Sunday, 18 February 2018

Indian Epic - Travels in Kutch, Gujarat - Around Mandvi

Wednesday was spent with fellow Devpur house guests Carey & Gary, exploring the area around the coastal town of Mandvi. Our first call was the Vijay Vilas Palace, a sandy white-domed building set in seven hundred acres of land, the Maharajah's summer retreat during the 1940s and today mostly used as a film set. Although the Rough Guide described the palace as being little visited I think they meant to add by foreigners. It was bursting at the seams with domestic tourists, school trips and local families all of whom were anxious to get their photo taken with the four of us.

I spotted Bollywood goddess Helen in one of the photos hanging in the hallway, one of a number of family pictures lining the walls alongside the rather macabre hunting trophies. The beautiful woman on the left is the Maharani of Kutch.

Oops! Those green mirrored bangles inadvertently slipped on my wrist when we visited Dhordo yesterday. 

You want a selfie with us? We want a photo of you. Always a good trade off.

Although the palace has its own private beach, Ramji thought we'd enjoy the public one more. I think he was right, what's exclusive sunbeds & a posh restaurant compared to camel rides, horses in pom poms and 20p snacks?  

Further up the coast was the estuary, home to the dhow building industry. Each dhow is built entirely by hand, taking around 50 men up to two years to complete. Most of the dhows end up in the Middle East where they're bought by Arab merchants and still used to transport goods. They sell for upwards of half a million pounds.

Having a local to drive us around was hugely advantageous. Ramji chatted to the boat builders who kindly allowed us inside one of their partially built boats.

The trees these planks of wood came from must have been bastard massive!

Look what else we discovered in Mandvi estuary.....

Flamingos! I've never seen them in the wild before. Melanie, I thought of you when we saw them.

Lunch was yet another delicious veg thali in the best named canteen ever, Zorba the Buddha. From 250 to 125 BC Kutch formed part of the Indo-Greek empire and Kutchis are very proud of their Greek heritage. Greek mythology forms part of the school curriculum at the White Eagles School back at Devpur.

We had planned to visit the home of a man who built model ships but he was out of town so Ramji suggested a trip to see some old houses instead.

I can't find any reference to this virtually abandoned village on any of our maps or travel guides so I don't know what the place is called. All I can tell you is that during the late 19th Century it was a prosperous area, home to many wealthy Jain merchants. Over the years they either moved away or died and, due to the size of many Indian families and the country's complicated inheritance laws, the homes were locked up and are now rarely visited. Most are still furnished, packed with their previous owners' precious belongings. Oh, how we wished we could have looked inside.

Virtually abandoned it might have been but I still managed to find people to chat to. This is Saiya, proud mother of seven daughters including Yasmin & Prini. They told me that they liked having no boys in the family, girls are better. As you can see, not all Indian women are tiny, these beautiful women towered over me.

And from old houses to new rooms. Back at the Devpur it was all change, Carey and Gary moved into the Room of 17 Pillars and we moved into Susan's old room, a beautifully bright space with quirky cupboards, Hindu artwork, antique furniture and, like the rest of the house, an amazing selection of Indian-themed literature and glossy travel magazines.

After another sociable and delicious dinner, spent exchanging travel tips with a couple of new arrivals, a couple of women from Delhi who, like Gary & Carey, were filmmakers. Yet again we were in bed by 10pm - our next adventure required a 7am pick-up.

Find all of our Mandvi photos HERE.

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.