During the dry season, the Ranns are vast expanses of dried mud and blinding-white salt. Come monsoon, they’re flooded first by seawater, then by fresh river water
By: HBI Desk
Kachchh, India’s Wild West, with its rustic beauty is nothing less than a pictorial wonderland. The flat, tortoise-shaped land, edged by the Gulf of Kachchh and Great Little Ranns, is a seasonal island. During the dry season, the Ranns are vast expanses of dried mud and blinding-white salt. Come monsoon, they’re flooded first by seawater, then by fresh river water. The salt in the soil makes the low-lying marsh area almost completely barren. Only on scattered ‘islands’ above the salt level is there coarse grass, which provides fodder for the region’s wildlife. Starting from Indus valley civilisation to Rao dynasty, every ruler has gifted Kutch the legacy of art and architecture.
History of Kutch
Forming the North-Western region of Gujarat, Kutch is a land of heroism and romance. One can see the traces of human settlement in Gujarat since the time of Indus Valley Civilisation, which signifies that the early Stone Age man used to live in the area. In fact, one of the largest Harappan sites in the Indian sub-continent, Dholavira is located in the Khadir Bet Island of the Kutch.
Due its amazing geographical conditions, Kutch has captured the interest of many republics like Maitraka of Valabhi, Chavdas, Solanki, Vaghelas, Sindh, Rajput Samma and later in the 13th Century, the length and breadth of the area were seized by the Jadeja Dynasty. In the year 1819, Kutch was captured by the East India Company after fighting a terrifying battle against the Jadeja dynasty.
The picturesque town of Bhuj has a dramatic setting. Located rather low, it is basically an amphitheatre of hills dominated by the Bhuja Hill that rises to a height of 160 m at one end and is in itself a landmark being flat on top and surmounted by the fortifications of a hill fort. This strategically located fort obviously served the purpose of sighting enemies and alerting defence. An old wall surrounds the city (also made for security reasons). Interestingly, till recently, the city gates were locked each night from dusk to dawn but now entry into Bhuj can be made at any time of the day as the city is always welcoming.
Then there is the quaint Kutch Museum – the oldest in Gujarat. Regarded as one of the best, this museum has an excellent collection. Founded in 1877 by Sir James Ferguson, who was Governor of Bombay under the British Raj, the museum was earlier referred to as the Ferguson Museum. This unassuming edifice has been divided into two floors containing a picture gallery, an anthropological section, and an archaeological section with textiles, weapons, musical instruments, a shipping section, and even stuffed animals. The piece de resistance here is the celestial elephant, Airawat, made of wood. Yet another that warrants attention is the cannon that was presented by Tipu Sultan to the Kutch rulers in exchange for some horses of the region that are known for their swiftness and vitality.
Walking through the maze of winding streets takes visitors to the exquisite Aaina Mahal(palace of mirrors). It was the palace of the erstwhile Maharaj of Bhuj, but it has now been converted into a museum. The members of the royal family now live in the Old Palace behind it. Presenting a fascinating amalgam of Indian and Dutch styles of architecture, the Aaina Mahal is definitely worth a visit.
The walls of the main hall are covered with mirrors all around, and except for a narrow strip used for walking, the entire space has been beautifully utilised to form a pleasure pool. Fountains are placed in such a manner that they cast their spray in an intricate variety of patterns. Lit by candles and cooled by the gentle ripples of the pool waters, the Maharao and his retinue sat in the space left in the middle as they sought refuge from the glaring heat of the sun. It was here that Maharao Shri Lakhpatji often sat to compose poetry and watch musical performances. It was under his patronage that the classical arts flourished. The Aaina Mahal also contains exquisite specimens of intricately carved embroidered panels, lithographs, cutlass, 18th Century paintings and clocks, one even dating back to 1849.
Facing the Aaina Mahal is the City Palace, the lovely architectural gem of Bhuj designed by a Scottish architect called McClelland. While most of it is closed to visitors, the Durbar Hall remains open. A look around reveals a marked European influence with sculptures and carvings typifying the amalgam arts of Bhuj. The most outstanding and marvelous monuments that would delight all visitors to Bhuj are the royal cenotaphs popularly known as chhatris.
The villages of the Kutch region specialise in a different form of handicraft, and it would be easy to spend a week visiting some of them using Bhuj as a base. Due to their proximity to the Pakistan border, you will require a permit signed by the Bhuj District Collector to visit the villages north of Bhuj. The map issued by the Bhuj tourist office lists the villages one can visit with or without permission.
Near the Dattatreya Temple at Kaladoongar (the black hills), which overlooks the spectacular Rann, one can spot some rare species of white foxes that would delight wildlife lovers. These beautiful, frisky animals staying in the wild respond to the call of the temple priest as he beats a steel plate yelling “langa” to suggest that food has been laid out for them.
Lying close to the beach near Bhuj is the Vijay Vilas Palace that was the summer retreat of the Maharaos of Kutch. Crowned by elegant chhatris (cenotaphs), this sandstone-hued edifice was built in the 1930s.
A flight of steps leads up to the grandest of chhatris that stands on a lofty platform. This is the place where 15 veeranganas (brave women) who belonged to the court of Maharao Lakhpat committed jauhar (self-immolation) after his death. What is surprising to learn is that none of these women were his wedded queens but only his loyal companions. Adept in music and dancing, these veeranganas entertained royal guests and, when required, even served as spies in the courts of political rivals.
Best time to visit
Being in the arid area of the country, the climate of the Kutch region is extreme: hot during summer and very cold during winter. Summer is rather severe in the entire state of Gujarat. The amount of rainfall is very less and during the rainy season the area experiences very scanty rainfall. As the winters are comparatively bearable and pleasant, the best time to visit this place would be between November and March. Woolens in sufficient numbers are required during the winter months.
How to reach
By air: Bhuj, the main town of Kutch has daily flights from Bombay, which take about 40 minutes to reach.
By rail: Kutch Express is available from Bombay via Ahmedabad up to Gandhinagar. From here, one can reach this destination by road.
By road: State transport buses are available from Ahmedabad.