parts of kutch.

The shops here are rented out to artisans for one month and all the rates are fixed by the craft village authorities. You may find the stuff expensive but when you see the people actually making it, you’ll know the worth as we realized a little later. Apart from the handicrafts, the whole craft village is a masterpiece, with a little lake and a bridge over it, a bird-house; traditional stone carved idols, mud work walls and much to please the eyes and show you a glimpse of Kutch in a precise fashion.

We even clicked pictures and talked to a huge group of women dressed up in Kutchi attire and were from some near-by village. They were as curious about me as I was about them. They asked me if I was from the radio (which amused me) and I asked about their huge earrings and why guys also wore them.

Protection of art and craft is an onerous task in todays globalised world. It took a firang (foreigner) lady and a village called Sumeraser, 25 kms from Bhuj to do it. Kalaraksha is run by the Kalaraksha trust which is involved in the preservation of traditional arts. Kalaraksha not only has a folk art museum displaying everything from pre-marriage exchange tradition, to silver and gold ornaments, fans, wedding attire and the obvious, the embroidery (Suf, Khaarek, Rabari etc), but also has a shop dedicated to selling purses, bags, cotton/silk kurtis, leather stuff, patch work quilt and much more. In addition, the small area also has a research centre cum library which houses various books on handicrafts and a computer with internet where students from various universities come to study the traditional arts.

It is here that women get their embroidered pieces which are later refined into bags, kurtis etc. We met one woman who had embroidered a wall hanging depicting Suf embroiders who crossed the LOC and migrated to Kutch from erstwhile Sindh area. The concept was noble and the embroidery so depictive. Her work was going to be framed by the finishing department. Its women, like her, who work from home, get paid on daily basis and preserve arts and I am happy that a venture like Kalaraksha empowers these women and showcases as well as keeps their culture alive.

Nirona village is 12 kms from Sumeraser and home to the only Rogan art painter. We saw Rogan art painted in bold letters on a closed shop and an arrow directing us to a narrow lane. We followed the arrow and arrived at a small house. Parked outside which was a white maruti car whose number plate was engraved with ‘National Award winner’ and I couldn’t wait to see what was waiting behind the ordinary looking closed main door of the artist’s house!

We knocked on the door and a smiling face greeted us with a namaste. The man was Abdul Gafoor Daud Khatri, winner of a national award and four state/rajya awards. Even his brother, Sumar Daud Khatri is a proud winner of a National award at a tender age of 21. The family is the only family who knows Rogan art (that’s what they claim!)

Rogan art uses castor base (arandi) and earthern colours. The painting is made with one needle only, that too a blunt one and index finger is used to direct the movement of the arandi base on the cloth in varied patterns. The painting can take anywhere between 15 days to 1 year to complete. The cost of these paintings range from Rs.800 to Rs.1 lakh or more!

If you want to experience the village life, head to Hodka village which is situated at the edge of the Banni grassland. Hodka represents the crafts, architecture and lifestyle of Banni. Shaam-e-sarhad(sunset at border and a very apt name) is a resort in Hodka where hospitality is top class. It is run by the Hodka community in collaboration with professionals.

At the resort you can choose to stay in traditional bunga known as round houses or tents, both having attached bathrooms. The staff gave us a tour of the rooms and we were spell-bound. Though the bunga was grand, we preferred the cosy tents. The bathroom was indeed our favourite! Traditional food is served in the large open tent whose ceiling is innovatively decorated with malmal scarves, a must have accessory of the men in this region of Kutch. The resort even provides tours and safaris. The sunset here is a spectacle and is enhanced by the presence of folk musicians.

We always tell kids not to play with mud. But what do we do when some adults play with mud all the time and produce stunning paintings? – we appreciate their talent and buy the paintings! Drive to the predominantly muslim area of Old Bhuj and let mud art bedazzle you!

As we entered the shack where the wonders were made, the array of paintings were lying everywhere, the paint was all over the floor and the creativity hit us right away. We started talking to the artists.

Mud art mainly involves creating patterns on plywood with mud, colouring the mud mounds that create patterns and using mirrors and painting to enhance the work of art. On further conversation we were told that mud art and mud paintings are two different things. Mud art is just the use of mud/paints and mirror in traditional patterns and modern patterns if the client so expresses. A mud painting is painting people, places or abstract and using mud and mirror just to enhance the look of the painting.

You can order any mud art or mud painting and they courier it to you for a nominal charge. They do have some ready paintings which you could buy, but it’s nice to choose a pattern and get it delivered to your house.

The Lost Kingdom – Lakhpat

One needs to start early in order to reach Lakhpat by lunchtime. The 140 km drive is rugged and gives the feeling that your car is a ship floating in a desert of sand and shrubs. There are plenty of road-side tapirs (shacks) to keep your taste buds happy.

The Lakhpat fort rises like a phoenix from the earth. Its walls stretch across the arid canvas. The fort looks grand despite the dilapidation. On entering the arched entrance, a haunting feeling overtook me. I felt like a Princess, who had returned to weep upon her once prosperous kingdom, which now was a mere barren battlefield!

Lakhpat is an 18th century fort and it was a famous port until it became redundant due to the 1819 earthquake. When Guru Nanak Ji visited he stayed in one of the houses in the settlement inside the fort on his way to Mecca. The house was later turned into a Gurudwara which is visited by many sikh devotees even today. The Gurudwara still has the khadau (foot wear) which Guru Nanak Ji wore and left behind as his memory for the people of Lakhpat. There is even a langar, which makes for the perfect lunch and free lodging facility for the devotees for up to 3 days.

After finishing darshan at the Gurudrwara, we drove to Gauz Mohommad’s Majar, again within the boundaries of the fort. It is a very striking structure and the most well preserved one among the ruins. A 10 minute walk from the Majar takes you to a look-out point where we found a spectacular view and a post of Border Security Force (BSF). The look-out point gives you a 360 degree view of the kori creek, the marshland, Rann of kutch, the settlements inside Lakhpat village and the BSF headquarters. Apparently quite a bit of the JP Dutta movie Refugee were shot inside Lakpat fort. I made my mom sit on the rocks and took her picture, complete with the dupatta on her head and captioned it as ‘my Kareena!’

Bridging borders – India gate

Khavda is a small village specialising in leather work. A mere 20 minutes away is Kuran, famous for India Bridge; a bridge which connects Rest of India to Rann of Kutch, hence making the Rann accessible.

The bridge is controlled by BSF and a Special permit from Bhuj DIG BSF Office is needed to go over the bridge and beyond it to the last BSF OP, from where the nearest Pakistani BSF post can be seen. The last OP is 70 kms further inside from India Bridge. As it was late afternoon, we decided against going to the last OP on the advice of the jawans. We drove over the India Bridge and to Dharmshala (BSF headquarters in this region). Throughout the drive we took in the splendid views of the Rann stretching out for eternity, the numerous mirages and the occasional chinkara (spotted deer).

Crossing the Cancer – a photo moment

One of the places where the Tropic of Cancer cuts through is the road you may be driving on! If you’re heading to Khavda from Bhuj, a maroon board reading – ‘You are crossing the Tropic Of Cancer!’ will announce this historical spot. It is a picture-perfect moment, so freeze it in style; just like we did!

Tips for Kutch

1. Keep extra time in hand while driving in Kutch because you may never know what treasures you may come across on the road.

2. Remember the timings-
Aina Mahal: 9 am to 12 noon & 3 pm to 6 pm (except Saturday)
Sharad Baug Palace: 9 am to 12 noon & 3 pm to 6 pm (except Friday)
Aarti at Duttatreya Temple (Kala Dungar) – 12 noon and at sunset
Narayan Sarovar Temple – closed between 1 pm to 4 pm

3. It is a better option to see the aarti at 12 noon at Duttareya Temple (Kala Dungar) to get a clearer view of the foxes and also because the drive down the Kala Dungar is narrow.

4. I took the trip the day after Diwali. Remember in Kutch most shops celebrate extended diwali and hence are closed for upto anywhere between 3-4 days after diwali. If you’re taking the trip around the same time, make sure it’s a week after diwali or you may end up witnessing everything closed.

5. If you do place an order for a mud art or mud painting, pay in advance (we did not pay in advance, and they did not ask for it, and the paintings are yet to be delivered!) and keep following up your order. Trust me; it’s worth all the extra trouble!

6. If you do wish to drive all the way to the end, reach India Bridge early, maybe before lunch.

7. Carry lunch with you when visiting Lakhpat and India Bridge, or you’ll go hungry!

8. Do not hog on the Kutchi food if you have a sensitive stomach, else you’ll end up throwing up, just like I did.

9. Carry extra cash for unplanned shopping of clothes, bags, mobile covers, mud art, pottery etc!

PN : Original Article by Preeti Dhar on Chillibreeze.com

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