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Hi 🙂  Welcome to the eighth part of my nine-part series on India’s western state of Gujarat. For those of you visiting me for the first time, here’s the link to my previous post: Gujarat Travelogue – 7: The Great Rann of Kutch

Today’s post is about my journey to Mandvi in southern Kutch, and later, a bit of sight-seeing in Bhuj. Happy Reading 🙂

Wednesday, 4 February, 2015

 

The alarm goes off at 7:00 am. Groggy-eyed, I mull over my travel plans for the day. My initial plan was to visit the archaeological site of Dholavira located in the Khadir Beyt (Island) surrounded by the Great Rann. There’s plenty of snow-white land around that region. But then, I have already been in the much-touted white desert yesterday. Dholavira is around three hours away, and I’m really not in the mood to travel long distances. Besides, I have called the driver at 9:00 am so I would most probably reach there by noon, and at that hour, it would be too hot to walk around the site. After a bit of pondering, I decide to visit the port city of Mandvi which is just 60 km away. It would take an hour to reach there leaving me enough time to spend the latter half of the day doing sight-seeing in Bhuj. I toy with the economical option of taking a bus to Mandvi but quickly drop it off.  It would be time-consuming, and as usual, the autorickshaws would charge me twice the normal fare. Sigh. It’s best to use the tourist car for the day since the charges have been worked out accordingly. The main problem is the irritating driver. I have hired cars many a times on outstation trips, but I have never come across any driver who has turned out to be such an insolent pest like him. Yesterday, when Pravin sent me an sms to check if everything was going well, I thought of asking him for another driver. But in the end, my good nature prevailed, and that was it.

Around 9:00 am, I convey the change to my travel plans to both, Pravin and the tourist car operator in Nakhatrana. The latter asks why I’m not paying the driver money for food and refreshments! What the…? Why the hell should I pay for his meals? I had talked about this to Pravin beforehand, and the car hire charges had been fixed accordingly. On the first day itself, when the driver said that he was from Nakhatrana, I spoke to the hotel’s front desk clerk about the free accommodation for drivers. He got the accommodation but was thrown out within an hour. After returning from the White Rann trip, he demanded 200 rupees from me, and said that I could deduct it from the car hire charges. It was past-midnight so I had given him the money out of courtesy for the extra time on duty. And now, his boss is telling me that I should pay for his expenses! I don’t mince words in expressing my displeasure. And when I get into the waiting car, I choose to remain silent. At least, it’s a short journey down south to Mandvi.

Southern Kutch

Once a major port of the region, Mandvi is now popular for its sunny beaches, a centuries-old shipbuilding yard and an old but well-maintained palace situated near the sea. This small port city was established during the late 16th century by the first Jadeja ruler, Rao Khengarji I. It became a summer retreat of the Kutch rulers and a major stop on the trade routes of spices and desert camel caravan.  The still-active shipbuilding yard is along the banks of the Rukmavati River (the old bridge across the river was built in 1883). Less than an hour later, my car drives past it. It’s an amazing sight to see craftsmen busy working on the wooden beauties which would soon be sailing across the Arabian Sea.

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Mandvi Beach is near the city centre. At 10:00 am, there are not many people around. Food stalls line the beach stretch, many of them closed at this hour. Camels and horses bask in the sunshine while their 14-15 year old masters await customers for a ride along the beach shore.

The camel ride appeals to me. It would be fun and at the same time the view from atop one of these tattooed camels would be great. And this way, I won’t get sand in my shoes. A 20-minute ride costs 200 rupees. Sounds good. I choose the tallest camel around.

It’s very bright and sunny but extremely peaceful with a splendid view of the clear blue water shining beyond the nice-looking beach.

A camel cart along the sea shore with an anchored boat in the background…

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Beautiful sea-view…

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An anchored boat…

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Yours truly enjoying the camel ride…

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Watch my video: Camel Ride on Mandvi Beach

Watch my video: Mandvi Beach in Kutch

I thoroughly enjoy the ride, my first-ever beach ride! But I can’t say my first-ever camel ride because I have taken rides atop the rare double-humped Bactrian camels which are found only in Ladakh. Most of the camels at tourist places, whether in Mumbai or any other place in the country are too ill-looking and short-statured. But the ones in the desert areas of Rajasthan and Gujarat are the real ones, truly awesome. Tall and robust, decorated with tattoos and colourful finery…wow! When the boy asks me if I would like the camel to run, I’m thrilled. “Of course!” And when the camel starts running, I’m elated. Wheeeeeeee…

After spending a blissful time at the beach, I’m ready to move on to another place. A few kilometres away, there’s another popular beach, Wind Farm Beach, so named for the windmills that line it. But I’m very happy with one beach visit so I start off for another key attraction of Mandvi… the Vijay Vilas Palace, which is just five minutes away.

The palace is open every day from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm. At the entrance, there’s a payment counter where I collect my 100-rupee ticket for entrance and photography. After a pleasant walk through the sprawling palace grounds, I reach this impressive red sandstone building…

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Watch my video: Vijay Vilas Palace at Mandvi

Built in 1929 by the then ruler, Rao Vijayrajji, the palace is well-maintained. Its upper floor, occupied by the royal family (residing in Mumbai), is closed to visitors. The ground floor is a mini-museum exhibiting old photographs, gifts, souvenirs and hunting trophies such as this stuffed tiger…

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A couple of rooms like the Living Room, Drawing Room, Dining Room, Library, etc. are open for public viewing.

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These rooms have featured in the popular 1999 Bollywood romantic film “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam”.  This, as well as details of the palace, its history and that of the royal family are available to visitors through information boards. So there’s absolutely no need to take guide service.

A wrought-iron spiral staircase leads up to the beautiful gazebo-like balcony which offers a commanding view of the scenic surroundings, the forest and the beach.

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Watch my video: View from the Vijay Vilas Palace at Mandvi

The palace has been used as the set in many Bollywood films including “Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam” and the immensely popular 2001 Bollywood flick “Lagaan”, India’s official entry to the 2002 Oscars.

Yours truly in the palace balcony…

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After spending some time around, I return to the car. A dusty track leads to the nearby beach. But it’s a private beach, accessible only to guests staying at the Vijay Vilas Heritage Resort. Visitors are allowed entry on payment of 450 rupees for buffet lunch at the restaurant. It’s around 11:30 am. Too early for lunch. So I decide to return to Bhuj.

On the way, I think about visiting Bhujodi, a small artisan town about 8 km from Bhuj. The town inhabitants belong to a community of master artisans engaged in traditional weaving, tie-dyeing and block printing. Although I’m not interested in shopping, it would be interesting to take a look at the handwoven textiles, and also watch artisans at their work. I would probably reach there around 1:00 pm. After an hour of looking around, I would be back in Bhuj. It would be convenient since most of the main attractions in Bhuj reopen after lunch break at 2:00 or 3:00 pm. The annoying driver makes me change my plan. Yesterday at Kalo Dungar when I told him to start for White Rann instead of waiting for the temple to reopen at 4:00 pm, I got a disgruntled “Then what’s the use of coming here?” Later, when I told him to stop at Hodko, he scoffed, “There’s nothing to see in the village.” And now, when I tell him to proceed for Bhujodi, he scornfully asks, “Bhujodi? What’s there to see in Bhujodi?”

Mildly exasperated, I’m in need of a hearty meal. At 1:00 pm, I’m back in my hotel room. I have decided to have lunch and then rest for a while before visiting a few of the city’s main attractions. It would be fun going around in autorickshaws but costlier if they were to charge me twice the fare. I leave for lunch at the restaurant in Hotel Prince, where I had dined the day before yesterday. This time, I choose lamb meat curry with roti. The meat is spicy and succulent. It leaves me teary-eyed, but at the same time, delighted. At 3:00 pm, I’m back in the car. First stop, to book my seat in the early morning bus going to Ahmedabad. It doesn’t take much time to find the Patel Travels office. There is a bus leaving at 7:30 am. The ticket for the 6.5 hour journey costs 600 rupees. Booking done, I start with city sightseeing. The insolent pest asks me about visiting Bhujodi. I tell him, no. It being Wednesday, the Kutch Museum is closed. That’s bad, it would have been an interesting stop. Founded in 1877, it’s the state’s oldest museum of Gujarat with a large collection of antiques and crafts of the Kutch region. My next destination is the Bhartiya Sanskruti Darshan, a cultural centre housing a private collection of Kutchi folk art and crafts from all over the region. The place is deserted, but on seeing me, a girl comes out from a nearby cottage. She hands me the entrance ticket of 10 rupees, and opens the doors to two rooms that house the beautiful collection of exquisite textiles, paintings, rural architecture, old photographs and archaeological artifacts. It arouses my deepest interest and curiosity. A passionate forest officer, Ramsinh Rathod, collected them during his official sojourns to the remotest regions of Kutch. Beautiful embroidery is synonymous with Kutch, and the most important handicraft in the region. And I’m getting to see all the different types of Kutch embroideries under one roof. Amazing! Among them, the embroidery from Anjar captivates me.

Kutch is one of the most colourful regions of India and a paradise of fine embroidery. The colourful, heavily embroidered attires that identify each village community and the exquisiteness of embroideries done by village women from their colourfully decorated bhungas (mud-plastered circular houses whose exterior walls are adorned with paintings and mirror work) attract visitors from across the world. The artisan villages and towns around Bhuj provide an opportunity for visitors to interact with the craftsmen and their families, watch them at work and buy the handicrafts directly from them. Bandhani and batik textiles, embroidered textiles with mirror work, camel wool shawls, silk embroidery on leather, enamelled jewellery, seashell toys, carved woodcraft and metal bells are some of the popular crafts. Special art forms like Rogan which is practiced in the village of Nirona, uses natural dye to be hand-painted on fabric. Depending upon the quality of work, sometimes, it takes a year to complete and it may cost more than 500,000 rupees.

After spending an enriching hour in the quiet and peaceful environment of the cultural centre, it’s time to explore the more touristy places like Aina Mahal, Prag Mahal and Sharad Baug Palace. The impressive-looking Prag Mahal Palace with a 45-metre tall bell tower stands alongside the road. The 19th-century sandstone building was severely damaged by the 2001 earthquake and only two or three rooms are open to public. The driver tells me that is closed now. In the same complex stands another historic palace, the Aina Mahal, built in 1761. While Prag Mahal (it was completed after 14 years!) was designed by a British engineer, Aina Mahal was designed by a legendary local sailor turned master craftsman, Ramsinh Malam. Both palaces were built in European style. Malam spent 17 years in Holland to perfect his skills in glassmaking, enamelling, tile making and iron founding before returning to Kutch and adapting European technology and techniques to local crafts. His masterpiece was Aina Mahal (“Palace of Mirrors”), a white marble structure decorated with mirrors of Venetian glass, resplendent chandeliers, fountains, and doors inlaid with ivory and gold. He personally crafted the fountains, mirrors and glasswork, as well as many other wonders of artisanship—a pendulum clock in sync with the Hindu calendar, etc.

The narrow road leading to Aina Mahal is closed for traffic. Since it’s guarded by policemen, I assume that a VIP is visiting the area. I get down from the car to proceed on foot. But I don’t see any signboard giving directions to the palace entrance. On making enquiries, I reach the gate, only to be told that a VIP is visiting the palace, so it is closed to public for an hour. What the …..!!! I fume in silence. Why couldn’t the VIP visit the palace at any time between 12:00 pm to 3:00 pm when it is closed to public? I have no intention of waiting for an hour. The country’s vice-president and his wife were in Dhordo for the Rann festival, so I’m sure that they are here today. Because of them, I’m unable to visit the Prag Mahal and Aina Mahal! Bitterly disappointed, I return to the car.

The third palace is the Sharad Baug Palace, the residence of the last king of Kutch, Madansingh who died in 1991. The tourist brochure on Kutch tells me it is opposite Khengarji Park, so I make a few enquiries. The lousy driver is unaware of the palace and its whereabouts. Someone tells me that it’s nearby, so I pass the information to him. The fool doesn’t find the given landmark. Instead, he has the nerve to tell me that the palace may not exist. During the three days that I have travelled by car, I have never once raised my voice or played the arrogant master with this insolent chap in his late-20s, but now, his inefficiency in carrying out his duties makes me lose my temper. I give him an earful and order him out of the car to return with the exact directions to the palace. As Paulo Coelho rightly said, Be arrogant with arrogant people; this is the only language they respect, as they confound kindness with weakness.”

My angry words get the work done. Five minutes later, I’m at the Sharad Baug Palace. The entrance to it is not easily seen unless one is aware of the location of hidden. A lovely garden of flowering and medicinal plants welcomes visitors to the palace. The original palace was destroyed by the 2001 earthquake and lies in ruins.

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After the death of the last ruler, the palace was converted into a small museum of princely heirlooms which are now housed in this cottage…

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One of the men looking after the place, offers me a tour of the museum. Exhibits include silver caskets, stuffed tigers, elephant tusks, antelope heads, gifts received from abroad, etc. A small collection, but nevertheless, interesting. Outside, I take a few pictures of the flowering plants near some old cannons.

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Aina Mahal, Prag Mahal, Kutch Museum, Ramkund Stepwell, Ram Dhun Temple, Swaminarayan Temple and Sharad Baug – all these tourist attractions are located alongside the road that encircles Hamirsar Lake, which has a small park in its midst offering a lovely view of some of the sights including Prag Mahal. So that’s where I proceed. Entering the place, I’m greeted by the sight of these beautiful yellow flowers which are just about everywhere…

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The cool and lovely environs instantly relaxes me. It’s a welcome respite from the hot sun. Except for a few youngsters, the place is more or less deserted.

Beautiful flora around the lake…

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The Prag Mahal stands majestically opposite the lake, but I’m unable to catch a glimpse of Aina Mahal.

View of Prag Mahal…

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Around 5:00 pm, I return to my hotel. Finally! I no longer have to bear with the jerk of a driver. Though, since the time I shouted at him, his voice has become low and meek. Well, he rightly deserved it! It was stupid of me to give away my nice little Barbie sandals (the ones that I had purchased in Jamnagar) to him for his wife! I had planned on giving them to some poor soul walking barefoot on the road but…Sigh! In addition to the 200 rupees that I had given him after returning from the White Rann trip, I now tip him fifty rupees for the day and tell him to scoot off. He looks a bit sorry, and something tells me that he has learnt a good lesson.

Back in my room, I calculate the total cost of car hire. Total kilometres travelled…931. Total cost…8500 rupees. Hmmm, not bad! Considering the exorbitant amount paid by people, posting on travel forums, for travelling to all the places that I have been to, I’m lucky to have got a very good deal. And a good hotel too. I’m enjoying my stay in Bhuj so much that I wonder if I should spend one more night here instead of in Ahmedabad. An excellent room at great price, great food…and an extremely helpful same day laundry service! My cotton pant which got ruined in the salt desert now looks good as new. Ditto the socks. Now, only my white-crusted black shoes need cleaning. I ask for a room boy to do the needful. Fifteen minutes later, they look better if not cleaner. Not wanting a mess in my bag, I dump the thick slab of crystallized salt that I had brought from the White Rann into the dust bin.

It’s close to 6:00 pm, so I hurriedly leave to do some shopping. The desk clerk recommends Kutch Bandhej for bandhani and embroidered fabrics and Khavda for sweets and savouries. Both are within walking distance of the hotel. I spend a good deal of time making a selection at Kutch Bandhej. Unfortunately, it sells at a fixed price only so I can’t bargain which is bad considering that I have done a hell of a lot of shopping. So much that I have to visit the nearby Chetana Bags & Covers. A nice lightweight airbag catches my fancy. And I get a good discount on it, even though it’s a fixed price store. At 850 rupees, it’s an amazing buy. When I return to Kutch Bandhej, my nice-looking bag gets lavish attention from a few women shoppers, and the store manager as well. I tell the latter that the manager at the bag store has given me a good discount despite it being a fixed price store. It leaves him at a loss for words, much to my devilish glee.

The sweet shop is a short distance away. Carrying the loaded bag on my shoulder, I walk through the narrow, winding lanes to reach the small shop. Unfortunately, they don’t have the local sweet, Sata. The helpful shopkeeper tells me that it’s available at another Khavda sweet shop, and sends one of his boys to that place to get it for me. Meanwhile, I select two other local sweets available at the shop, and a pack of savouries.

khavda sweets

It’s almost 8:00 pm, when I leave the shop with the goodies. I’m supposed to meet Pravin at 8:30 pm to settle the payment for the tourist car, so I have to hurry back to the hotel. It’s a bit surprising that I haven’t yet seen a street stall selling Kutchi dabeli, a bun stuffed with a spicy filling and peanuts, a local specialty which is as popular here as batata vada, bhel puri, sev puri, etc. is in Mumbai. As a matter of fact, Kutchi dabeli is available at many places in Mumbai. I like its taste but I know that I’m not going to try it here. Street food while travelling a definite no-no for me. By the way, Kutchi dabeli was first prepared by Keshavji Gabha Chudasama of Mandvi in 1960 before it went on to become one of the famous snacks of Gujarat.

Leaving my bag in the hotel room, I rush to the appointed place where Pravin is waiting beside his motorcycle. We start for the place of his antique dealer friend to make the payment, and at the same time, go through his collection of Kutch handicrafts. I soon discover that Pravin is more of an unofficial ambassador for Kutch Tourism. He has not only provided travel assistance and locations for Gujarat Tourism’s advertisement campaign featuring Amitabh Bachchan, but also for international TV channels like Discovery channel and BBC. I recount to him my travel experiences over the past three days and express my disappointment at not being able to visit Aina Mahal. To my surprise, he tells me that he had special passes which would have enabled me to enter the palace despite the visit by the vice-president’s wife. Damn! I should have called him. But then, he was busy in meetings so I had not bothered. Now he tells me that an ongoing travel conference has kept him busy, otherwise he would have gladly given me a tour of the city.

At the antique dealer’s place, I’m enthralled by the beautiful, wide collection of antique embroidery. Fabulous pieces, but they are mighty expensive too, because of the fine work of embroidery. The elderly Muslim gent has been collecting embroideries over decades and his amazing collection includes some rare embroideries too, from within Kutch as well as from across the border in the Sindh province of Pakistan where his brother lives. Heavily embroidered garments, cushion covers, wall hangings, accessories, etc…there’s plenty of stuff that captivates me. One incredibly amazing piece weighs like five kilos! It’s a 60-70 years old heavily embroidered mens’ garment with mirror work and gorgeous embellishments. It’s sheer delight trying on the fantastic piece of work, though it feels very heavy on my shoulders. The elderly gent, who has even donated a few embroideries to the Bhartiya Sanskruti Darshan, is kind enough to share a bit of his wide knowledge on Kutch textiles. Time flies and Pravin has a meeting to attend so after making my payment for the tourist car, we leave the place.

The motorcycle ride back to the hotel is enjoyable. And then, Pravin tells me that Amitabh Bachchan drove his motorcycle, this very motorcycle, in one of his advertisement campaigns on Gujarat. Wow!

Pravin on his motorcycle…

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It’s 9:30 pm when I walk into my hotel. Instead of dining in the vegetarian restaurant I go for room service. (A big mistake! Later on the internet, I found out that the restaurant has uniquely designed interiors similar to an airplane cabin). After a light dinner of soup and Hakka noodles, I peruse my trail through Kutch. I seem to have done a good lot of travelling in Kutch for three days, though one more day would have included a trip to Dholavira.

My travels through Kutch…

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I have the option of staying one more day in Bhuj. That way I need not have to spend a night in Ahmedabad where all the good hotels are booked for the international conference. But I can’t take the risk of missing my flight in case the bus to Ahmedabad gets delayed. So I tag along with my original plan of taking tomorrow’s 7:30 am bus.

For now, I need to catch up a good night’s sleep, not knowing what sort of hotel awaits me in Ahmedabad….

Coming next:  Gujarat Travelogue – 9: End of the journey (AMD to MUM)

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