I straddle the present and the past … I am the gateway to the former and the hatchway into the latter. I might appear nondescript, dusty and even desolate at first sight. But scratch my surface and I gently reveal a host of wonders that will amaze you.
I am Bhuj, the phoenix that rose out of the shattering earth quake of 2001, I am Bhuj, a city far from ordinary, I am Bhuj, as modern as today and as ancient as forever.
Come visit me and soak in the history that I am seeped in. Sense my resilience and savor my gentleness and be amazed at the fruitfulness of my barrenness !!!
I am Bhuj and I invite you to revel in my glory.
Meet me in in the heart of the great Kutch district of the Western Indian state of Gujarat.
Bhuj is the capital city (headquarters) of the district of Kutch, which is India’s largest district, even bigger in size than some of the Indian states and some countries of the world. Bhuj gets its name from the Bhujang Naga temple that lies atop the Bhujia Dungar (hill) on which the Bhuj fort is also perched.
Bhuj ironically shot into fame and built up its brand, after it crumbled in a devastating earthquake on Jan 26th, 2001 … the earthquake that forms a point of reference in most conversations and though it was a long time ago, continues to dominate the narrations by the guides who tell its story, by the auto drivers who take you around and by everyone who has a tale to tell about this resuscitated city.
This is an important place not just because of its strategic location today as a gateway to the wonders of Kutch but also for being a passage through which one can fall back into the past, way back as far as the Indus valley civilization that has left its relics in the village of Dholavira, through the palaces (mahals), tombs and monuments of its various rulers and through the Kutch museum that holds an impressive array of archaeological finds and cultural artefacts.
This is a city that ensconces lakes, gardens, temples and market places that attract history and culture buffs from all over and encompasses towering landmarks like the Bhujia Hill that is visible from nearly every angle in the city.
Bhuj is your easily accessible stepping stone, one that you should take advantage of during the limited 4 months in the year when the winter weather is conducive to tourism.
A brief history of Bhuj –
Bhuj was founded in 1510 by Rao Hamir, one of the local rulers of Kutch in 1510 and was later made the capital of the then princely state of Kutch in 1549 by Rao Khengarji I, another local ruler.
Kutch remained an independent princely state during the rule of the British in India and became a part of India, when it gained independence in 1947 (partly sourced from Wiki)
The horrific earthquake that hit Bhuj and its surroundings on India’s Republic day of Jan 26th, 2001, left a land full of devastation in its wake and city was all but destroyed, with huge losses to life and buildings.
It is to its credit that it emerged fighting from the destruction and rebuilt itself to the point that it is now one of the most important cities in that region.
Some of the structures survived with damages and many others were reconstructed and today Bhuj functions normally and is well trodden on the tourist map.
Things to do in Bhuj –
My interaction with Bhuj was merely in transit, en route the Tent City for the Rann Utsav. Hence I did not have too much time to explore all its features.
However, the highly obliging guides who accompanied us from the Tent City, gave us a precious amount of information about the places of tourist interest and my list has been compiled with those inputs.
Bhuj presents a host of interesting features to the visitor. Hamirsar lake, Prag Mahal, Aina Mahal, Darbargarh shopping area, Royal Chhatedi, Bhujia Fort, Sharad Baug palace and gardens, Bhujodi, Kutch Museum, Swaminarayan temple etc are some of the important places of interest within the city borders.
My tour of Bhuj –
After my 2 night stay at the Tent City, Dhordo, we were transported back by bus with 3 complimentary en route stops. Our guide gave us an average of 30 min per location. In the limited time, I managed brief glimpses of the Swaminarayan temple, Kutch museum and Bhujodi (more information here – excursions that were a part of the Tent City package).
Swaminarayan temple – A majestic temple built by the followers of the Swaminarayan sect, with exquisite marble carvings and gold tipped pinnacles.
Kutch Museum –
A treasure trove of relics and artefacts and an exciting place to understand and revel in the history of the region.
This museum was built by Maharao Kengarji in 1877 in an Italian Gothic style of architecture and is the oldest museum here.
Please note that this is closed on Wednesdays.
Also known as Hiralaxmi craft park, is spread out over 10 acres and is a space dedicated to rural artisans to showcase and promote the arts of Kutch. An outstanding feature is the Vande Mataram complex built in the form of the Parliament house (Sansad Bhavan) in new Delhi. This is a museum of sorts that showcases 4D exhibits that immortalize significant episodes from India’s freedom struggle.
After visiting Bhujodi, we were deposited at the Tent City waiting room at the Bhuj railway station, where I had 3 hours at my disposal before leaving by train to Ahmedabad. With helpful inputs from my guide, I engaged the services of a very friendly auto driver, Abdul Razak, who offered to take me around for 3 hours.
My guide had suggested a host of places to choose from and with my time constraint I opted to to visit Prag Mahal, Aina Mahal and Darbargarh market.
Well, though I had done my homework and the guide had informed me that Aina Mahal was closed on Thursdays, my short term memory loss 😀 made me totally forget and once I reached the location I realized my error. However, Prag Mahal and Aina Mahal are adjoining each other, so I spent my time at the former.
Aina Mahal – is an 18th century palace built in Indo European style and is currently famed for its Hall of mirrors (mirror = aina). Though it was locked up due to the weekly holiday and I could not view the inner chamber of mirrors, I did take pictures of its near crumbling exterior that owed its dilapidated look to the 2001 earthquake.
Precariously clinging latticed balconies provide perches for the hordes of pigeons that from afar look like blue grapes glued onto the ruins.
Prag Mahal – It is amazing to see the destruction that was wreaked on Aina Mahal by the earthquake, has spared its adjoining Prag Mahal which seems to have escaped unscathed. Probably a very fundamental difference in construction.
Prag Mahal is a 19th century red sandstone palace built in Italian Gothic style, complete with stained glasses, pointed spires and ribbed vaults. It was commissioned by the ruler Maharao Shri Pragmalji II and is considered to be the first structure in India, built in this style of architecture.
Currently one of the large darbar halls on the first floor of this palace serves as a museum of sorts with exhibits like framed portraits, regal furniture, stuffed lions – no doubt victims of royal hunting, ornate chandeliers, large mirrors and even royal clothing.
The inner rooms on the same floor have vibrant stained glass windows that cast a rich gloom on the interiors. These interiors also showcase many relics of those times including palanquins, dressing tables, paintings, huge cauldrons, photographs of royalty and other antiques.
The palace is famous for its Bing Bang clock tower which is still functional to date and chimes appropriately at frequent intervals.
The 45 meter high tower can be accessed via a spiral stairway (that does not bring much joy to people with vertigo, like me :-D). In addition, the external cracks do nothing to alleviate that feeling of trepidation.
But latticed windows along the climb, do provide relief to claustrophobic beings (again like me) and serve to provide views and ventilation that are comforting en route.
It is worth surging on with grit however, for the view from the top is panoramic and encompasses almost all of Bhuj, including of course the ever visible Bhujia hill.
One also comes up close with the bells and their mechanism.
The all pervasive and all invasive pigeons apart, the latticed windows and walls are also conducive for the roosting of parrots who add their screeching to the cooing orchestra of the pigeons.
The Prag Mahal is open all days of the week and the entry fee is Rs 30. Photography fee is Rs 50 and the fee is specific to your photographic equipment. If you pay for your phone camera then you are permitted to use only that and likewise for your regular camera.
The courtyard of the 2 Mahals also has a washroom (which I did not dare check out), a stall selling snacks and water, a stall selling old coins and one selling the famous metal bells in various designs. The elderly gentleman who manned the shack, told me that the bells had been handcrafted by him. Prices are quite reasonable and begin as low as Rs 100.
Darbargarh market – just a few steps behind the Mahals is the market, which is mostly a long gully (lane) flanked by shops selling all the ubiquitous Kutchi fare right from mirror work clothing and fabric to artefacts to local snacks that include roasted gram and groundnuts.
I strolled leisurely along the narrow path, just taking in the sights and sounds and not planning to buy anything because I did not have the space to carry much.
But as always, the higher power that deactivates the sane button in your head while shopping (yes I am sure there is an entity like that), decided that it would be very out of character for me to come away empty handed.
I have always been a sucker for props that are used in food photography and the chai stand though a done to death prop, still piques my fancy. So destiny decided to cross my path with this man who was busily distributing tea to the shop keepers, in glasses that were ensconced in … yes you guessed right, a bent up but charming, metal wired chai stand.
Thoughts of space-less suitcases were quickly relegated to a hidden part of my head where they cannot be heard or felt 😀 and the hapless man was pounced upon. I asked him where I could get such a stand and he pointed in some vague direction, telling me it was not too far and they were available for a mere Rs 80.
Well you must have heard the adage, a stand in the hand is worth several in an unknown shop (or bird or bush or something), so I requested him to sell the old one to me for Rs 100. Seemingly of a highly conscientious type, he was quite reluctant to sell an old stand but I convinced him that the more ancient the prop, the better for photography and managed to make him part with his possession.
I then retraced my steps to get back to my waiting auto, making a quick stop at a shop selling roasted nuts. Barely a few moments later I heard someone calling out and saw the chai man running up to me with a brand new stand and urging me to take that instead of the used one. Highly overwhelmed by his gesture, I told him that he should not have taken the trouble but he of course reiterated that he had been very uncomfortable selling me a second hand piece at Rs 100 and that he was relieved that he was able to find me a spanking new one. When I asked him the price, he was good enough to tell me that it was only Rs 90. I was quite speechless at his honesty and diligence and I thanked him profusely.
Well this interaction made my chai stand even more precious to me and clutching my new possession I made my way back to my auto.
I seemed to be spreading feelings of regret across the land because I now found that my auto driver had been doing some deep thinking 😀 and was feeling bad that he had not remembered to inform me about Aina Mahal being closed, so he tried to convince me to visit Sharad Baug as an added bonus. But I am always nervous before journeys and hence decided to get back to the station and waste time there 😀
Since we were back at the station within 2 hours (1 hour earlier than I had booked him for), his conscience again kicked in and he offered to buy me tea at the near by stall. Not being a tea drinker I nevertheless accompanied him and bought him a tea instead 😀 I also clicked his picture and took his phone number for those who might need his services. Do request for it in comments if you need.
I must mention that this trait of hospitality and honesty displayed by both the chai stand man and my auto man and by everyone whom I came into contact in Gujarat as a whole, left me very impressed with the people of that land and generated a warm feeling of goodwill, gratitude and security. It is not easy to feel such a sense of comfort in a new place and Gujarat to its credit, does that to all its guests.
Below is a list of some of the places that I could not visit but I managed to obtain some basic information about them from my Tent City guide who was kind enough to share.
Bhujia Fort stands atop the Bhujia hill and was built by the Jadeja rulers in the 18th century, for the defense of the city. The Bhujang Naga temple is also situated on this hill. The Indian army occupied the hill for some years but according to my guide, they were compelled to move away since the temple area was considered to be sacrosanct and the locals did not want the army there.
The Hamirsar Lake is a 28 acre lake located in the center of Bhuj. This lake was artificially created than 470 years ago is named after the founder of Bhuj, Rao Hamir. It also has a beautiful garden right in the middle. The lake is a popular spot for tourists and also offers views of the surrounding monuments like the Prag Mahal palace.
The Royal Chhatedi is a cenotaph which is a monument erected in the memory of someone whose mortals remains have been interred elsewhere … a virtual tomb of sorts. The Chhatedi in Bhuj is said to have been built by the royal families in honor of soldiers who perished in war.
Sharad Baug palace and gardens – My auto driver had been highly insistent that I visit this ‘garden’ and I wanted to use my limited time viewing monuments instead. I had failed to remember that my guide had also recommended it and the gardens were adjoining a palace too. So I made the mistake of leaving this out of my itinerary and this joins the list of all the other unseen points of interest that I have to go back to Bhuj for 😀
Surrounding attractions –
Bhuj provides access to the surrounding villages/areas of Madhapar, Ajrakhpur, Nirona, Anjar, Dhordo, Great Rann of Kutch, Dholavira, Gandhi nu dham, Kala Dungar, Shyamji Krishna Varma Memorial, Vijay Vilas palace, Mandvi beach etc.
Kala Dungar, Gandhi nu dham, Dhordo and the salt desert of the Great Rann, were a part of my itinerary with the Tent City and you can read about them here.
Madhapar adjoins Bhuj and is one of the richest villages in Asia and has the unique distinction of having ATMs of every possible Indian bank within its borders. It is also famous for the role it played in the Indo Pak war of 1971, where 300 women helped rebuild the Indian air force runway, many of them losing their lives in the bombings. A monument freezing their sacrifice, stands along the main road and goes by the name of Virangana Smarak meaning Brave women’s memorial. We were lucky to view this en route from our Tent City bus.
Ajrakhpur is the home of the Ajrakh block printed fabric, where the hand carved wooden blocks are dipped in natural dyes that use colors like indigo, turmeric, henna etc. Ajrakhpur is 15 km from Bhuj.
Nirona village is well known for Rogan work. For a foodie like me, the term Rogan might bring to mind the classic lamb Rogan josh where the meat is stewed in fat 😀 but then one is not far from the truth, since rogan means oil and this form of printing on fabric, uses dyes that are made from castor oil infused with natural pigments. The ubiquitous but enchanting copper bells of the region are also hand crafted in Nirona. Nirona is 40 km from Bhuj.
Anjar is famous for metal crafts and traditional betel nut crackers. It is 42 km from Bhuj.
The musical sounding Dholavira lies on the Tropic of Cancer and is famed for being one of the 5 largest Harappan sites containing the ruins of the Indus Valley civilization. It is 250 km from Bhuj and buses, cabs and private vehicles are the means of transport.
Mandvi beach lies on the Southern coast of Kutch and is known for its ship building industry. The beach is also a popular spot for viewing sunsets and is a part of the itinerary if one chooses the 3 day package at the Tent City. Mandvi is 60 km from Bhuj.
In the vicinity of the Mandvi beach, lie the Vijay Vilas palace and the the Shyamji Krishna Varma Memorial.
The palace was the summer home of the Jadeja rulers and the memorial is a tribute to Shyamji, who was one of the foremost freedom fighters of India.
Getting around –
Autos and taxis can be hired for the day to all the nearby destinations. Sometimes autos are even willing to travel as far as Dhordo or the Rann, approximately 100 km one way. Private vehicles are the only other means to get around.
The charges would be as mutually decided and dependent on the time and distance but may not exceed Rs 3000 for an entire day’s trip.
Best time to visit –
Bhuj and Kutch in general, are cold in the winter months of November to February. December and January are the high season and are considered the ideal time to visit, though temperatures go as low as 5 deg.
The rest of the year is hot and dry and peak summer temperatures of over 40 deg c, are not for the faint hearted and delicate bodied 😀
What you need to carry –
Warm wear is a must during the winters since early mornings and nights are quite cold. Day time is pleasantly warm and can also get quite hot in the fringe months of November and February.
Mosquito repellent creams and a good pair of walking shoes, are a must carry.
Where to eat –
I did not have too much time to research the dining options in Bhuj but I was told that Hotel Prince was a good place to have the local Thali. I was also recommended Hotel KBN and Hotel Green Rock. My auto driver however, insisted that I dine at Hotel Neelam, right opposite Prince so I took his advice. Well, the food though decent, was nothing to really write about (and ironically I am writing about it) and I think Prince might have been a better bet. Anyway I will go back someday … if only to decide this 😀
Where to stay –
Bhuj has a number of low cost as well mid range stay options that are easily booked online. I stayed at the the Tent City in Dhordo village, 85 km from Bhuj.
Getting there –
Bhuj is well connected by road, rail and air to many major cities across India.
Bhuj railway station is neat and well maintained and has frequent trains running to Ahmedabad which is a major city 330 km away and has an international airport.
Frequent buses ply between Ahmedabad and Bhuj, both air conditioned and regular. Bookings can be done online.
Bhuj has a domestic airport which operates direct flights to Mumbai and stopover flights via Mumbai to all major cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad etc.
Please Note – The narrative is based on the inputs that I received from various sources as well as my own experiences.
Feb 5th – 7th, 2019