It's the time of the year, when people flock to Kutch to experience the splendid spectacle of the white Rann. Almost everyone who does so, happens to head out to the Rann from Bhuj, which is the largest city in Kutch, a district in the state of Gujarat.
But there's more to Bhuj than being just a transit point and I would highly recommend spending a day here whenever you get a chance.
Bhuj will always be special to me, as it was the first city I explored as a solo traveller. She opened up to me and made me feel so welcome. Everyone I met down alleyways, around Hamisar Lake, in small shops and roadside eateries made my trip more enriching and interesting.
If you have 24 hours in the city, this is what your itinerary should look like:
Explore Prag Mahal & Aina Mahal
Don't be discouraged by the crumbling entrance to Prag Mahal and Aina Mahal, as hidden within are magnificent buildings both worth exploring. Prag Mahal feels like someone plucked a building out of Europe and transported it to Bhuj. Rao Pragmalji II commissioned Colonel Henry Saint Wilkins to build his palace in 1865. Built in the Italian Gothic style, the palace is constructed using sandstone from Rajasthan and has the second highest clock tower in India. Heavily damaged in the earthquake that struck the region in 2001, in the last few years, upkeep and restoration has saved much of what you see today. The durbar hall which is the heart of the building is grand yet forlorn. Large chandeliers, mirrors and statues give a glimpse into what the hall might have looked like in its glory days. Don't leave without trekking up the clock tower to enjoy a fabulous view of the city.
Besides Prag Mahal stands the Aina Mahal, a palace that is magnificent from the inside as unassuming as it is from the outside. Rao Lakhpatji was a man of fine taste and it was he who commissioned Ram Singh Malam to build Aina Mahal. The palace is heavily influenced by European design, as Ram Singh Malam had spent 17 years in Europe before returning to India. 'Aina' means mirror and mirrors are found aplenty across the palace. To meet the massive demand for mirrors a glass factory was set up in Mandavi.
Have a leisurely lunch
You can't visit Bhuj and not have a Gujarati thali or an all you can eat vegetarian meal of assorted dishes. As you travel across Gujarat, flavors change sometimes subtly and sometimes very evidently. Kutchi food is known for the use of millets and recipes that are imple yet delicious. Head to Toral restaurant at Hotel Prince for a lavish thali meal. Splendid hospitality is part of the whole thali eating experience so enjoy it! (Hotel Prince, Station Road, Bhuj; timings: 11:30 a ..m. - 15:00 p.m. and 19:00 p.m. - 21:30 p.m.)
Walk around the Kutch Museum
After lunch, escape from the searing heat and spend time exploring the many exhibits at the Kutch Museum. Situated close to the Hamisar Lake the museum has 11 sections, each focusing on a particular aspect of Kutchi history, craft and heritage. An entire section dedicated to the Indus Valley Civilisation has many spectacular exhibits such as ancient seals and tablets.
Don't miss the life size replicas of the different Kutchi communities, wearing their traditional costumes. The textile exhibit on the 1st floor, is a fabulous introduction to the intricate and rich traditions of Kutchi textile crafts.
Visit the Swaminarayan Temple
Built in 1823, the temple was heavily damaged in the 2001 earthquake. The idols in the sanctum were however intact and they were eventually moved to a new temple built soon after. Situated close to the old temple and made entirely of white marble, the new temple is a site behold.
Watch the sun go down at Hamisar Lake
As the sun begins its downward descent there's no better place to be in Bhuj but by the fringe of Hamirsar Lake. Locals flock to the lake to unwind after a day's work. Parents bring children to run around, couples come to enjoy the quiet, old people come to meet their friends and many like me just come to soak in the city. Make shift stalls fold up their covers and shutters, and start their day's business. Try kutchi dabeli a popular snack made of a spicy vegetable mixture stuffed between a pav or bun and topped with pomegranates, peanuts and sev.
Explore Bhuj's old market area
From the lake walk towards Prag Mahal and ask your way around till you get to the Shroff bazaar. Shop for souvenirs to take back like colorful bags, clothes and fantastic jewelry. Most often you can identify the different communities by the ornaments they wear. On my 2 day trip I met several women and girls wearing some gorgeous silver jewelry. When I asked them where they got it from, most of them said from the markets of Bhuj. In Shroff bazaar head to Soni Ishwarlal Narbheram & Co (Ph: +91 2832 250733) to buy some authentic Kutchi jewelry.
Don't leave Bhuj without buying some gulab pak a sweet made of mava, cashews and dried rose petals. Khavda Sweets is a good place to sample and take some back home.
Bhuj is well connected by rail and air to Ahmedabad and Mumbai. In the city use local autos to get around. Make sure to fix a rate before you get into one.
Hotel Prince is a comfortable mid range hotel on station road, close to the old city. The rooms are basic, clean and comfortable. The breakfast is wholesome and good. Their in house Toral serves a good Gujarati thali.