Vibrant civilisation

Vibrant civilisation

Desert Nights

A devastating earthquake shook up the complacency of the locals in the year 2001 and the world woke up to a place called Bhuj that lies on the periphery of a vast saline marshland.

Its brave residents built up the town from scratch, their resolute nature coming to the fore. Named after Bhujiyo Dungar, a hill that overlooks the town, the city remained the capital of the princely state of Kutch till independence. Those were the glorious days of Bhuj.

When I alighted there one hot summer morning, the dusty environment didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. Cheered by the warmth of the locals, I decided to explore the town. There wasn’t much to see, I had been warned by some Gujarati friends, who underestimated the beauty of Bhuj. True, the tiny place doesn’t have much to offer conservative visitors, but it makes up for all that with the warmth of the locals, its rich traditions, handicrafts and some unusual sights.

Guided by a local, I reached the Aina Mahal, constructed by the last ruler of Kutch sometime in the 18th century. Maharao Shri Lakhpatji, the ruler was well known as a man of several talents. A poet, patron of arts and a person with creative instincts, it is not surprising that he built a palace that imbued several architectural elements.

The amalgamation of European elements with traditional Kutchi ones makes the palace an interesting place to explore. Unfortunately, the earthquake took a toll on the structure. The top of the palace is in ruins now but the halls below have much to offer to interested visitors.

Of particular interest is a long painting depicting a royal procession and a bed with gold supports that lies in the royal bedroom. Several halls, fountains and courtyards lie in the complex, amongst them are the Hira Mahal (Diamond Palace) and Fuvvara Mahal (Fountain Palace). The Mirror Palace, an extravagant palace studded with mirrors, has jewelled paintings, an ivory studded door and gilded Chinese cabinets.

During its heydays, it was used for entertaining guests by the Maharaja and the Diamond Palace was the royal bedroom. Very little of the past glory remains today. “A song from the movie Lagaan was shot here,” a lanky teenager lounging under a tree informed me proudly. Perhaps that was the closest the town had come to media attention before the deadly earthquake.

Close by, the Prag Mahal lies forlorn with much of its structure in a state of dilapidation after the earthquake. The remains of impressive chandeliers and some statues still adorn the durbar hall of the palace. The Kutch Museum, reputed to be the oldest in Gujarat, is of historical importance. The town is yet to recover from the effects of the earthquake. Reconstruction is pathetically slow.

My interest lies in the famous Rann of Kutch, to which I drive after a quick lunch. Perhaps, the timing was not right. At best of times, the weather is not very favourable in the region and afternoons are the worst. Waves of heat seared me despite the air-conditioned vehicle. Through the mist of heat the expanse of white hit my naked eyes.

A layer of salt covered the parched earth, giving it a snow-like appearance. The flat surface of the land enables one to see as far as the horizon where the white earth met the stark blue sky.

Come monsoon and the land here gets submerged into the Arabian Sea. It is when saline water recedes after the monsoon that the salt crystals resurface and the entire area takes on the look of a white sea. The salt desert is fringed with the Banni grasslands. Close by, standing like a sentinel, the Karo Dungar (Black Hill) creates a natural barrier. The Wild Ass Sanctuary in the Little Rann of Kutch was my next stop. The sanctuary is one of its kind. This is the only place where the endangered species of wild ass still exists and thrives.

Having heard so much about the local handicrafts, it was impossible not to spend a few hours in the village where craftsmen create magical clothes, wooden artifacts and appliqué work. I strayed into Hodka Village to experience the magic of nimble fingers.

Women, young and old, were engaged in sewing mirrors into colourful fabric, creating the most beautiful clothes I have ever seen. That night, seated under a star spangled sky, I listened to the rapturous octaves of the Kutchi singers. The next morning, we started for the 400-year-old Dattatreya Temple on Karo Dungar. It is said that during the aarti, the locals call out and ask the foxes to feast over the prasad laid out near the temple. Sure enough, dozens of foxes accept the invitation.

Back to the city and civilisation, my stories of my incredible experience in Bhuj fetched cynical responses from the very friends who told me that there was nothing
to see in Bhuj, till I showed them some pictures.

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