Kutch; Day 3 – Swaminarayan Temple, Bhuj

February 5, 2015

We had nothing planned anything for our last day in Kutch. We put ourselves in the hands of our *busier than **Obama local driver, Bharatbhai. This turned out to be a very good thing, because if it hadn’t been for Bharatbhai we would have very likely missed our train home. Bharatbhai decided to take us to Bhuj and show us the local sights, since our train back was from there. Bhuj was the capital of the Jadeja Rajput rulers of Kutch in the sixteenth century. Ever since, it has remained one of the most important places in Kutch.

My knowledge about this quaint city was limited to the earthquake of 2001 and that the movie Lagaan was shot here. The earthquake was a 7.7 on the Momentum Magnitude scale (6.9 on the Richter scale) and the tremors left the city devastated. Lagaan was India’s official entry for the Oscars in 2001 and was nominated in the best foreign language film category. It lost out to No Man’s Land.

DSC_0923We made an auspicious start at the Swaminarayan Temple. Floating like a sublime white lily on the banks of the Hamirsar Lake, this stately marble shrine is the pride of Bhuj. Pilgrims and visitors enter through a magnificent gate into a sprawling courtyard. Leave your footwear here. It is considered sacrilegious to enter Hindu temples with footwear on. I have seen Hindus take their footwear off before entering places of worship belonging to other religions too. The cool porous marble provides respite from the unforgiving heat of Kutch and its soft milky whiteness soothes the eyes. The extensively carved columns and ceilings and the tastefully done mosaic marble flooring are kept remarkably clean despite the heavy footfall.

IMG_2878I was always told that we ring the bell before entering a temple to announce ourselves to God (and the priest), and that is why it is impolite to ring it on the way out. Not so long ago I heard that good temple bell is one that produces a sound that lasts exactly 7 seconds in echo mode. The resulting vibrations drain the mind of all thoughts and one can then easily meditate on the Supreme Being and absorb the positive energies of the temple. Recently I came across a more beautiful, philosophical explanation. The sound of the bell is supposed to replicate the chanting of AUM, which the Hindu’s believe is the fundamental sound of the universe or the big bang.  When the bell rings the sound is deep at first, as though originating from the pit of the stomach; it gradually transitions into a sharp humming and then slowly dissipates into eternity. Like the bell’s harmonics, reality has three stages – srishti, sthiti and laya meaning creation, preservation and destruction or birth, life and death. The sound of the bell is supposed to alert the listeners to the impermanence of their own existence and remind them that ***He alone is real.

DSC_0927As we stood before the idols I whispered to the husband “Which god is this?” “Swaminarayan!” “I know that,” I hissed,” Which god is Swaminarayan?” I take some quite pride in my knowledge of Hindu mythology and the great and minor gods of the pantheon, but I really couldn’t place this one. The husband was just as confused. My question threw him off, but only for a moment. He quickly gathered himself and hissed back, “There’s Narayan in his name. He must be a manifestation of Vishnu.” With that he quickly joined his hands, closed his eyes and bowed his head.

(The preferred form of worship seemed to be to join the index fingers and tap them on the floor repeatedly)

I have found out since that Lord Swaminarayan was a living saint who was considered an incarnation of Lord Vishnu by his followers. When he was still alive six temples were built in his honour, one of which was in Bhuj. In these temples the main idols was installed by Lord Swaminarayan himself. The north side of the Bhuj temple was destroyed when the earthquake stuck in 2001. This impressive new temple we were standing in was built as a replacement, a short distance away from the original. Bharatbhai says there was a grand feast to celebrate the opening of the new temple.The temple is built using traditional Vedic architectural methods and construction was completed in 2010. The original idols miraculously survived the earthquake and were moved into their new abode.

* The number of calls he received and the amount of time he spent co-ordinating I-don’t-know-what on the phone was unbelievable.

**Obama – current President of the United States of America

***He/She/Whatever. I believe God is gender free. I am using He merely for convenience

Kutch; The Rann Utsav

February 5, 2015

DSC_0914My mother was most excited about the Rann Utsav. She and my aunt wanted to visit in December, but the logistics didn’t work out. As we walked out into the vast expanse of shimmering white, she called to ask about the festival, ” How are the cultural activities? Folk musicians must be there. What about the dances? Are they doing dandiya? It must be so beautiful.” ” Well,  I don’t see a lot of cultural activities. Where I am, I see some musicians. The only dancers I see are some tourists who have formed a little circle and are dancing in front of them. ” ” No traditional dancers?”, she asked again.  “Amma! We are in Kutch, *not Gujarat.  Kutch has a distinctive and different cultural identity of its own.” A pause and then she comes back, ” So, you mean they don’t do dandiya in Kutch?”

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They do do dandiya in Kutch, we just didn’t see any of it. The festival area is enclosed and we never attempted to go in, so I cannot tell what goes on inside. The website advertises folk music and dances and adventure sports, in additional to mouthwatering traditional fare. Just outside, there is a small trade fair. Almost all of the colourful traditional handicrafts sold here are made by hand and by the people selling them. They are very reasonable priced and you can bargain. This is as social as enterprises can get. The husband could barely suppress a smile as I went about trying to enquire about the price of various goods in my broken Gujarati.  The evening we were there, was the evening the Governor of Gujarat also decided to visit. As craftsmen flaunted their wares with wave and flourish to the First Lady of Gujarat, a gawking crowd followed her around. The crowd would be dispersed by her security personnel at regular intervals, undeterred it would regroup moments later.

*not Gujarat – technically we are in Gujarat. Kutch is the largest district in the state of Gujarat.

P.S – Everyone in this area dresses like the stepped straight out of the movie Refugee

Kutch; Day 2 – Salt Desert of the Great Rann of Kutch

February 4, 2015

Our humble able for the night. Don't be decieved, inside it is equiped with all sorts of modern conviniences.

Our humble abode for the night. Don’t be decieved, inside it is equiped with all sorts of modern conviniences.

Gujarat Tourism holds a cultural festival called the Rann Ustav at the salt desert, from December to the end of February  each year. As part of the festival offering, luxury tents are set up near the Rann at Dhordo. We wanted to check out the festival, but found the packages offered way over budget. Instead we opted to spend the night  in a  **bunga  at the Gateway to Rann Resort. The resort is right next to the festival area, a short drive from the white desert, and a great stay option.  Permits are required to visit the salt flats. These can be easily obtained at the Bhirandiyara village checkpoint. When in this village, do sample their famous *mawa. These permits are single entry only.

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tu mera hero!!

I very badly wanted to see the white rann sparkling on a full moon night. As luck would have it, our visit to Kutch coincided with the full moon. I planned and plotted, but it was just not going to be feasible for us to be there on the night of the full moon. We were going to be there the night after. I realized this would not be so bad because, the illumination would be just as bright, and we could escape the tourist hordes. During the day,the merciless bright light reflected from the stark white plains can be blinding, and the best time into the rann is either early morning or evening.

DSC_0814As we waited for the sun to set, we walked out into the desert as far as we could. The Rann Utsav has its own entrance to the desert, even so there were several others where we were. In recent years, the festival has become increasingly commercialized. Its popularity has, unfortunately, resulted in dirtying and polluting the area.ATV tracks crisscross the rann like salt routes once crisscrossed the globe.  Camel dung and paan stains mar the beauty of the glittering crystals. I wonder if there could not be a good way to control this. People could be asked to wear shoe covers before stepping on to the salt. The shoe covers could be made mandatory and supplied at a reasonable cost. I quickly see the flaw in this plan. The area is too vast to control entry and ensure compliance. All is not lost though. There is a concrete ramp extending far out. It didn’t strike us until much later, when we were sitting at the end of the ramp waiting for the sun to set that we could have simply walked down the ramp, instead of trampling all over the  place with our dirty shoes. Thankfully, we were more sensitive and sensible on our way back.  If you plan to visit, I strongly suggest that you use the ramp. Also, people seemed to be allowed only on one side of the ramp. There was no one on the  other side, either for ecological reasons or out of safety concerns.  The Rann of Kutch extends into the Sindh province of Pakistan.

DSC_0859As the day drew to a close, the fair earth blushed and turned rose pink as the sleepy sun kissed her goodnight. The last rays of light lingered on, like a lover unwilling to part. When the moon finally made an appearance it was small and yellow, like a round of pockmarked Emmental, but as it rose it got bigger and brighter.  Looking at it, the capricious earth started to preen and smile again.

* mawa – a sweet made by reducing and thickening milk

**bunga – rooms  built to look like traditional huts

Kutch; Day 2 – The Artisan Village of Nirona

February 4, 2015

Post lunch we set forth for what was to be the highlight of our holiday – a trip to the Salt Desert of the Great Rann of Kutch. In the Mesozoic era, both the Little and the Great Rann of Kutch were a shallow arm of the Arabian sea. A geological uplift cut it off  and created a large lake. As centuries passed, the land turned into a vast saline mudflat due to silting and high annual evaporation.Today the land is pretty much an island, and looks like a tortoise – Katchua or Kachbo in water.   During the brief wet season, the mudflat becomes flooded. When the seasons change, it  gets parched under the relentless, searing heat of the long dry season, revealing the barren salt desert.

IMG_2850On the way  we stopped at the artisan village of Nirona. I understood from *Bharatbhai, our driver that the artisans here made small metal artifacts. He stopped the car outside a narrow alley and told us we would find the craftsman he had told us about down that lane. Sure enough, we saw a house with a board about a national award winning artisan. Naturally we knocked. The door never opened, but a few minutes later a man mysteriously appeared beside us and asked us if we would be interested in taking a look at their work.  We followed him into the house across the street.  The house belonged to Khatri Ghafoor Bhai and his brood – the only family practicing the little known art of rogan painting. The only family in the world.  The master painter drew us chairs and while he sat down on the floor to demonstrate his art.  As he  demonstrated, he educated us about this 300 year old art form.

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The word rogan is derived from the Persian word for oil based.The paints are prepared in advance by heating castor oil for days, continuously stirring it, till it reaches flash point. It is then mixed with appropriate amounts of natural dyes  as it cools and it thickens into a sticky elastic residue.  The paints are stored in water so that they don’t dry out and harden. We watched as the soft spoken artist used a thin metal rod to scope up some paint and smudged it on to the side of his palm, at the base of his thumb. This was to be his palette. He then used the same metal stylus to deftly draw a small flower on a piece of cloth.”Rogan painting is always done free hand. We never use a sketch or a template.” , he explained.To ensure symmetry, the design is created on one half of the cloth, which is fold and pressed to create an inkblot style  mirror image on the opposite side. The catch is once the colours dry, they won’t transfer, so the painter needs to be precise and fast.

Rogan borrows more than just its name from Persian. While geometric prints and floral patterns are popular motifs for stoles, table cloths, wall hangings, curtains, kurtas, saris, dress material and skirts,  the Persian Tree of Life is the Khatris’ most intricate design.  In  more minute and detailed work  like the Tree of Life, the inkblot style proves troublesome as the colours tend to overlap and smudge. When such designs are created, only the outline is folded for symmetry. The colours are filled in later. A rogan painter needs to be more than just creative and skilled. Patience is the key to the trade.

When Mr. Narendra Modi, currently Prime Minister of India visited the United States last year, he gifted President Obama a rogan painting of The Tree of Life. Our host and salesman informs us that these painting have been Mr. Modi’s gift of choice for state guests ever since he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and he takes special efforts to promote it.

In addition to being skilled artisans, the Khatris are also shrewd business folk. After demonstrating how Rogan art is created, we were shown a few samples of the various articles on which it was done. Once we expressed interest in buying, we were shown some more pieces.Since we don’t live in India, I ruefully ruled out buying a skirt or dress material (salwar-kameez/kurta). Then they brought out the stoles. I have more stoles than I use, so they brought out the bags. The bags were beautiful, but still no. Finally they brought out some clutches. Aha!

Although none of the articles they showed us were too expensive, the thing to note here is the way they were presented. The highest priced first, when it was ruled out, you are asked if you would like to look at something in the next price range and so on. You are never told right away that there is something smaller, less expensive available. I’m quite impressed. There is no pressure,ever and you are free to leave without buying.

*bhai – Brother. A respectful way of addressing a man in India.