BHUJ- The Gateway to the White Rann

‘Asanjo mithdo mulak Bhuj’ or ‘Our Sweet Land Bhuj’ as the locals describe the Kutchi capital has risen like a phoenix from ashes, after the devastating earthquake of 2001 which damaged several of its iconic monuments. The city with its palaces and museums full of treasures from an erstwhile era, noisy, narrow streets lined with shops selling vibrant textiles, local handicrafts as well as the delectable cuisine will charm its way into your hearts.

Bhuj is the gateway to the White Rann where the Rann Utsav is held every year for hundred days from November to February. Our trip to Kutch was to experience the Rann Utsav and for the children to visit their grandfather’s hometown, of which they had heard several stories.

So, the year-end seemed the perfect time for the family to visit Kutch about which Amitabh Bachchan, in the Gujarat Tourism promotions, has spoken so eloquently. The tag line “Kutch Nahi Dekha To Kuch Nahi Dekha” (If you haven’t seen Kutch, you haven’t seen anything) has struck a chord with travellers.

After visiting the handicraft villages, Mandvi– a coastal city, Banni Grasslands and enjoying the festivities of the Rann Utsav our last day was set aside to explore Bhuj. The city palaces were the first on our list. On reaching the Prag Mahal premises, we were greeted by the sight of hordes of tourists. To add to it since it was Christmas day, there were classes of school children who seemed to have come on a field trip.

Stalls selling a mixed bag of copper bells or ghantidis, coins from yore, handicrafts and other knick-knacks were also located in the palace premises. In all this cacophony we managed to get entry tickets to the Prag Mahal which has featured in Bollywood movies like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Lagaan.

The Prag Mahal designed in Italian Gothic style was built in the 19th century during the reign of Rao Pragmaji. Since it doesn’t bear a resemblance to Indian architectural style, for a moment I wondered if this palace was simply airlifted from some European locale and dropped to its current location. Sandstone from Rajasthan and Italian marble have been used in its construction.

Inside Parag Mahal, Bhuj
Inside Prag Mahal, Bhuj @Rafiq SOmani

The Darbar Hall with chandeliers, a huge mirror and antique furniture is the centre of attraction. The palace’s interiors were chock-a-block with myriad artefacts, palanquins, and paintings. We climbed up to the terrace hoping to head to the top of the iconic 45 feet clock tower which provides a panoramic view of Bhuj city. But watching the burgeoning crowd, not to mention with everyone wanting to click a selfie with clock tower, we decided to give it a skip.  

Parag Mahal Clock Tower, Bhuj
Parag Mahal Clock Tower, Bhuj @Rafiq Somani

Situated close to the Prag Mahal, in the same courtyard, was the Aina Mahal parts of which were damaged by the earthquake. The ‘Hall of Mirrors’ or Aina Mahal was built in Indo-European fusion architectural style by master craftsman Malam, during the rule of Rao Lakhpatji in the middle of 18th century. The magnificent interiors of the various suites of the palace, as well as its passages and balconies, impressed us with their beauty and opulence.

Aina Mahal, Bhuj
Aina Mahal, Bhuj @Rafiq Somani

Since the chief craftsman had travelled around Europe and become skilled at tile making, enamel work and other techniques we found glimpses of these at the palace. Venetian chandeliers, floors with blue and white tiles, elaborate mirrored interiors, ivory inlaid doors, palanquins and countless artefacts evoked a jaw-dropping reaction.

Ivory Inlaid Door, Aina Mahal, Bhuj
Ivory Inlaid Door, Aina Mahal, Bhuj @Rafiq Somani

In the main hall or Fuvara Mahal, we slipped back in time as the ruler sat on his throne and watched the dance performances, as water fountains gushed, and the lamps lit. We even saw a portrait of famous dancer Mastani of Bajirao fame, and I wondered if she had danced for the royals in the Aina Mahal.

Fuvara Mahal, Bhuj
Fuvara Mahal, Bhuj @Rafiq Somani
Mastani Portrait in Aina Mahal, Bhuj
Mastani Portrait in Aina Mahal, Bhuj @Rafiq Somani

In the Hira Mahal or the master bedroom, was a huge bed with gold bedposts and the wall to wall mirrors all around, that was reminiscent of the intimacy and sensual pleasures that the royals enjoyed. We could have stayed here longer and absorbed more of the beauty of this palace but had to quickly retreat as the staff kept asking the tourists to ‘see and move’. Visiting the palace on a public holiday was certainly not a good idea.

Hira Mahal Master Bedroom, Bhuj
Hira Mahal Master Bedroom, Bhuj @Rafiq Somani

Located in the same complex was the Rani Mahal that was devastated by the earthquake. Its jharokhas or windows with latticework, from which the royal women could see the goings-on, were impressive although in ruins.

Rani Mahal, Bhuj
Rani Mahal, Bhuj @Rafiq Somani

After visiting the palaces, we decided to head to the Kutch Museum which is the oldest museum of Gujarat. Consisting of two floors the museum built in Italian Gothic style has eleven galleries that provide a window to the art, history and culture of this region. We were eager to get a glimpse of the extinct Kutchi script (most of Kutchi today is written in Gujarati script) or the koris which were Kutch’s local currency and other exhibits like a statue of Airavat or the white mythological elephant.

Kutch Museum, Bhuj
Kutch Museum, Bhuj @Rafiq Somani

But alas the museum was closed for the afternoon break. We tried revisiting it in the evening but were out of luck. Since the Alfred High School is located adjoining to the museum and is my father-in-law’s alma mater, the kids were excited to visit it and click a picture which they could share with their grandpa.

We then headed to the complex of umbrella-shaped cenotaphs or ‘Chattris’ as referred by locals which were erected in memory of the royals by Rao Lakhpathji in the 18th century. No surprises, that when he passed away a cenotaph was built for him too. As we entered the complex, we saw boulders, stones with detailing strewn around. It was painful to see pieces of our heritage lying around and sometimes being trampled on by mindless tourists. Efforts seemed underway to restore these cenotaphs, which were damaged by the earthquake, to their original glory.

Chattris, Cenotaphs, Bhuj
Chattris, Cenotaphs, Bhuj @Rafiq Somani

A cenotaph with blue Turkish tiles dedicated to Rao Lakhpathji stood out. We admired the intricate carvings of floral motifs, birds, elephants, sun, moon and numerous gods and goddesses which had all found a place in the detailing.

Located in the heart of the city is the Hamisar Talav which gets its name from the founder of Bhuj, Rao Hamir. The lake has a beautiful garden in the centre and is favourite of locals who like to walk around it, watch the migratory birds and eat some dabeli or ice cream from the several carts that are found around the periphery of the lake. Every time the lake overflows special ladoos called Megh Ladoos are distributed, and puja performed to thank the rain gods.

Dabeli, Bhuj
Dabeli, Bhuj

We visited Bhuj during a drought year, and so the lake was arid except for a small patch where a flock of migratory birds were basking in the sun. Since my better half is an ornithologist and wildlife photographer, he stepped down into the lake to capture these avian beauties at close quarters in his camera lens. Pelicans, storks, ducks, cormorants, herons, flamingoes among others seemed to welcome him to their ‘Conference of Birds’.

Greater White Pelican, Hamisar Talav,Bhuj
Greater White Pelican, Hamisar Talav,Bhuj @Rafiq Somani

After a short lunch break, we headed to the Swami Narayan Temple. This magnificent temple was constructed post the earthquake that shattered the original temple and took seven years to complete. Unbelievably the idols in the old temple survived unscathed and were later installed in the present temple. Made of marble and gold the temple has seven pinnacles and a central dome with beautiful carvings. Built at a staggering cost of 100 crore rupees it is the most expensive temple in Gujarat.

Swami Narayan Temple, Bhuj
Swami Narayan Temple, Bhuj @Rafiq Somani

The Sharad Baug palace was the residence of the last Maharao of Kutch Madansingh who passed away in 1991. The palace post the earthquake is inaccessible to visitors; however, the adjacent former dining hall has been converted into a museum. We visited the museum which had the royal memorabilia and collectables on display. The premises of the palace were in beautiful gardens which had a vast collection of flowering plants, trees and migratory birds. The palace seemed a favourite for bridal photoshoots since a couple had arrived decked up, as a drone tried to capture them posing against the backdrop of the palace.

Sharad Baug, Bhuj
Sharad Baug, [email protected] Somani

It is from the Bhujio hill located at the outskirts of Bhuj that the city gets its name. The fort built on the hill provides a breath-taking view of the city. My husband had climbed it as a child. He recalled how the ramparts of the fort seemed similar to The Great Wall of China! He and the kids were all excited to trek it in the evening, but since a museum and a memorial, dedicated to the victims of the 2001 earthquake, is coming up here they couldn’t access the hill.

Bhujio Hill, Bhuj
Bhujio Hill, Bhuj @Rafiq Somani

After all that sightseeing we decided to head back to the hotel in the evening. Since it was our last night in Kutch, it seemed perfect to have a family reunion of my father- in- law’s relatives. A thali restaurant seemed perfect as we would then be able to savour and feast on some local Kutchi Cuisine. ‘Thali’ literally means a steel plate or enormous platter in which there are at least four small vatis or bowls in which small amounts of various vegetables, curries and sweets are ladled.

No sooner did we seat ourselves that a group of waiters started serving us one dish after another starting with the farsan, followed by mains served with varieties of Indian flatbread, and sweets. Khaman dhokla, dahi wada, marcho bhajiya, puran poli, bajra rotla, sev tamatar, kathol, kadhi, rice, mohanthal… and lots more were served in quick succession. Not to forget the chaas/ buttermilk or the Kutchi beer which we needed to have a glassful to wash down this gastronomical meal.

Gujarati Thali, Bhuj
Gujarati Thali, Bhuj

My husband and daughter left by the next morning flight while my son and I had an afternoon flight. Since we had a couple of hours at hand, we decided to make the most by doing some last-minute shopping. Bhuj is a shoppers’ paradise and hits a 9/9 on the shopping Richter scale. The textiles, embroideries, handicrafts in a riot of colours will never cease to amuse you. The shops around Anam Ring road and Danda Bazar were our favourite hangouts. Bandhani in ombre colours and block printed ajrakh is what we shopped for the most.

Shopping in Bhuj
Shopping in Bhuj @Shameera Somani

If you plan to visit the Rann Utsav in Kutch, you will have to go through Bhuj so do use this opportunity to explore this city. Whether you are a connoisseur of art, a history buff, heritage lover, die-hard foodie or a compulsive shopper, Bhuj has something for everyone!

GETTING THERE-
Nearest Airport: Bhuj has a small functional airport with limited flights. The other alternative is Ahmedabad from where you can take the road to Bhuj. Hire a rickshaw, car or walk around Bhuj city. Gujarat Trails helped us with our travel.
Where to Stay: You can do a net search for an array of staying options depending on comfort and budget. We stayed at the Prince Comfort Inn. 
Travel Trip: Since the peak tourist season is during the Rann Utsav book your flight tickets in advance. Getting hotel accommodation can be challenging during this time, so make reservations ahead. Check out the timings of the museum and palaces and avoid visiting on holidays when they witness the maximum rush.

This travelogue was first published in Corporate Tycoons Magazine, April 2019

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *