Saturday, June 2, 2012

Khushboo Gujarat ki

Only one day after my goodbye to Navyug, I was on a plane, bound not for America, but for India’s Western state of Gujarat.  Hema, an Indian British lawyer with whom my father had worked in London, had suggested long ago that my father—or any members of his family—visit her parents in the Kutch area of Gujarat.  They had lived in London for many years, but had retired to their ancestral village in Gujarat.  They were hospitable, relaxed, and loved having visitors.  After many years, I finally accepted this kind invitation.

My plane from Delhi took me first to Mumbai, where I briefly kicked back in the very luxurious airport (though I skipped the free foot massage chairs) and then boarded another plane for Bhuj, the capital city of Kutch.  Once in Bhuj I was met by Hema’s father and sister, and we set off for their home in Madhapar, a small town just outside of Bhuj.

Right away I noticed how much hotter this area of India was than Delhi--and Delhi had not been particularly cool when I left it.  Kutch’s heat was a very intense, very dry heat, largely aided by a bright sun that felt somehow closer.  Unlike Delhi, where a layer of smog provides some shelter from the sun’s rays, Kutch is a largely untouched desert, with nothing between the bone-dry sand and the radiant blue sky.

When we reached Hema’s parents’ house, my hosts commenced with the wonderful blend of English and Indian hospitality that I would continue to enjoy throughout the week.  Immediately, I was asked if I would like English tea or Indian chai, and was soon served a steaming cup of the latter, along with a few digestive biscuits and a bowl of Indian namkeen (which had, ironically, come from an Indian grocery store in London).  After I had finished my tea, and the sun had begun to recede to the West, Hema’s sister, Premila, her aunt Samta took me on a short tour of the village of Madhapar. 

The tour brought us to three of the village’s temples, to the vegetable market, the tailor’s, and to the doorsteps of a number of the family’s friends.  Right away, my tourguides informed me that Madhapar can no longer accurately be called a village.  I quickly saw that this was accurate.  While many of the roads were not paved, they were fairly smooth, and power lines were visible all over.  There were far more cars and motorcycles than there had been in Utra (Ashley’s husband Gautam’s family’s village) and there was a grocery store, small restaurants, and even a bank.  A comparatively large percentage of the population had lived and worked in England. So though the most common greeting was still “Jai Sai Ram,” which translates to “Hail Lord Ram,” I more than once was caught offguard by greetings such as “’Ello!  You alright?  It’s hot today, innit?”—all spoken in a perfect Londoner accent.  Still though, Madhapar was nowhere close to approaching Delhi’s big city feel, and I enjoyed the chance to breath clean air and see trees, flowers, and fields.  I continued to learn about Madhapar and Kutch as we walked, and grew more and more excited for the week to come.

Colorful carvings above the entrance to the Sita-Ram Temple
Entering the temple
Temple guard
Madhapar street
Buying vegetables

The next day, after an Indian/English breakfast of chai, fruit, and Oatabix, I set off with Premila, Samta and Devi for a small crafts village called Bhujodi, famous for its textiles. 

Before coming to Kutch, I did some research on the area.  I discovered that Kutch is famous not only for its unique geography, which includes desert, salt plains, and beaches within miles of one another, but also for its handicrafts.  Kutch is home to a number of desert tribes, many of which have their own distinctive craft styles.  The breadth and variety of the crafts of Kutch are really quite astonishing; among the many things Kutch is known for are textiles (with various weaving, dying, and embroidery styles), mirrorwork, beads, woodwork, knives, and pottery.

In Bhujodi I had the opportunity not only to look at some beautiful readymade scarves, shawls, and blankets, I also was able to look in on the weaving process.  The weaver had incredibly quick and nimble fingers, and his loom was far larger and more intricate than any I had seen before.  Definitely a far cry from the simple loom that I had learned to weave on in high school.

Traditionally woven and dyed cloth

Turned into beautiful suits

Where it all begins

Soon after going to Bhujodi, we went to a small craft’s park, where I was able to see even more artisans in action.  Here I encountered a wider range of Kutch handicrafts, including mudwork, beads, and knives.
Bird house, within the craft park

Beautiful baby clothes, and a traditional mudwork painting of Ganesh

Desert Scene
A small temple within the craft park grounds

From left to right: Devi, Premila, Samta

Sadly, Premila and Samta left the next day for London via Ahmedabad.  I had only had a little more than a day with them, but they had made me feel so welcome, and had really shown me a good time.  Fortunately, there were plenty of other lovely people still in Madhapar. 

On the day that Premila and Samta left, I went with Devi and her daughter in law to the city of Bhuj, where I the first stop was a site containing two palaces side by side: the Prag Mahal, and the Aina Mahal.  Like all of India’s palaces, they clearly showcased the almost ridiculous opulence of the Maharajas.  Unlike many other Maharaja palaces I had seen, however, they were a little shabby and crumbling.  I soon found out that the Kutch area had suffered a devastating earthquake in January 2001, and was still recovering.  Naturally, in the aftermath, such things as humanitarian relief took priority over palace restoration, and rightfully so.  I think my favorite palace by far was the Prag Mahal, which was not only the dingiest of all, but was also very seriously infested by cockroaches.  The ballroom in particular was a cockroach haven, and I had to tip-toe around so as not to squash any of the little creatures.  A few even fell from the ceiling, and onto unsuspecting tourists—events that certainly kept the rest of us alert and on-guard.  Thus, though not always much to look at, the Prag Mahal made a very lasting impression!

Prag Mahal
Earthquake damage

Prag Mahal Clock tower

Prag Mahal interior carvings

The obligatory Maharaja palanquin

The Ballroom floor (those specks are all cockroaches!)


Earthquake damage

Roof top

Exiting the Prag Mahal

Entrance to the Aina Mahal

A little silver chariot?  Why not?

The Aina Mahal music room (it was after taking this picture that
I learned that photography was not allowed).
After visiting the palaces, we stopped at the nearby Swaminarayan Temple.  After admiring its beauty, we walked up to the entrance where we removed our shoes, minced painfully up the scorchingly hot steps, and then entered the temple to pay our respects to the Gods.  I tend to feel a bit awkward in temples, as I don’t always know which rituals I am expected to take part in, and which ones I should just respectfully watch.  This time, however, I had excellent guides, and navigated my way through without any problems.
Swaminarayan Temple

Temple carvings

Temple entrance

Priest and Priest-in-training quarters

Me in front of the temple!

I then had the opportunity to visit some Bhuj schools, and the local hospital.  Though these were not necessarily tourist attractions, visiting them was very interesting to me.  Unlike the hospitals I had visited in Delhi, the Bhuj hospital was built in courtyard style, with all the air-conditioned doctors’ offices, operating theaters, and patient rooms on the perimeter, and a large waiting area in the middle.  I had the opportunity to visit the dialysis room, an operating theater, an MRI theater, and even got to peek into the NICU, where a tiny baby was fighting for life in an incubator.  I still think about him sometimes, and hope that he is now healthy and strong.

Hospital courtyard

Entrance to the nursing school

School dormitory

Immaculate Senior Secondary School.

School courtyard, with a statue of Saraswati, Goddess of Wisdom and Learning.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant famous for its Gujarati thalis.  Gujarati food is known for being predominantly vegetarian, very balanced in its use of the (plant and dairy) food groups, and for its liberal use of jaggery (unrefined sugar).  Specialties include aamka russ (a thick, delicious mango juice), chass (a yogurt drink), slightly sweet dal, and millet rotis.  My very comprehensive lunch was certainly a great education in Gujarati food:

My Gujarati thali
After lunch, we headed to a sari shop the Devi was very familiar with.  We got to spend some time with a young helper in the shop named Pappu.  We found out that he was thirteen years old, and did attend school, although he wished that he could just drop out and work full-time at the shop.  I suggested that he give school another chance—though I know that his school was likely not one of the better ones. 

After some chai and pleasant converation at the sari shop, we headed over to yet another palace—the Sarad Bagh Palace.  The Sarad Bagh Palace is surrounded by beautiful gardens (bagh means garden in many Indian languages), and it was an enjoyable walk from the parking lot to the palace.  The palace itself, though outwardly beautiful, had actually been badly damaged in the earthquake, and was off limits to visitors.  Fortunately, many of the palace’s artifacts had been saved and moved into a small building nearby, which served as a museum.  Again, I wondered at the Maharajas’ opulence, egotism, and enthusiasm for killing tigers.

Lovely walkway

A bat-filled tree

Sarad Bagh gardens

Lily pond

Sarad Bagh Palace
After Sarad Bagh, we made a quick stop at an open-air temple before returning to Madhapar.  That evening, Devi and her husband took me to the outskirts of Madhapar to visit several farms, all owned by their various relatives.  As I’ve always loved farms and farming, this trip was especially interesting for me.  These family farms were all quite small, and most grew a variety of crops, including tomatoes (delicious!), cotton, onions, castor, chiku (a small brown, very sweet, fruit), and mangoes (small and green, but still very promising!).  I also got to meet a few cows, none of whom seemed particularly interested in being photographed.

Tomato fields

Green tomatoes

A red tomato!

Castor seeds

The next day started off comparatively early, as we would be traveling out to the actual Wild West of India—the Rann of Kutch.  I had heard the name “Rann of Kutch” many times before, but its definition somehow never stuck in my mind.  I soon (re)discovered that the Rann is a vast desert-like expanse of land.  During the monsoons, the erstwhile desert floods, first with salt water, then with fresh rain water.  We visited just as summer was beginning to scorch the plains, so the Rann I saw was quite decidedly desert, but I could still see the encroaching ocean in the distance.  The sight from which we gazed upon the Rann was called Kaladunger, or Black Mountain.  The viewing point contained some animal models and desert maps, which were borderline tacky, but still informative.  But the Rann itself was, of course, breath taking in its fearsome, sun-scorched vastness.

Temple bell, with the Rann in the background

The Rann of Kutch, with the ocean in the distance

In many ways, I found the Rann similar to the deserts of
 the Southwestern United States.

(Fiber glass models of) wild ass.  Kutch is their last
remaining natural habitat.

The Rann and me.
Next stop was the great salt desert of Kutch.  We had come in the off-season, so the salt had become somewhat dusty and gray.  I knew, however, that directly after the monsoons, the salt desert was blindingly white as far as the eye could see.  Even the light covering of dust on the salt plains was not enough to sully its beauty.

Salt caught in muddy tire tracks

The salt desert

Kutch salt

Mud hut resort
We ate a packed lunch at a tourist resort that was still under construction.  I learned that the salt plains play host to the Rann Festival in winter, and that thousands of tourists came each year.  The resorts tended to be clusters of outwardly traditional mud huts, with very luxurious interiors.  Our lunch hut was not quite finished yet, but it was still interesting to see the progress that had been made on the various buildings in the resort.

Our next big trip was to Mandvi, a place that Lonely Planet has dubbed a “minor miracle.”  And it truly does seem miraculous that this cheerful, almost tropical feeling beach area is less than an hour away from the barren desert for which Kutch is so well known.  Sure enough, as we drove from Madhapar, I noticed the terrain changing.  Slowly, the short scrubby desert bushes faded away, and vibrant green coconut palms filled their place.  The desert towns receded into the background, and soon we were passing by farm after farm after farm.  Our first destination was one of these farms.

The Mandvi trip hosted the biggest group yet, including Devi, her husband, their nephew and his wife, their son, and Anita, a family friend.  The farm we were visiting belonged to Anita’s sister and her husband, and we were warmly welcomed with tender coconut water and sugar cane.  Though I had seen sugarcane in stores before, I had never seen it actually growing, and I marveled that these thick, strong, green, bamboo-like stalks would eventually become the tiny white granules baked into cakes and stirred into tea.  I also walked beneath the family’s coconut palms, and around their wheat fields, as their livestock looked on, unimpressed.

Family cows

Sugar cane


After this lovely break in the journey, we made another stop, this time to a Jain Temple.  I had never before been to a “live” Jain temple (one that was still open for worship), and I was as awed by the strict yet welcoming temple staff members as I was by the lavish decorations and meticulous carvings.  Also interesting to me was the fact that the others in my group, all of whom were Hindu, took the time to pray in this temple.  It reminded me not only of the two religions’ closeness to one another, but also of the religious tolerance practiced by far more Indians than the sensationalist news articles would like to admit.

Jain Temple

We stopped for lunch at an Indian cultural center known as Ambedham.  Even after asking a number of questions and doing a great deal of internet research I am still unclear of its mission.  I even took photographs of the Hindi signs, hoping that their translations would solve the mystery.  When I showed the photograph of the sign to my friend, however, I received only peals of laughter before being told that the signs were so Sanskritized as to be indecipherable.  From what I could glean though, the center preached Indian unity, and the preservation of Indian culture through beautiful and detailed dioramas and scenes.  I admired its efforts to promote the idea that all Indians should unite, regardless of faith.  Considering the religious tensions that continue to plague India, this message is an important one.  A number of exhibits have been set up extolling India’s glorious past of farming, scholarly learning, and worship.  The dioramas on India’s possible future seemed somewhat alarmist: a scantily clad daughter-in-law attacking her parents, an overflowing AIDS clinic, and a nursing home filled with forlorn looking elderly people were just three examples.  Though I did not agree with all of the exhibits, and would have preferred a more balanced take on modern India, the possible perils of globalization are certainly nothing to take lightly.  And of course I agree that the preservation of the positive aspects of this ancient culture is imperative, as is a feeling of unity between all Indians.  Fortunately, I think many Indians feel that Indian culture is far stronger than the materialistic impulses flooding the country now, and that it will continue to endure.  It is likely that this exhibit will change entirely in several years, and I would be interested in visiting again at some point.

Farm house

Evil daughter-in-law

Women's health clinic

Followers of India's many religious faiths uniting to serve Mother India.

Next stop was the Vijay Vilas Palace—yet another example of the Maharajas’ opulence.  The palace, built in the 19th Century, served as the Maharajas’ summer palace, and was somehow less affected by the earthquake than the other palaces I had seen in Kutch.  Part of this might have to do with the fact that this palace is probably the most famous—it was used as a set for a number of Bollywood films, including Aamir Khan’s Lagaan.  The palace itself was beautiful, but my favorite aspect of it was the magnificent view from its ramparts of the surrounding area.  Coconut palms, chiku orchards, the Palace’s own magnificent gardens, and the beach were all clearly visible.

Vijay Vilas Palace
This handsome guy was sunbathing in front of the palace.

The group

At the back of the palace

The view from the top

Next stop was, of course, the beach.  No one was prepared to swim, but we all dipped our toes into the water, a refreshing act after a long, hot day.  The beach itself was pleasant—full of families, children playing volleyball and cricket, and vendors hawking everything from potato chips, to bungee trampoline adventures, to camel rides.

Rolling waves

Bungee jumping

The ladies

With these trips, I was able to see some of the most famous tourist attractions of Kutch.  Perhaps even more special though, were the less touristy, more ordinary, but equally fascinating places that I visited.  I have mentioned some already above, but there were certainly others, including a countless temples, small eateries, parks, and a giant Hanuman statue to rival the one in Shimla.  With my expert local guides I was able to go to places that I would never have known about otherwise, and I was able to sample what was widely known to be the best ice cream in Kutch, the most delicious mango shake I had ever tasted, and delicious Gujarati samosas, which were quite different from the Delhi variety.  I was able to see Indian family farms, including Hema’s father’s farm, up close—which were particularly interesting to me after having lived on a New York farm for four summers.  Best of all was the fact that I was living with a family, and not in a hotel, and that I was taking all my trips with a family familiar with the area, and not a tour group.

Myself, Devi, and her husband in front of a model of Krishna and
Arjuna's chariot.  (It is upon this chariot that the events of the Bhagavad Gita take place.)

Giant Hanuman

Just to show how big he was...

Gujarati samosa with chutney.  Unlike Delhi samosas,
which are filled with potatoes, these are filled with spiced chickpea flour.

Fresh samosas

Women heading to the temple festival.

Temple festival music makers.

A peanut field on Govind's (Hema's father's) farm.

Green mangoes.

Long horned cow.

Naughty calf.

I am immensely grateful for this opportunity to see Gujarat—a state not typically on the tourist map (though its tourism department and Bollywood king Amitabh Bachchan are certainly working hard to put it there!).  I am also very thankful for the warm welcome and wonderful Indian hospitality I received there.  For those planning trips to Indian in the future: I highly recommend a trip to Kutch.  It is a fascinating area, and a welcome change from the typical Delhi-Agra-Jaipur agenda.  I for one, certainly hope to visit again soon!


  1. Solaace offer a stunning range of Massage chairs offered at fantastic prices. Our enormous selection of chair massagers includes Back Massagers, Leather Massage Chairs, Office Massage Chairs, Health Massage Chairs, Heat Massage Chairs and Diet Massage Chairs.
    Massage Chairs in India