The mountains have their charm and so do the beaches, but there’s something about a desertscape that refuses to leave you. Scorching days, freezing nights, shifting sand dunes, wide open spaces and the still silence.
I love the desert. For as long as I can remember, the changing vistas of sandscapes in Rajasthan have fascinated me. And I recently found a sandy spectacle that matches up to the royal state: Kutch. The history of this princely estate, which literally means island in Sanskrit, can be traced to prehistoric times. Several sites related to the Harappan civilisation are located in the region, and the area finds mention in Hindu mythology and Greek writings during Alexander’s time.
The walled city of Bhuj stands tall as the gateway to kaleidoscopic Kutch. The desert town derives its name from the Bhujiyo Dungar, a hill nearby. Founded by Rao Khengarji I in 1549, it’s surrounded by the imposing ramparts of a fort. Over the course of its history, it has been attacked six times.
Bhuj is a microcosm of Kutch. It’s robust, resistant and resilient. There’s much to visit, explore and see. But time’s short and I, recalling my distant past as a student of architecture, decide to forego everything else in favour of an architectural trail.
The Darbargadh Palace calls out from the heart of the town. This walled complex houses the three palaces from where Kutch was once ruled—the 17th-century Rani Mahal, the 19th-century Prag Mahal and the dilapidating 18th-century Aina Mahal. Construction on the palace complex began in 1548 and was added to over centuries. The changes in architectural style and tenor showcase the artistic and cultural development of the principality. The complex is almost maze-like, with ample open courtyards. The palace may have begun in Rajput style with beautifully carved jharokhas, but over time Mughal influences were added to it in the form of carved lattices and cupolas.
The star of the palace complex is the Aina Mahal. Built in the 1750s at a cost of `2 million, this superlative palace of mirrors was badly damaged in the 2001 earthquake, but has been restored since. The palace was a dream of Maharao Lakhpatji, who was apparently smitten with all things European. Its construction is credited to Ramsingh Malam, a sailor from Dwarka who learnt the skills of European architecture on his many travels. The elaborately mirrored interior stands out for its incredible details—the blue-and-white Delft-style tiling, the Hogarth lithograph series and a candelabra with Venetian-glass shades. In the bedroom, a bed with solid gold legs grabs the spotlight. The king apparently had a habit of auctioning the royal bed annually! He also regularly visited the Fuvara Mahal, a room with umpteen fountains that danced in a symphony of their own, while the king watched the dancers perform. The marble walls adorned with gold lace and glass created a dreamy confection.
Named after Rao Pragmalji II, Prag Mahal is an elegant edifice that continues to bear scars of the quake. The palace was designed in the Italian Gothic style by Captain Henry Saint Wilkins. Construction began in 1865. Made of Italian marble and sandstone from Rajasthan, the cost went up to `3.1 million. The palace is worth visiting for the gorgeous Durbar Hall. The Corinthian pillars, broken chandeliers and classical statues with a skirting of gold lend it a Victorian look. The stone latticework depicts plants and animals, and the main hall is filled with decaying taxidermy. The 45-foot-high clock tower—damaged in the quake but repaired after Amitabh Bachchan took an interest—gives you a bird’s-eye view of Bhuj city. There’s a small temple in the courtyard behind the palace.
The Rani Mahal, the former royal residence, is closed but the beautifully carved latticed windows of the zenana (women’s residences) stand witness to the architectural skill of that time.
Sharad Baug Palace, an elegant Italianate palace, was home to Madansingh, the last Maharao of Kutch, until his death in 1991. The third floor came down in the quake, after which the lower floors were also closed. An adjacent former dining hall now showcases the palace’s museum collection, including two huge stuffed tigers that the erstwhile maharao shot.
After the many palaces, I head out to the chhatris. These umbrella-shaped dome structures stand guard over the royal cenotaphs situated in the centre of the Hamirsar lake. Said to have been constructed sometime in the 18th century by Rao Lakhpat, they are specimens of fine carvings in red sandstone. The exterior walls are heavily ornamented, with sculptures of deities and panels depicting hunting scenes and couples in local costumes. The architecture of these structures shows a strong Islamic influence—it’s evident in the Mughal arches, the geometrical pattern of the jaalis and in the use of turquoise blue on a roof. The chhatri that commemorates Rao Lakhpat’s death is the largest; the depictions in stone suggest that 15 of his consorts gave up their lives at his funeral pyre.
As I walk back, I realise that the 2001 earthquake may have wreaked havoc on the people and buildings here, but they’ve risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes.
In the evening, I decide to explore the Kutch Museum, which has a fine collection of Kshatrapa inscriptions, archaeological objects, arms and specimens of various crafts. I’m told that the Snake Temple at Bhujiyo Hill Fort, the Swaminarayan temple and Hatkeshwar temple are well worth a visit but they’ll have to wait till next time. For now, the architectural splendour—shining somewhere, decaying elsewhere—will do.
Getting there: You can fly to Bhuj from Mumbai (Rs 10,000–15,000 return) or Delhi (Rs 15,000–20,000 return). Or take a train—there are about five trains from Mumbai, and only one, the Ala Hazrat Express via Jaipur and Ahmedabad from Delhi (Rs 2,110/2AC). You can also break journey at Ahmedabad—about 5.5 hours away by road and connected by several trains and buses to Bhuj. Roads in Kutch, like the rest of Gujarat, are pretty good. Expect a smooth ride, if you decide to embark on a road trip.
Where to stay: Just a few kilometres outside the city limits of Bhuj, near the Rudra Mata Mandir, is the Garha Safari Lodge. With a panoramic view of the river Khari, it offers an opportunity to stay in bhoongas, the traditional huts of the villagers, but with all the modern comforts (from Rs 4,200 for doubles; www.kutchsafaribhuj.com). You could also consider booking rooms at City the Village (from Rs 5,200; www.citythevillage.com).
What to see & do: There’s plenty to see over and above the mahals and chhatris of Bhuj. Head to Pachcham Bet, an island on the northern tip of mainland Kutch. Surrounded by the saline Rann on three sides and by the banni or grassland in the south, Pachcham has a hilly terrain, including Karo Dungar (Black Hill), the highest peak in Kutch (462m). The 400-year-old Dattatreya temple at the top of Karo Dungar offers a spectacular view of the sunset. Another temple, also about 400 years old, is called the Rudra Mata Mandir, and is situated at a distance of 14km from Bhuj on the banks of the river Khari. The presiding deities here are the Maharajas of Kutch—the Jadeja family.
Nature lovers can spend a day driving out to the White Rann. The white, salt-encrusted desert plains make for a wonderful view by day or night.
Wildlife enthusiasts can also plan trips to the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary, Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary, Narayan Sarovar Sanctuary and the Kutch Bustard Sanctuary. Artisans at work can be visited at Hodka artists’ village. Ludia village, with its traditionally painted mud houses, offers Meghwal embroidery and woodcarving. Drop in at Khavda, famed for its pottery.
What to buy: Take back a slice or two of Kutch when you return home. The textiles are a big draw, especially ajrakh block prints, batik and tie-dyed bandhani. Select shawls and rugs in cotton, wool or camel hair in traditional patterns, or old-style embroidery (pakko, neran, kambhiro and appliqué, among others). Also look for local silver and gold jewellery at the traditional bazaars in Bhuj.
What to eat: Don’t forget to taste Kutchi food, which is noticeably distinct from Gujarati fare. The use of fresh ingredients, minimal oil and few added flavours, keeps it simple and healthy. Try the bajra (millet) or jowar (sorghum) na rotla with butter, ghee, shaak (vegetable) and gol (jaggery). Wash it down with creamy ice-cold Kutchi chaas (buttermilk). The Kutchi dabeli, the region’s counterpart to Mumbai’s vada pav, is a filling on-the-go snack.