Kutch; Day 3 – Bhujodi; Shop till you Drop

February 5, 2015

After a sumptuous thali and a few glasses of soothing buttermilk, we were on our way to Bhujodi. Bhujodi is the perfect place to indulge in some textile tourism. Can you think of a better way to escape from the tyranny of the afternoon sun?

I wonder if bhujiya was invented in Bhuj. Maybe, maybe not, but on the way to Bhujodi we learnt that Bhuj does gets its name from bhujiya, another sort of bhujiya. It gets its name from the Bhujia Fort, which was constructed by the Jadeja Chief, Rao Godaji, for the defence of the city. The fort itself gets its name from Bhujia hill on which it was built, overlooking the city. Since Indian independence, the fort has been under the jurisdiction of the Indian Army. Entry is strictly prohibited to civilians expect on the festival on Nag Panchami, when a fair is held at the temple of *Bhujang Nag.

The market of Bhujodi is more of a street. This lane is a wonderful place to do your gift shopping. Traditional embroidery and designs find expression on a variety of garments like sarees, dress materials, shawls, kurtas, etc. As seen in the museum there are several styles of Kutchi embroidery, but in general bright colours, geometric patterns and mirrorwork are the trademarks. National Award winning artisans have shops in this market. We did all our shopping at Sharda . They have a couple of shops on the street and a very reasonable. They don’t bargain, but they will do teeny-weeny discounts and throw in a few freebies if you ask nicely.

A few kilometres away, a Dilli Haat type enclosed craft park is being set up to preserve and promote regional arts and crafts. Lush green lawns, a small water body with a little bridge across it and big white ducks create a charming setting for this bazaar. The shops built to look like traditional housing or bungaas give the shopper the illusion of having stepped into the artisan or craftsman’s home to buy his/her creations. While Bhujodi showcases the textiles and splendid needlework of Kutch, this **haat goes beyond that. Carpenters, metal workers, masons and painters rub shoulders with each other and others here. Kutchi mirrorwork, used to decorate village homes is sold here a decorative wall pieces for modern homes. Traditionally this would be done on camel dung base, but the pieces sold commercially are done on mud or plaster. Another shop was selling copper bells. The local clientele for these bells are the pastoral communities who use them to herd their cattle and sheep. In the past, (and may be even today) when cattle died, the raw hide was converted to leather. Kutchi leather used to be so well treated and durable that it could hold water. It is rumoured that artisans once used real silver thread to bind pieces of leather together. There shops in this complex selling leather bags and slip-on footwear that may not be of the same quality or have the same cultural value, but will make any woman’s heart skip a beat. The bazaar was partially occupied when we went. The price of textiles was higher here than in Bhujodi, so if it is textiles you are looking for, you might be better off shopping there.

*Bhujang Nag – Folklore has it that he is the brother of Sheshnag. He came from Than in Kathiawar  to free Kutch from the clutches of demons

**haat – marketplace

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Kutch; Day 3 – Local Sights and Delights, Bhuj

February 5, 2015

Right around the corner, housed in an old palatial Italian Gothic building, is the Kutchi museum. The building was originally built to display the gifts and dowry received in marriage by Maharao Khengarji III, then ruler of Kutch.  Today Kutchi langue is written mostly in Gujarati script, but the museum has examples of the extinct Kutchi script. There is a set of exhibits explain the fascinating geological evolution of Kutch. Another set of exhibits introduces us to the various tribes of the region and their lifestyles. These exhibits don’t all match up to the pictures and writing next to them, so make sure you read the plaques before you move on. On the first floor, we saw samples of traditional Kutchi embroidery. Traditionally, this is done by women in their free time as an expression of their creativity and identity. Embroidery communicated status. Designs were usually taken from their surroundings and from mythology. I imagine they did it in groups, sharing joys and sorrows. The style of the needlework depends on the tribe. While embroidery was valued as gifts for marriages and other social occasions which required gifts to be given, it was never sold in the market for money.  Make note of the different styles and patterns, this will come in handy while shopping in Bhujodi. Even more interesting is the metalwork on display on the same floor. The artistic handles of the weaponry gives an idea of the true aesthetic sense of the people of Kutch. Even a man carrying a sword/dagger/knife – a soldier at best and a murderer at worst – appreciated the finer things in life.

DSC_0991Bharatbhai drove us through the narrow streets of Bhuj and stopped before a dilapidated gate. Inside he said was the Aaina Mahal or the Palace of Mirrors. Doubtfully we entered. Sure enough there was a huge Italian Gothic style building in the courtyard. This is purportedly the first building to be built in this style in India.  Time had taken its toll, but the structure had managed retain some of its old charm. The palace is disappointingly simple inside, but one must remember the lifestyles and economics of its heydays before pronouncing a quick judgement. One of the highlights of this palace is a Big Ben style forty five foot high clock tower (unimaginatively called the Bing Bang). If you are reasonable fit, consider climbing the narrow winding staircase up the tower for a panoramic view of the entire city.  It was only later, on the train that we found out that we never went to the Palace of Mirrors. The Palace we went to was *Prag Mahal. The board outside the building said as much, but since we didn’t see any other palace in the courtyard, we simply assumed that Aaina Mahal must be the colloquial name for Prag Mahal.

DSC_0971It is impossible to not notice the numerous large courtyards where cattle are being fed, all over the city. It never ceases to amaze me, how people can have a beef with people eating beef, but not care two hoots about cows eating plastic out of garbage cans. Kudos to Bhuj on leading the way on how it’s really got to be done. To all those supporting the beef ban in Maharashtra, I say if you want to do something for cows please do something to protect pastural commons and grazing forests.While we are on the topic, how about also standing up for all mothers the way we are standing up for the cows. Next time we see a woman being harassed by someone who clearly does not respect mothers, let’s take it up on her behalf. If God keeps tally, this should get us more points.

DSC_0005As evening approached, we went to Hamirsar Lake to wrap up our trip with a spot of bird watching.  We were expecting to see pelicans and cormorants, and hoping to see a stray flamingo or two. As we took our spots near a little hanging bridge in the adjoining park, we saw a muster of painted storks. The first time I saw these elegant white birds with a spot of pink on their tails was at Vedenthangal. **Mama had taken Sam and me there.  Early one morning, before the sun was up we bundled our sleepy selves into his car and set off. We were there at the break of dawn, but not a bird was to be seen or heard. We made our way up the watch tower. If you are nice to the keeper, he will turn the telescope and let you enjoy some tender moments with nature. That wonderful morning, we saw a painted stork building its nest.

DSC_0010As we walked a little further, we saw a scoop of pelicans cavorting on the other side of Hamirsar Lake. Did you know pelicans swallow their food alive? They are known to swallow anything that fits in their big bill including baby ducks, terns, gulls and penguins. Imagine the horror of being slowly digested alive by stomach acids.

DSC_0050At this point my stomach had started to feel like there was something alive in there, kicking and struggling to be let out. It was so terrible that I sent the husband to get me a Pudin Hara which just enraged the beast inside more and made things worse. When we stopped at an ATM to withdraw money to pay Bharatbhai, much to the husband’s astonishment I stepped into the bank next door and asked if I could use their restroom. “Did you throw up?” he asked with boyish curiosity, when I stepped out. “No. The other end.” “Who goes to a bank and does THAT!” he exclaimed with a mix of mirth and disgust. The demon dispelled and dispatched down the drain, I was feeling much better.

*Prag Mahal fun fact – Scenes from the Bollywood blockbusters Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Lagaan were shot inside this palace.

**Mama – Maternal uncle

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.

Kutch; Day 2 – Banni Grasslands

February 4, 2015

DSC_0330We left before daybreak. Last evening we witnessed the moon take over the heavens as the sun went home to rest. This morning we watched as the moon retired and the sun stretched and yawned and patted all creation on its head.

As a part of their efforts to involve local communities in conservation, CEDO asks their guests to employ a local guide to help them sight a grey hypocolius. This monotypic  bird is a regular wintering species, usually found in the *tooth brush tree forest  close to the Jat settlement of Fulay village.  What is it that makes these uniformly grey birds with white-tipped black primary wing feathers and a black tip to the tail so special? They are not endangered or even particularly rare.

  1. This bird is the sole member of the genus Hypocolius and family Hypocoliidae
  2. They are found only the Middle East, breeding in the Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan area, and wintering mostly near the Red Sea and Persian Gulf coasts of Arabia. The political difficulties in getting in and around any of these countries, makes sighting by foreigners a rarity.
Grey Hypocolius (male)

Grey Hypocolius (male)

India the best place to spot this unique species, making  Fulay, the only place in India where this bird is regularly seen famous among birders . We were lucky; we saw more than one of them. At day break, the silence of night was broken by stray tweets, and then all of a sudden the air was filled with the chitter chatter of birds gossiping as they went about making a breakfast of berries. As the sun steadily made its way up, our avian fakirs retreated into the shrubbery and the chirping became more subdued till the day relapsed into silence.

White Eared Bulbul Bulbuls are known to feed hanging upside down

White Eared Bulbul
Bulbuls are known to feed hanging upside down

We drove on to have our breakfast with the red tailed wheatear at Chhari Dhaand. After we had had our fill of chai and sandwiches, Vaibhavji  decided it was time to see if we could sight a flock of cranes. As we drove through the parched grasslands we saw a mirage shimmering on the horizon. The best way to observe the crane is from the interiors of a sturdy vehicle. Since our vehicle was not an all terrain, we parked at a distance and tried to approach  to birds by foot. Just as we felt we were getting closer, the birds would feel the same and fly off.  We didn’t get close enough to make great pictures, however we did get a good view. We got a chance to see them from closer later as we drove towards the watchtower.

At one point, we crossed an a small area littered with crane feathers. Vaibhavji supposed, an Eagle had made a meal of a crane

At one point, we crossed an a small area littered with crane feathers. Vaibhavji supposed, an Eagle had made a meal of a crane

By now the sun was glaring fiercely and threatening to strike anyone who didn’t hide, with its thick golden staff. We returned at lunch hour to feast on a light home cooked vegetarian meal. I can’t tell you how delighted I was at every meal at CEDO. Once again I could eat without having to double check and then check again if the food was vegetarian.

P.S – An audio (video) of the early morning twitter is up on our Instagram page. More pictures will be up on our FB page soon.