Overview of Gujarat's Kutch Region
The Kutch region of Gujarat is sometimes described as India's "wild west." This immense stretch of largely barren and harsh desert landscape apparently spans more than 40,000 square kilometers, and is one of the country's largest districts. Its name, Kutch (or Kachchh), refers to the fact that it alternates between wet (submerged during the monsoon season) and dry.
What Makes Up Kutch
Much of Kutch consists of seasonal wetlands known as the Great Rann of Kutch (famous for its salt desert) and smaller Little Rann of Kutch (famous for its Wild Ass Sanctuary). The Great Rann, located in the far north, borders Pakistan and occupies a part of the Thar desert which also extends into Rajasthan. Hence, Kutch is comprised of many migrant communities from not only Pakistan (Sindh) and the Marwar region of Rajasthan but also further afield, including Persia (Iran). Kutch was ruled by the Jadeja dynasty of Rajputs, one of the oldest Hindu dynasties, for hundreds of years until India became a republic.
Such mixed migration led to the establishment of many different religions in the Kutch region. Today, Jainism is the most prominent one. However, what's interesting to note is that Kutch remains surprisingly harmonious, with its inhabitants coexisting peacefully, respecting each other's beliefs, and often even participating in each other's events.
The Impact of Earthquake
When migrants came to Kutch centuries years ago, the Indus River flowed through the region, making the land fertile for farming and livestock. A tremendous earthquake in 1819 altered its course though (and the region was again hit by a devastating earthquake in 2001). Now, much of the land is flat and inhospitable, filled with captivating nothingness!
Many villagers earn an income from arts that have been passed down from generation to generation, making this one of the main attractions for tourists. Yet, it's the simplicity and quietness of life there that's really striking and meaningful. Kutch is an amazing place to visit remote villages, learn from them, and get another perspective on life. It's inspiring and humbling.
All of this makes Kutch one of the top rural tourism destinations in India. You could easily spend a week or more exploring it, but you should at least allow four days.
Bhuj: Capital of the Kutch Region
Bhuj, the capital city of Kutch, is an excellent launching point for exploring the region. It's readily accessible by train (most conveniently from Mumbai, 15 hours), bus, and flights.
The City's Royal Heritage
The city was ruled for hundreds of years by Jadeja dynasty kings, who established themselves there in the 16th century. It spreads out around a hill called Bhujia Dungar (which Bhuj is named after). Atop the hill sits Bhujia Fort, constructed by king Rao Godaji to protect the city from intruders. Six major battles took place after it was built, most of them during 1700 –1800 AD and involving Muslim raiders from Sindh and the Mughal rulers of Gujarat.
Attractions in Bhuj
Sadly, much of Bhuj was destroyed by the earthquake in 2001. However, many of the architectural treasures of the city's Jadeja rulers remain standing in the walled Old City. These include Rani Mahal (the former royal residence), the Italian Gothic and European styled Prag Mahal (with its durbar hall and clock tower), and Aina Mahal (an ornate 350-year-old palace containing royal paintings, furniture, textiles, and weapons).
Other attractions in Bhuj include its many temples (the new Swaminarayan temple is a magnificent gleaming white marble masterpiece), museums, markets and bazaars, and Hamirsar Lake (which is home to huge catfish). If you're into handicrafts, Kutch Adventures India can take you to meet some expert artisans in Bhuj. One of them, Aminaben Khatri, is an award-winning bhandani (tie-dye) artist who conducts classes and has a workshop in her home.
In addition, the Living and Learning Design Center near Bhuj is a remarkably curated museum that offers incredible insight into the lives and artisanship of the women from communities in the Kutch region. It's a must-visit for anyone who's interested in textiles and culture.
Staying in Bhuj
Want to experience the local way of life? Kutch Adventures India provides comfortable homestay accommodations in Bhuj. Owner Kuldip is a renowned responsible travel guide, and you'll be welcomed into his family home. It's even possible to get cooking lessons from his mother.
The Bhuj House is an award-winning heritage homestay with four guest rooms. It was built in 1894 and has been beautifully restored and decorated with antiques and local handicrafts. Rates start from 5,100 rupees per night for a double.
Alternatively, if you'd prefer more facilities, the Regenta Resort Bhuj is popular. It's located on a hilltop overlooking the city.
Otherwise, there's a range of inexpensive hotels on Station Road in the city center. The Royal Guesthouse behind the bus station is ideal for budget travelers and has dorm rooms.
The new Kutch Wilderness Kamp is and eco-resort that's scenically situated overlooking Rudramata Lake, about 20 minutes from Bhuj.
What's Next After Bhuj
After spending a day or so exploring Bhuj, visitors usually head off to surrounding handicraft villages and to the Great Rann of Kutch salt desert.
The port of Mandvi, famous for shipbuilding, is also only an hour's drive away from Bhuj. On the way there, you can stop at historic Kera to visit the ruins of a 10th century Shiva temple. It was badly damaged by the 1819 earthquake in Kutch. These days, it's occupied by bats but you can still go inside. Apparently, it's particularly evocative on full moon nights, when it's flooded with moonlight from a gap in the roof.
Mandvi: Seaside Ship Building
The port town of Mandvi, on the west coast of Kutch around an hour from Bhuj, is worth visiting to see its fascinating 400 year old shipbuilding yard. The building takes place along the banks of the Rukmavati River in town, near where the river merges into the Arabian Sea. There you'll be able to see ships in various stages of construction.
The Ship Building Process
Each ship takes two to three years to complete, and the construction requires different specialist knowledge at each stage. Many of the workers are ex-sailors. The wood that's used comes from Burma or Malaysia. When the ships are finished, they're towed by small boat to the Gulf where diesel engines are installed in them.
What's particularly interesting is how seepage is prevented from entering the boats from the small gaps around the nails in the wood. Cotton wool is stuffed into the gaps and it expands when wet to fill the holes!
Other Attractions in Mandvi
Mandvi wasn't hit by the 2001 earthquake as badly as Bhuj, so many of its atmospheric old buildings are still intact. They can be seen on a walk through the narrow lanes around the market area, and with a bit of imagination you'll be transported back to the bygone era when Mandvi was the summer retreat of the King of Kutch. The faded Vijay Vilas Palace, by the beach on the outskirts of Mandvi, was the royal summer abode and can be explored too.
If you're feeling hungry and want to try one of the unlimited Gujarati thalis (eat as much as you can platters) that the state is famous for, the best place to do so is Osho restaurant (formally called Zorba the Buddha). You'll be able to stuff yourself full for only about 150 rupees ($2)!
Don't Miss the Jain Temple
Not far before Mandvi, in Koday, there's an awe-inspiring white marble Jain temple that oozes calm and serenity. It has an astonishing 72 shrines housing Jain gods. And, most remarkable of all, the temple is a relatively new one and it's possible to meet the man responsible for carving it and hear his stories. (Contact Kutch Adventures India to make arrangements).
The drive to Mandvi from Bhuj is interesting, as the parched land transforms into greenery and palm trees. It almost looks like south India!
Kutch Villages and Handicrafts
Gujarat's Kutch region is renowned for its handicrafts, produced by the very talented artisans in its villages. Many of the famous arts, such as bandhani tie die and ajrakh block printing, originate from Pakistan. Migrants brought these arts with them when they came to Kutch more than 350 years ago. The Muslim Khatri community specializes in both these arts. In addition, arts such as embroidery, weaving, pottery, lacquer work, leather work, mud and mirror work, and rogan art (a type of painting on fabric) are prevalent in the region.
Take a Handicraft Tour
Kutch is one of the top places for handicraft tours in India. It's possible to drop into the villages and visit the artisans independently. However, most of them don't speak English and the villages are scattered all over the area, often making them difficult to find.
Kutch Adventures India runs bespoke tours to see some of the lesser known but equally talented artists in the region, to uplift them and help them get recognition. Prior to starting his tour business, owner Kuldip worked at a local NGO and is intimately acquainted with many villages in the region. Most importantly, he's warmly welcomed into them.
Popular Handicraft Villages in Kutch
Bhujodi (a village of weavers, about 10 kilometers east Bhuj) and Ajrakhpur (a village of block printers, 15 kilometers east of Bhuj) are the most frequented villages. Nirona, around 50 kilometers northeast of Bhuj, can be visited as a short detour on the way to the Great Rann of Kutch and is home to bell makers, rogan art, and lacquer work artists. Also on the way to the Great Rann, block printing and pottery is done in Khavda village. And, not far away, Gandhinugam village (populated by the Meghwal community) features colorfully painted traditional mud huts. It's situated at Ludiya.
Craft Parks and Resource Centers
Hiralaxmi Memorial Craft Park in Bhujodi is a government-sponsored cultural center and artisans market. It's made up of a series of huts where artisans are allowed to exhibit and sell their handicrafts for a month at a time on a rotational basis. It's an irresistible place for shopping!
Khamir is a space that houses local artisans, and provides them with a platform to sell their handicrafts and interact with visitors. It also has a guesthouse for visitors who are participating in workshops and events. Handicraft-lovers are encouraged to gather there to exchange ideas and learn. It's located in Kukma, 15 kilometers east of Bhuj, not far passed Bhujodi.
The Rare Skill of Mashru Weaving
At Bhujodi, you'll find an expert mashru weaver by the name of Babu Bhai and his sweet family. Babu is one of the last three remaining mashru weavers in the Kutch region. Mashru weaving is a complex type of weaving, using both silk and cotton. The inside of the woven cloth is cotton, while the outside is silk. Apparently it originates from Persia, where Muslim communities believed that silk should not touch a person's skin.
Babu Bhai spends a great deal of time training his wife and children his craft. For him, weaving is like a form of meditation, as it requires a lot of focus and is accompanied by the repetitive clacking noise of the weaving machine. In testament to the rarity of his work, Babu Bhai is the only artist to have a permanent hut at the Hiralaxmi Memorial Craft Park.
Great Rann of Kutch and Salt Desert
Apart from handicrafts, most people who visit Kutch do so to see the Great Rann of Kutch—an arid expanse that lies to the north of the Tropic of Cancer. Much of it is made of up of salt desert, covering around 10,000 square kilometers and stretching close to the Pakistan border. It's particularly eerie and magical at sunset, and especially under the stars on a full moon night. Making it even more astonishing, the salt is submerged underwater during the main monsoon season in India.
The Great Rann is inhabited by various village communities, many who have migrated from Pakistan (including many Muslim Sindhis) and the Marwar region of western Rajasthan. It remained largely cut off and unexplored until after the 2001 earthquake, when the government raised awareness about it and its resources. Traditions have been sustained due to the local production of handicrafts, including embroidery and block printing.
Visiting the Great Rann of Kutch
A breathtaking panoramic view of the Great Rann of Kutch can be had from atop Kala Dungar—the black mountain. The Rann's wetlands, known as Chari Fulay, also attract numerous migratory birds.
Plan your trip with this Great Rann of Kutch Travel Guide. Most visitors stay in special accommodations near the salt desert. However, if you're feeling adventurous, Kutch Adventures India will take you to sleep out in one of the surrounding villages.
Little Rann of Kutch and Wild Ass Sanctuary
The barren desolate landscape of the Little Rann of Kutch lies to the southeast of the Great Rann. The entrance is best approached from Ahmedabad, 130 kilometers away, rather than Bhuj.
The Little Rann is most famous for its Wild Ass Sanctuary. It's the largest wildlife sanctuary in India, and as its name suggests, it's home to the Indian wild ass—an endangered creature that looks like a cross between a donkey and a horse. There are plenty of birds in the area as well.
Plan your trip with this Little Rann of Kutch & Wild Ass Sanctuary Travel Guide.