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.

Flying into Kutch

Kandla

 

A quick way to get from Bombay to Kutch is by flying. There are two airports in Kutch where passenger ‘planes can land: Bhuj and Kandla.

We took the one flight a day from Bombay to Kandla on the  coast of Kutch. As the ‘plane descends towards Kandla, it flies over a vast area of marshy coastal inlets that surround the seaport. When we landed, we walked down the ladder onto the tarmac, I noticed that the propellor ‘plane was surrounded by soldiers armed with machine guns. The reason for this is probably that Kandla airport is primarily a military aerodrome. Ada, also, Kandla is just over 200 kilometres from India’s border with Pakistan.

We walked towards the small terminal building followed by our baggage that was carried in small wagons joined together like a train and pulled by a little tractor. At the terminal, we had to help ourselves to our baggage before being hurried into the carpark outside the airfield. It was clear that passengers are not particularly welcome at this militarily sensitive area.

Mixed couple mix-ups

These excerpts from my recently published book describe how surprised people, especially in Kutch and Saurashtra, were to discover that a Gujarati had married a European. The reactions described below have never happened to us anywhere else in India.

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“By the end of our third day out of Bombay, our third in Daman and nearby parts of Gujarat, we had become aware of the attention we, as a couple, were attracting. On many occasions, both in Daman and later in Gujarat, Lopa was asked whether she was my tour guide. When she replied that she is my wife, this was met with both surprise and disbelief. It seemed that the locals were not ‘phased’ by the idea of an Indian woman acting as a tourist guide for an unrelated European man, but the idea that we were married was beyond their comprehension …”

And some days later in Bhuj (Kutch):

“After eating toasted vegetarian sandwiches in a tiny café in an alley near a small dargah, we boarded the bus bound for EKTA supermarket near to our hotel. The bus route ends at the Government Engineering College. Lopa and I were chatting, when a young man, an engineering student, turned around and asked Lopa abruptly in English: “Are you Indian?” She replied: “What do you think?” To which the student said: “But, you are speaking English.” Lopa pointed out that English is one of India’s national languages; it appears on every Indian banknote. Then, the youth pointed at me, and asked aggressively: “And, this person?” Lopa said that I am her husband. To which the boy asked incredulously: “You are married to him?” When Lopa confirmed this, his jaw dropped, and his eyes seemed to pop out of his head in surprise and disbelief. This extraordinary behaviour was not an isolated incident. Wherever we went in Kutch and in the rest of western Gujarat, we encountered people who were unable to conceive of anyone of Gujarati background marrying someone not of that background, and certainly not a European.”

 

Join Adam and his wife on their interesting travels through Gujarat, Daman and Diu.

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Breakfast in Bhuj and Catherine Deneuve

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Before breakfast, we rode the bus into town, and then visited the Hotel Prince, which was once rated as being the best hotel in Bhuj. It is elegant but dated. We sat down for what we hoped would be a grand breakfast in the first-floor restaurant. It was almost impossible to catch the waiters’ attention. They were all standing, as if glued to the floor, in front of a large television screen, watching a very gory, bloodthirsty film. When they finally attended to us, we were served a reasonable quality (but expensive) breakfast of eggs and potato parathas. When Philip Ward published his guide to Gujarat in 1994, he wrote that service at this hotel was slow. Nothing has changed since then.

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The Bharatiya Sanskriti Darshan is a privately-run folklore museum near the Collector’s Bungalow. This establishment and its collection were commenced more than sixty years ago by Ramsinhji Rathod, a Forest Service Officer and scholar of tribal and folk arts of Kutch. The museum’s buildings are in two adjoining plots separated by a narrow lane. One plot contains rectangular buildings without architectural merit. They hold the bulk of the exhibits. The other, a triangular plot, contains several round buildings with conical thatched roofs. These traditional Kutchi houses resemble South African rondavels.

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The collection is first-class.  The wonderful array of exhibits includes: diverse household items; embroidered textiles (some of them with small pieces of mirror sewn in them) for which Kutch is famous; books in Sanskrit; boards for playing games; large printed fabrics; paintings and photographs; clothes and footwear; jewellery; household implements; and archaeological finds, including some well-crafted clay models excavated in northern Kutch at Dholavira, the ruins of a city that was founded in about 2650 BC, and was last occupied in about 1450 BC.

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The circular buildings contain additional exhibits, predominantly a large collection of clay pots. We were shown around the museum by a lady volunteer. She is married to a professional singer of Gujarati and Kutchi songs. Proudly, she showed us videos of her husband performing at concerts.  She was accompanied by an employee of the museum, who was wearing one of Kutch’s many traditional colourful folk costumes. It was her job to unlock and lock the various rooms and huts containing the exhibits. She gave us some berries growing on a tree in the compound. They resembled soft cherries but tasted bitter. At the end of our tour, the volunteer invited us into her office, where we were asked to sign the visitors’ book. Then flicking back its pages, she showed us the flattering words that the French actress Catherine Deneuve had written about her visit to this lovely museum.

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