Gujarat

A 4-week trip around Gujarat at Christmas 2012 and the New Year

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Gondal

North of Junagadh and south of Rajkot is Gondal, another of the old princely states of Gujarat.

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The Orchard Palace

We stay at the Orchard Palace, the guest building attached to the Huzoor Palace where the current family lives. Right in the centre of town, the buildings are surrounded by a large park; a orchard, vegetable gardens, a swimming pool, a rose garden and a brand new, slightly garish Japanese garden.

We visit the royal railway carriage, parked outside the building. You can rent this out for the night; all wooden panels and lace antimacassars.

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Royal railway carriage

Like many of the maharajas, the family has a love for cars. The stable block contains his car collection, strong in classics from the 30s and 40s. The oldest was a strange 1907 box-like vehicle built by New Engine Company in Acton, West London. The maharaja and the prince keeps their sports and racing cars in a more private block.

We also took a look at the Riverside Palace, built for the prince in 1875 and also used as a hotel. They tend to put larger groups here. Perhaps slightly less grand, but crammed with a better selection of antiques. Right next door is another massive palace; a Victorian gothic pile, now a government school.

Naulakha Palace

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Naulakha Palace

The prettiest palace is further in town by the river. We enter a courtyard under a clocktower.

Up stone stairs and past carvings of peacocks and Ganesha, into a series of royal offices, where the progressive Maharaja Bhagvatsingh worked. He studied medicine in Edinburgh and published the first Gujarati dictionary, introduced land reform and universal schooling.

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Maharaja Bhagvatsingh’s fiction shelves

He also put together a number of eclectic collections, all lovingly preserved. There was his clock collection, his home-made toy boats, birds eggs (including a letter from Nehru saying how much Indira Gandhi loved his bird book), dinner services, dolls, a shed full of toy cars, a couple of stables with a world-class collection of carriages, and a wonderful set of deco children’s furniture. Oh, and the set of scales upon which he was weighed against gold at his golden jubilee.

That evening we went out for a walk round the town. Another town unused to foreign tourists. A seed shop kindly gave us some samples when we took an interest in their produce. Not a great deal to see but a lively market to discover, more decaying grand buildings and an opportunity to get lost.

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Rajkot

Quick passing visit to Rajkot, a city that is apparently the 22nd fastest growing place in the world.

We wandered rajkot-housearound a still-wakening market area and found ourselves being pointed to Gandhi’s childhood home. (He wasn’t born here but spent most of his younger years in Rajkot.)

We were the only visitors to a plain courtyard and rooms – though fairly affluent-looking – full of photos and time-lines of his life. I thought it was a better exhibition than the one at his famous ashram in Ahmedabad.

Gandhi's school

Gandhi’s school

Then drove on to his school; a solid Victorian building. Still a school, the main hall is full of statues and quotes from him.

Finally to the Watson museum, named for and set up by a British political agent.

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A painting in the Watson Museum

It’s an old school museum – a bit like the Pitt-Rivers in Oxford – an electic collection. Lots of stone and wood carving, metal work, archaeology, and the obligatory stuffed animals. Most comes with a bit of English labelling.

There was a vast statue of Queen Victoria, some great little paintings and a decent selection of textiles. But difficult to see them well. The staff got quite excited when we asked to see their publications, but they were a bit academic and tired.

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Morbi

sweet-seller-morbiMorbi is famous for making tiles and its clocks-making factories. At least that’s what the books say. An unpromising town, until we pass a spectacular building under renovation by the river.

The hotel

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The gatekeeper at the Darbargadh Palace

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Our room

morbi-hotel1 The hotel, the Darbargadh Palace, is also on the river and is the reason we decided to stay here. It was taken over by the Neemrana hotel group a couple of years ago and looked intriguing from what limited info I could find. (There’s much more detail on their website now.)

It’s another building of indeterminate age. Some of it is supposed to go back to the 17th century, but it would have been difficult to say which bit. Most was built in the 19th century. A series of gates, courtyards and wings. Devastated in the 2001 earthquake, when an entire storey disappeared off one wing, and half of the entrance way collapsed. Massive concrete supports were holding up one section. From the roof we could see some big cracks. Our wing – the only bit in use – is either 100 years old or a lot less, but you couldn’t tell.

Our room was the largest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in; almost 15 metres from the massive four-poster bed, under a huge stone arch with carvings to a set of high windows. And a plaster ceiling, a huge fireplace, two sofas a couple of locked doors going somewhere and a bathroom. Climbing out the windows there’s a circular balcony with a 180° view of the river (an area of crops, squatter camps and clothes washing).

The town

Once again a place that doesn’t see many foreigners.

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The Willingdon Secretariat

The gorgeous building by the river is the Willingdon Secretariat, opened by the eponymous viceroy in 1936. But I think there’s also an older temple in the complex; the Mani Mandir. and the building had an earlier use. I can’t believe it’s all only 80 years old. Unfortunately we were chased out by the gatekeepers, unhappy with us wandering though a building site: there’s a thorough restoration taking place. Scores of men were carving stone in the grounds, measuring curves with wooden templates. The place had clearly suffered in the earthquake.

There’s a statue of Victoria and of Lord Reay, a Governor of Bombay, in the grounds.

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Queen Victoria statue in Morbi

Late lunch via auto-rickshaw to a restaurant the manager recommended. Gujarat thali for 160 rupees. 3 curries, 3 sweets and various bits & pieces plus endless roti and poories. Took a late afternoon walk up past two extravagant gates to a vegetable market after an few hours reading books in the sun. But the weather has got a lot cooler. Wind from the north; apparently there are heavy snows in the Himalayas.

The palaces

suspension-bridge-morbiOn other side of the river is the Nazarbag Palace, of similar age to ours. It’s now an engineering college. A pedestrian suspension bridge of impressive length links the two palaces. It’s just one step up from a bridge with wooden slats; the sides are basic fencing wire. It feels flimsy. There’s a man with a whistle at one end. His job is to watch out for groups who start swinging the bridge or jumping up and down on it.

A little beyond that is the massive art deco palace. It’s almost industrial in scale but is still private and mothballed by the family who split their time between London and Mumbai. We didn’t quite make it to the impressive gates; plenty of warning notices. It says something of the wealth of these families that they were able to build so many palaces within a short period of time, and throw up a private suspension bridge to connect them.

Intriguingly, it’s been difficult to find much information about the palace. It contains murals by a French/Polish artist, Stefen Norblin, who decorated the far more famous Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur. But finally I’ve found a video of the palace interiors. Echos of Eltham Palace.

artdeco-palace-morbi I had to be content with a view of it from the roof of our hotel.

We had the hotel to ourselves on the first night. On our second a tour of  11 Italians arrived late and dancing took place in the stunning courtyard. But they were gone before dawn.

 

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Factory visits

One of the (rather uncomfortable) oddities of travelling in India with a driver is the ability to walk into people’s working lives and ask them to explain their production process.

Cotton

So on a whim north of Diu we set off to find out how seeds get removed from balls of raw cotton and wandered into a factory where ginning machines extracted the bolls from huge piles of cotton. The seeds were then fed to cattle.

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Sugar

On the way to Junagadh we visited a family factory producing jaggery (raw sugar). Sugar canes were being fed into a crushing machine and boiled down in a series of three iron basins. The girls of the family fed the dry cane husks into a furnace under the boiling pots.

sugar-cane2An older man was standing in a container of water, crushing some herbs with his feet, extracting a flavour for the sugar.

The final pot was emptied into a mud container where the yellow sugar paste precipitated, and the barefoot boy scraped it off the mud and into tin containers for sale.

Screen printing

screen-printers-Jetpur

In Jetpur we walked into a fabric printing factory where they showed us their collection of screens – often resembling wood block patterns – and a vast room where the fabric was printed.

Hand weaving (Khadi)

gondal-mill1At Gondal we visited a hand weaving factory. Quite Victorian; a deafening room full of treadle weaving looms operated by young women. Ear protection was available but no-one was using it. Shuttles shot and clattered, the women controlled the speed, peddling with their feet, mending broken threads as they went along. Each could produce 6-7 metres of simple woven cloth a day. Followed by a quieter room where they were preparing the warps.

An old guy sat on his own in a third room knitting socks on an extraordinary little machine. He enjoyed taking us through the process in great detail. He produced about 22 pairs a day.

gondal-mill2Finally a room that at first glance seemed almost empty, but there were rows of woman sitting on the floor, hand winding yarn into bobbins for the looms.

We bought some of their output in the shop; a £2 shirt, some fabric for Kim at around £2 a metre and 8 napkins (35p each).

The khadi movement was set up by Gandhi in the 1920s. The spinning of home-made cloth was both practical (promoting rural self-employment) and political (boycotting the cloth manufactured industrially in Britain).

Medicines

Also in Gondal we turned up at an Ayurvedic factory. (Their claim to fame is that Gandhi gave a speech here in 1915 praising ayurveda.) We feigned a sudden interest in the manufacture of pills and syrups while a man showed us around mixing, grinding, heating, and packaging of a range of products. He held up a bottle marked that it was derived from pure cow urine.

Best was the bottling line which consisted of an enormous metal container with a tap at the bottom where a man flowed contents into small bottles, one by one, while the man next to him fastened on the tops.

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Crafts of the Kutch

village-fashion2Perhaps unfairly, it felt that all the handicrafts we had seen so far were simply a prelude to the glories of the Kutch district. In the far west of Gujarat, this is the area most associated with fabric printing, embroidery and a long list of crafts.

Cloth printing

A couple of stop-offs before Bhuj. Firstly in a small lane on an obscure village we visit a family of textile makers. They don’t make the cloth or the wood blocks, but do everything else. The son was block printing at high speed in the back shed. All the registering was done by eye; striking simple prints in contrasting colours. Coloured cloth was lying in the dirt at the back drying. The little shop attracted a constant stream of visitors and is the only place he sells his work. Initially attracted by the block prints, we then spotted brush work printing where dye is simply applied with a scrubbing brush, and bought some metres of that. A highly effective pattern. (All this costs 100 rupees a metre; unclear whether we should bargain.) We’re then attracted by the bandhani, on cotton and silk. Priced from 3,800 up to 16,000 rupees (£45-£180). But you could get 6 metre saris with two or three dyes, dip-dyed as well as bandhani for 9,000.

Embroidery

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Close-up of a £300 piece of embroidery

Closer to Bhuj we visited a group of women working on embroidery. One skirt was being worked on for for months with unbelievable care. Work for sale was unrolled in the kitchen.

We were shown pieces of increasing complexity and size; 1,500 to 6,000 up to 26,000 rupees for an astonishing piece. Having no money we said we’d think about it.embroidery2

Had a late lunch of some mango juice, a bhel and a dahi vada in a slightly grubby roadside eatery.

Leather goods

Found money in Bhuj, along with good roads and an increasing military presence. Visiting a leathermaker, Kim turned down all his bag options and went through piles of sandals of a leathermaker before finding something to buy.

The resort

Hodka-tent

Our tent bedroom at Hodka

We spent two nights at the Hodka Village Resort (Shaam-E-Sarhad). (The idea had been to stay there for three nights but a slight booking mix-up and the intense cold drove us on early.) We had to buy a permit for these more distant parts.

The village is pretty resort of tents and mud huts. Lots of mud

Hodka-village1

The eating area

-formed features; the walls were built of sticks and then covered in mud, the delicate mud and mirror work (that you see in local huts) and the central village area is covered in a dried layer of once liquid mud and dung, and then painted in ochre and red tones. The eating area had a roof of multi-coloured fabrics.

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The huts at Hodka

Tasty vegetarian set meals were served and local musicians sang and danced around a wood fire. Not warm enough – it was falling to around 3° – so we fled early to our tent.

Inside the tents the bed and the sofa base are made of mud. And beyond there is a second private toilet tent containing a mud and mirror work wall with a basin and flush toilet. Hot water arrived at agreed times in the morning as the staff steamed up a wood furnace behind. Hot water bottles and thick blankets kept us warm in the bed. We spend a happy hour in the resort shop/tent looking at old and slightly fraying handicrafts.

Bunga huts

bunga-decoration Nearby is a the village that specialises in producing marvo(?), a thickened buffalo milk dessert eaten warm. Guys were stirring vast boiling vats of sweetened milk by the road. A short off-road drive to a small group of round huts. (Not entirely of the beaten track; a Japanese girl was also there.) The interiors had painted mud decorations with mirror inserts and tidily ordered sets of cooking utensils.

Visited people to see their wares. Picked on a woman selling detailed embroidery, and bought as dress for 3,000 rupees. The adult woman all swore these back-less blouses (and a veil), and the kids were colourful too. Some very heavy jewellery.

As with the resort shop, there’s an awful lot of secondhand fabric too; often not in the best of shape. One of the sellers showed us a couple of dresses that he said were 80 – years old. But you couldn’t tell.

Kim gets a lesson in the variety of stitches. I’m impressed by the outdoor mud floors that all these villages have. They need renewing every couple of weeks, which constantly raises the level but that’s not a bad thing as the area can flood by several feet.bunga-decoration3 bunga-decoration2 bunga

We also go to the local village at Hodka. Get mobbed by adults and kids who bring us bags full of dresses, beadwork from the kids, miscellaneous bits of leather, dolls made by the kids, and various decorative items. Slight sense of desperation when we visit a hut and they start looking for things that are potentially saleable.

Mirror work

That afternoon we visited an embroiderer north of Hodka. Her family (and tribe) specialises in fine embroidery with mirrorwork. She only has one or two pieces for sale and at 7000 rupees, but great pieces. She had a copy of a book ‘Threads’ and a Japanese magazine, both of which featured examples of her work. One was in a museum in Japan. She spoke good English and was part of a family that had produced handicrafts for generations. She said she spent 4-5 months on a piece, working perhaps about 3-4 hours a day, because of her housework duties,

Rogan art

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The last practioners of rogan art in Nirona

We go to Nirona to see the last family practicing rogan art. This type of fabric painting consists of applying heavily-reduced castor oil onto fabric from a metal rod. (Castor oil plants are everywhere round here.) Thick strings of paint drip off the small rods; the pattern is repeated by transferring by folding. Intricate free painting and very clever but the family has been trying to develop it into a fine art form.

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Peacocks and the tree of life

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An older piece created by the grandparents of the family

Their intricate designs around the tree of life and peacock were not for us, but I really liked the large-scale naive paintings that their grandparents produced. And they were prepared to sell these at 10,000 rupees. Surprised and tempted.

Bell makers

Then visited some copper-coated bell makers. Perhaps a little bit twee but we couldn’t resist a set of tinkling bells for 800 rupees. I had seen a video of them being made; they are cut from scraps of metal, hammered and soldered into shape and finally fired with a coating of copper powder and cow dung.

Promoting handicrafts

We also visited the famous Kala Raksha Trust, dedicated to the preservation of the traditional arts of the area. It has been working for the last 20 years alongside artisans educating them in design and colour, helping them collaborate with urban design students and to travel to Mumbai and Delhi to see other exhibitions and to create their own. They are promoting handicrafts as a viable source of income, especially among women. We occasionally spotted signs in villages indicating they were graduates of Kala Raksha. We had a look at their displays, were shown a few drawers from their archive (all now online), visited a couple of workshops, and finally raided their shop. And found the bandhani we were looking for.

Pit looms

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Dying bundles of silk

Just outside Bhujodi (in the outskirts of Bhuj) we went to a family of weavers. Colourful bundles of silk were being dyed in large vats and then dried on lines in the front garden.

In a backlot we found people stretching out and combing lengths of warp, stretching perhaps 15 metres.

Nearby a number of men were working on pit looms.

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A pit loom

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Combing and tidying the warp

And there was also an underground indigo vat for us to poke around in.

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Indigo-coloured silk drying in the sun

Felt maker

Close to Mundra we were taken to a guy who  makes felt. (Well he also turns and laquers the feet of beds, but we were less interested in that.)

He only makes things to order so only showed a few floor cushions and some photos of some carpets felt carpets. The simple geometric designs are appealing and he sold them for just 2,000 rupees.

felt-makingHe had also some an artistic collaboration with an Indian/American/Swedish artist who had sought him out as the last felt-maker in Gujarat (seems unlikely). She got him to make rolls of felt in a way so they resembled logs.

Over an hour he showed is how to make a felt cushion, a butterfly design, simply by laying dyed felt. No rubbing; simply rolled, soaked and dried in the sun for hours. Kim is very sceptical.