2nd December through 5th December, 2017
Continuing with our trip from the Northern India, we then travelled west of the country to the state of Gujarat (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gujarat). This dry state was a home state of the father of the Nation; Mahatma Gandhi as well as of the current Indian Prime Minister; Mr. Narendra Modi. I call it a land of immense hospitality. People in Gujarat truly follow the tradition of welcoming guests as ‘God’; hence they are vivaciously sociable, affable and inviting. This is very prominent the moment you land at the airport.
We visited the western Gujarat to the District of Kutch. It is the largest district of the country, sharing a border with Pakistan and highlights a lifestyle rich in Indian tradition and culture. This post shares my experiences at this exclusive ground, made of beaches on one end and desert on the other, temples, elite architecture, art medley of handcrafts and apparel as well as ancient history. For non-Indian residents, general details about visiting India can be found in Part 1.
BEST TIME TO VISIT: Tourism in Kutch has exponentially increased due to its winter festival; Rannutsav. Because of Rannutsav, most tourists visit this surreal district between the months of mid-November to end of February. Even climatically, the winter months are a lot more enjoyable with temperatures ranging from high in the high 80s to low in the high 50s. Because the topography is mainly a desert, the summer months are very hot and unpleasant.
GETTING THERE: Kutch can be reached by train or by air. The only airport/railway station in the whole of Kutch is in its main city of Bhuj. Bhuj airport is the only one I have seen that has its exterior architecture similar to a Raja Mahal (King’s palace), maintaining the traditional yet eclectic look of the district. From here, several state and private buses are available to go to other attractions of Kutch. However, if travelling in a group, I would recommend renting a chauffeur-driven taxi for a more convenient and efficient commute.
TOURING KUTCH: Kutch can be covered under 4 main regions of interest: Bhuj, Rann (Desert) of Kutch, Mandvi Beach and Dholavira. To be able to cover all of it, I would recommend a week-long trip. We were able to make a 3 day trip and hence visited only Bhuj and the Rann. Our iteinary was as follows:
Day 1: Bhuj
Day 2: Rannutsav
Day 3: Bhuj,
- We stayed at Hotel Click the first night in Bhuj. This is a neat little hotel that is next to the Bhuj Railway Station. It is also 5-10 minutes away from the Airport and therefore very convenient. The pick-up stop for the buses to Rannutsav is also at this hotel. The hotel was clean, well-maintained rooms with sufficient amenities and also had a restaurant with complimentary breakfast. However, the quality of breakfast was mediocre. Room amenities included free wifi that worked well, sufficient hot water, and enough toiletries. Hair dryer wasn’t available in rooms. The hotel also offers complimentary pick-up from the airport. The customer service was very accommodating. They cancelled our second night reservation for maintenance reasons but offered to drop us to our alternate reservation as well as pick us up from the resort and drop us back to the airport.
- The next morning, we planned to go to Rannutsav, which is about 2 hours from Bhuj. Rannutsav is a government-operated program that celebrates the exquisite Gujarati Culture in its true form. Tent City as its called, offers 1-2 night packages with a structured program to experience the festival, that includes pick-up from Bhuj in an AC bus, your stay in the tent, breakfast, lunch and dinner, cultural activities and games within the city and a bus ride to nearby attractions. Thousands of tourists from all around the world travel to this destination every winter to experience some of the most authentic and unique ethnicity and culture of traditional Gujarat, while witnessing the vastness and majesty of nature at the White Rann .
- Located in Dhordo, White Rann is nothing but miles and miles of marshy, splendid salt flats that dry out during the winter. The shallow wetland is submerged under water during most of the year due to rain but dries out in the winter leaving an enormous desert made of white salt. This is truly a surreal and an exceptional visual of your lifetime. The scene is advertised to be best under moonlight and therefore is recommended to plan your visit around a full moon. However, in my experience, while the desert is still beautiful under a full moon, I personally was able to appreciate its beauty during a sunrise.
- In addition to the Tent City, there are other private resorts in the vicinity that also provide a similar program and we stayed at one of these resorts; The White Rann Resort. The advantage of staying in these resorts is lesser crowd and a more intimate service. Because thousands of people visit Rannutsav and book the Tent City, you might experience long lines and overwhelming crowds that may cause delays and chaos. Surprisingly, tent city was also more expensive than the White Rann resort. Our experience at the white rann resort was very pleasant, smooth and enjoyable. Between the six of us, we were able to book two tents and a Bhunga. Bhungas are traditional round huts of Kutch desert, made of mud and decorated from inside and outside with customary architecture. These tents and Bhungas came with private bathrooms and were spacious, clean and well maintained. Sufficient toiletries were provided in the bathrooms. Hot water was available through a boiler and required prior heating for about an hour. There was no Wifi or data network in the entire region of Rannutsav and Dhordo. Food at the resort was served on time and included a buffet style with a variety of dishes for each meal and was of good quality and taste. The resort also had some complimentary bicycles that you can take for a fun ride within the campus. Cultural activities at the resort included stage performances of Kutch music and dances and games. Sightseeing included ride to the White Rann and Kalo Dungar. Because it was a full moon night, we were taken to White Rann during the night and also the next day at the time of sunrise.
- Kalo Dungar (Black Hill) is the highest hill in all of Kutch district, situated about 1400 feet above sea level. The top of the hill gives a panoramic view of the Great Rann of Kutch, the white sands and the India-Pakistan Border. The view is better seen through binoculars. It is about 30 min drive from Rannutsav and vehicles can go until the bottom of the hill. From here, you can hike up the hill, which is only a 10 min walk or experience a camel ride that can be bought for Rs 50 a person. At the top you will find a 400-year old Dattatreya Temple. Additionally, Kalo Dungar is famous for a very interesting and fascinating story about Lord Dattatreya and the jackals. The details of the story can be found here. Make sure you witness the old tradition of the temple priests feeding vegetarian food after Aarti (ritual of worship) to omnivore jackals each day, everyday for 400 years. This happens twice a day; one around noon and the second time around 6pm before sunset. Note: After the food is served, you might have to wait a little until the jackals come to eat. Stay away from the feeding area so as to not scare them away.
- A variety of shops are arranged around the resorts and the Tent City for some ethnically attractive and gorgeous handcrafted art and accessory shopping.
- Outside of the resorts, you will also find opportunities to do some outdoor activities like ATV rides, paramotoring, paragliding, biking and camel rides.
- Following Rannutsav, the resort bus took us back to Bhuj on the third day. Before they dropped us off, they show us around Bhuj including Aina Mahal, Prag Mahal and Swaminarayan Temple.
- Aina Mahal and Prag Mahal are two palaces of two kings from the 18th and 19th century featuring the history of Kutch as well as the palatial rooms, arts and paintings from their respective times. The kutch museum is also popular for some additional history and ancient artifacts.
- There are two Swaminarayan Temples worshipping Lord Swami Narayan in Bhuj and the newer one built in 2010 is definitely worth a visit to capture the memorable and splendid architecture. The temple is fully made of marble and gold and the very intricate white marble carvings complementing the gold domes and doors make the place palatial yet tranquil and celestial.
- Shopping in Kutch: In addition to handcrafted arts, accessories and ornaments that Kutch is famous for, it is also known for its textile industry including traditional and attractive clothing that is colorfully embroidered with thread, beads and mirror work. Also, tie dyes called Bandhani and block printed shawls (Ajrak) and bedsheets are renowned and available only in Kutch. All of these can be found in Saraf Bazaar (Saraf Market) in Bhuj as well as at the Bhujodi Textile Center. A special mention to a boutique we went to in Bhuj named Vastrakala Boutique offered a variety of folk, yet chic attire for women of all ages. Bhujodi is a small town located about 8kms from Bhuj where lot of the local weavers, tie-dye artists and block printers reside. In addition to clothing, an art form that is unique to Kutch originated from the town of Nirona, located 45 min from Bhuj. Rogan Art was pursued by a Khatri family 400 years ago and involved making paints out of castor oil mixed with vegetable pigments. Today the descendants of the family still continue to keep it alive by making wall hangings, wallets, purses and cushion covers. They even provide a live demonstration of the technique before displaying their products for sale.
- The last night we stayed at the Regenta Resort in Bhuj. The resort is the most popular luxury resort in Bhuj and offers different types of rooms ranging from traditionally decorated heritage huts to luxury suites. The Heritage hut was equivalent to a standard room with one king bed or two twins and also had outdoor seating in the front porch. The deluxe room was a very spacious room with luxurious and contemporary interior, king bed, programmable thermostat, separate changing room, big screen TV and a large porch with outdoor seating. Wifi worked well in the resort. Hot water was available all day. The Resort has two restaurants, meeting rooms as well gaming areas including mini golf and life-size chess. We had the opportunity for dinner and breakfast and both were delicious. An interesting feature of the resort was that it offered pickup to the reception area in a golf cart as the rooms are spread out over an enormous area and may require a hike to get to the restaurants and the front desk.
OTHER ATTRACTIONS OF KUTCH:
Mandvi: A small town located about 1hour from Bhuj along Gujarat coastline. The Beach and the Vijay Villas Palace are two popular tourist attractions. Can also visit the nearby Topansar lake and the Jinalaya Temple.
Dholavira : is an archeological site containing ruins of Indus Valley Civilization. It is located about 4hrs from Bhuj.
KUTCH FOOD: Food in Kutch is vegetarian, diverse and delightful. Some kutchi specialties include Khichdi (Lentil and Rice cooked with Spices), Bajra Na Rotla (FlatBread made of millet flour), Jalebi (a dessert dish), Kutchi Dabeli (burger bun stuffed with spicy potatoes with a special dabeli masala), Other delicacies in Gujarat include Dhokla, Fafda, Khandvi, Khakra and Pakwaan and Ghevar. Special mention to this authentic Kutchi restaurant in Bhuj called Viram Garden Restuarant. The restaurant provides outside seating in a lawn under natural sunlight or moonlight and offers a varied menu with several kutchi dishes like Papad Nu Shaak (Curry made of Deep fried lentil wafers), Gathiya Nu Shaak (Deep fried chickpea flour made in curried gravy), mixed flour parathas (Type of Indian Bread), jaggery on the side and spicy Chaas (buttermilk).