Our five hour drive from Little Rann to Bhuj took us through a heavily industrialized part of Gujarat, surrounded by wind farms and immense factories including Suzuki and Taya. Gujarat is the most prosperous state of India now after ten years under the direction of Mr Modi before he became Prime Minister of India.
We entered Bhuj at the end of the day as the Sunday market was being dismantled, and what a grimy, dust blown, littered first impression as we drew up to the Gangaram Guesthouse. We chose to stay there because the guide books recommend the helpful staff which we needed to arrange our planned expeditions into the surrounding area to see the villages of artisans. After the luxury of the House Of MG, and the rustic elegance of Rann Riders, it took a slight readjustment to get back to guesthouse living.
The room was tiny, lucky we didn’t have a cat to swing, but clean, and the bathroom tinier still with definite water issues, including the hated sopping wet bathroom floor. At first the toilet, which had no tank, appeared to require the bucket flush method. However a day later I discovered that an innocuous tap set at floor level beside the toilet when turned, produced a Niagara Falls of water that flushed the toilet. I let a couple of other travellers in on the news and they all rushed back to their rooms to try it. None of us, in extensive travels had ever run into such a phenomenon before!
Very soon though, we completely mellowed to the place. The young men running it were supremely obliging and helpful, the food was quite decent, and meals were served at big tables where we got to know a very interesting variety of travellers of various ages and nationalities. Mornings were interesting though — our room looked onto the palace next door whose wall, though tumbling, was sufficiently solid to reflect the cacophony of morning sound into the hotel. First the mosque would start up just before six, then the employees would raise the huge metal shutters that covered the front entrance of the hotel at night, then a small truck parked below our window would crank his engine over and over before starting with the sound of a tractor and roaring off, by now the tiny street was really busy with roaring tuk tuks all sounding their horns just for the heck of it, then the coup de grace — the tiny Hindu temple at the corner would turn on their loudspeaker with an immense din of drums, cymbals, trumpets, bells and heaven knows what for a good five minutes. By then it was time to rise and shine…
We had a great time in Bhuj and the surrounding villages. The old partially ruined palace and Darbar Hall (where the raja would meet with people who came with complaints and concerns and receive the British officials back in the Raj era) was fascinating. The earthquake of 2006 which killed 50,000 people and devastated the town and flattened several surrounding villages severely damaged the building but restoration work has been ongoing and some of its former splendour restored. The palace of the Rani is beyond redemption but the exterior with its lattice work bay windows and ornate carving is stunning still. Inside the main palace, one can see the maharao’s famous bed with its enormously fat solid gold legs. He auctioned it off each year where it would be snapped up by more minor princelings and then he promptly purchased another one. He mirrored his room to reflect his glory with particular attention being paid to the ceiling. Oh to have been part of his entourage of wives…
Doug made me take his picture with a moth eaten lion surrounded by dozens of highly uncomfortable looking mahogany chairs for seating all the dignitaries, where they sat under enormous crystal chandeliers. All was an interesting mix of Indian and European artifacts, even two or three Hogarths amongst the Indian miniatures of the kings.
From there it was a direct route into the bustling market with its labyrinth of little streets and lanes packed with people, tuk tuks, motorbikes and the occasional car. When we were in India before, all the cars were black Ambassadors, a type of Morris, now all are tiny white Tatas, Hyundais, and Suzukis. Tata makes 3 sizes of Neos including one about the size of a Smart Car but carrying 5 people. Unfortunately the honking is still constant, and particularly enrages me when gridlock has occurred and everyone sits leaning on their horns despite the impossibility of anyone being able to move!
We hired a car with an Italian woman we met at the guesthouse and went 90 kilometres north to see the White Rann, a gleaming expanse of pure white salt stretching as far as the eye could see to the Pakistan border. Odd to be somewhere other than on a boat where the unbroken horizon meets the sky in all directions. Modi and his friends were assembling to view the White Rann the very next day so no one was to be admitted for four days after our visit. All the other travellers we met were so disappointed to have missed it but truly it was a bit over rated I felt. The interesting thing really was that 10,000 Indians were walking the 2 kilometre long roadway out to the viewpoint at the end, some being transported by camel or donkey cart. We were again the subject of many many photos.
A more satisfying day was spent in a tuk tuk touring a number of unique craft villages near Bhuj. We were joined by a lovely young French woman currently teaching in China. We felt we had a daughter with us again. We went to a workshop of type of block printing combined with a resist using the most lovely muted vegetable dyes. Ten generations of the family have worked in the craft and they have been recognized by UNESCO among other agencies. The son of the family toured us through the whole process, very painstaking and complex and quite different from the more simple block printing with wax that I have seen. When he asked us where we were from and we replied, “Near Vancouver” he said “Do you know a shop called Maiwa? We ship to them and they bring groups here to learn the craft every year.” I had to laugh, I suppose my large block printed cushions from Maiwa came out of that workshop.
Over the last few days we have seen many types of weaving, dying of various types including Bandhani, a method of tie dying which can be either simple or complex, and some gorgeous Rabari embroidery of a quality I had not seen before, another dying art. There is also a type of fabric painting using mineral dyes worked with castor oil to make a thick paste which is then dripped off a needle like stylus to make impossibly intricate patterns on cloth. It takes months to complete some of the most complex ones. Modi presented Obama with one during a visit to Washington. I hope he appreciated its value! All these are arts that are passed from generation to generation and in many cases only one or two families are still involved in the craft which is understandable considering the labour intensive nature of the work.
We were sorry to say good-bye to the lovely boys at the Gangaram as we moved on only a couple of hours to Devpur where we had booked into a “homestay” in a lovely old family home. The house, built in 1905 by the current owner’s great grandfather was large and took us a step back in time. Our huge and comfortable room was furnished with vintage furniture from the 20’s and 30’s and our room filled with family memorabilia. Kind of like staying with a kindly Indian grandmother! The hosts were so good to us and fed us lovely meals.
The property includes a 300 student private school for children from the village and outlying area, as well as a mango orchard in which they are developing “farmstay” accommodation. As we found in Rajasthan on our last trip many old families have developed sidelines including taking paying guests to assist with the upkeep of these vast and crumbling properties. Krutarth, the owner, suggested two great day trips which we enjoyed very much. The best stop was at a Banhani (tie dying) workshop where we finally understood how complex this art can be. Some of the designs included circles about 3 inches in diameter into which the women tying the knots fit 600 tiny knots, taking 3 to 4 days to complete one motif. Silk saris made by this method can take over a year to painstakingly tie, then dye, then tie again, and so on. They also use a technique originally Japanese whereby cones of fabric are wound with threads, looking like little volcanoes, and then are dyed in a rainbow of colours. Very striking.
One of the other guests, a fellow we enjoyed very much, is on a 2 month motorbike trip from Bangalore where he lives. Just decided to take a dream trip for his 50th birthday. He was with us for the Bandhini place as he wanted to buy his wife a gift before he meets her in Mumbai to return home. We were lucky to arrive at the same time as a large American couple whose guide had booked them a special tour, as they have a serious interest in fabric art. So we and the man from Bangalore got in on the full meal deal, and then the showcasing of the finished product began. The table was 3 feet deep in silk and wool pieces by the time we called a halt. Such fun, even the man from Bangalore admitted he had never sat still for such a shopping exhibition in his life, as he paid for his 5 silk pieces! We did okay too.
We were sorry to leave our comfortable room and our gracious hosts. We had planned to “not do nothing” for at least one day but we were very well and pleasurably occupied. On now to Mandvi to see enormous wooden dhows under construction as well as the Maharani’s summer palace. Then we will take a boat across the inlet to Saurashtra, a completely different section of Gujarat.