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A journey through Kutch

A journey through Kutch

Arid yet riotous with colours. Stark yet lush with life. Calm yet bUStling with the arts. The district of Kutch in Gujarat, India, is all this and much more


Published: Fri 4 Oct 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 18 Oct 2019, 9:52 AM

We're home, though not quite in the sense one would imagine. This particular home, and its courtyard, belong to someone else but they ensure we fit in snugly. We're warmly invited in and offered the most delectable selection of food: Rotla (bajra roti), sev-tameta (crispy gram flour savoury with tomato), batata-nu-shak (potato sabzi), khaari bhaat (spicy rice). As we lick our fingers clean after a hugely satisfying meal, the men gently urge us to take maybe a little bit more of this or some more of that, perhaps? The women, meanwhile, are busy over the earthen chullahs, preparing fresh rotlas and goading on their menfolk. At Anjar's Kapdi Vishi, a family-run dhaba, every patron is made to feel like a part of the family and we have a kindred spirit.
Anjar, you ask?
We aren't surprised. Kutch has become synonymous either with the Great Rann, a stunning white desert with its vast expanse of nothingness, or the Little Rann, infested with a rich wildlife and a plethora of migratory birds.
With nearly 1,400 years of history, Anjar, the aforementioned atmospheric town, is claimed to be the oldest in Kutch. At the pinnacle of its glory, Anjar was the capital of the Kingdom of Kutch. Unfortunately, it has faced the most catastrophic earthquakes, many times over, the most recent being in 2001, but each time, it has risen from the ashes. Emitting an old-world rustic charm, it has several temples and shrines. However, it is the 500-year-old Jesal Toral Ni Samadhi (the tomb of Jesal and Toral) that is most popular. Several myths and yarns have been spun around the duo - some pitch Jesal as a robber who tried to abduct the beautiful saint Toral, others present them as a couple, yet others conclude that Toral persuaded Jesal to take to a life of religion like her. All, though, unanimously acknowledge that the two chose to take samadhi together. If, however, you prefer something abuzz with life, visit the meandering bazaars of Anjar with shop after shop selling silverware and handicrafts, especially knives and nutcrackers.
In fact, it's not just Anjar; all of Kutch is a shopper's paradise. Its reputation as a hub for bandhani (tie-and-dye), blockprint, mirror-work and mashru fabric goes well beyond the oceans. The district boasts master craftspersons, many of whom are national award-winners. What is less widely known, however, is the beauty of its silver artefacts as also lacquer work.
Apocryphal tales will have you believe that Bhuj - the capital of Kutch, past and present - is an incarnation of Tej, a city mentioned in the writings of two millennia ago. However, in the absence of official mainstream documentation, it's safe to say that it was formed in 1510.
Bhuj - named after Bhujiyo Dungar, the hill towering over it - became the capital of the Kingdom of Kutch less than 40 years later. Unfortunately, much of the glorious past has either disappeared or lies in ruins but there's still a lot that shines through. Aaina Mahal, the palace of mirrors, for one. A fine example of Indo-Saracenic architecture, it was commissioned in the 18th century to a craftsperson trained in Holland and has a distinct European touch with Venetian-style chandeliers, clocks and silver but their USP is that they are all manufactured locally.
To truly understand the history of Kutch, visit the Kutch Museum, Gujarat's oldest. It boasts not only the largest existing collection of Kshatrapa inscriptions dating to the 1st century but also specimens of the now-defunct Kutchi script. That apart, it provides a rich insight into the tribals and royals of Kutch. Another relic of beauty in Bhuj is the Prag Mahal Palace, an Indo-British collaborative effort in marble and sandstone. A section of the palace has been converted into a museum. Its piece de resistance is the clock tower - the second-highest in the country - which accords sweeping views of the city.
South-west of Bhuj lies the town of Mandvi, founded in 1580. It used to be a major port city with one of its rulers said to have built and maintained a fleet of 400 ships. Over the centuries, its eminence eroded until it became the summer retreat of the royal family of Kutch. That regal splendor is still visible in the impressive Vijay Vilas Palace, characterised by intricate jharokhas (windows), jaalis (meshes) and chhatris (canopies). Overlooking the Arabian Sea, the red sandstone palace boasts exquisite art work, a private beach and a stunning 360-degree view from the roof. There are several beautiful buildings and old temples around Mochi Bazaar.
Mandvi may have relinquished its pole position as port city to Gandhidham, a well-heeled town near Kandla Port, but it has retained its reputation as a ship-building yard. We watched the intriguing sight of carpenters and craftsmen dexterously working their expertise as planks of wood were joined together to gradually take the form of a ship. The ships here are entirely wooden and hand-made. Offering an experience of the spiritual kind is 72 Jinalaya, a pristine white complex with 72 exquisite Jain temples, near Mandvi (Note: Shorts are not allowed for men or women). Bhadreshwar is another Jain temple near Gandhidham. A historic fort and a gurudwara sanctified by Guru Nanak Dev himself are the hallmarks of another Kutchi town, Lakhpat.
One afternoon, while sauntering around the streets of Anjar, we spot a group of women gathered around a courtyard. Unaware that we speak their tongue, they speculate amongst themselves in Gujarati: "Baahar gaam thi farva aavya lage (looks like they are tourists)." We chuckle and clear the misconception, "Na behn, amey ahin thi chheeye (no sister, we're from here only)." Shocked but ecstatic that we're one of them, they invite us home for tea and we oblige. What follows is much laughter, banter and shared warmth.
Didn't we tell you we're home?

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