Saturday, January 6, 2018

Trip to Kutchh - Part-1 : Bhuj and Mandvi - Dec. 2017

My last visit to Gujarat State as a tourist was about 4 decades back - June 1979 to be exact. At that time,  I had visited the usual tourists and religious spots like Sasan Gir, Somnath, Dwarka, Ahmedabad, Ambaji etc. At that time and also thereafter, visit to Kutchh was not in my radar. It was only during the last 10 years or so when Gujarat Tourism's well publicised 'Rann Utsav' being conducted during November-February every year became well-known, I developed interest in Kutchh as a tourist destination.

What triggered me to seriously think of making  a visit to Kutchh and also its White Rann was when I saw in a photo exhibition of the tourist places in Gujarat during Saputara Monsoon Festival in August 2011. Also the Gujarat Tourism's punch line 'Kutchh nahi dekha to kuchh nahi dekha' (If you have not seen Kutchh, you have not seen anything) was motivating enough to see Kutchh as early as possible. So I planned the trip to Kutchh in the winter of 2013-14. As is often said, man proposes, God disposes. The planned trip did not materialised.

It took another three years to fructify the trip to Kutchh. My son had planned the trip to Kutchh during the Christmas vacation (December 2017). I am averse to trip to tourist places during the peak seasons such as summer school vacation, Diwali and Chirstmas vacations. But being a family trip with grand children, peak seasons are the only time slots available for them. So trip has to be well planned in advance. We booked the train tickets exactly 4 months in advance. We booked the hotels for our Bhuj and White Rann stay about 3 months in advance. 

We reached Bhuj in the morning by Kutchh Express and checked into Hotel Grand 3D by 10 AM. The rooms were spacious and clean. Since most of the important tourist places in Bhuj are closed during 1.00PM to 3.00 PM, we took it  easy and decided to take some rest after lunch at the Hotel's restaurant. The food was tasty and the price was reasonable. 

Since Prag Mahal, Aina Mahal, Hamirsar Lake and Swaminarayan Temple, were all in the vicinity of about 2-3 kms from our Hotel, we took a full auto to drop us at Prag Mahal@Rs.70/-. Rani Mahal, Prag Mahal and Aina Mahal are adjunct to each other.

Rani Mahal 
At the entrance of the Prag Mahal on the right side was a crumbled palace which is called 'Rani Mahal' (Rani Ka Vas). One can see it only from outside as it has been badly damaged during the earth quake of 2001 and hence risky to go inside the palace. From the outside, it appears that most of its rooms have become a dwelling place for pigeons. However, the palace has intricately carved jharokhas and balconies with lattice windows. It is not known as to why even after 16 years of earth quake, there is no indication of the restoration work being undertaken. Probably, Rani Palace may be  beyond restoration.
The ruined Rani Mahal with a part of Bhuj city in the background
Jharokas with lattice windows of Zanana quarters of Rani Mahal.
Lattice windows of zanana quarters of Rani Mahal.
Prag Mahal
The first thing that comes in front of the tourists after entering the complex is Prag Mahal. This palace which was built in Italian Gothic style during 1865-79 by the Maharaja of Kutchh was badly damaged during 2001 earth quake. The restoration work is still in progress. As such only 3-4 rooms can be visited by the tourists. The main attractions of Prag Mahal is the Darbar Hall and the Clock Tower. The spiral stair cases lead to the Clock Tower from where one can see the view of the entire Bhuj city. The spiral stairs are long and narrow. Some of the tourists may feel claustrophobic while climbing the stairs. 
An unusual requirement for entering the rooms in the main palace is taking out footwear before entering the rooms on the ground floor of Prag Mahal. However, for visiting Clock Tower, one can go with the footwear.
Prag Mahal
Entrance to Prag Mahal is from the right arch.
Clock Tower.
 Darbar Hall, Prag Mahal.
Ornate ceiling of Darbar Hall of Prag Mahal.
Darbar Hall ceiling.
Palanquins in Prag Mahal.
 Back side of Prag Mahal under restoration work.
View of Bhuj city with Bhujiya Hill in the background from the Clock Tower.

A row of pigeons on the roof railings of Prag Mahal.

Aina Mahal
Aina Mahal was built by Rao Lakhpatji, Maharaja of Kutchh in 1760 for himself in Indo-European architectural style. In 2001 earth quake, the palace lost its top floor. Now visitors are allowed only on the ground floor which has court room, music room, bed room and a museum. All rooms have mirror interiors. The glass lanterns of various colours and sizes in rooms have now been converted into electric lights.
A palanquin inside Aina Mahal. 
Maharaja's palanquin in Aina Mahal. 
Mirror works on the ceiling and glass chandeliers in one of the rooms of Aina Mahal.
Music Room in Aina Mahal.
Swords arranged like sun rays in Aina Mahal
Door carvings in Aina Mahal.

 It took around 90 minutes for us to complete the tours of 3 palaces. More than the tourists, there were hundreds of school children who were on school trips during the Christmas vacation. It was difficult for the tourists to watch the displays in the palaces in a leisurely way. Due to crowd, I could not take pictures the way I wanted to take. But I have no complain. After all, school children can visit such places only during their vacation.  
And what a contrast in three palaces in one complex. While Rani Mahal (Rani Ka Vas) has been built with traditional Indian architectural features that were prevalent in that time, Prag Mahal has been built in Italian Gothic style. Aina Mahal on the other hand was built on Indo-European architectural style with specialisation of glass work in almost all rooms (hence it is called Aina Mahal).

Swaminarayan Temple
Swaminarayan temple, Kutchh Museum, Hamirsar Lake and Sharad Baug Palace are all within walkable distance (around 1 km) from Prag Mahal/Aina Mahal. Since Sharad Baug Palace was closed on Fridays, we decided to cover this as well as Kutchh Museum on our return to Bhuj from White Rann.

The original Swaminarayan temple constructed in 1823 was substantially damaged by the earth quake of January 2001. So, a new temple, a short distance away from the  old one was constructed and inaugurated in 2010. The main deity is that of Nar Narayan. The new temple is like any other swaminarayan temple in terms of architecture - intricate carvings on white marble with domes and doors made of gold. The some of the marble carvings  resemble that of Dilwara and Ranakpur temples.

We visited the temple in the evening and spent an hour or so, sitting on the foyers of the temple. The temple has a huge open ground for parking the vehicles. Despite a large number of visitors, the temple atmosphere is very peaceful. We revisited the temple on our return from White Rann just to enjoy the serene atmosphere in the temple.

All the four places visited today as also Kutchh Museum and Sharad Baug Palace are located around Hamirsar Lake. 
 Swaminarayan temple as clicked from the gate.
Swaminarayan Temple - Side view.
Entrance gate to Swaminarayan temple as seen from the foyer of the temple. 
Central dome of Swaminarayan temple. 
Hamirsar Lake with Prag Mahal (right) in the background.
After the sunset, we returned to our hotel and had dinner in their restaurant. 

For the next 5-days, we would need an exclusive SUV for completing the remaining part of the Kutchh trip. On enquiry, we were surprised to know that no SUV was available for the next 7 days as they were pre-booked on account of the tourist rush during the Christmas vacation. Even hotel accommodation was full to the hilt in Bhuj. The late comers had to stay either in Gandhidham (about 50 kms away or the Dharmshalas at Ashapuri temple and Narayan Sarovar.  I was told by our hotel manager that he accommodated  a group of tourists in the Dinning Hall of our hotel for the night until they find alternate accommodation. I was told that the availability of the number of tourists SUVs/MUVs are limited in Bhuj to cater to the needs during the peak season.

The main problem in Bhuj during the peak tourist season such as Diwali and Christmas is the shortage of even budget and 3-star hotels. There is not a single 4 or 5 stars hotels in Bhuj. Even in Rann of Kutchh, accommodation is limited. So, those who plan to visit Kutchh in peak tourist season, it is advisable to book the accommodation well in advance and pre-book the tourist cars/SUVs/MUVs.

While we had reserved hotel accommodation well in advance, we never thought that getting the tourist SUV vehicles in Bhuj would be a problem. Luckily, we could get the personal vehicle, Indigo Manza, of the hotel's Manager with his father driving for us as it is difficult to get the good drivers in Bhuj even in normal times. According to one travel agency, nearly 70 per cent of the tourist cars/SUVs are owner driven in Bhuj.

Day-2 : Bhuj To Mandvi
Mandvi Beach (61 kms)

After a complementary breakfast, we commenced our day trip to Mandvi at around 9.00 am via the two-lane NH.47. The road condition was excellent and we reached the beach in an hour's time. Mandvi, being at the sea shore was warmer than Bhuj.

My first impression of the Mandvi beach was that it was cleaner than what I had thought  on the basis of the pictures of the beach I had seen on the travel websites. Probably, authorities may have done some cleaning operations ahead of the peak tourist season.
The sea was calm. We took a ride in the speed boat. Thereafter we spent some time eating boiled corns followed by sugarcane juice. 

Mandvi Beach.

Mandvi Beach.

 On the speed boat off Mandvi beach.
Vijay Vilas Palace (8 kms from Mandvi beach)

It was getting warmer in Mandvi beach as the day progressed which made us to move on to our next destination, Vijay Vilas Palace. It is 8 km drive from Mandvi beach on a paved road alongside the beach. When we reached outside the gate of Vijay Vilas Palace, there was a big crowd of tourists, mainly the school children waiting for their turn to enter the palace. However, general tourists were allowed to enter the palace complex directly for buying the tickets. Same procedure was followed for  entering  the palace. Footwear have to be kept outside before entering the palace.
  Vijay Vilas Palace, Mandvi.
Vijay Vilas Palace viewed from the garden.
Vijay Vilas Palace - Front View.
Vijay Vilas Palace.
Vijay Vilas Palace was built by Maharaja of Kutchh, Maharao Khengraoji as a summer resort for his son, the heir apparent Vijayrajji (hence the name Vijay Vilas Palace). The construction of the palace was started in 1920 and was completed in 1929. In summer, Bhuj, the then capital of Kutchh is very hot. Mandvi, being at the sea shore was considered better place to stay in the summer. The palace was constructed in the midst of around 700 acres of land dotted with dense trees. The sea breeze passing through these trees made the palace a cool place in the summer. The palace has got a private beach on which there is an heritage hotel, Vijay Vilas Heritage Resort.
Tourists are permitted to visit only some rooms on the ground floor as the current 'Maharaja of Kutchh' has other rooms in this palace. The tourist can visit the terrace through narrow winding stairs.  From the terrace, the iron spiral staircases takes the tourists to the top of the palace to have a 360 degree view of Mandvi city and the beach.
Drawing room of Vijay Vilas Palace.
Dinning Room.
The winding staircase from the ground floor takes the tourists to the terrace.
The lush green forested trees surround the palace from all sides. Sea shore is visible at far-end (right)
The two iron spiral stair cases take the tourists to the top of the palace.
View of the fountain-garden seen from the terrace of the palace.
View of Mandvi beach with light house from the terrace of the palace.
We returned to Mandvi from Vijay Vilas Palace and had typical Kutchhi unlimited thali lunch at Zorba the Buddha (OSHO)@130/-. Though it did not have an ambience of a normal restaurant, the quality of the food which was served hot and the prompt service with a smile made up more than the ambience. They treated us as their relatives.The servers were happy if we wanted something more to eat but if we refused anything more, their face became sad. The servers told us in advance that if we did not like any of the dishes from the thali, we can keep them out of thali so that the food was not wasted.
After some shopping in the Mandvi Markets, we commenced our return journey to  Bhuj. On the way, we visited Krantiveer Shyamji Krishna Varma's Memorial (India House Replica) and the Jain Temple which is surrounded by 72 temples of Jain deities all made of while marble with intricate carvings.
 Krantiveer Shyamji Krishna Verma Memorial (India House Replia), near Mandvi
Jain temple surrounded by 72 temples of deities. 
We returned to our Hotel by 6.00 pm. With this, our first part of Bhuj-Mandvi trip was over. As mentioned earlier, we would cover Sharad Baug and Kutchh Museum on our return from White Rann.



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