After roughly about three hours of departing Ahmedabad, as the train snakes its way ahead, leaving behind Saurashtra and Little Rann of Kutch in its wake, you hit Surajbari Bridge. On both sides is the marshy land of The Great Rann. It is vast, stretching on both sides till the horizon and epic. You could spot snakes and hyenas if fortunes favour you. As you reach the last of this 1200m bridge, windmill blades twirl lazily in a poetic finale to your introduction to Kutch.
I fell hopelessly in love much like how we do with people; without much of a prelude or fanfare- no lightning, no proverbial background scores and definitely no thunderbolts. As the train halted at Bhuj, the capital of Kutch, I was hooked to the scenic splendour of the place.
In the land that faces scorching summers and has equally unforgiving winters, there is much to explore. Its supposed arid expanse has been home to kings and Gods, to men and animals, to craftsmen and traders, to art and commerce. Kutch offers something for every tourist.
Places to Experience
Bhuj and Around: After the 2001 earthquake, Bhuj has reinvented itself. The airport is fully functional and is connected to a number of Indian cities through air and land trasnport. You can move around the city in auto rickshaws and even on foot.
Shree Swaminarayan Temple: An architectural masterpiece, this temple is a sight to behold. Made from white marble, the carving on pillars and the walls will leave you breathless. Gujaratis are deeply religious people and this temple is homage to that.
Kutch Museum: A two-floor building, next to the Hamisar Lake, the museum houses an impressive collection of coins, textiles, weapons and other artifacts. Showcasing the art and culture of Kutch, this institution also has wax figures of people from various tribes of this region.
Hamisar Lake: This is the living, breathing focal point of the city. Surrounded by an unyielding desert, Hamisar is the barometer of the rainfall, the place receives. When it overflows and it is a rather rare phenomenon, you can see the entire town converges to watch it and celebrate. In 2011, when India won the World Cup, I was there with the rest of Bhuj, on Hamisar celebrating the victory. And that is one of the most wonderful things about Kutch. It is so safe. Women can be seen out on the streets at night and one rarely hears of any eve-teasing.
Funnily, Hamisar is a man-made lake. Almost half a century old, it has a necklace of a road running around it. In the evenings, you can find the young and the old sitting on the various benches, walking about or gorging on the yummy street food.
Aina Mahal: Damaged extensively in the 2001 earthquake, only a part of this palace is open to public now. An 18th century edifice, the palace walls are made of marble and coated with mirrors and Venetian glass.
Prag Mahal: A more recent addition to the city, this palace was built in the 19th century. Made popular after it featured in many scenes of the hit Bollywood movie, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Prag Mahal is constructed with Rajasthani sandstone and Italian marble. It has a high tower from which entire Bhuj is visible.
Bhujodi: If textiles and handicrafts are your thing then Bhujodi would be your Mecca. This village, just 12 kms away from Bhuj, comprises mainly of artisans who are into weaving, block-printing, embroidery etc. A little park with small huts forms the centre of the Hiralakshmi Craft Park. You can find artisans promoting and selling their work here.
Kala Dungar- The Black Hill
About 100 kms from Bhuj is Kala Dungar, the Black Hill which is the highest point in Kutch. Offering a bird’s eye view of the Great Rann or the sweeping salt desert, Kala Dungar also has a 4th-century temple dedicated to Lord Dattatreya. The priest here offers food to the jackals. Legend has it that Lord Dattatreya encountered starving jackals here and he offered his body to the famished animals. As they ate his arms and legs, the limbs kept regenerating. In present times, the temple prasad is provided to the animals. My advice to the travellers- relentless breeze blows at the peak of the hill, so invest in a comfortable headgear.
Lakhpat- The Ghost Town
Lakhpat was once an important trade centre with the Indus flowing into it. Earning its revenue chiefly from rice, it fell from grace when an earthquake altered the course of the river and Lakhpat lost its prosperity forever. Places of interest include the Lakhpat Fort, Lakhpat Gurudwara Sahib and the Tomb of Pir Ghaus Muhammad, a local Sufi saint. The fort surrounds the lost city and prominently featured in the Abhishek Bachchan starrer- Refugee. The town is mostly ruins of buildings, homes and offices long abandoned. There are no places to eat or for resting. The nearest town is Nakhatrana so pick up your food and water from there.
Mandavi- The Beach Town
The sleepy, port town of Mandavi is all about calm and serenity. With one of the least populated beaches in the country, a lighthouse and a windmill farm to boast of, there is much you can do here. Once tired of the pristine, clean beach you could stop over at the Vijay Vilas Palace, the erstwhile summer abode of the Kutch’s royalty. Once a thriving ship-building industry, Mandavi has lost its place in the Sun but still smaller ships get made here which travellers can check out. The town is also famous for its Bandhini (a tie and dye handicraft) textiles.
What To Eat?
Food defines Gujarat and its earthy people. As a young student, travelling in a train with the Gujaratis was torture because while I depended on the unreliable pantry car for sustenance, they would open one bag after another with goodies that make your mouth water like the Arabian Sea.
The best pav bhaji that I have tasted has been from Jalarams in Bhuj. The place serves pavs as big as plates and the bhaji comes in another dish. Talk about hearty. If you have stuffed your stomach till its last inch at Jalarams, just a few doors away are the ‘ice golas’ shops that cater as many flavours as you can think of. If the ten-flavoured gol gappas do not appease your satiety, move on to The Hotel Prince’s famed Kutchi thali. The plates are so big, a child could sit in them. They come with about ten different dishes, which includes Kutchi Kadhi, dal, vegetables, sweet, curd and white butter-makkhan. The accompaniments include a glass of buttermilk and chutneys. The star of the meal is the bajra ka rotla, which is a bread made from pearl millet. Before leaving Kutch, do taste the famous milky chai, which is sold at the tea stalls that dot its landscape. Kutch is also famous for its dabeli, a spicy snack made from boiled potatoes, assorted namkeens and date, garlic and coriander chutneys stuffed between pavs and garnished with peanuts and pomegranate seeds. In Bhuj, near the state-run bus stand, there is a street dedicated to dabelis. It is a treat to watch the proprietors prepare these snacks at the speed of lightning and I am not using that term lightly.
The city that never disappoints
I have travelled to Kutch six years in a row. It has never disappointed me. The place is beautiful, no doubt, but it is the people who have made it special. From the gol gappa vendor who sneaked in extra puris because I was an outsider to the tea stall owners who were curious about the places I had come from; from the families of friends whom I stayed with each and every time and who always opened their homes and their hearts to me; from the Gujaratis I travelled with who noticed my feigned sleep and woke me up and shared their meals with me; from the people I flew kites with on Sakranti to those whom I travelled with in buses, trains and cars- my Kutch journeys would have been incomplete without the people. I think of them when I think of Kutch, the two are inseparable for me. I agree with Amitabh Bachchan- Kutch nahi dekha, toh kuch nahi dekha (If you haven’t seen Kutch, you haven’t seen anything.)