Back in Baroda again

I FIND THAT REVISITING PLACES IS often pleasurable. Some might say “familiarity breeds contempt”, but for me gaining familiarity with a city does the opposite, it increases my admiration and enjoyment. Baroda (aka Vadodara) in Gujarat is no exception.

After a frustrating morning trying to reserve tickets from Surat to Bombay at both the railway station and the central bus depot, we sought refuge at the peaceful Hazira Maqbara, the 16th century mausoleum containing the grave of Qutub-ud-Din Muhammad Khan. This large, domed octagonal structure is elegant and deserves to be regarded as one of the most important architectural monuments in Baroda.

Directly across the road from Hazira, there is a large sign for ‘Sunder Baug Towers’, a block of flats. A narrow path next to the sign leads to the Koyal Vav (Nightingale Stepwell). Unlike many of the more remarkable vavs in Gujarat, for example the Bai Harir and the Adalaj vavs in Ahmedabad, that have become protected but unused monuments, the Koyal is a far simpler structure but is still in daily use. Apart from its staircase, the brickwork of the stepwell and another wide diameter circular brick well very close by are in poor condition. A man, who saw me taking photographs, asked if we were tourists or whether we had come to repair the well.

A sheet of filthy corrugated iron barred access to the stairs leading into the vav. Soon after we arrived, a lady turned up. She moved the corrugated iron barrier, explaining that it was placed there to prevent animals from descending the steps and to deter humans from doing ‘sandaas’ (defaecation) in the well.

The stairs led to a brick archway over a rectangular pool containing murky grey water. Once, there had been another arch. It had spanned the staircase about halfway down to the water. It collapsed some time ago, leaving a small projection of brickwork as evidence of its existence.

The lady told us that people bathed in the vav for medicinal purposes. At least ten people bathe every day, and on Sundays many more. She said the water was good for healing skin boils. I looked at the liquid and felt that entering it was likely to cause one to develop boils, if not worse.

From Koyal Vav we drove to the Mandvi, the central point of the old city of Baroda. It is the place where the four roads from the four gates in the now demolished city walls met. The mandvi itself is a building that used to serve as a revenue or tax collecting place. This delightful old building stands in the middle of a busy traffic roundabout.

The popular small Karnatak eating house faces the mandvi. It serves south Indian vegetarian food: idlis, dosas, vadas, etc., but, sadly, not south Indian filter coffee (nor chhaas before March). I ate a tolerable but not brilliant dosa. The Karnatak is owned by a man who comes from Udipi in Karnataka.

We walked from the mandvi towards the Lehripura gate along a bustling street lined with small shops, including many jewellery sellers, and roadside stalls selling useful as well as decorative items.

We walked through a narrow alleyway, passing some slightly dilapidated, but decorative old houses adorned with intricate wood carvings, and reached a street parallel to the one we were on. This street is also full of shops. Overhead, cords stretched across the thoroughfare carried clothes and fabrics for sale.

We entered an attractive Jain derasa (temple), which was no more than 150 years old, but displayed many of the architectural and decorative features of much older temples. The main mahavir idol was made of white marble richly encrusted with shiny jewels.

We visited a Hindu temple nearby. Many of the idols in that temple were dressed in what looks like dolls’ clothing that is supposed to protect their dignity. The ceiling of the large dome above the verandah of the temple was lined with concentric circles, just as can be found in temples built many centuries ago.

The now disused Nyayamandir, a royal palace that once housed the old law courts, stands facing a square. One side of the square is lined with women selling cricket bats in all sizes and colours. One lady was busy sanding bats prior to polishing them.

We returned to our hotel for a rest. On our way we passed the Sursagar, a large man made lake. In the centre of this, there stands a tall metal statue of Shiva holding a fearsome looking trishul (trident).

Much of what we saw we had seen before, but seeing it again was far from repetitive; it was like viewing it with fresh eyes. We recognised places but discovered things we had not noticed before.

Eating spaghetti in Baroda

I ENJOY ITALIAN FOOD. Very occasionally, I discover Italian restaurants abroad that serve authentic Italian dishes, food that makes no compromises to non-Italian tastes.

Back in the 1980s, Giovanni’s in Chatham (Kent, UK) was an oasis of superb food in the then desert of mediocrity, the Medway Towns. Apart from other beautifully prepared dishes, his spaghetti with pesto was perfect. Unfortunately, Giovanni’s, a justifiably expensive place pf good taste, went out of business several years before I ceased practising as a dentist in the Medway Towns in about 1993.

Grahamstown in South Africa was another surprising place where, in 2003, we discovered a remarkably good Italian eatery rin by an Italian family. I do not remember its name but it was near where we were staying on Somerset (?) Street. I doubt tje restaurant still exists.

Manhattan is rich in Italian eateries. One which we visited by chance on a street in East 50s, was superb. I forget what we ate, but after we had eaten we read the reviews hanging on the window. We might have missed this restaurant’s gastronomic treats had we read the review which related that the establishment’s prices were “vertiginous”. The reviewer was not kidding.

When Unity Mitford was in Munich in the 1930s, she developed a crush on Adolf Hitler. His favourite restaurant in Munich was the Osteria Bavaria, an Italian restaurant, which still exists but has been renamed Osteria Italia. Unity used to sit in the Bavaria at a table near to that occupied by Adolf, and was often invited to join him and his dining companions. In the early 2000s, I had a meal at Adolf’s renamed restaurant, which has retained much of its original decor. The Italian food served there was magnificent. I was amused by the establishment’s apt motto: “In touch with history”.

One of the best Italian meals I have eaten in London was at Asaggi near Westbourn Grove. Another memorably good Italian place I have tried is Zafferano near Knightsbridge. I forget what I ate, but that evening Sean Connery also ate there as well as the shorter of the Two Ronnies (British comedians). Sean Connery ate in a private room, guarded by a waiter, who told us: “We ‘ave to be careful this evening. We don’t want no trouble with James Bond.”

In India, there are plenty of restaurants offering Italian inspired food, but most of them produce disappointing dishes. Chianti in Koramangala (Bangalore) is one notable exception. I have eaten there at least twice, always most satisfactorily. Their food is very close to authentic Italian cuisine. However, the branch of Chianti in MG Road is disappointing.

It was two visits to Baroda (Vadodara) in Gujarat that prompted me to write this piece. The Fiorella in a hotel in the Alkapuri district serves truly excellent Italian food. It was set up by an Indian chef, who had trained in Italy and worked in restaurants there for more than fourteen years. Ravichandra, who became a master chef in Italy, qualified to supervise the running of kitchens in Italian restaurants, was employed by the hotel in Baroda. His brief was to set up a restaurant serving Italian food that made no compromises to pander to local tastes.

Fiorella is the successful result. We first ate there in early 2019, when Ravichandra was in the kitchen. Then, we returned in January 2020, by which time he had left. We were sad to miss him, but overjoyed to discover that, even without him, the food is still a great gastronomic delight. It is a case of ‘when in Baroda, eat as the Romans do’.

A fine stepwell in Ahmedabad

IN ABOUT 1500, BAI HARIR SULTANI, Chief Officer of the Female Quarters of Sultan Mahmood Begada of Gujarat built a stepwell just outside the city walls of Ahmedabad.

The stepwell (a vav) is in a very good state of preservation and a fine example of this kind of structure. In essence a vav consists of a staircase leading below ground to the mouth of a well. The staircase is open to the elements but descends below an often complex structure of galleries built above it. As the staircase descends deeper, the number of layers of galleries above it increases. The staircase has a number of landinds along its length. Each new layer of gallery beginds above a landing. The result is a beautiful construction with a fascinating division of space. Photography, however good, cannot do justice to what the visitor experiences when descending into a vav. You need to visit a vav like the Bai Harir to understand and enjoy the full experience of this kind of stepwell.

The Bai Harir stepwell is on its own a good reason to travel to it, but there is another. Next to the vav there is a15/16th century mosque of great beauty. This should be visited as well as the elaborately decorated dargah (mausoleum) next to it. This contains the grave of Bai Harir Sultani, who not only established the vav but also the mosque.

Lost property and Gujarat State Road Transport

When we visited the museum at the Harrapan archeological site at Dholavira in Kutch (part of Gujarat, India), we found that there was a sale of guides to various historical sited in India, all published by the Archaeological Survey of India. With the exception of a couple of volumes that were printed in Hindi, we bought one of each, about 18 in all and at radically reduced prices.

After a couple of days in Dholavira, staying at the very overpriced Rann Resort, we travelled to Bhuj, where we stayed before taking a bus to Ahmedabad.

The air conditioned bus, which was not particularly comfortable, took eight hours. It was a part of the fleet of Gujarat State Road Transport (GSRTC). I was very tired when we pulled into the central bus station at Geetamandir in Ahmedabad, and disembarked with our several pieces of luggage.

Several hours later when we were comfortably settled into our hotel, I realised that I had left my cloth bag, containing my collection of books acquired in Dholavira, on the bus. My wife, who is fluent in the Gujarati language, suggested that we return to the bus station to try to recover the bag of books. I agreed, but felt that there was little chance of success.

We were directed to a booth where GSRTC officials in charge of controlling the bus service to and from Bhuj sat. My wife explained the problem and immediately the official began tapping on his keyboard. A screen marked “journey report” appeared. From this, the official was able to get the telephone number of the conductor who had been on our bus. He was off duty and our bus was on its way back to Bhuj. However, he provided the phone number of his colleague, ‘X’, who was now the conductor on ‘our’ bus that was returning to Bhuj.

We rang X, who soon found the book bag on the luggage rack close to where we had been sitting. He told my wife, in Gujarati, that he would be retutning on a bus that would arrive at Ahmedabad central bus station at about 5 pm the next day, and would bring us the bag of books. This sounded promising, but you never can tell what might or might not happen.

As we were setting off for the bus station the next afternoon, X rang us to tell us when he expected to reach it and where we should wait for him. At a few minutes before 5 pm, the bus on which we had travelled the day before pulled into the Geetamandir bus station. Soon X was walking towards us, holding our cloth bag filled with books. My admiration of GSRTC increased immensely.

We offered X some confectionery as a small token of our gratitude. He refused it twice, saying that recovering lost property is part of his duty. When we said that he should give the gift to his family, he accepted it.

Often Asian folk traditionally refuse an offer two or three times out of politeness before accepting. In the case of conductor X, I do not believe it was politeness that he did not accept our small gift immediately. Instead, he was behaving professionally and correctly.

A few hours earlier, we had been shown various interesting features by a guardian in the Jumma Masjid in Ahmedabad. When he had finished, we handed him some Rupees, expecting that he was probably poorly paid, if at all. We were most impressed when he refused the money, which would have been useful for him, and, instead, showed us which charity collection box in which to put it. Like X, the bus conductor, this fellow in the Masjid was too dignified to accept a tip for what he felt it was his duty to do.

Postscript.
The Asian habit of refusing three times can backfire when practised in Europe. A friend of ours of Middle Eastern upbringing became a junior doctor in an English hospital. After a few weeks, he asked an Egyptian colleague how to obtain a cup of tea.
“Simple,” the Egyptian said, “just get it from the lady who pushes the tea trolley around.”
Our friend replied: “Yes, she brings her trolley to me and she offers me a cup and I refuse. And then without even asking me a second or third time, she pushes the trolley away. So, I don’t get a cup of tea.”

One morning in Ahmedabad

A LAZY MORNING IN AHMEDABAD was just what we needed after a long bus ride from Bhuj the day before. The seat I sat in was uncomfortable.

Our newspaper seller and her assistant were sitting in their usual place on the pavement next to the entrance of the somewhat precious luxury hotel, The House of MG. They sit surrounded by piles of newspapers, both current and out of date. When we are in Ahmedabad, which we have visited 6 or 7 times during the last two years, they reserve a copy of the Indian Express for us. When we go to collect it, they have to rummage around to find it amongst the seemingly disorganized pile of newspapers, new and old.

We set off towards the Khwaja Bazaar and the Teen Darwaza, heading towards the Jumma Masjid. Just before we reached the bazaar, we entered a rather run down café/restaurant, named ‘Irani Restaurant’. This was established in 1950 and does not seem to have been redecorated since. The wall of the long rectangular dining hall has several mirrors, all cracked. However, the marble topped tables and the enormous kitchen are sootlessly clean. In addition to hot food items, this place sells freshly baked bun maska. These soft white bread buns have a very slightly sweet taste; they resemble the French ‘brioche’. I had one of these and ordered chhaas (buttermilk). To my surprise and delight, this was served in a used Pepsi bottle.

We proceeded to the Teen Darwaza, a three arched 15th century gate that was built soon after Shah Ahmed founded Ahmedabad in about 1420. Standing amidst a sea of market stalls and noisy traffic, this venerable stone gateway has decorative features that can be found on Indian structures built long before the Moslems arrived in India. This is also true of many if the 15th century mosques built in the early days of the city’s existence.

The Jumma Masjid is enormous and of great beauty. Like other mosques built in the 15th century in Gujarat, this Masjid displays many decorative and architectural features that the Moslems have adopted from Hindu and Jain temples that were in existence prior to Islamic invasions of western India.

The Jumma Masjid has more than 15 large domes and many smaller ones. Like the domes in earlier Hindu and Jain temples, the larger domes rest on eight lintels arranged octagonally. The lintels rest on eight supporting pillars. The interior of the mosque contains a forest of over 250 stone pillars, the bases of which have been decorated with carved stone motifs typically found in Hindu and Jain temples. I do not know why the newly arrived Moslems borrowed so many features from the temples which they found (and sometimes demolished) when they arrived in western India. Maybe, they employed local Hindus or Jains to construct the mosques, but surely the conquerors would have had some say in how the mosques were designed.

We spotted several terracotta pots placed by the bases of some of the pillars. These, we were told, are for worshippers to expectorate into should they need to during the prayer sessions (namaaz). This saves people from spitting on the floor, which is so common outside of holy places in India.
The Jumma Masjid has five carved stone mihrab niches, all facing towards Mecca. Each of these is decorated differently, but each of them is topped with a carving of a lamp, a symbol of the holiness of Allah. The central of these five niches is made of white marble inlaid with coloured stones. It is disfigured by the presence of a modern electric fan, which we were told is used to cool the Imam during namaaz.

There are numerous window around the mosque. Each of these is decorated by decorative jali work (decorative perforated stone screens). No two windows are decorated with the same design.

The mosque lost its two minarets during the earthquak of 1819, which resulted in an inlet of the Arabian sea being transformed into an arid salt desert (the Rann of Kutch).

The outer walls of the Masjid that face a huge space enclosed by arched passageways have several stone carvings depicting trees. I imagine these are depictions of the Tree of Life, such as can be seen in the intricate jali work at the Sidi Sayeed mosque.

After a pleasant hour examining the Jumma Masjid, we wended our way through the increasingly busier bazaar back to the Irani Restaurant. I ordered more chhaas, which arrived in used Seven Up bottles. This watery dairy drink, flavoured with cumin and other spiced, made a good accompaniment to my plate of delicious dal fry (dal to which slow fried onions and spices are added at a late stage in its preparation).

By 130 pm, the temperature had risen above 27 degrees Celsius, and it was time to retreat to our air conditioned hotel room. But before that, I made a trip to a local ATM. As with other ATM places in India, all the customers waiting for machines give each other helpful advice, such as “press this” or “remove card” or “enter pin” or “do that”, on how to use the machines. Unlike in the UK, where using an ATM is a very personal affair, in India it appears to be a group activity.

Western edge of India

THE FAR WEST OF KUTCH (once an independent kingdom, now part of Gujarat) is very close to India’s border with Pakistan. We made an interesting day trip from Bhuj to this relatively wild and less inhabited part of Kutch.

The countryside west of Nakhatrana becomes hilly and dry with many rocky outcrops. It contains many large sites where lignite is excavated and a huge industrial plant that Gujarat Electricity use to convert it into electricity. The area is also liberally dotted with electricity generating wind turbines and pylons.

We left the main road and wound through undulating dry landscape to reach the Siyot Caves. These rock temples were carved into the cliffs to create Hindu temples sometime between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. They were later used by Buddhists and are amongst the 80 Buddhist cave temples in the Indus Valley noted by the 7th century Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang. Today, they are the abode of bats and there walls and pillars are covered with graffiti scratched into the red stone.

Our driver drove us through a sandy landscape with scrubby plants along dirt track with many potholes. We reached a small temple enclosure, where we stopped in order to visit another cave temple. This one, the Guneri Gufa Shiv Temple, was carved out of the living rock by a holy man, whose “spirit left his body about five years ago”, according to the present priest, a Sadhu from Hardwar. The temple, which is faintly reminiscent of the Amdavad ni Gufa (in Ahmedabad), contains a large Shiva lingam. After we had looked around, the picturesquely attired Sadhu prepared tea for us, which we drank from small metal bowls.

Lakhpat was our next stop. Surrounded by intact 18th century city walls, seven kilometres in length, this once thriving port used to be on an inlet of the Arabian Sea. Following an earthquake in 1819, the mouth of the River Indus changed its course and Lakhpat was no longer close to the sea. Rapidly, Lakhpat lost its importance and became depopulated. Today, the impressive city walls enclose a huge empty space with a few houses, a mosque, a few Hindu shrines, and a working Sikh Gurdwara. Staircases allow visitors to reach the ramparts. The view from the top of the walls is of an endless flat sandy area extending to the horizon. Before 1819, what is now the flat Rann of Kutch would have been a seascape with trading vessels.

One of the gates into Lakhpat, the Katha Nako, is still intact with one of its huge metal studded doors hanging on its hinges. The outer wall of the archway leading into the city has a sculpture of a guardian in European garb, such as can be seen at the Aina Mahal in Bhuj. The city wall and this sculpture are evidence of the influence of Ram Singh Malam, who lived for a decade in Holland in the mid 18th century.

Lakhpat is close to the Indian border with Pakistan. The road from the former port city to Narayan Sarovar runs parallel to the frontier. All along the road, there are signs to tracks leading to various Indian border patrol posts.

A causeway leads from the mainland to an island to the west of it. On one side of this is an inlet of the Arabian Sea and on the other there is a freshwater lake, the Narayan Sarovar. According to Hindu mythology this is one of the 5 Sacred Lakes and therefore an important pilgrimage sites.

We stopped near the Koteshwar Temple, which overlooks a pier that reaches out into the sea. We walked along the pier passing a small temple and an enclosure containing sculptures of various Hindu deities. Just over two thirds of the way along the pier there is a barrier beyond which members of the public are not allowed. At this barrier there is a Border Force sign and a smaller one on which is written: “Fishermen frisking point”. Beyond the barrier I saw small buildings in which soldiers were sitting. Several pairs of soldiers’ green trousers were hanging out to dry on a washing line between two small huts. A fleet of small fishing vessels were moored near the part of the pier beyond the barrier. As the tide was out, they rested on the shiny mudflats that glistened in the afternoon sun.

I saw several long legged birds, not flamingos, searching for food out on the damp mudflats. Near to the pier there were lots of amphibians, rather like fat newts, wriggling and scuttling about in the film of water covering the mud.

A short way from Koteshwar is the temple compound at Narayan Sarovar. Surrounded by high castle walls, this walled enclosure contains two large mandirs. A small gate leads to a tiny jetty projecting out over the freshwater lake on which we spotted a moorhen swimming. Some steps led from the outside of the temple compound’s enclosing wall into the lake to allow people to bathe. We left Narayan Sarovar, pleased that we had made the long journey to reach this beautiful, peaceful spot.

We made a brief stop at the popular pilgrimage place Mata no Madh, home of the Ashapura Temple that was first established in the 14th century AD, but completely rebuilt after the 1819 earthquake.

Back in Bhuj, we ate dinner at Noorani, a restaurant that serves good non-veg food. Many of the servers are young men. Out of the blue one of them asked my Indian wife, who speaks fluent Gujarati, whether she was Japanese. We were taken aback; she has no features that make her look Japanese. I had noticed that a couple of Japanese women had occupied a table in another section of the restaurant and wondered whether seeing us, a European with a woman who was clearly not a local, made the boy think that we were as ‘exotic’ as the two Japanese ladies.

From Venice to Gujarat

I NEVER IMAGINED THAT I WOULD SEE THE VENETIAN WINGED LION of St Mark in Bhuj (Kutch, western India), but I did. A carving of this well known symbol of a once powerful European empire stands at the entrance to the Aina Mahal (Palace of Mirrors) in Bhuj, which was built during the reign of Maharao Lakhpatji that lasted from 1752 to 1761.

In 1742, Ram Singh Malam, aged about 16 left his native town of Okhi in Saurashtra (Kathiawad), now a part of Gujarat, and set out to sea. His boat was shipwrecked and he was rescued by passing Dutch vessel, which took him to Holland. Ram Singh remained in the Netherlands until about 1760.

During his stay in Holland, Ram Singh Malam learnt various skills including: clockmaking, mirror making, glass making, ship building, cannon manufacturing, tile making, enamelling, tool making, and more. When he returned to Saurashtra, he offered his skills to various local rulers, but to no avail. Then, he travelled to the Kingdom of Kutch, where his knowledge was recognised and employed by its ruler, Lakhpatji. The latter was so pleased with the technical advances that Ram Singh had imported from Holland that he was sent back to that country two more times. During his trips to Europe, Ram Singh also visited Austria and the Republic of Venice. No doubt the Lion of Venice sculpted in Kutch and placed at the Aina Mahal was designed after Ram Singh had been to Venice.

The Aina Mahal contains tiles and mirrors that were made using the knowledge acquired by Ram Singh. Statues that decorate both the inside and the outside of the Aina Mahal and the adjoining Rani Mahal depict men wearing European clothes, such as Ram Singh would have seen people wearing in 18th century Europe.

In 2001, Bhuj was struck by a huge earthquake, which caused much damage to both the Aina Mahal and the Rani Mahal. Their neighbour, the 19th century Victorian Gothic Prag Mahal, suffered considerably less damage.

The former curator and archivist at the Prag Mahal, a keen researcher of the history of Kutch, is Mr Pramod Jethi. He told us that after the earthquake the Dutch government were apparently considering assisting in the restoration of the damaged Aina Mahal palace, provided that documentary evidence was provided to prove that Ram Singh Malam had really been staying in Holland. Apparently, despite many accounts by various writers that he did spend years in Holland, this did not constitute evidence that would satisfy the Dutch.

Anyone, who arrived in Holland on a Dutch ship in the 18th century must surely be recorded in a ship’s records or registered in the books kept by Dutch port authorities. However, it is likely that quite a few ships arrived in Holland at the time that Ram Singh disembarked there. Dutch ships sailing in the vicinity of Gujarat were most probably connected with the Dutch East India Company. If someone has the enthusiasm and energy to search through the Company’s records, maybe the evidence that the Dutch government requires will be found. Regardless of whether or not the Dutch government can be satisfied, it is clear that Ram Singh was a very remarkable man who greatly advanced technology in Kutch and brought the winged lion of St Mark to India.

The White Rann and the Black Hills

IT WAS ONLY WHEN WE left our accommodation at Dholavira and headed east onto the causeway which connects Khadir Bet to the rest of Kutch (part of Gujarat) that we saw a truly white part of the White Rann (desert). Until then, we had seen small patches of salt crystallising on the surface of what had once been the seabed, an inlet of the Arabian Sea, before seismic activity rendered the sea into a desert.

As we drove across the causeway, we passed larges patches of what looks like freshly fallen snow. This is the salt that has crystallized after the evaporation of rain, which has fallen on the salt laden terrain. The layer of salt looked to be at least an inch or two deep. What we saw is what gives the White Rann its name. It is a truly white desert. We were also fortunate to spot three flamingos searching in a pool of water that had not yet evaporated. They were silhouetted against the morning sunshine.

After crossing the causeway, we drove for several hours towards the outskirts of Bhuj. We stopped for refreshments at Rapar, which looks like an Indian version of a small town in an American cowboy film. A woman in colourful traditional garb disembarked from a motor scooter on which she had been travelling with her husband and son. A cow wandered past her before she crossed the road with her son. A stray dog took a great interest in various used packages I threw in a bin, and then ran off.

At another stop, I drank tea from a saucer as the locals do. By pouring the tea into a saucer, the surface area of the liquid increases and the drink cools quicker than if it is in a cup.

At Bhuj, we headed north on a road that eventually ends abruptly at India’s border with Pakistan. At first, we drove across part of the Great Rann of Kutch. This is a very flat sandy area with sparse scrubby vegetation but no trees. We passed herds of buffaloes grazing in this arid area. Unlike the White Rann, the Great Rann is mostly sand coloured although I did spot occasional salty patches that looked like very light ground frost. The Great Rann is classed as a desert but it is home to a few industrial plants.

Somewhere along the long straight road crossing the Great Rann heading northwards, we passed a sign indicating we had crossed the Tropic of Cancer.

At the tiny village of Bhirindiyara, famed for its fine mawa. This is milk boiled slowly for about four hours and then mixed with sugar. It is a sweet paste faintly resembling vanilla fudge or caramel…delicious but probably not too healthy!

We left the main road leading towards Pakistan and began climbing towards the Black Hills of Kutch. We reached a sign that announced that we had arrived at the “Magnetic Field Area”. Our driver explained that here thrre is a magnetic field strong enough to drag a car. To demonstrate this, he turned off the engine, leaving the gear in neutral. Amazingly, our car began moving uphill without the engine.

We continued on our way into the Black Hills of Kutch, driving through a moonlike, rocky landscape. We drove up a series hairpin bends to Kala Dungar, the highest place in Kutch, 458 metres above the Rann.

The road between Bhuj and the side road to Kala Dungar is the main route to the largest part of the White Rann, where the annual White Rann Utsav (festival) is held in January and February. A huge tent encampment is set up on the salt covered desert and a fairground atmosphere reigns. The Utsav attracts many tourists, both Indian and foreign.

It is interesting to contrast the road from Bhuj to the Utsav with that from Bhuj to Dholavira. The former is highly developed for the large influx of tourists. Unlike many other roads in Gujarat, the one leading to the Utsav has many signs in English and is lined with resorts designed to appeal to visitors. In contrast, the road from Bhuj to Dholavira is like a route into the back of beyond. Apart from a few low-key tourist oriented enterprises near Dholavira, the road from Bhuj to Dholavira makes no concessions to attract tourists. Dholavira, unlike other parts of the White Rann, feels far away from the rest of the world and its few inducements to get tourists to part with money seem charmingly naive. However, in a year or two this is likely to change.

The change will follow the completion of a new road from Bhuj to Dholavira. Unlike the existing road that passes through Bhachau and Rapar, the new road will pass close to Kala Dungar and cross the great Lake of Kutch to Dholavirs on a new causeway. This will shorten the journey time between Bhuj and Dholavira from its present four and a half hours to about an hour and a half. The present remoteness of Dholavira, which is part of its charm, will be lost forever. The area will become much more easily accessible to tourists, and no doubt this will be beneficial for the prosperity of the locals. From a selfish point of view I am pleased that I visited Dholavira before the greater influx of visitors that will surely follow the completion of the new road.

We arrived at our hotel in the bazaar in the old city centre of Bhuj after sunset. After a couple of days in rustic Dholavira and several days in the countryside near Mandvi, the small city of Bhuj seemed to us to feel like a large metropolis.

WHITE DESERT

THE WHITE RANN (desert) is so named because of the layer of white salt crystals that forms on its surface in dry weather. The salt forms when salty water covering the salt flats in Kutch evaporates. We arrived in the area of the White Rann a few days after a downfall of rain. Rain dissolves the salt and the whiteness of the Rann disappears.

One afternoon, I walked across the salt flats behind our hotel. The water on the distant lake shimmered in the bright sunshine. The flat Rann across which I was strolling was greyish yellow with occasional patches of white. The surface of the drying salt was crunchy underfoot and sparkled as the crystals reflected the sun light.

There was no one in sight, no birds or other creatures. There was no sound apart from a gentle warm breeze that was drying the salt covered surface of the completely flat Rann.

By now you might be wondering where all of this salt comes from. A long, long time ago, an inlet of the Arabian Sea separated what is now Kutch from what is now Sindh (in Pakistan). After some seismic activity, the sea bed of the inlet was transformed into a barren desert, the Rann of Kutch. During rainy season, water collects in lakes in the Rann. Salt from the former sea bed dissolves in the water. When this water evaporates in the dry seasons, the salt is precipitated on the shore when the waters recede.

In a couple of days time, the Rann will be snow white again providing there is no more rain.

Pink flamingos

WHEN I WAS A SMALL CHILD, I used to be taken to see the small menagerie at Golders Hill Park in Northwest London. In addition to wallabies and deer, there used to be, and it is probably still in existence, an enclosure containing a few flamingos. Until a recent visit to Mandvi in Kutch (Gujarat, India), these were the only flamingos I can recall seeing.

Every year, flamingos migrate to Kutch during the winter months to escape from the cold that affects their summer habitats during winter. They might fly in from central Asia, or from parts of India that get particularly cold in winter.

We were keen to see these flamingos in Kutch. A keen bird watcher, who lives in Baroda, told us that flamingos had been sighted at Modhva beach, a few miles east of Kutch Mandvi.

We drove to Modhva beach, arriving there about twenty minutes before sunset. At first, the only birds we could see were seagulls. There were no flamingos to be seen. We asked some local fishermen about them. They pointed at the sea.

Our driver, who must have keen eyesight, pointed at some specks on the surface of sea, maybe more than one hundred yards from the water’s edge. Using the twenty times optical zoom on my digital camera, I could see quite clearly that the specks were flamingos with pink and white plumage.

I managed to take a few photographs before the sun sunk rapidly below the horizon. I had seen flamingos in the wild for the first time in my life. It was an exciting experience.