I leave Dholavira by the first bus. As I depart this remote village of Kutch, it is still half five and there is this still an hour and a half to sunrise. So I had passed the Rann of Kutch after sunset two days ago and I am now about to leave it in the cold darkness before sunrise.
At Rampur, I look for a place for breakfast. I had already eaten some muesli and fruits early this morning but I am keen to try something local. Most shops are still closed. I settle for some biscuits. I am offered khakhara by a fellow traveller in the bus. It is thin, dry and crisp. It is made of wheat and methi. It is a healthy choice for a morning meal. When I arrive at Bhuj, it is noon. It was good to have made an early start.
I check into a lodge, freshen up and step into Green Rock for lunch. It is a posh and expensive place. Being a Sunday, it is crowded. The Gujarati thali meal costs Rs. 110. A steel plate is laid before me with lots of small bowls. Five or six waiters busily hover at my table filling the plate with all sorts of delicacies. Rotis, puris, paapads and samosas are served without limit. The rotis are served hot while the ghee on it glistens with its richness. Dahi wada and dokla are served. Daal and kadi daal are served for the rice. Different vegetable dishes in their oily textures are dished out from elaborate serving vessels. Buttermilk is poured into a glass and topped up every time I drink a little of it. Three different sweets are served for dessert. It is a sumputous meal, a little too much for me. Just then I am reminded of Gandhiji’s advice. I don’t think this is what he had in mind when he recommended control of the diet. Wrong timing. Perhaps, right timing – I taste a little of everything and just about prevent my stomach from bursting at its seams.
After this enjoyable culinary experience, I walk to the Kutch Museum. Supposedly the oldest museum in the state, it was opened in 1877. Everywhere I have travelled in Gujarat, I have always met friendly and helpful people. But I was always convinced that there is that nasty Gujarati waiting just around the corner to pounce and unload on me his cultivated xenophobism. It was to happen in Bhuj and at this museum.
The museum is closed many days during this holiday season but I am lucky. It is open today. I hang around at the lake for a few minutes. At 2.30 pm the place opened for visitors.
‘How much is the ticket?’ I ask as I fish for coins from my pocket.
‘Two rupees,’ replies the cashier sharply.
It is a ridiculous entry fee for such a well-known museum. Not having the exact change, I present him a ten rupee note.
‘Get change,’ he says rudely. He makes no attempt to check if he has change. He brushes me aside and moves on to issue tickets for visitors behind me.
I am little annoyed by this universal problem of change all over India. ‘Why don’t you keep change? You must be getting a lot of visitors,’ I argue with him.
This offends him. He sees red and starts scolding me in Gujarati and Hindi. Every other visitor to the museum stands glued to his or her spot, clearly shocked by this behaviour.
‘Well, there is nothing wrong in asking. Having right change means good service to museum visitors,’ I tell him.
‘Okay. I will take five tickets,’ I say to resolve this situation. I have come to see the museum, not to argue with some uncivilized cashier.
‘You get change,’ he says in anger.
This museum has a strange rule of charging two rupees for every photograph taken within. I ask him for a ticket and four photo coupons. I do not know how they intend to keep track of the number of exposures.
He would not be pacified and his verbal assault continues. I could hear phrases ‘Hindi speaking’, ‘outsider’ and ‘uncivilized’ levelled against me. I have had enough and I start scolding him for his behaviour. The security is called to throw me out. Other visitors look at the proceedings silently.
‘I don’t want to see your two rupee museum,’ I shout as the gates close behind me. God save the tourist who does not have the exact change. Perhaps I was wrong to ask that question. India is so diverse that cultural guffaws can still happen. We may be similar in many ways but there are many differences as well.
I ask a couple of vendors for the way to the fort. I had seen the fort walls and bastions following the crest of a hill as I arrived into town this morning.
‘You can walk to the fort. You will not be allowed inside. It is used by the government,’ says one of them.
‘Anything else I can see in Bhuj?’ I ask.
‘You can visit the Aina Mahal and other palaces near it,’ he says pointing to a tower visible about a kilometer from the bus station.
So I walk to this group of palaces through narrow lanes and sharp turns. The Pragmahal Palace has a nice facade in the Neo-Gothic style but on the inside it is a decaying ruin. A tourist brochure says of this palace, ‘an elegant Italianate palace.’ In fact, it is in such a dangerous state that I think even visitors should not be allowed. The rafters of the ceilings are rusted and broken. They could fall anytime. The walls are peeling of its former decorations. The sofas are broken, stripped of upholstery and the wood rotting. Portaits on the wall are falling apart in dampness. The stuffed heads of hunted beasts stare from their rotten faces and open mouths. Pigeons roam freely in the palace and in one case I saw a pigeon picking on an eye of a dead sambar. This palace presents a deathly spectacle on the inside and a charge of Rs. 12 for it is outrageous.
The Aina Mahal is far better but its ‘resplendent hall of mirrors’ is clearly outside present day taste. Mirrors cover walls, ceiling, pillars, cornices and even floors. Most of the rooms in this palace are distastefully decorated. They surely represent opulence and richness; but they do not make comfortable spaces where one can live. In the details, there are some interesting things here – a painted wall scroll of the maharaja’s ceremonial procession, miniature portraits of Mughal emperors, floral decorative motifs studded with semi-precious stones, an exquisite ivory door. All these are wonderful objects on their own but do not come together effectively to create a comfortable room for 21st century liking.
There is only one room in this palace that I like and one has to imagine it in its glorious days from the past. The maharaja would have taken his seat at the center, surrounded by a pool. Fountains would have flowed all around. A cooling spray of water droplets would have floated in the room. Water would have quietly flowed through the pipes and cisterns. An attendant would have fanned the maharaja with a large decorated fan that today hangs from the ceiling. Windows opening out from below the roof level would provide ventilation. In this setting, the maharaja would compose poetry or have his afternoon siesta in cool comfort even when the sun scorched the Indian plains. When evening came, he would have asked his musicians and dancers to fill the hours into the night while he smoked his hukka. Hanging lampshades of coloured glass would have filtered the light from candles and the ambience of romance would have been completed. The pool and its fountains would have reflected this light. Paintings on glass lining the walls along the corridors would have added to such an ambience.
Next to these two palaces are the walls of another palace whose projected balconies are supported by decorated stone brackets. The work on these is superb. Some of these brackets have the voluted serpentine motif so common in Gujarat. Others have a packed array of pendants. Some balconies are closed with perforated screens while others are open pillared with cusped arches and elegant roofs. The balconies are rectangular, circular or octagonal.
Not greatly impressed by the palaces, I walk to see chattris, the royal cenotaphs of Kutchi kings and queens. I am not really sure of the period or of the dynasty. There is nothing or nobody on site to tell me these things. The cenotaphs are in various states of ruin and reconstruction. Many blocks of unworked stone lie around the fenced enclosure. It makes me wonder on the right balance between preservation, restoration and reconstruction. It does appear that whoever is in charge here, they are attempting too much. It may simply be a means of creating employment for some families in Bhuj.
The cenotaphs are beautiful. They are in a smaller scale that those of the Holkars in Indore. In general, each one is square in plan with an entrance porch to the east. The central ribbed dome is accompanied by a smaller dome over the porch. There is relief work packing the outside on all sides. Floral themes are decorated with pairs of birds or animals. The main cenotaph dedicated to a particular king of this region has four entrance porches. The ceiling and the domes are completely gone. A few cusped arches at the western porch are all that tell of the grandeur of this cenotaph. The outer walls have good reliefs. Stone fragments are scattered about the monument. The central space of this cenotaph is pillared. The pillars are arranged to form a 12-sided polygon. Female musicians stand fused in stone to these pillars, mutilated at times but still loyal to their cause. Their musical tribute perhaps give comfort and rest to the king and his queens who stand in their stone slabs at the center.
As the sun is setting in the west, I snap a silhouette of these monuments. Except for a couple of foreign tourists I am alone. I begin to understand that although Hindus cremated their dead, their need for remembrance and worship of the dead was not very different from other religions. It was only the rich who could afford to have grand cenotaphs. For the rest, it was just memories.