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The lost world of the Maharaja

Despite the harsh terrain, the Rann of Kutch is a stretch of spectacular beauty, writes Namita Bhandare.

india Updated: Nov 04, 2006 00:39 IST

I am connected to Kutch in a strange and roundabout way. I grew up in a rented apartment in Bombay in a building owned by Pragmalji Madansinhji, the former maharaja of Kutch. The building, on busy Napean Sea Road was called Symphony; though it was anything but symphonic. Every time the double decker BEST 122 rumbled down the street, the building would shake, rattle and roll.

But the landlord was a nice enough man given to maharaja-style eccentricities: every evening his numerous little yappy dogs would be taken for a drive in one of His Highness’s many vintage cars. Also, unlike most maharajas who claim to be descendants of the sun or the moon, Pragmalji traced his ancestry back to Lord Krishna. This, I guess, gave him some sort of super-exalted status.

Years after moving out of Bombay and Symphony, I came across Pragmalji in another roundabout way: One of his palaces, in the historic port city of Mandvi, was used extensively for the shooting of Lagaan. Of course, I was excited at seeing ‘my’ landlord’s beautiful palace in all its cinematic 35 mm glory.

It was with some sorrow, then, that I learned that the maharaja’s other palace, in Bhuj, was extensively destroyed in the January 26, 2001 earthquake. The Ranjit Vilas Palace, a private residence, is not open to the public. The government doesn’t want to pay for the repairs of a private palace; it is equally clear that the maharaja simply cannot afford to carry out such an extensive project.

Another palace, which was also extensively destroyed in Bhuj is the City Palace. This one is listed as a monument of national importance and gets its share of both attention, and also of, apparently, funds. A Unesco report, written soon after the earthquake, talks of it as: “A lost world with extensive evidence of a rich and varied history.”

The report notes that: “Artefacts, some with evidence of not having been disturbed for more than a generation or two, were stacked or arranged in hidden rooms in these palace complexes — rooms which remained locked and protected until the earthquake has now broken them open and placed the buildings and their contents at immediate of loss and destruction.” Particularly devastating has been the damage of the library with some books dating back 200 years.

Ironically, much of Bhuj has been rebuilt but Pragmalji’s Ranjit Vilas remains in ruins. And the direct descendent of Lord Krishna now spends his time divided between Symphony and Mandvi, his summer palace.

By the light of the moon

Nothing had prepared me for the sheer beauty of Kutch. Though the terrain is harsh — every few years it sees a devastating drought — the Rann is spectacular, particular in the light of the full moon when the salt glistens white.

This year was the second year of the Sharad Utsav — three days of festivities included gems like: camel races, a handicrafts show and a night Rann safari over the full moon festival of Sharad Poornima.

Everywhere, larger-than-life posters of Modi dotted the landscape. But ‘Tent city’, temporarily constructed 35 km north of Bhuj with 250 air-conditioned tents (eight reserved for the chief minister, Narendra Modi, and his staff) constructed at a reported cost of Rs 80 lakh, was a disappointment: Tacky looking fair rides and dispirited tourists browsed desultorily through cheap handicrafts. Local media estimates put the number of visitors at the inaugural ceremony at a mere 1,500; most of them officials ‘on duty’.

You can’t talk about Narendra Modi and not feel a shudder of remembrance. Years ago I had covered the Gujarat riots, and the horror stories that unfolded from it. But travelling around Bhuj, the unanimous opinion was that Modi’s administration had actually pulled off the difficult feat of post earthquake rehabilitation.

“Gujarat has been a model in rehabilitation,” said Sushma Iyengar of the Kutch Nav Nirman Abhiyan. She spoke of the owner-driven approach to rebuilding homes where corruption was nearly absent. I visited a GIDC settlement in Bhuj city — neat one-room houses and a decentralised waste-water treatment system that provides water for neem trees and flowering plants. “It’s a model for developing slums,” said Hirji Seeju, who took me around the settlement.

Sunset over the border

Despite Modi’s attempts to develop tourism in Kutch, there really aren’t many places to stay in Bhuj. But about 45 km north, slap bang in the surreal landscape of Banni where patches of seawater marsh have turned the region to a haven for birdwatchers, is a new ecotourism resort.

Romantically named Shaam-e-Sharhad (sunset over the border: Pakistan is only 90 km away), the resort is funded by the ministry of tourism and the UNDP, and is owned by local Hodka community. Shaam-e-Sarhad offers spanking clean accommodation — I’d plumb for the circular bhungas, the traditional round mud huts of the Kutchis any day. At Rs 2,800 a night — with all meals (vegetarian only) thrown in, it’s a steal.

What can you do here? You can visit artisan communities, take a camel safari, grab a photo-op at the India Bridge that cuts off our country from Pakistan, or take a day trip to Dholavira, India’s largest archaeological site. Or you can sit and watch the moon rise lazily over the marsh.