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The Magic of Bhuj
... an unspoilt deshi town

Bill Aitken

E-Mail this story to a friend Bhuj has several brilliant facets that surprise the traveller who expects an arid, run-down scenario exuding apathy and fatalism in equal parts. Aesthetically, its walled bazaar lanes are the most memorable in the sub-continent, and to swell the record books are its beautifully maintained budget hotels that serve the tastiest vegetarian food I have ever enjoyed.

Getting to Bhuj provides the first surprise. There is a rail-through coach from Delhi that crosses the Rann of Kutch at its narrowest point. But I approached from Saurashtra in the south, where plane, bus and train traverse the extraordinary sea of oozing mud that makes up the Little Rann. The bus from Morbi races across the causeway some six feet above the glutinous element and you have to admit that there is nothing so glorious for cooking the blood as mud stretching as far as the eye can see.

Kutch does not come across as arid as one expected. There are gentle rolling hills in places and I was again pleasantly surprised when I travelled from Bhuj to the surrogate capital on the coast -- Mandvi -- to discover the same eye-catching undulations. Further inland, the salt flats answer to everyone's idea of Kutch with the flying hooves of wild ass and the preening presence of flamingo colonies, not to mention the austere lifestyle of the tribal inhabitants with their astounding sense of colour and style.

Kutch womenBhuj turned out to be a happy municipal experience, where history was a bonus to the present, not, as is so often the case in modern urban sprawls, an escape from the mess. The traveller invariably finds that in native states uncontaminated by colonial fashions, the charm and originality of the regional cultures have survived. The best example is Nepal where a temple like Pashupatinath continues those colourful medieval rites that no Hindu place of worship in India would now want to be associated with.

The tragedy of India's cities is that they combine the worst of the East and West. And those few that stand out in the memory for genuine local virtue and true Indian flavour such as Mysore, Cochin, Bikaner and Jaisalmer, will all be found to lack the leavening of Western inappropriateness.

One other civic theory strikes the visitor. Why is it that the weirdo royal architecture of Kutch and Kathiawad -- for example the Ranjit Vilas palace at Wankaner which looks like a three-stage rocket that forgot to blast off while the Maqbara at Junagarh resembles an Islamic roller-coaster ride -- that would raise a laugh elsewhere, on site turn out to be exhilarating architectural encounters. Is it the absence of monsoon-induced dilapidation that rescue the royal building of western Gujarat from the charge of vulgarity and imbues them with a more exciting category of zany?

The old palace at Bhuj retains the Gujarati flavour despite some extraordinary Oriental-Gothic additions alongside that seem to have been dreamed up by a Birmingham architect haunted by nightmares of Mussolini. But once again you don't laugh. At Ayna Mahal, you are asked to remove your shoes to view the inside of the Durbar hall and pad up the marble stairs to be greeted by a clatter of mail-catalogue art objects that 19th century royals ordered with abandon and then had to build these immensely irrelevant mausoleums to house. The view from the clock tower over the town and lake is stimulating but nothing compared to the pleasures that await the actual penetration of the maze.

At the centre of the grain market, appropriately, is a large pigeon feeding pulpit that is so characteristic of western Gujarat and underlines the Jain influences on the people. As you pass by the folk art on the tastefully painted white houses, the bold, vital colours in combinations that are surprisingly harmonious, make for some startling contrasts.

Similarly, it is the refinement one finds in the villagers' colour-schemes and in the design of their silver jewellery that makes you want to swivel and gape at every tribal woman who swishes past. The fine quality of ordinary things stands out and the deleterious impact of modernism with its culture of mass-production and tawdry imitations seems crass and gaudy in comparison.

Cenotaphs memorialThe temples of Bhuj, and even more so of Mandvi, are delightfully painted. As one passes by, one is amazed at the upkeep of the temples and bazaars, in contrast to the rest of India where tattiness and lugubrious sanitation assault the wayfarer. For this reason you tend to walk with a bounce through the lanes of Bhuj and might feel as I did, the urge to compliment the people on the design and upkeep of their tiny but immaculately spruced homesteads.

Mandvi was traditionally the port town for pilgrims to Mecca and today maintains an active sea faring image. The bazaar is painted brilliantly white. Camels recline after bearing their loads to the docks and the most characteristic sound, after their ill-natured groans, is the sweeter sound of the hammered wood as baulks to frame the ubiquitous dhows are shaped up. Probably in the whole wide and romantically diminishing world of 'running away to sea', Mandvi still offers hope to the stowaway. And fittingly enough, in the Indian setting dhows sail from here to Bombay so that anyone disillusioned with his dish-washing career could sneak aboard and jump ship to become the next Amitabh in Tinsel Town!

Actually few people have cause to be disillusioned in Mandvi. Everyone seems to be forever into painting his house. Also, dish-washing involves no serious chore. The tea shops throughout western Gujarat vend tiny cups of overflowing deshi chai, half of which is already spilt into the saucer by the time you pick it up. Only the uninitiated would throw away the contents of the saucer.

Tea is properly slurped from the saucer in Mandvi and this royal habit I have discovered stretches all the way to the eastern limits of Gujarat. Tea is a crucial subject for the flagging traveller and he always makes note of its fluctuating fortunes.

Ayna MahalAssam provides the strongest cup but with too much tannin for the health-conscious. Warangal in Andhra produces the most gruesome tea in all three worlds but fortunately it is served only in tiny steel thimbles. Gujarat tea is passable but tends to be too weak.

The best tea I have ever tasted is in western Madhya Pradesh between Vidisha and Dhar. Despite being hot, sweet and milky the flavour comes through and you crave a refill. In Bhuj, the tea is flavoured with a hint of charcoal from the tool that still distinguishes the chaiwallahs of Malwa from those elsewhere -- hand-cranked mechanical bellows.

Bhuj and Mandvi are quite simply unspoilt, deshi towns. They have their own style and pace and being sure of their heritage, do not get swept off their feet by passing fads. It seems depressing that Le Courbusier should have been summoned to lay out Gandhinagar in the sterile crisis-cross of Orwellian imaginings, when the local genius for design which incorporates the curve of natural features (as in Bhuj) was so readily available.

One is reminded of the impact Kutch had on an early eastern visitor who noted "A space without a counterpart in the world." While referring primarily to the strange expanse of the Rann, there can be no doubt that his summing up was influenced by the remarkable quality of the architectural adaptations that have developed here.

In the Kutch museum is a ready introduction to the tribal art forms where unique embroidery is produced by humble women living in clay huts, themselves of outstanding beauty and ingenuity. The ruler was known as the 'Rao' while the word 'Kutch' derives from the Sanskrit for 'fatal waste'. Unfortunately, the exact transliteration 'Kachchh' has been resuscitated to confuse visitors.

KutchThe cock-eyed diktat of Delhi's surveyors serve to make the vigourous survivors of Kutch's challenging desert terrain so incomprehensibly rustic, when in fact their sophistication in matters of genuine Indian culture far exceed the mongrelised fumblings of Delhi's babus.

At a loss to put one's finger on the secret of Bhuj's vibrancy, one can submit an opinion put forth by an early British observer. He writes what must be a universal recipe for kicking off the morning auspiciously. "A Rajput lady in Kutch begins the day by making three bows to her mother-in-law."

Courtesy Sanctuary Features


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