It was a nice cloudy morning when we left dholavira, the ride back to rappar was as splendid as the ride to the island. We could not resist but stop and take more pictures on that amazing road, but just as we entered mainland we saw a beautiful desert fox dead on the road. That made us a little sombre, poor creature had no idea what was coming, reminded me of the rabbits and their strategy against motorcars in Watership Down, a favourite book from my childhood.
After a quick tea and fuel stop in Rappar we headed towards Bhuj. The road is once again wonderful, through the scrub jungles of the country side till Bachau, where you once again join the highway. We reached Rappar too early for lunch, but there is pretty much no civilisation till the highway so you need to hold your hunger for a couple of hours.
Tip No. 5 – Carry snacks and hand sanitizer on the top pouch of your bag – easily accessible on the move. It is also good to keep a can of pepper spray there. We were debating buying a water pouch but decided against it, big mistake. Please buy one, it is a pain to remove your helmet everytime you want water. A water pouch with a sipper will allow you to sip water on the move and you will stay hydrated through the day. We drink water only when we stop, so are quite dehydrated by the end of the day.
Also coming back to the pepper spray, choose your rest stops / pee stops carefully especially if it is just two of you. Make sure there is a village within eye sight, or you are just off a busy highway. You can never be too careful. The Other says I scare too easily and look at everyone with suspicion first. It could be true, but being a girl, there is always the fear of rape, and the Other has the privilege of never having that fear, a constant fear in the back of his head, of never having to position himself in the train berth to attract least attention, of never hoping ferverently that there would be women in the train / bus / anywhere.. you get the drift.
So on the way to Dholavira we had stopped to pee, and were just putting our gear back on when a bike with two men pulled up. They were fascinated with Buttercup and enquired the cost and mileage. This is a common question everyone in Gujarat has been asking us, they cannot fathom why anyone would buy such a large bike which gives such poor mileage. It makes no sense in their intrinsically business minds. So we didn’t think much of it, but I was not comfortable, I wanted to leave. The guy sitting behind the rider then got down and sauntered around buttercup to check her out. He started touching the tank bag and poking around. I saw the Other remove Buttercup’s key and quietly pocket it and I realised the pepper spray was at the bottom of the bag. I hit panic mode. I kept urging The Other to leave, but he stayed cool and was answering more questions. Aaargh!!! Then another bike with a youngish guy pulled over, and I couldn’t control myself, I started nudging the Other, and I think he was worried too.. he very casually said bye and we were off. We stopped a little way ahead, where the road crossed the lake in the Little Rann to look at some flamingos and they passed us, waving merrily. And a little while later we passed them to more waving. I think they were only curious about the bike, the highway was busy, but nevertheless keep the pepper spray handy and keep a cool head. I need to learn that from the other.
There is a small town called Morgar on the highway which we offcourse re -christened as Mordor which has two Dhabbas. The larger one is called National, but had a lot of trucks standing in front of it, so we skipped it and went to the smaller one, where it was just us and a group of 4 men. Our host was extremely talkative to the point of being annoying and served us below average fare ( DBRS + Chaas obviously) for 100 rs a person. If you are on this road try National and then let us know if it is better.
After al ong day we finally reached Bhuj, a city with no traffic sense – they don’t follow any lane discipline or rules, everyone will be on their mobiles with one hand on the horn – chaotic and haphazard but busy and fascinating at the same time.
It was devastatingly destroyed in the 2001 earthquake, and is now a typical uncharacteristic town in India. It is however special as it is the gateway to Khachh and is the centre for some really good handicrafts and it is the best place for Dabeli.
The old city and market are nice to walk about, and you can find textiles from all over Khachh here. Once again if you have a good tailor back home stock up on the material, it is a lot cheaper than Ahmedabad. You need to bargain both in Ahmedabad and Bhuj. This is something they do for both the locals and us tourists, it is something they enjoy. I didn’t realise this initially and would pay what was quoted in Ahemedabad. The shopkeeper would be offended and reduce 50 rupees saying it was just for me.. I would say ok and proceed to pull out the cash, and he would heave a sigh of exasperation and reduce another 50 rupees with a statement about how it was just for me.
The palace in Bhuj – Aina Mahal meaning the glass palace was built by Raja Lakhpatji in 1761, but was almost completely destroyed by the 2001 earthquake. A small part of it has been poorly restored and for 20 Rs a head you can go in and get a glimpse of the former glory, ceilings and walls adorned with a gold lattice inlaid with glass and a beautiful tiled floor and some of the relics including the old currency of Kutch (the kori) and some weapons. However like most of India’s heritage it is poorly maintained, there are random flower vases with plastic flowers and a picture of Amitabh Bachan placed around the old relics! I guess it is the maintenance folk trying to beautify the place – absurdity !
Next to this is the newer palace – Prag Mahal built in 1861. Enamoured by European architecture it follows and Italian gothic style; it feels like a mix between a castle and mansion but has a great big clock tower which is visible from most of Bhuj. It will cost you 30 Rs a head to enter this building. There are some nice pieces of furniture and mirrors inside but the highlight of the building is the climb up the narrow winding staircase to the top of the clock tower, which offers panaromic views of the city.
You need to pay n additional 50 Rs for both buildings (individually) to be able to take photos. I would suggest you skip the photo permission for Aina Mahal but the panoramic views from atop the clock tower are worth the 50 rupees.
Bhuj also boasts of a octagonal man made lake – the Hamirsar. They have been several proposals to redevelop it by various architects but none have seen the daylight yet, but I did read that some efforts to recharge the surrounding aquifers were underway. The water attracts a fair number of pelicans and other water birds. If you are here around sun set, you can watch it set over the Prag Mahal on the other side., the sandstone reflects the light brilliantly. There is a small island with a a garden in the centre of the islande where all the local birds roost. The best part of being there at sunset is watching the birds fly in patterns, and put up a splendid air show to confuse any predators before flying off to their roosts. I am talking about hundreds of mynahs and pigeons twisting and twirling in synchronised flocks.
Bhuj is also the best place to stay in, to do a short day trip to Bhujodi, Ajrakpur, and Khamir. As I have been here a couple of times before, we re-visited my favourite artisans and if you ever viit Bhuj make sure you go see them, even if you are not planning on buying anything.
Bhujodi is just around 15 KM away and is a town of weavers. This is where Shamji lives. He is the humblest artisan I have ever met and makes the most beautiful hand woven cloth – rugs, shawls, stoles. He lives in a traditional joint family, with a couple of cows to boot and wears only naturally dyed hand woven fabric. He is soft spoken and is a true craftsmen. You will be offered tea as soon as you enter, and are free to look at all their wares. There is no compulsion to buy anything. They will explain the process, ask you where you are from, where you are staying and happily show you the workshop behind where there are 4 looms – the weaver sits in a pit and uses his ahnds and legs to create wonderful patterns and several charkas where young lads spin thread from cotton and there are a couple of buried indigo vats.
Shamji is also a very philosophical man, the last time around he told me the story of his journey, on how he was rejected from NID because he didn’t know English and how they now have invited him to be a guest professor. This time he matter of factly told us Bhuj was growing, and the Rann Utsav was bringing in flocks of people. He then added that it was good and bad for business. Surprised, I asked why bad, and he was like there is always some bad with development. There are fake handicrafts, middle men and a lot of other things in Bhuj. It is good for the locals but not so good for the customers or the craft.
As usual I could not control myself and have spent a portion of 0ur gift money on a giant camel hair rug amongst other things which they will be couriering to me. We decided that we would not shop this trip, but that went out of the window when we entered shamji’s house. I think he can set up a shop in Bangalore with just the number of things I have bought from him over the years.
A few KM down the road is Khamir – a local crafts centre, beautifully designed by professor Neelkanth Chayya. As he was a big critic of the Sabarmati Riverfront, I have never seen eye to eye with him, but this is a well designed campus using a mixture of local materials such as mud as well as some conventional materials in measure. Khamir collects crafts from the entire region and have a great store, it is very affordable. If you don’t have time to go to all the villages this is your one stop shop. They also conduct workshops and you have the chance to interact with the artisans.
A interesting and unique thing they do is collect the thin plastic bags – used by fruit sellers and local shops, sort it by colour, tear it into stips and use it to weave bags, table mats etc. it is a great upcycling effort and looks good too.
Khamir is closed on Sundays so please plan your trip accordingly.
Further down the road, opposite the anchor factory is Ajrakpur, the village for ajrak prints. Ismail Khatri used to be the man to go too. Unfortunately he has gotten really famous and has let the fame get to him. He didn’t make eye contact or talk to us, he was busy watching TV. There was an assistant who half heartedly showed us some material. The price of everything has increased ten fold. We were not offered tea. It was a cold place of business. We had a quick look at the manufacturing unit and left. The other travellers we met, and the manager of the Bhuj House, where we stayed echoed our sentiments. It is time to find a new Ajrak craftsmen to build a relationship with.
We stayed at the Bhuj House, a 150 year old parsi building around a courtyard which has been painstakingly conserved by it’s owners Jehan and Katie. That entire street was once filled with Parsis but now this building, the building opposite it and the fire temple at the end of the road are all that are remaining. Jehan and the manager Kurshed are the only Parsis left in the city too.
They have four rooms in total, we had the smallest for 4600 Rs a night, the others cost 5600. Everything about the house is fantastic. It is worth going to Bhuj even if it is just to stay there. One portion of the house is still private, and when you pass by you get a glimpse of the past. At the centre of the courtyard is the communal dining area which is the best part of the place. You can sit there with a cup of chai / coffee / lemon water which Kishore (staff member) will smilingly make for you any time of the day, chat with Kurshed or the old grandpa who has worked with the owners for generations all day. If you don’t favour human company they also have a beautiful cat – Queen Imli who has a black kitten at the moment too. Both of them love a warm human lap to snooze on. So I would rate this place a 5 out of 5, they even do your laundry for you for 200 rs. The only draw back is that they have terrible wi-fi, but if you are not planning to work/blog it is perhaps a blessing.
Kurshed also gave us great tips on where to eat local food and we had a fantastic gastronimcal experience that night. Start the journey at Shankar Vada Pav on Bus Stand Road next to gopi gola. The place is always crowded and you know it’s the right one. Cool down with an ice cream shake at gopi gola. I had the mawa one ,which was a fusion twist and I loved it. Bus stand road is filled with other shops selling a whole variety of things you can try. Then head down to hospital road and stop at Khavda for snacks. It is right next to a jewellery store and we stocked up on snacks including pakwan, the local speciality for the next leg of our journey. End the gastornimcal journey with the best khachii dabeli and mohan’s dabeli. He is a small push cart at the corner, but does a roaring business. He charges 10 rs dabeli, so after stuffing our faces there we bought a few more to eat later in the night. Kurshed suggested we finish our meal at Viram, an open air restaurant that serves good Khachii food. We could not eat another bite, so went there for lunch instead the next day. They have a khachhi section in their menu serving various millet rotis along with sabjis made the khachhi way. We had the bajra / makkai and lasun rotlas with dahi bhindi nd lahsun aloo, and offcourse washed it down with chaas. A meal for two costs less than 500 Rs.
The Bhuj house also makes lunch and dinner for you on request but breakfast is included with your rent.
The one breakfast we had there is what the title of this post is about. Everyone staying in the Bhuj House eats in the communal table and you end up talking. The sense of community was fantastic. A grandpa was buttering a neighbouring child’s toast, who then thanked him with his mouthful. Cutlery and dishes were being passed all around, there was a sense of comradery and there was some really good conversation along with great food. Make sure you ask for the Parsi Akkuri and aloo parathas. One of the best breakfasts we have had so far in the trip.
Somewhere during the breakfast, a prayer call from the near by mosque started and stopped, and the conversation suddenly changed. The two families with us started passing statements like “these people are all over the place now”.. “ when I got married and moved to X, there were no muslims, but now you see them every where “…. “they keep coming to chowpatty “.. “ it is the fastest growing religion”… The other put a warning hand on my knee as I put one on his. We put on our fake smiles and waited for the conversation to pass, and it did soon enough. Phew! With this us and them attitude, we will create a 1000 Trumps. The sad part was that there were 4 children below the age of 10 at the table and they will be raised in this environement, where people are bigots without even meaning to be, it is so ingrained in them. I am sure all of them would hav been shocked if we had called them out… sigh..
In retrospect, I think I should have suddenly looked at The Other and said – Riaz could you pass the butter please ?, Unfortunately my best retorts are always in retrospect.
Toodles till the next post.