On our autumn break, we were heading to the Rann of Kutch. The Great Rann of Kutch is a salt marsh located in the Thar Desert in the Kutch District of Gujarat. Kutch derives its names from its resemblance to a tortoise which is pronounced as “Kachabo” in the local Gujarati dialect. Kutch used to be a desert sporadically populated with small tribes. The first known mention of Kutch occurs around 300 BC. when a holy man, lost in the forests of the north-western Kutch, cleared the wildlands using celestial fire, so that he could find his way home. It is said – from those ashes sprang crops of grass so rich that large numbers of pastoral tribes from neighboring areas moved in making it their new home.
Bangalore to Bhuj
There are many convenient ways to get to Bhuj but to save time I choose to take the flight from Bangalore with a break of a few hours at the Mumbai airport. This choice, however, was largely forced because my wait list queue on the inbound train to Bhuj never moved a place in over a month.
As we landed in Bhuj, the flight intercom alerted us to abstain from taking photos of the airfield, on account of it being near the army base. The International border is not very far away and we don’t really have cordial relations with the Pakistanis.
Bhuj is the principal town of Kutch in Gujarat. The walled city is built around a lake dominated by a fortified hill. As we stepped out of the Jet Airways plane, an army fighter took off from a nearby field. No wonder the area is on high security.
We had reservations at the Click Hotel in Bhuj. Taxis, few in numbers were asking for an astronomical amount of Rs. 500 for a three kilometer ride to the hotel. With a little bargaining, I was able to convince an auto driver to drop us off at the hotel for Rs 200.
Click Hotel is one of the most lavish hotels in the city. It also helps immensely that they are located right next to the Bhuj railway station. The room and facilities at the hotel were beyond expectation. I would really recommend this hotel just on the basis of its amazing location.
After a shower we dropped in to the hotel restaurant on the ground floor. In Gujarat come prepared to eat only vegetarian. After lunch we hopped into an auto-rickshaw also known as the Tuktuk, towards the local market. We were searching for some ethnic costumes to wear on our days at the Rann festival.
The Waniyawad market is about 15 minutes away from the hotel and it didn’t take us long to find a decent store that sells local handicraft items.
After obtaining a lovely pink Ghagra/ choli with lovely mirrorwork for my wife and a Kurta in Rabari embroidery for yours truly, we hired another auto-rickshaw to take us to the ruins of Chattardi. The “Chhatris” complex at Chattardi is a popular cenotaphs complex in the outskirts of Bhuj, not more than a 15 minutes ride from the town center. It preserves the tombstones belonging to the Jadeja rulers of Kutch.
The ruins of Chattardi
The sun was already saying its goodbyes by the time we reached the Chattri ruins. The “Chhatris” complex at Chattardi were constructed sometime in the 18th century to glorify the cenotaphs of the Rao’s of Kutch.
Most of the buildings have almost disappeared into rubble piles as a result of the earthquake of 2001. Still, the remaining pieces of history were enchanting enough for me. A few local visitors were sitting on the broken pedestals, enjoying the beautiful sunset. It was getting dark fast, so I decided to come down the next day at sunrise.
Essentially these cenotaphs served as memorial grounds for the royal family.
Even though I was exhausted from the two flights of the day before, I was also bubbling with excitement, to visit the final resting place of the kings of Kutch. I woke up at 5 am when the stars were still illuminating the sky. Bhuj being one the westernmost towns, the sun rises quite late in these parts at around 6.30 am.
It was still dark as I went around the back of the hotel towards the auto-rickshaws parked near the railway station. By the time the auto driver dropped me off in front of Chattardi complex, a soft glow of dawn had already appeared over the horizon.
History of Chattardi
I still had a half-an-hour lead over the sunrise. The revolving gate at the entrance was unmanned and I quickly made my way towards the damaged ruins. The Chhatris in Bhuj were constructed sometime in the 18th century by Jadeja ruler Rao Lakhpatji.
The construction of cenotaphs or chhatris by the Royal families of erstwhile kingdoms in Gujarat and nearby regions had been in vogue for many centuries. These umbrella-shaped dome structures, built in memory of royals can also be found all over the nearby regions of Rajasthan and also in some parts of Madhya Pradesh which are connected to the Rajput lineage.
The cenotaph complex was deserted at this hour and I went about taking shots of these collapsed masterpieces.
Inside the complex there are many different types of Chhatris. I really loved the detailing on this tombstone. It is the most detailed surviving structure. Floral designs are the most common patterns found on these tombstones. Apart from floral patterns, hexagons, octagons and strip patterns can also be seen across the walls of the structure.
This was in all probability another tombstone of a Rajput king, but it is impossible to say who is depicted on the tablet. Over the years these ancient Chattris – the tombstones of fallen heroes, and stones erected in memory of their heroism and chivalry became their recognition. The person on the horse is supposed to depict the king surrounded by his wives.
As I moved from one cenotaph to another I found myself in front of the largest and the finest tombstone, that of Rao Lakha built in 1770 AD.
The story of Rao Lakhpatji
Maharao Lakhpatji, born in 1717, was probably the most influential of all the rulers of Kutch. Rao Lakhpatji, also known as Lakhaji, was the Rao of Cutch belonging to Jadeja Rajput dynasty, who ruled princely state of Cutch as a regent from 1741 to 1752. He later succeeded his father Deshalji I in 1752 and ruled until his death in 1760.
Rao Lakhpatji was a pivotal figure in the development of Kutch and his reign which started in 1741 saw the arts of Kutch introduced to the rest of India.
Unlike Maharashtra, which is almost entirely covered by the basaltic lava flows of the Deccan Trap, Bhuj landscape comprises of sandstone and shale. Built of this red sandstones, the Chhatri of Rao Lakhpatji is situated on the northern side of the Chattardi complex. The main Chhatri used to be supported by decorative pillars, a fine specimen of Kutch architecture. Once you enter Rao Lakhpatji’s cenotaph you will be amazed by the semi damaged beautiful sculptures of the deities and people in local costumes.
Constructed during 1770 AD, this cenotaph had many individual balconies. The structure used to be covered with a roof with intricate carvings but currently they lie scattered around the tombstone. In the center of all this lavish constructions sits the tablet of the king himself with 15 of his consorts. The tablets used to sit the under the central dome, where its is also said, lies the ashes of Rao Lakha.
Raujputana history is rich in historical romance and chivalry. During my research, I read there are other tombstones dedicated to Rao Rayadhan, Rao Desai and Rao Pragmal, but without any proper guide it is hard to tell which one is which.
After taking a few shots in the early twilight, I waited for the Sun to show up, reading up on a bit of history behind the most influential ruler of Kutch – Rao Lakhpatji.
Sunrise at Chatteri
The sun took its time showing itself. The sky was already bright all around by the time I saw it peaking from behind the forests.
I was soon basking in the golden rays of the winter Sun. The square pavilion below was a standout among all other dome shaped tombstones
In some articles I have read that the Chattri with a blue dome with jeweled work strongly influenced by Turkish architecture is also dedicated to Rao Lakhpatji. Mind you, with some exceptions, Chhatris are basically tombstones that do not contain the mortal remains of that person and they were built as a tribute to their greatness.
The Chattris of different clans display variations of the umbrella form, in a way conveying its extra-ordinariness. The earlier cenotaphs memorialized their ancestors with Chhatris that took forms appropriated from temples built in the region. During the times of the Raos of Kutch, diplomatic relations with the Mughals, imparted its own unique flavor to this structure.
By this time, a couple of local residents had made their way to the complex for their morning exercises. The golden light was perfect to capture the details of these tombstones so I went back around the structures that were comparatively less damaged to capture closely the details in these walls.
A distant view of these structures is very pleasing and yet closer examination of the designs and intricate carvings engraved on the tombstones reveals a wealth of data about the social history of the region. Some walls bear floral patterns while others bear figurative depictions of equestrians and weaponry such as shields and spears.
On the southern side of the compound there is, what seems like an active temple where people still come to say their prayers.
Just in front of the temple, the square pavilion was lit up beautifully in the soft golden rays of the Sun. This tombstone is the only square shaped tombstone on the premises, and appears to be tilted towards the chaukhandi type of architecture, much more prevalent in Sindh, now in Pakistan. Well, lets just say not everyone loves circular domes.
Restoration of Chattardi
It was 8 am already and I had to go back to the hotel to get ready for my ride to the Rann Utsav. The structures have been severely damaged by the Bhuj earthquake of 2001 and some are currently being renovated though at a very slow pace.
The Kutch region is underlain by a mesozoic rift system. Faults within such rift systems are known to have the potential to generate large earthquakes. Earthquakes have visited this district of Kutch repeatedly over the centuries. The last great earthquake of 2001 has taken a huge toll on the enigmatic buildings from the 18th century. The area is so rich with cultural heritage, and the earthquake was particularly cruel to many of these architectural relics that embody that heritage.
Walking through the boulders I found stone tablets depicting royalty as well gods and goddesses, some of them exquisitely carved. With no security around the compound, I wonder how difficult it would be for someone to just pick up one of these extremely valuable decorative slabs, either to sell in the gray markets or simply in order to decorate their own drawing rooms. I greatly appreciate the restoration work already done, but the concerned authorities must arrest this decay and destruction of these valuable pieces of art and should restore them to their original splendor.
Best time to visit Bhuj
The best time to visit Bhuj is between November and February. These are the only times when the harsh Sun isn’t beating down on the desert district.
Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the post or follow my story as I visit the White Rann.