Village Travels – Gujarat (India)

Bhuj is a small town, approximately 6 hours from Ahmedabad. So what’s there in Bhuj?! Certainly no Taj Mahal, I can assure you. But Bhuj is a gateway to the desert, a large part of which is a seasonal salt marsh. It’s also the gateway to a smattering of tiny villages that are home to some national award winning weavers, potters and craft centers.

Bhuj is a very nondescript city, located in the Kutch district and well known for the famous Kutch textiles. Ever heard of Ajrakh block printing and Mashru fabric? Neither have I. I contemplated textiles and fabric on the overnight train journey in a non AC second class compartment on the way from Ahmedabad. Apart from the light bulb refusing to turn off due to a broken switch, and the brief guest appearance of a rat in the wee hours of the morning, the train journey itself was not so bad. Really. And needless to mention, super inexpensive!

Arriving in Bhuj, we grabbed an auto that quickly took us to one of the oldest hotels in the area, Prince Hotel. The name was amusing as the rooms were anything BUT princely! But it was comfortable and we were thrilled to have a clean bathroom to shower in before heading out to grab breakfast.

Our breakfast was unusual simply because we went hunting for the infamous Kutch dabeli. The Kutch dabeli is a popular snack eaten at a roadside stall.  A sweet and spicy mixture of potatoes, pomegranates, peanuts, dried coconut, and dried red chillies amongst other things, the dabeli turned out to be one of my favorite snacks on my trip. Yes, I was nervous about eating at a roadside stall but my cousin assured me it was safe and the stall was one of the cleaner ones we saw. She was right. I survived to write this blog!

While Bhuj may not have a Taj, it’s home to the beautiful hall of mirrors or the Aina Mahal. Built during the rule of Lakhpatji in the mid 18th century, we were only able to explore the outside as the palace itself was closed in the afternoon.  Bhuj also hosts the peaceful Hamirsar Lake, a 450 year old man-made work of art, where you can hang out on a lazy afternoon under a shaded tree, or take a walk around the lake in the evenings.

Aina Mahal

After Aina Mahal, we decided to venture off the beaten track and get out of Bhuj to visit some villages. I wanted to meet some traditional Kutch people and learn more about their way of life.  The key to learning about this Kutch community is to understand some of the issues facing its people – the local artisans.  Known for their textile weaving, in particular Mushru weaving, this art has been on the decline as traditional communities that used to make garments out of this style of weaving, now find it cheaper to wear polyster imitations.

This has resulted in a decline in demand for Mushru weaving amongst the artisans.  KHAMIR (Kachch Heritage, Arts and Craft, Music, Information and Resources) is an NGO crafts center, about 10 kms outside of Bhuj that focuses on long term sustainable development of the Kutch region.  Thanks to the efforts of NGOs like KHAMIR, there has been a renewed interest and increased demand for Mushru weaving in the recent years, enabling local artisans to increase their production capacities to help revive this craft.

It was fascinating to talk to the weavers and see a weaving demo. Armed with the knowledge around the manual labor involved in creating beautiful shawls and traditional Indian garments such as dupattas, we visited the shop inside this community to check out the finished products. With a new found appreciation, I bought plenty of shawls, fabric, and dupattas for my family, at a fraction of the price as we were buying direct from the source.  While I was deciding what to purchase, a random lady brought us tea, laced with cinnamon and ginger. This type of service is quite common in most of the shopping stores in India, I just didn’t expect it in this tiny village.

Our next stop was a small town, 8 kms from Bhuj, called Bhujodi. We found another auto to take us to Bhujodi, renowned for its national award winning weaver, Vankar Vishram Valji. A humble man, Valji took us around his shop, adjacent to his home, giving us time to make admiring noises as we gazed at his beautiful hand woven garments. He then led us down a path through a charming doorway into his world of weaving. He gave us a personal demonstration of weaving, picking up where one of his guys had left off on what would end up to be an intricately woven dupatta.  I was stunned how this nationally well known artist, who holds exhibitions within India and in other countries, was taking the time to personally explain the weaving process. There were no tourists either – we were probably the only ones. It all felt very surreal.

I tried on a gorgeous orange colored shawl and made sure to pose for a pic in his front yard, complete with cows and villagers chit chatting. I ended up buying some exquisite hand woven dupattas as gifts for family. We reluctantly left his shop and his home and wandered out of the town looking for some type of public transportation that would take us back to Bhuj for some well deserved dinner!  My stomach was grumbling and by now I was ready to sample the Bhuj cuisine!

Doorway to the weaving compound
The orange shawl in front of Valji’s home/shop

After the wind-blown, bumpy ride that we ended up sharing with an old man and his grandson, we walked to our favorite dabeli stall on the street and sank our teeth into a dabeli! Alas, it was to be my last dabeli in Kutch. Post dabeli, we settled down at our not so princely hotel for a very princely Gujarati thali that was utterly finger licking good!

Our local transportation!

After dinner, we admired all of our day’s purchases and went to sleep dreaming of what was yet to come the next day. Follow me on my trip to the salt desert and a visit with its local people, including talented potters in my next blog!

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