India (7) – Grooving around Gujarat

The second week of my trip around the wonderful state of Gujarat – birthplace of Ghandi, home of the mighty Rann, and the makers of the best thali in India. This post covers Kutch, Gondal, Palitana, Champaner and returning to Ahmedabad.

On the road to the Rann of Kutch

We left the little Rann of Kutch and headed north to the Rann of Kutch (pronounced like crutch).  The Kutch is famous for the local crafts people.  It was a long 5 hour drive.   Mr Singh (the driver) knew places that I hadn’t planned to go to. I was mildly worried he was taking me places to buy stuff, which would surprise me as he had been excellent, but he told me not to buy anything :-), and that it was fine just to look (and he was genuine).  The first place was the extraordinary Khatri family operation.  Every piece was hand block printed, and the son (four generations down) knew the measurements in his head of what block went where for each pattern.  The blocks were used on dyes, and then the fabric was died 3-4 times depending on the blocks used.  The underlying block pattern was often in a brown which would turn red on a 4th or 5th dye which used pomegranate.  It was surprisingly mesmerising (and I didn’t buy anything).  

Living and Learning Design centre

We stopped at the incredible living and learning design centre which has an amazing museum with the embroidery work of the women of the Kutch. This is genuinely not something I am that interested in, but it was fascinating to see the differences in tribal dress, and then within each tribe how the clothing was adjusted to signal your age, marital status etc.  It was fascinating.   No photos allowed unfortunately but I would highly recommend.  By this time it was 3pm and I had skipped breakfast (part of my healthy pursuits to stop myself eating vada – fried savoury donuts -, and multiple cups of sugary masala chai for breakfast.  Mr Singh knows all the best spots so we had a lovely thali for £2.40 for two of us.  Fantastic.    I was quite the tourist attraction as I was wearing the Rabari skirt I had bought yesterday, and a few people asked me for photos. Then we went to an amazing weaving show room in Kachori, where the men were weaving all the shawls by hand.  I crumbled quickly and bought two hand woven shawls in silk for £80.   

We then rolled up to the Kutch Safari lodge – home for two nights, and I had a stunning view of the lake from my cottage.  I was a little bit nervous as there were 25 college students also staying, and the boys next door were already blasting the tunes.  However, they turned it down when I asked.  Dinner was a lovely buffet of local food, and I went to bed early and managed a solid 10 hour sleep – champion.  

A full day in the Rann – crafts galore

I had hired a local guide for the day to join Mr Singh and I – Mr Rajesh, as I had heard from the Crown Prince in Poshina that not all of the locals were friendly. Our first stop was the best village of the day – Nirona. We first met the son of a family who produce rogan art, which is amazing hand painted fabric, done with paint of his hand, which is then intricately painted in. It looks like embroidery. It was beautiful, and quite famous in India as they gifted Obama a piece when he came. There was no pressure to buy, but they were clearly very proud of their wares

I next watched a man handmake a copper bell and pick the note he wanted to play. It was also fascinating. And then we went to see a family on the outskirts of the village who make very cool laquerwork. I didn’t really need a wooden spoon and a chapati roller, but they were not expensive, and this family were clearly not doing as well as the others I had visited.

The black hill

We then rolled up to the checkpost where I had to get a permit for the Rann later. I had an excellent chai, and let the locals take my picture. We then headed up to the black hill for views over the Rann – it was pretty hazy but lovely

The Meghwal weavers of the Kutch

The visual highlight of the day was visiting the Meghwal coop near the permit office run by Naran (pictured below) and also the Meghwal in Hodkha. Here there was quite a lot of pressure to buy, and in Hodka in particular I was told ‘no shopping, no photos’. I never take photos of people who don’t say yes, and I didn’t really need to buy anything so smiled, had a chat, and then left. I did buy a few ankle bracelets, a necklace, and a key ring, mostly from the younger girls.

The mighty Rann

I had heard about the never ending salt plains of the Rann which reached the border with Pakistan. The area is vast. I expected visiting to be like the salt plains in Bolivia – splendid isolation in all directions. Um nope. For the six months of the dry season an enormous tent city is built and bus loads of domestic tourists roll in every day. There are helicopter rides, paragliding, camel rides, donkeys, the whole kit and kaboodle. It was nuts. It took us a while to pass the checkpost, as foreigners need special permits given the proximity to the border. I made lots of friends walking the 1km from the carpark to where you can best access the salt, and giggled at the domestic tourists who were getting the camel ride to avoid the walk (exercise isn’t a big thing in India). I giggled even more when i saw the vendors renting clothes for the domestic tourists to dress up like tribes people. I was amused that I was dressed more like a local than most of them (lots of jeans and t-shirts in Gujarat). It was definitely worth a visit, and if you walked far enough you would have total solitude (take water). But actually it was quite fun just absorbing the energy.

I had a lovely evening back in the hotel chatting to Manvir the owner about politics, colonisation, business and travel, while eating too much dahl, chicken curry and excellent chapatis. And then off to bed.

Gondal – Best value hotel in Gujarat – Orchard palace, with a free museum

Dogs woke me up howling at 2.30am and I didn’t make it back to sleep.  I still managed to get up to jog and work out at 6am.   We then had a very long drive to Gondal.   Mr Singh drives wonderfully and always seems to know when I need a pee and a chai, so we stopped a couple of times – including for an excellent thali.   We arrived at the orchard Palace – home for the night, where I was the only guest.  My room was indeed palatial, bigger than flats I have lived in (and £60 per night).  

Kitsch galore at the Naulakur palace in Gondal

There aren’t a plethora of sites to see in Gondal but we headed to the Naulakur palace – also owned by the royal family.   I was taken on a personal tour of the museum by the attendant and it was comical.  The royal family are clearly hoarders so there were various rooms dedicated to collections of teapots, crockery, watches, turbans, matchbox cars, carriages etc.  I was most amused to see a Tesco teapot and a series of teddy bear plates. 

BAPS temple and the drug factory

We then went to a small temple which had an Ayurvedic factory which mr Singh and I visited .  It smelled delicious and the equipment was hilarious . And then to the BAPS temple which was a huge compound busy with people worshipping

I woke up early and did my morning run around the palace grounds (softer terrain on the feet and less stares), and then I put some trousers on over my shorts and went for a 45 min walk around town.  I love towns when they are waking up, and the highlight was going back to the old school where there were about ten groups of guys all practising cricket in the morning light and many others taking their morning walk.  

The Maharajah’s car collection

My royal attendant served me ginger and fresh lime hot water, and I sipped while watching the 30 people who had arrived this morning do a photo shoot for a sari collection.  I was then escorted around the families’ car collection.  Apparently all of them still work, and they were beautiful (and I am not even a car person).  The Buicks and the ancient rolls were my faves.

En route to the holy city of Palitana and another palace

We departed Gondal for the drive to Vijay villas in Palitana.  It is a lovely hotel in a tiny village on the back side of the hill which houses Shatranjaya.  The place is run by a lovely 75 year old lady who felt bad she wasn’t expecting me for lunch, but whipped me up a small feast regardless. 

Bonus pilgrimage in the afternoon to Shatranjaya

I had time on my hands so I decided to climb up the Shatranjaya (500m of ascent, 3500 steps) in the afternoon, in spite of my new friend saying I wouldn’t make it due to lack of time and the heat (minimum three hours madam).   It was a lovely, if sweaty stroll, very quiet as most pilgrims go in the morning.  It took just over an hour to get to the top, having seen about 15 people all descending.   There was a crowd at the top – all of whom would have walked from the front side of the hill in Palitana city.  It was a lovely vibe watching them enter the temple grounds and take a blessing.  I wandered around the Nan Tonk side of the hill which was deserted except for construction workers and security guards who told me not to take photos.    It was lovely to see the site in the warm afternoon light so I am glad I got off my butt.   I was back down by 5pm and had a masala tea and read my book in the garden watching the peacocks meander around.  Like in Gondal, I was the only guest, quite the luxury.   I was served a huge and delicious dinner at 7.30 – soup , Dahl, chapati, okra, chicken, cauliflower, green beans, aubergines, and I barely made a dent in it.   And I was in bed and asleep by 9pm.  Bliss 

And then a dawn pilgrimage to Shatranjaya in the mayhem

It was so quiet in Vijay Villas, I had an amazing sleep.  I was up at 6 and had a coffee before Mr Singh drove me into Palitana town where the main pilgrim trail to shatranjaya starts.  It was utter mayhem.   I got mobbed when I got out of the car with offers of a guide and a dolly.  For the first ten minutes of walking – people pulled me to see if I wanted a dolly (basically four men stick you in a chair and carry you up from 1-2,000 rupees).  Um, no thanks.  Then there were some enthusiastic women who offered to push you up – literally they carry your stuff and push your back with two hands as you walk up the stairs.   Bonkers.   My favourite bearers were the fit young women who were carrying the nuns up the hill.  I hike with a steady rhythm and rarely stop for a break.  If I am tired I just go a bit more slowly.   These women treated their ascent like a hiit class.  Charge up for about 100m at high speed shouting to get through, and then stopping for a break.  They were quite something! 

The nuns and monks make the 3500 step climb in bare foot.  One monk got sometime to translate to tell me to go shoeless for more success in my life.  The more devout pilgrims climb in padded socks and leg supports (even the 20 year olds).   They aren’t the fittest of hikers and i was constantly overtaking weary 25 year olds.   

Once past the initial mayhem it was a lovely experience.  The light was stunning and sunrise was delightful.  I reached the top in an hour via Nan Tonk and enjoyed the views of Adinath Temple in the morning light – much nicer than the afternoon before.  

I spent an hour wandering around the temples and admiring the carvings.  Most of the temples go unvisited with the pilgrims taking 2-3 hours to climb, taking darshan (blessings) at the main temple and heading back down.   A few spend quite a while there chanting and making offerings, and the vibe was delightful.  

I wandered back down the ‘back side’ trail which would take me directly back to Vijay Villas in the other side of the hill, marvelling at a troupe of women who were carrying slabs of marble up the hill in pairs.   There is no road to the top so carrying is the only way.  Also because it is a holy place, no food is allowed on the hill, so they won’t get any sustenance until the get back down.   I was also amused at how many youngsters jogged down the hill in socks.  The stone steps were unyielding and my lower calves definitely knew they were deafening (especially the second time) and I had the benefit of padded shoes – suspect the pilgrims would be feeling it in the morning.  I was back at the palace by 9.45 for a shower and a coffee and then we headed off .  I loved the 75 year old lady who ran the palace she was a delight.

En route to Bhavnagar and another palace

I arrived in Bhavnagar starving at noon, so we went to the Rasoi Dining room for the best thali yet – two types of samosas, puris, chapatis, yogurt curry, Dahl, paneer and three different veg curries.  The also tried to give me the two sweet dessert dishes (which Indians eat at the same time as the main to mix up the flavours), but I held strong.  It was good and spicy and the buttermilk they serve was the perfect way to cut through the spice – delicious.

After that to the Nilambag Palace.   The local royalty are still referred to as princes.  The hotel was nice and the gardens were being prepped for a wedding (which eventually kept me up all night).   I had some tea and sat on my terrace on the swing bed catching up on emails.  I figured I should see the Sights of Bhavnagar so headed out at 3pm for a walk.   I was wearing my Rabari skirt with an orange dupatta – and I should have anticipated that I would get even more stares than normal, one rickshaw driver was so excited to see me, he veered too hard and almost ran me over.   Think I will keep the skirt in reserve for evenings in the hotel :-).

Dinner was good, Dahl, chicken tikka and chapatis.   I wanted an early night after the early morning start, so put my excellent earplugs in and held a pillow over my head to block out the bass from the wedding.  I had contemplated trying to crash the wedding but didn’t have anything to wear :-). 

Meandering to Vadodara, another palace, another thali and some shopping

It wasn’t my best nights sleep.   I still managed to rouse myself for push ups, single leg squats and a short run in the morning. And then we headed off to Vadodara where we had an easy day. We went to visit the Laxmi palace where the local royal family still live. No photos allowed inside, but the Durbar Hall in this palace was unbelievable. Probably the nicest palace I have seen in India (including Mysore). After that the museum (not worth it). Then an exceptional thali at Sasuuma. I rolled out needing a nap

I am staying at the slightly run down Vivanta – but for £50 it is a steal. There wasn’t much to see in Vadodara – the main reason for the visit is to get an early start to see the Unesco site of Champaner tomorrow morning – which is about an hour away. I couldn’t resist wandering into town and buying some more kurtas – i love them, so comfortable and I get to wear ridiculous colours that i would never wear at home.

Visiting the astounding Champaner – a Unesco site

I didn’t sleep much.  The music from the party stopped around 11pm but then someone must have been putting away furniture as all night I could hear chairs scraping along the floor.  Oh well.  I read the papers from 5am and then met me Singh at 6.30 to make an early start to the unesco ruins at Champaner. Champaner was the capital of Sultan Mahmud Begada in the 15th century until the capital returned to Ahmedabad. The mosques are famous for their blend of Islamic and Hindu architecture. We arrived at 7.30 and I knew this site didn’t open until 8, but blogs I had read said you could climb the ‘low’ fences and pay for the ticket later.   Hmmmm I reckon they have put new fences in as they were above my head height.  

The man at the main mosque wouldn’t let me in so i headed up the trail to visit the mosques that required walking a km – Kevda and Nagina and hoped I could get in to those.  Luck was smiling on me and a man with a key showed up at Kevda to let me in at 7.50 (and wouldn’t even take a tip).  The light was spectacular, the sun was coming up, and it was blissfully peaceful.   There was a lovely pavilion in front, two glorious minarets and a beautiful view to the sky through the collapsed dome.  

Kevda Mosque

Nagini Mosque

Next stop Nagini mosque – which had stunning carvings and 80 columns supporting the roof.  And there was a beautiful carved pavilion in front.  The light was perfect and the mosque was golden. 

Jami Masjid

The highlight was definitely the Jami Masjid – the entrance way was unbelievably beautiful with intricately carved windows.    The inside had 172 pillars holding up the domes.  

The rest of the site included a Pigeon pavilion, another small mosque – the Shahar ki masjid, the tomb of Sakar Kahn, and the last remaining beautiful minaret at Ek Minar ki Masjid. All in all it was a spectacular morning, just as I rolled out of the last site a bus load of Italians showed up. But I had every site to myself with perfect light – wonderful.

One last night in Ahmedabad

After that, back to Ahmedabad for a lazy afternoon, another delicious thali (at Gopi) and then a bit more shopping :-). I had lots of work to do that evening, and was so full, I made one of my favourite hotel dinner – soft boiled eggs in the kettle, curd, and some fruit, with fresh lime soda.