Friday, 16 February 2018

Indian Epic - Travels in Kutch, Gujarat - The Desert, Crafts & The Party Monks of the North

Wednesday got off to slow start after we got caught up in a traffic jam caused by a herd of water buffalo taking a morning stroll.

Eventually Susan, Jon & I arrived at our first destination, the Kutch Fossil Park, founded by celebrated war veteran, Mohansinh Sodha, who has spent the last forty years tirelessly travelling the length and breadth of the Kutch region collecting fossils, he even discovered a new species of sea cow which is now named after him. The sheer amount of bones, fossils and prehistoric rock formations on display are quite astonishing. Jon was lost for words after I pointed out triceratops and diplodocus bones, after twenty-five years together it was the first time I'd revealed my childhood obsession with dinosaurs.

Next on our journey was the monastery at Than, home to a Tantric order of Hindu sadhus known as Kanphata (split ear) after the heavy agate rings they traditionally wear in their ears.

The whitewashed complex at the foot of the hill encloses a handful of medieval temples, tombs and domed dwellings.

If you're wondering why I'm not expiring from the heat in my long-sleeved polyester maxi it's because it's still winter in Gujarat with the peak daytime temperature averaging at around the high 60s (approx.18°C). If you've been put off visiting India because you can't deal with the heat then Gujarat in January could be the place for you.

For a small donation travellers can spend the night in the temple dharamshala*.

* a Hindu resting house for pilgrims.

We were invited to stay for a chai with the chillum smoking monks and we sat on the floor and watched while the monk in the turban wove devotional necklaces using this very primitive looking loom. Despite the language barrier they were a friendly bunch, we even got a goodbye hug. Susan named them the party monks, religion never looked so much fun.

Next it was time to visit some of the traditional Kutchi craft villages. Above is Rogan Art which is only produced by a few artisans in the northern village of Nirona. Rogan is a complex process turning hand-pounded castor oil into coloured dyes that are used to decorate cushion covers, bedspreads and curtains with simple geometric patterns (castor oil plants thrive in the Kutch region) . The eagle-eyed amongst you might spot Barack Obama in the picture on the right - he's the proud owner of some Rogan Art - I always knew he was a class act.

Melodic bells made from burnished copper and brass are traditionally used for communication between shepherds. We treated Gilbert to one of the tiniest bells with the embroidered panel.

The village of Dhordo is known for its woodcarving which is then decorated in wonderfully brilliant colours. It was impossible not to buy a couple of those glorious spoons!

Even more fabulous than the crafts themselves were the traditional costumes worn by the women of the village. The Mir tribe can be identified by the artificial ivory bangles with which they adorn their arms. We felt incredibly honoured when we were permitted to photograph these ladies.

Lunch was another delicious 100 rupee veg thali eaten at the roadside in a truckers' canteen, although when I say trucks, I mean carts pulled by donkeys and camels as opposed to diesel. This baby was tethered to the side of the canteen.

Khalo Dungar or Black Hill is Kutch's highest point, rising 462 metres above the vast salt flats. It offers amazing views across the Great Rann, disappearing into a vast horizon.

The reason most tourists visit Kutch is to see the Great Rann of Kutch (also known as The Great White Desert) an almost lunar looking salt marsh located in the Thar Desert. At around three thousand square miles in size it is one of the largest salt deserts in the world. In summer the area is one of the hottest places in India with temperatures averaging at 49.5 °C, in winter the temperatures were low enough for me to have to borrow Susan's wool scarf

Of course, the excitement of visiting the Great White Desert paled into insignificance for most tourists once they'd spotted three odd looking foreigners and we were obliged to pose for yet more selfies.

We were starting to think we'd never reach The Great White Desert before sunset, as it borders Pakistan our passports had to be presented to the border police and endless forms had to be completed in triplicate - excessive paperwork is the legacy of British rule in India. On reaching the checkpoint Jon inadvertently failed to stop at yet another security check causing rifles to be raised and a panic stricken official yelling Foreign man, Foreign man, Stop, Stop!! Thank goodness we had Ramji on hand to avert what could have been a major diplomatic incident.

After a full thirteen hours of sightseeing we were ravenous on our return to Devpur. More guests had checked in and it was a full house for dinner. We regaled our fellow diners with tales of stoned monks, endless selfies and nearly getting shot at the Indo-Pak border.

The full set of photos from our trip to the North of Kutch can be found HERE.

In other news we're trading with Judy's Affordable Vintage at Leamington Spa tomorrow (HERE).  If you do come along and I promise to try not to mention India.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Indian Epic - Travels In Kutch, Gujarat - The Temples, Ruins & Tombs Of The West

Just after 8am & accompanied by fellow Devpur house guest Susan, a German-born architect living in Zurich, we set off to explore western Kutch. On the way we passed through the Tropic of Cancer. I remember my dad, a keen sailor, explaining the various rituals involved in crossing the line but, in the absence of any of the correct props, a photo had to suffice.

Our first stop of the day was the Lakhpat Gurudwara where Guru Nanak (1469- 1539), founder of the Sikh faith, stayed in a house on the site on his way to and from Mecca. The Udas sect of Sikhism was established here in the 16th Century by Guru Nanak's son, Shrichand. There's been a Guru Nanak temple in Walsall since 1962 - longer than we've both been alive - so it was a real privilege to visit the place the great man had visited.

Wearing our obligatory orange headscarves we were welcomed in and invited to take prasad* in the form of karah, a halva type sweet made from semolina.

*A devotional food offering made to a god, later shared among devotees.

The end of India - you can't go any further west!

Not far from the Gurudwara were the remains of the once important merchant town of Lakhpat. Following an earthquake in the 19th century, the water supply dried up and the residents were forced to abandon their homes. All that's now left of Lakhpat are the crumbling city walls and weed strewn ruins.

X marks the spot!

Within the crumbling city walls stood the tomb of Sufi saint, Ghosh Mohammed Kuba, who lived in Lakhpat in the early 19th century. Revered by Hindus and Muslims alike, he was both a renowned healer and a celebrated songwriter. After his death in 1855 his brother commissioned a tomb to be built using traditional flower motifs and inscriptions taken from passages from the Koran carved by Kutchi artisans using the local blackstone.

At first glance we though these were coffins but were assured that they weren't and it was fine to take photos.

Isn't the carving beautiful?

These ladies were employed as road labourers. They were happy to pose for photos, no doubt a welcome diversion from their backbreaking work.

 A short walk away from Ghosh Mohammed Kuba's resting place was the tomb of Kasim. According to legend Kasim was said to have taken and destroyed the nearby city of Kanoj, killing the chief and sending as a prize to his sovereign the king of Ghanzi, two of the vanquished leader's daughters. At Ghazni they were treated with every kindness, but refused to be comforted, saying, that while they were under his charge, Kasim had violated them. Enraged at the story the king, without enquiry, ordered Kasim to be put to death and his head sent to Ghazni. When it was shown them his accusers rejoiced that they had avenged their father's death, and confessed that Kasim had done them no harm. On account of his undeserved punishment Kasim became a saint.

Kasim's tomb had recently been repainted. Usually it's only open on a couple of occasions every year but luckily for us the caretaker was passing by and invited us in to take a look. 

This was the Lakhpat customs house, built in 1850. Here traders would pay duty on goods before they were moved further afield by caravan. The windows were especially designed with wide sills to enable the camels to feed easily - an old fashioned filling station.

A short drive away from the silence of the tombs and the desolation of the once great Lakhpur and ....boom! Coachloads of pilgrims, rickshaws, the deafening horn okay please, herds of itinerant cattle & scruffy pi dogs and vendors plying their trades and selfie mad youngsters, we were back once again in the general chaos of urban India.  

This was this wonderfully colourful temple at Narayan Sarovar. The beauty of the vivid interior along with the vibrancy of the clothes worn by the pilgrims made us ponder on whether the parched environment led to the Kutchis embracing colour - a bit like I do back home in the grey UK.

Once again we were welcomed into the temple where we managed a few photos before being mobbed.

 Lunch was magical, served in a gurudwara canteen run by volunteers. A delicious veg thali eaten with our hands on long metal tables with hundreds of hungry pilgrims more interested in taking photos of us than enjoying their lunch. It's tricky enough eating dhal with your fingers let alone posing for a selfie at the same time! The lunch was a donation of whatever people could afford. We paid the same as we'd paid for lunch yesterday.

Lunch was followed by a fresh coconut bought from a roadside wallah and then a wander around Koteshwar, a temple dedicated to Shiva. On a clear night it's possible to see the lights of Karachi in Pakistan twinkling in the distance.

We posed for yet more photos - Jon being the centre of attention with the hip young guys.
Uncle, uncle, one selfie please!

Pah! Who needs booze and bars when there's this much action? There were just three of us for dinner back at the Devpur Homestay that night so K cracked open his stash of artisan chocolate he'd bought from a posh chocolatier in Kemp's Corner in downtown Mumbai last month and we shared some with his mum and his daughter, Badmini.

Another chota peg and another early night, the three of us were exploring the north tomorrow.

All of our photos of western Kutch can be seen HERE.