Kutch – North West India.
Bhuj, Bhujodi, The Banni, Hodka, Bhirandiyara, Kala Dungar (Black Hill), Rann of Kutch, Lakhpat, Mandvi,
I have been fascinated by India for as long as I can remember. It was not the British Raj that interested me. I was appalled to read about that history. Rather, it was Mughal India, and before, which fired up my imagination.
I had little specific knowledge of Gujurat prior to my visit. The State has so many historical sites, ranging from the Indus Valley Civilisation, Hindu and Muslim pilgrimage sites and Buddhist caves, a Unesco world heritage city and sites and more.
The Kutch District of the State is famous for its handicrafts, beautiful landscape, The Great Rann of Kutch, beautiful beaches and lots of animals. I am generally more interested in historical and archaeological sites and art and architecture than in handicrafts, textiles and embroidery, but I have to say that visiting artisans in their villages, watching them at work and seeing the exquisite embroidery, watching master weavers and viewing the finished products is an experience I will never forget.
Bhuj, the administrative centre of Kutch, is an interesting town to explore, due in part to damage and destruction by earthquake and the subsequent rebuilding, making for an interesting mix of architecture. Great loss of life and property occurred during severe earthquakes over the past 200 years – (16 June 1819, 21 January 1956 and more recently 26 January, 2001).
The streets of Bhuj are teeming with activity, filled with colour and fun to walk around. Cars, trucks, tuk tuks, motorcycles and bicycles weave around cows, goats and pedestrians.
From Bhuj it is possible to become immersed in a large area of Kutch.
I felt very privileged to visit artisans at work in their own villages. Watching the Masters of Weaving and the women working on traditional embroidery and seeing the finished products had me (almost) wishing I could create such beauty. My attempts at handcraft have never produced a thing of beauty and have always ended the life of the planned item prematurely.
The finished products created by the artisans using traditional skills are many and varied. Colourful, beautiful and functional. I did get to try my hand at creating a pattern with woodblocks. I rather enjoyed choosing woodblocks and stamping the fabric, but the finished product was not fit for purpose.
The people in the villages were very welcoming and friendly. The experience of sitting in their homes, observing the way they lived their day to day lives, enjoying music and most of all meeting all the beautiful children was a very happy, thought provoking experience. Life in the villages is far from easy, and I hope that these beautiful children are able to obtain an education. The women and little girls were all dressed magnificently. Their clothes were works of art.
The Banni, Kalo Dungar and the Great Rann of Kutch
A day trip from Bhuj to Kalo Dungar provided a day of visual splendour and the opportunity to experience sights, sounds and sunsets which were unforgettable.
The distance from Bhuj to Kalo Dungar is around 89.8km. Every km offered something of interest, be it people, animals and landscapes. The road crosses the Tropic of Cancer – pathetic I know, but I always love to cross borders and boundaries, and photograph the signage if possible.
We were very fortunate to be accompanied on this entire trip by Kuldip Gadhvi, the owner/operator of Kutch Adventures India (**see notes for more information). It would be very hard to find someone more passionate and caring, with a such an extensive knowledge of the history, environment, people and places of Kutch. Kuldip is committed to sustainable tourism and cares very deeply for the environment. He is welcomed and respected by the artisans, which makes for a great experience for those visiting.
The Banni Grasslands spread over an area of around 3847sq metres. The Banni has an arid grasslands ecosystem, with high salinity. Vegetation is sparse. Kuldip explained that the grasslands are under pressure – for example by overgrazing, and invasion by a non native, thorny shrub/tree. Cows cannot eat this invader, and are being replaced by buffalo. Droughts are common, which increase the salinity. Human induced climate change adversely affects the area, as it does the world over.
For a tourist from a relatively wealthy country, it was very humbling to see the Maldhari (shepherds/cattle breeders) herding their flocks from their settlements in the morning, and then herding them back in the evening. The sunset was spectacular.
I enjoyed stopping at truck stops by the side of the road for a refreshing Chai.
I am not a tea drinker, but sitting at this truck stop, watching the tea being made, and observing people going about their daily lives, and truck drivers enjoying their chai, I discovered that actually, tea could be delicious.
Kalo Dungar is the highest point in Kutch – 462 metres above sea level – and provides sweeping views over the Great Rann of Kutch, a salt marsh in the Thar desert covering around 7500sq km. Visually, initially, this area looked like the sea. Looking over the area from Kalo Dungar, towards Pakistan took my breath away. This vast expanse of “nothing”, which in fact is not “nothing” was awe inspiring.
I love water buffaloes, goats and pigeon houses. So how good was this day to provide opportunities to see each of these in addition to all else.
The buffalo were enjoying their morning – beautiful creatures. I have always loved goats, and had never seen such varied markings and colours. The goats pictured are just a small sample of the many I saw – just love the spotty eared goat.
Once a great trading port on the Indus River, Lakhpat declined after the 1819 earthquake caused the Indus River to change its course. A port no more. In addition, the loss of the river meant crops could no longer be grown.
I love historical forts and castles, especially those which are are more or less deserted. The walled city and fort at Lakhpat fitted my criteria for a most desirable place to visit, so I was very much looking forward to exploring it. The fact that Lakhpat is only 30km from the Pakistan border made the visit all the more exciting.
The visit turned out to be interesting and fun. Climbing up onto and walking along the northern city wall, looking out over the Rann towards Pakistan provided panoramic views. It was very difficult to visualise the Indus river flowing past this wall, busy with boat traffic bringing goods to trade, with rice crops growing around. What once was the river is now part of the Great Rann.
Here, the loss of the water source was caused by an earthquake. The consequences for this area were severe. How much more of our land is being laid waste by human activity? If we wish our grandchildren to inherit a sustainable life, governments and major polluters must act with a great deal more urgency to reduce carbon omissions. Farming must be sustainable. We must stop massive land clearing. The consequences for the world – and not just a part of the world, will be catastrophic if we do not. Our grandchildren will not inherit a sustainable life.
Remains of numerous old houses, some of which would have been quite grand, give an idea of what Lakhpat once was.
Some religious monuments have also survived. An octagonal shaped tomb built from black stones, with intricate carved stone decoration was built for Ghaus Muhammad, a sufi saint, who died in 1855. The tomb stands out starkly in the landscape. Unfortunately the door was locked – the view of the tomb through the keyhole was less than optimum. The five domed mausoleum of Sayyed Pir Shah Dargah, built from white stone also stands out. It also has beautifully carved stone decoration.
I was very interested to visit Mandvi, an ancient port, the home of a 400 year old ship building industry. Smaller boats, such as fishing boats are now being built, but in the 18th century the ship building yard could anchor and repair up to 400 vessels.
Boats are built in the same way as they were hundred of years ago – the skills are passed down the generations. The shipyard is on the banks of the River Rukmavathi, which flows into the Arabian Sea.
Glamping at Mandvi Beach was a highlight of my stay at Mandvi. I love camping – glamping takes it a further level, especially when the location is on the shores of the Arabian Sea. I was very keen to conquer yet another body of water – by conquer I mean to swim, or paddle, somewhere I have not been before. I was not disappointed. I loved the accommodation, and paddling in the Arabian Sea added another special experience for someone who grew up with the Pacific Ocean to the east of the country and the Tasman Sea to the west. Lets face it, paddling in the Arabian Sea sounds a lot more exotic – and in reality felt a lot more exotic.
Gujurat is “dry”. That is, alcohol is not available, well that is unless you are a tourist and obtain a Liquor Permit. I am very proud of my liquor permit, which is stamped into my passport. I had stocked up in Bhuj and had a bottle of some dubious white wine with which I intended to chill, and relax with in my tent. Well, chill was not possible, but its amazing how good a warm, second rate white wine can taste when drinking it in such an exotic environment.
A magical experience was dining at the beach, accompanied by a most interesting presentation from Kuldip about Hindu gods and goddesses. I had only really heard of a very few of them (Vishnu, Lakshmi, Shiva and Ganesha, and Ganesha was the only God I could recognise), and was not aware of what they all stood for, so I learnt a lot from Kuldip. Sheer magic, dining beside the Arabian sea, after listening to stories of the gods and goddesses as darkness slowly descended.
Mandvi was my final destination in Kutch, and I was sad to be leaving. An adventure never to be forgotten.
**Notes: Kuldip Gadhvi has won awards for Responsible Tourism. Kuldip can take you to “Explore colourful culture, communities, crafts and off the beaten trails of Kutch Gujarat with Kutch Adventures India” (from Kutch Adventures India website https://www.kutchadventuresindia.com )
Kuldip and his family also operate a homestay in Bhuj – Desert Adventures, which is a wonderful home, very comfortable and ideal for anyone who wishes to experience genuine Indian cooking, and a meaningful cultural immersion with a friendly happy family.
Finally, some images from the Aina Mahal, an 18th century palace, now museum in Bhuj.