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Arid and enchanting

The story on Kutch was carried in print – it’s reproduced here for reference.

Advertisements showing Bollywood legend, Amitabh Bachhan standing in the middle of the “White Desert” and wooing travelers to visit the state in his typical voice, ‘Kutch Nahi Dekha Toh Kuch Nahi Dekha, always used to make me crave an outing to Kutch and soak my soul in the salty air. And my wishes came true when Gujarat Tourism gave me a chance recently to explore a bit of Kutch, mainly Great Rann, Bhuj, Mandvi, and a few handicrafts villages.

Kachchh (Kutch), the largest district of India literally means something which intermittently becomes wet and dry, and is famous for ecologically important Banni grasslands with their seasonal marshy wetlands which form the outer belt of the Rann of Kutch.

It’s a fascinating place but on the same hand, it is an inhospitable land to inhabit because of the extremely hot and dry summers. It’s a sparsely populated island with the Arabian Sea in its west, the Gulf of Kutch in its south, and the Greater and Little Rann in the north, and in the east it is Bhuj, the headquarters of Kutch District.

The way residents here have cheerfully accepted the harsh climate here is a testimony of their fighting spirits and most of them live in Bhungas with thatched roofs.  A Bhunga is a mud house with a wooden roof, and walls having mirror work outlined with mud work, devised by villagers to ward off natural calamities. The thick clay wall gives them protection from earthquakes and also keeps them cool in extreme summer. These Bhungas are living museums of beautiful paintings by local tribal women.

Talking about earthquakes – should make one emotional but after my current trip; I will always remember Kutch with a smile on my face. The credit goes to my autowallah in Bhuj. The chat with this autowala bhaiya revealed a local myth about Kutch – relating earthquakes with the movement of the head of a huge snake named SheshNaag on which Kutch is situated. Funny, Right …

The extreme climate has led the 16 pastoral nomadic, semi-nomadic tribes who live here to evolve arts and crafts for survival. The tribals here specialise in different forms of arts. Vibrant embroidery, woven handloom fabrics, intricate threadwork, metalwork, copper bells, mirror work, Rogan art, wood art, and Ajrakh block printing in villages like Nirona, Sumrasar, Dhordo, Ludia, Dhamadka, Anjar, made me indulge in a lot of purchasing.

Various destinations in Kutch, Bhuj, Dhordo -Rann, Mandvi (Sea Beach), Kalo Dungar (Black Hills), Dholavira (Kotada Timba, an ancient village excavated from Harappan civilization), and others were waiting for me to come and explore. So I started my explorations from the great Rann by spending 2 days at the tented colony and was fortunate to see and shoot three wonderful occasions; sunset, sunrise, and full moon at the Rann. The White Rann changed moods as per the time of the day too; it gently woke up in the morning, was merciless in the afternoon, and calmed down during the sunset and glow beautifully in the moonlight.

The white desert is, in fact, a dried river bed as river Layari which originates in the Banni Grasslands dries up completely in winter months leaving white salt sediments, and amazing rock formations. This salty desert is almost 40km in length and is around 80 km from Bhuj and also has been the shooting spot for a number of Bollywood movies and song videos, the most famous being Refugee.

After getting covered in salt almost all over at Rann, and filling my bags with handicrafts shopping at various villages around Dhordo, it was now time to move on to Dholavira, the next destination I had in mind. But unfortunately, due to some time constraints, I had to miss going to Dholavira and go only to Bhuj, and Mandvi in this edition of my Kutch Explorations. So I hurried on to Mandvi to chill out in the waters at one of the most elegant beaches in the area. The added attraction was a chance to get into the ocean at a royal private beach.

So on the road again and after a short lunch break at Bhuj, I arrived at the resort at the elegant Vijay Vilas Heritage, Mandvi. Located on the Gulf of Kutch, Mandvi was founded by Khengarji I, the first Jadeja ruler of Kutch in 1580 and named after Sage Mandavya (from Mahabharata times), and is known today for its rich history, soft sand beaches, palaces, freedom fighters and legends, and migratory birds.

Of all the attractions I loved spending time at the eternally beautiful Vijay Villas Heritage Resort & the Beach Camp’s private beach. Being a port and also with a river flowing through, most things in Mandvi revolve around water. Apart from enjoying the sea and the sands, it was also very interesting to visit a lot of beautiful old buildings with stained glass windows in the heart of town, and temples with wildly sculpted, cartoon-like facades.

The elegant Vijay Vilas Palace is an amazing depiction of fusion architecture and a palace where blockbuster Bollywood movies like Lagaan and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam have been filmed.  The palace was built as a summer resort in1929 by Rao Vijayrajji, the then Maharao of Kutch, and is a sandstone structure fusing Rajput architecture with a main central dome, Bengal domes at the sides, and colored glass windows. The upper terraces and ground floor are open to visitors, and I felt like a royal guest walking through on the large terrace with jaali work and posed to re-enact a scene from the movies that have been filmed here.

A visit to Kutch will be incomplete without exploring Bhuj, the headquarters of the district. And when I did that I was overwhelmed. For me, Bhuj was peaceful, tranquil, and slow-paced. Bhuj also prides itself on a lot of history, art, and handicrafts.

As I drove around in the auto, I did see some damage caused in the city due to the earthquake of 6.9 on the Ritcher scale lasting about 100 seconds long, 19 years ago in 2001. But Bhuj has risen from the ashes like a phoenix and is a story of faith and power that has led to it being one of the most loved tourist spots in Gujarat.

It was a warm December sunny afternoon when we drove into Bhuj, and after a quick lunch, we drove to Aaina Mahal palace, or “Hall of Mirrors”, the bell tower at the ancient Prag Mahal and the beautiful artifacts at Kutch Museum. I was in a hurry to finish up sightseeing in Bhuj as I had an appointment with Mrs. Lata, the Mayor of Bhuj, and she was going to take us to a nesting spot of rare birds in the wilderness with the help of JaySukh Bhai Parekh Suman, who is a well-known ornithologist in Bhuj.

The sight of the nesting area was amazing. We had to climb down a huge rocky wall in the hills, but the effort was really worth in the end. I was a little sad though as the birds have all flown away after the breeding season and it was only the nests that we could capture on our cameras. Mrs. Lata and Suman Ji then took us around more of Bhuj and we visited the Chattris, umbrellas-shaped cenotaphs of Bhuj, Ashapura Mata Mandir, and Hamirsar Lake before ending our trip at Suman ji’s office feasting on local Kutchi food.

I was in Kutch, and how can a foodie like me not indulge in some mouth-watering Kutchy food. Well, Kutch is home to some of the best spicy foods in Gujarat. A traditional Kutchi thali normally used to comprise bajra rotla, odho (brinjal curry), sev tamatar, kadhi, and a tumbler of buttermilk. I would like to special mention one super delicious street food of Kutch, the Kutchy Dabeli. Dabeli is claimed to have been invented in Mandvi. The dabeli is similar to a burger or a sandwich, containing potatoes mixed with spices, topped with chutney and roasted peanuts, all stuffed in a pao at a throwaway price of Rs 10/- each (this really stunned me when the dabeli seller asked me to pay for one plate).

All in all, I found Kutch to be a celebration of the life, festivities, and cultures of Gujarat. Among the riot of colours all around, I found the diverse traditions and the generosity and hospitality of the Kutchi people quite fascinating.

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