Catching a ‘plane in Kutch (Gujarat)

AIR TRAVELLERS CAN FLY to the former Kingdom of Kutch (Kachchh), now part of Gujarat, by two routes. There is a scheduled flight between Ahmedabad and Bhuj, and another between Mumbai and Kandla, whose airport is close to Anjar.

Kandla, was developed as a seaport on the early 1950s at the instigation of a member of the by then former royal family of Kutch. It lies on the coast of Kutch southeast of Karachi, a port that was incorporated into Pakistan in 1947, and northwest of Mumbai. It is now the largest port in India when measured by the volume of cargo handled there.

Cattle on the road

From Mandvi to Kandla Airport is 95 Km by road. We set off from Mandvi three hours before our flight to Mumbai was due to depart from Kandla. Our hosts, who use the airport frequently, told us that on average the road journey is 1 ½ hours. For the first hour of our journey, the highway was almost devoid of traffic. Along the way, we frequently switched lanes because heavy vehicles often move slowly along the outside lane without giving way to faster vehicles. We wove our way between slower vehicles, constantly overtaking and ‘undertaking’. Then after speeding along steadily, we headed towards a static queue of heavy lorries.

QuIck as a flash, our driver made a three point turn and we drove in the opposite direction tobthe rest of the traffic until we reached a gap in the central divider of the dual carriageway. We were not alone in making this manoeuvre. There were even some of the heavy goods vehicles making cumbersome manoeuvres to head away from the traffic jam. We continued our journey on the wrong side of the divider until we reached a turn off that allowed us to go under the highway and back into the correct lane.

Soon, we encountered another jam. A transporter carrying a tank as wide as one side of the motorway was inching its way onto the main road. Our driver took us off the road onto a dirt track, but this was also blocked. Another u-turn and we drove beneath the highway to a narrow, poorly tarmacced road that ran parallel to the highway. This led to a bridge beneath the main thoroughfare to reach another narrow lane that ran alongside the part of the highway running towards Kandla.

This lane offered other obstructions including large trucks and a herd of slow moving cattle. We squeezed past them and eventually rejoined the highway.

Meanwhile, the time was ticking away, and we wondered whether we would miss our flight. My spirits rose when we turned off the highway and on to a road leading to the airport. Soon, my hopes were dashed. We encountered yet another jam. However, our skilful driver managed weave his way between them. Soon, we arrived in front of the tiny airport terminal building.

Kandla Airport is primarily a military air base. Passengers use it for the one flight a day to and from Mumbai. When we disembarked there a few years ago, we walked from the aircraft to a shelter, where passengers’ check-in baggage was ready to be retrieved.

The check-in and security check is carried out in a part of a small room, the rest of which is part of the departure lounge (with a snacks stall). This hall leads to another room with seating. It is here that the departure gate is located. This simple departure lounge reminded me of Venice’s Marco Polo Airport as it was in the early 1960s.

We boarded the Spicejet two engined propellor plane after walking across the apron. The aircraft (a Q400 made by the Bombadier Company) has its own retractable staircase that we used to enter and later leave the ‘plane. After an uneventful flight lasting 1 hour and 15 minutes, we disembarked at Mumbai.

We were lucky only to have arrived a few minutes later than the scheduled time. Only three days earlier, my wife’ cousin’s flight from Mumbai to Kandla was delayed by almost 5 hours because of a technical problem discovered on the ‘plane minutes before it was due to take off. We were also fortunate because our quick-witted driver skilfully reduced the time spent stuck at significantly awful traffic jams.

A grand canyon in India

I HAVE VISITED the famous Grand Canyon in the USA, and seen it after a heavy snow fall. I have also seen a fabulous canyon in New York State, a few hours drive away from Buffalo. However, it was not until the first of February 2023, that I heard of, and then visited a grand canyon in Kutch, which is now part of the Indian State of Gujarat.

The canyon, named Kadiya (aka Kaliya) Dhro, is 73 Km north of the coastal city of Mandvi, and 33 Km northwest of Bhuj. Although the canyon is many, many thousands of years old and had been known to locals forever, its existence only became widely known in 2020. It was then that Varin Suchday, founder of the Kutch Travel Club stumbled across it. He had heard it discussed by local tribes people, whilst he was assisting them during the covid19 crisis, and with considerable difficulty, he managed to find it in the midst if the poorly mapped, arid semi-desert countryside.

We drove from Mandvi to a dusty parking area about 4 Km from the canyon. Several battered jeeps wait there to take visitors to the site. We boarded a well-worn Mahindra jeep, which was driven by a young fellow who looked to be about 15 years old; his voice had not yet broken. He drove us skilfully along sandy tracks strewn with rocks, precarious slopes, potholes, and other hazards. We held on to the Mahindra’s metal structural elements to avoid being thrown out of the constantly jolting and tilting vehicle, which had neither doors nor seatbelts. The tortuous track threads its way across dried up beds of streams; over boulders and sharp projecting stones; and past branching cacti and thorny bushes. Every now and then, other faster jeeps overtook us on this perilous, winding path. Other vehicles travelling in the opposite direction either waited for us to pass or vice-versa. After about thirty minutes of this exciting journey, we reached a parking area near the canyon.

The canyon is in the district of Ulat village, which we did not visit. A fast-flowing river, in which our driver spotted a crocodile, has over the millennia formed the canyon. Like the Grand Canyon, but far smaller, its walls are horizontally striated. The striations vary in colour. Here and there, you can see roundish rock formations that look like huge mushrooms. Their stalks are also striated. Parts of the riverbed that are not submerged are rocky platforms with patterns of grooves resembling crazy paving. The striations result from the alternate layers of shale and sandstone combined with the effects of sea air (for more detail, see: https://zeezest.com/travel/kaliya-dhrow-in-kutch-is-a-geological-wonder-to-behold-zee-zest-1054).

We visited the canyon on a Wednesday morning during the school term, so the place was not crowded. I have been told that on Weekends and during school holidays, large crowds of people come to view the interesting geological formations. We saw less than twenty other tourists, mostly Indian. Many were standing precariously on the rocks close to the water, posing for pictures probably destined to appear on Facebook and/or Instagram. I took many photographs of this lovely place.

I am extremely grateful that my wife’s cousin, who lives in Mandvi, arranged for us to visit the canyon, a geological jewel hidden deep in the Kutch desert. Although far off the ‘beaten track’, it is a highly worthwhile destination. A word of advice: the ride in the jeep is not a good idea for those with unhealthy backs!

Running in the family

WHILE WANDERING THROUGH the large rambling bazaar in Mandvi, which is in the former Kingdom of Kutch (now part of Gujarat), we came across a workshop where bandhani textiles for clothing were being made.

Making a knot for bandhani dyeing

Bandhani is a method of producing patterned dyed silks and cotton. Put simply, a piece of cloth, already dyed one colour or not at all, is prepared as follows. Parts of the cloth are gathered up to form tight bundles fastened by fine threads. The bundles, which look like small pimples are distributed to form patterns. The tied cloth is then dyed. The dye reaches all parts of the cloth except those enclosed in the tiny bundles. When the bundles are untied the patches of the cloth that had been shielded from the dye remain the original colour. This process can be repeated several times using different dyes to create an interesting pattern.

The shop the looked at, Khatri Ibrahim Siddik & Co, is the oldest bandhani workshop in Mandvi. It has been run by the same family for fifteen generations .

During our recent visit (January 2023), we have come across several businesses that have passed from generation to generation. In Bhuj, the Shivam Daining (sic) restaurant is run by chefs whose great grandfathers, grandfathers, and fathers, have all been cooks to the Maharaos of Kutch. Likewise, there is a bakery in Bhuj with an ancient wood fired stove. This business has passed through at least four generations. Nearby, there is a knife, scissors, and sword maker, who is the fourth or fifth generation of a family, which has been in this trade for over more than a century.

I am certain that there are plenty more examples of families in Kutch specialising in skills that have been passed from one generation to the next. I wonder whether these skills are in the genes, or simply taught by one generation to the next, and so on.

An illustrious ancestor

QUEEN VICTORIA’S SON Prince Alfred (1844-1900) visited India in December 1869. In his honour several schools in India were founded in his name. In the present State of Gujarat, there are at least 3 still in existence. One is in Rajkot, another in Bhavnagar, and one in Bhuj (formerly the capital of the Princely State of Kutch).

Alfred High School in Bhuj

In Bhuj, we have a friend, Pramod Jethi, who is a historian of Kutch. Some of what I am about to relate is based on information kindly provided by him. Much of the rest is gleaned from what my wife’s family have told me.

My wife’s mother’s great grandfather was one Laxmidas Ravji Sapat (aka Sampat), who was born in the mid-19th century, or a bit earlier. Along with Gokaldas Parekh, Laxmidas was one of the first teachers in the Alfred High School in Bhuj (founded by Rao of Cutch, Pragmalji II in 1870). It is likely that he was its headmaster for a time. I have yet to see it, but his portrait hangs in the school. One of my wife’s relatives, also a descendant of Laxmidas, arranged to have it restored a few years ago.

In 1890, Laxmidas left the school. Later, along with his son-in-law, Cullyanji Murarji Thacker, he went to London (UK) to become a barrister. He studied for the Bar at Middle Temple and was called to the Bar on the 27th of June 1900, along with his son-in-law. Mr Thacker, who was my wife’s mother’s grandfather. The two men received financial help for their studies from the Kutch Royal family.
Both men were members of the Bhatia community in Kutch. Back at the end of the 19th and the early 20th it would have been unusual for a man and his son-in-law to travel out of India together to study.

Laxmidas, after leaving the Alfred School, became appointed as police chief of Bhuj, then diwan (Prime Minister) of Jaisalmer, and after that Chief Justice of Jodhpur. Apparently, he was very successful in reducing dacoitry in the Kingdom of Kutch and also Jaisalmer.

Recognising that the dacoits robbed because they were impoverished and starving, he helped make arrangements that reduced these poor peoples’ need to steal. It was this success that attracted other rulers of Princely States to offer him employment.

Regarding Jaisalmer, I discovered this quote:
“On his retirement, one Laxmi Das Raoji Sapat, who had lately served as Police Commissioner in the Kutch State, was appointed as Dewan of Jaisalmer”
This was in 1903.

As for Mr Thacker, he was successful enough to have owned a large house with two separate kitchens (one veg, the other for meat), and to have employed an English governess for my wife’s maternal grandmother, Benabhai, who married the surgeon Haridas Bhatia FRCS (died of septicaemia whilst on duty in 1926).

Incidentally, Benabhai was sent to London to study at the former Bedford College at the same time as her husband was studying for his FRCS. This contrasts with Mahatma Gandhi, who went to study in London, leaving his wife behind in India.

In January 2023, whilst spending a short time in Bhuj, we took a look at the elegant exterior of the city’s Alfred High School, which adjoins the Bhuj Museum. Badly damaged in the earthquake of 2001, the school building has been well restored. A less attractive, newer building was built to enlarge the school. On a future and lengthier visit to Bhuj, we hope to be able to view the portrait of Laxmidas that hangs inside the school.

Long live the revolution!

NAGPADA JUNCTION IS one kilometre east of Mumbai Central Station. There are several interesting memorials located around this place where six busy roads meet. Each of them commemorates someone of the Islamic faith.

One memorial, a large rectangular bas-relief, is dedicated to the great poet Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869).

Dominating the junction is a tall flagpole from which India’s flag flutters. The base of this includes a large curved bas-relief in grey stone. The base has carvings of several important Indian freedom fighters including Mahatma Gandhi. There are also scenes of these leaders behind bars and other Indians being attacked by Britishers. The words “Quit India” can also be seen in several languages. The Quit India movement was one of many attempts to get the British to leave the huge country they ruled until 1947.

This monument and its flagpole are mainly dedicated to the memory of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958). In brief, he was all of the following and much more: an Indian independence activist, Islamic theologian, writer and a senior member of the Indian National Congress. Between 1947 and 1958, he was independent India’s first Minister of Education.

Lesser known than Ghalib and the Maulana, but also commemorated at Nagpada Junction is the freedom fighter Maulana Fazlul Hasan Hazrat Mohani (1875-1951). This celebrated writer of poetry in the Urdu language is best known for a slogan he created in 1921: “Inquilab zindabad”, which means “Long live the revolution”. He is also credited as being one of the first Indians to demand complete independence for India, rather than increases in the degree of the country’s autonomy whilst remaining part of the British Empire.

At first a member of The Indian National Congress, Hasan Hazrat later joined the Communist Party. He was against the Partition of India and would have preferred that India had become a confederation of states such as was the case in the USSR.

Nagpada Junction is both rich in traffic and memorials to notable Muslim men. One more memorial and a street name commemorate another Muslim, Sofia Zuber (Zubair), at this meeting place of busy. thoroughfares. She was an education superintendent for Urdu affiliated to a civic body and later a corporator from Nagpada. The short road named after her used to be a meeting place for Urdu authors and journalists.

I would not have written about this interesting traffic junction had I not noticed the Maulana Abul Kalam monument as we sped past it in a yellow and black taxi. Curious about it, we returned later and had a look around, and then ate good kebabs in the Sagar restaurant beside the junction.

Meeting Mahatma Gandhi in 2023

INDIA BECAME A REPUBLIC on the 26th of January 1948. Every year since then the 26th of January has been a public holiday known as Republic Day. On the 25th of January 2023, we met a senior advocate sitting in the Gujarat Club, which is next door to Ahmedabad’s Civil & Sessions Court. After showing us around the court building, he invited us to join him and his colleagues for the next day’s celebration.

The Republic Day celebrations began in the garden of the Court building at 9 am. A few soldiers, some of them armed with automatic rifles, arranged the flag raising. At 9 o clock, the Indian flag was unfurled by one of the senior judges, wearing a colourful pugree on her head, in front of a large group of senior advocates and some of the court’s staff. Many of the female advocates were attractively dressed in saris decorated with the colours of the Indian flag (green, saffron, and white). One of the ladies told us that 25 of these had been specially ordered from Agra.

When the flag was unfurled at the top of the flagpole, everyone sung the national anthem,”Jana Gana Mana”. Then everyone began taking photographs of one another. After this, we moved en-masse from the court garden to the compound of the Gujarat Club, where Mahatma Gandhi met Vallabhai Patel for the first time.

You can imagine my astonishment when I saw an elderly man who looked just like Mahatma Gandhi, both in physiognomy and in his manner of dressing. Holding a wooden staff and dressed in a white dhoti, sandals, and a shawl, he was a highly credible Gandhi lookalike.

Residing in the USA, this Gandhi impersonator has attended many Indian patriotic ceremonies. To date, he has appeared in 35 in the USA and about 60 in Ahmedabad. His presence was a huge success. Everyone wanted to be photographed alongside him. With his sturdy staff in one hand, he held his mobile phone in the other. Had they been available, I wonder whether the real Mahatma would have been happy to use one.

The lookalike took part in the Club’s flag raising ceremony, giving a short speech. After the ceremony was over, we were invited to join the advocates for a special breakfast in the Club. We were served jelebis, ganthia, kadhi, and shredded raw papaya with whole green chillies.

We were very happy to have been invited to join the advocates in their extremely enjoyable celebration of Republic Day at the Gujarat Club. This occasion increased my already great affection for the lovely city of Ahmedabad.

Where Mahatma Gandhi met Vallabhai Patel in Ahmedabad

THE GUJARAT CLUB, the oldest club in Ahmedabad, stands opposite the Ahmed Shah Masjid, the oldest mosque in the city. The club was founded in 1888 by Rao Bahadur Nagarji Desai. With over 1000 members, the much used clubhouse is in an unmodernised condition. Located next to the recently constructed (2020) City Civil and Session’s Court, the Club is a ‘hang-out” and informal meeting place for many senior advocates. In former times, the place was frequented by Ahmedabad’s wealthy Mill owners and high ranking Britishers. It was the first Indian club that admitted Indians as well as Europeans from the moment it was established.

Vallabhai Patel above a doorway at the Gujarat Club

The Club is located close to a house where Sardar Vallabhai Patel (1875-1950) lived. Patel frequented the Club regularly and played bridge there. It was where he first met Mahatma Gandhi in 1916. A tree marks the spot where they chatted.

After having passed the Bar Examination at London’s Middle Temple, where my wife achieved the same thing many years later, Patel came to live in Ahmedabad. The first meeting with Gandhi at the Club marked the start of Patel’s attachment to the Mahatma’s cause. Years later, Patel played a key role in uniting the former Princely States with what had been British India to form the India of today. An important freedom fighter for Indian independence, he became a senior member of the country’s government after 1947. A close associate of Gandhi, the two men chose to differ on how to deal with certain issues, for example the creation of Pakistan.

We sat under the verandah of the Gujarat Club and enjoyed cups of tea. From where we sat we could see a large rectangular open space, which was being used as a car park. The ground was marked out with tennis court lines and a couple of nets were stretched between rows of parked cars.

We began conversing with an advocate at the next table. When he learned that my wife was a barrister, he kindly offered to show us around the neighbouring court building.

We spent well over an hour sitting in various court rooms. Most of these had two layers of glass screens, separating the judges and the court officials from the rest of the room: a covid precaution.

Several things impressed my wife as being different from what happens in British courtrooms. First, the plaintiffs are permitted to speak directly with the judges, rather than via intermediaries such as barristers. Secondly, the judges seemed to be handed the papers of a case at the moment it was about to be heard, rather than in advance. Thirdly, each judge was able to switch seamlessly between fluent Gujarati, Hindustani, and English. Also, they made decisions far more rapidly than their counterparts in the UK.

After our fascinating visit to the court house, our host and a charming advocate from his firm invited us to return to the court and the Club to celebrate Republic Day on the following morning, the 26th of January 2023. We accepted, and I will describe the events in another essay.

Our visit to the vibrant Gujarat Club proved far more exciting than we had anticipated. What was once a place where mill owners rubbed shoulders with British officers and officials, where Patel first met Gandhi, is now a congenial place where advocates meet, converse, read, and relax.

Two architects and a painter in Ahmedabad

ON TUESDAY THE 24th of January 2023, we arrived in the city of Ahmedabad in the Indian State of Gujarat. That evening, we visited a friend who had been the curator of a building in Ahmedabad, which had been designed by the architect Le Corbusier. Our friend was pleased to see us but was upset because a close friend had died that morning at the age of 95. That friend had been a disciple collaborator of Le Corbusier.

Our friend’s friend was Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi, who was born in Pune in 1927. He worked with Le Corbusier in Paris between 1951 and 1954. He returned to Ahmedabad to supervise Le Corbusier’s architectural projects in that city. In 1955, Doshi established his own studio in Ahmedabad, and was working there until the day before he died.

Clearly influenced by Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, with whom he designed the campus of the Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad), his (some might say Brutalist) architecture embodies the ideals of Le Corbusier in a much more user-friendly form than that which his mentor produced.

Amdavad ni Gufa

Next door to CEPT University in Ahmedabad much of which was designed by Doshi, there stands Doshi’s most unusual edifice, the Amdavad ni Gufa (the Ahmedabad Cave), which was completed by 1990. Its is difficult to describe this structure, but I will try. Covered in a mosaic of black and white ceramic tiling, it resembles an enormous caterpillar partially submerged in the ground. It is a giant caterpillar punctuated by bulbosities of various sizes, some of which have hemispherical windows at the end of short stalks that project from the dome-like bulbosities.

Steps descend to the two entrances of the Gufa. Originally designed as an art gallery, its irregular shape and wavy floor deemed it unsuitable for its intended purpose. Within the Gufa, the ceiling is supported by irregularly shaped columns that resemble stalactites with have joined with stalagmites beneath them. The strange space, which was too odd to be used as a gallery, is now decorated with sculptures and murals painted by the celebrated Indian artist MF Husain (1915-2011).

The Gufa is one of the ‘must-see’ sights of Ahmedabad. With the recent demise of Doshi and the earlier death of Husain, the Gufa makes a fitting memorial to these two great creators.

Geometric and meaningful

BETWEEN A ZOROASTRIAN (Parsi) well and Churchgate railway station, both in central Mumbai, there stands a wonderful steel sculpture, which was financed by the Tata company (named after its Parsi founder).

The sculpture, completed in 2011, is the creation of the architect Nuru Karim and colleagues. Consisting of two closely placed spirals, it rises to a height of 11 metres. The spirals are formed using a set of triangular frames made of a type of Tata steel alloy.

The sculpture is named ‘Charkha’, which means ‘spinning wheel’, and refers to the spinning wheel which Mahatma Gandhi encouraged his followers to use to help make India self-sufficient and less dependent on British imported textiles. Each of the triangles are unique. Combined together in this sculpture, they are supposed to portray unity within diversity, and India’s rich mix of diverse cultures. In other words, the artwork is expressing the idea or hoped-for ideal that although a rich mix of different people, India is one united country.

Whether or not India has achieved this ideal, this sculpture is both aesthetically pleasing and a welcome addition to Mumbai’s incredibly rich mix of visual delights.

A bell at Byculla railway station

THE RAILWAY LINE between Bombay(Mumbai) and Thane was opened in 1853. Byculla Station was one of its original stations when trains began running along this stretch of track. At first a wooden building, it was soon replaced by the present stone structure, which was ready for use in 1857. This historic station, the oldest surviving railway station in India. was beautifully restored recently.

On platform 1, I spotted an old bell hanging close to one of the station’s offices. It is marked with the initials “GIPR”and the date 1863. The letters are the initials of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway company, which was incorporated in 1849. In contract with the British East India Company, its aim was to link the British Presidencies by rail. The first stretch to be built was that between Bombay and Thane.

The bell carries the name of its manufacture – “Mears & Co. Founders London”. This bell foundry, first established in the 16th century, moved to London’s Whitechapel Road in the very early 18th century. It was where one of the largest bells in St Paul’s Cathedral was made. The Mears family ran the foundry between 1784 until 1873.

The foundry ceased working in 2017. The bell at Byculla Station has by now long outlived the bell foundry in Whitechapel and the British Empire, during whose existence it was manufactured.