Kachchh’s physical isolation has created symphony of arts & crafts tradition and architecture

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By Hemang Desai

Kachchh is visually one of the most stunning districts of India. The landscape continuously surprises the human eye; in that there is something akin to the timelessness of great art about the landscape of Kachchh.  A line of a Kachchhi poem reflects Kachchh – dhingi dhara, dhinga dhor, dhingi boli, dhinga bol – meaning: This earth is firm, these animals are tough, this speech is strong, and this language is powerful.

Kachchh has been a gateway to Sindh in the west and to Gujarat to the east. Kachchh harbours a gateway to the mysterious Indus Valley Civilization as Dholavira is in Kachchh. If Bhuj town is a gateway to the military past of the region, then Kachchh itself is a gateway to the oceans and the world beyond them through its maritime past and present.  Kachchh is also a gateway to the great Rann. Popular belief has it that the Bhujio Hill of Bhuj is the seat of the mythical celestial serpent Bhujang, whose temporal abode is an active temple of Bhujangdev and whose worship is a living tradition. The ocean is ever-present in the mental picture the region has of itself that it describes itself in Kachchhi speech as ‘mitho mehran’ meaning ‘Sweet Ocean’. Goddess Ashapura is the patron goddess of Kachchh.

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Bhuj Chhatris

The history of Kachchh telescopes easily; it emerges with the conquest by the Sama Rajputs of Sindh in the 14th century AD. According to the traditional history, Mod and Manai, the sons of Lakha had established an independent kingdom that lasted from 820 AD to 1009 AD. Their descendent, Khengar, brought the whole of Kachchh under his sway in 1585AD. Khengar founded the Anjar town in 1545AD; Bhuj town in 1548 AD; and Mandvi in 1580AD. The title of ‘Rao’ was bestowed upon Khengar by the sultan of Gujarat. In January 1816 AD, a treaty with the British East-India Company signed at Bhuj had brought Kachchh under the British till 1947AD.

Some of the finest expressions of Indian civilization have been its cities; Gujarat has had a long tradition of great towns: Anartpur, Vadnagar, Siddhpur, Junagadh, Patan and Ahmedabad. The town of Bhuj continues this urban tradition of Gujarat.  The cities of Kachchh, during the historical period and after, are important identity elements of the region as they embody vital aspects of Kachchhiyaat (Kachchhness).  There are buildings of royal past of the place as well as temples and secular buildings in the towns of Kachchh. Today, more than 30 per cent of the 1.5 million population of Kachchh in an area of 45,652 square kilometers is urban. Bhuj city is the divadandi (light house) of Kachchh, a gateway to the urban past and present of Kachchh.

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Bhuj Palace

The princely past of Kachchh and its physical isolation has created a symphony of arts and craft traditions. Some of these are living design and crafts traditions, especially in the Kachchhi vernacular architecture; in the everyday object designing; and famously in dress. The relative physical isolation of Kachchh has always been pointed out while discussing its arts and that is true, but its openness to the world outside is also clear in Kachchhi buildings and decorative art.

The temples of Kerakot and Kotai show a beautiful fusion of the local Kachchhi traditions with that of the Maha-Gurjar style, prevalent at the time of their construction in northern Gujarat and southern Rajasthan. The earliest temple in Kachchh is that of Shiva at Puan Ra’no Gadh. The famous temple at Bhadreshwar (the ancient Bhadrawati) was built in 13th century AD.

The princely palace and its construction were important to the British rulers during the Raj. The palace symbolized the princely state’s authority; its architectural style was the visible manifestation of the power linking a Princely State to the British Raj. Indeed, the palace and other buildings of the numerous princely states were a carefully constructed ‘scene’ of the Raj. These curious, hybrid and at times puerile architectural ensembles scattered over the Indian sub-continent are the remains left by the ‘junior’ partners of the British Raj in India.

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A view of Aina Mahal facade with a traditional balcony

The architectural ‘style’ of these buildings continue the solid and practical approach to building design taken by the British rulers in their ‘civic’ architecture of hospitals, law courts and railway stations whose designs were dictated by utility and common sense. The British political agent at the court ‘advised’ the princely state from time to time about the ‘appropriate’ architectural style to be adopted for the palace and other buildings in the princely domain. The princes jostled with each other to hire European architects and designers most in vogue and whose services would strike chords of goodwill with the British rulers. These palaces were the insatiable markets ever-ready to gobble up high-end European luxury goods manufactured in the workshops and factories of Europe of the time: Lalique, Murano and Bohemian crystal were among the familiar brand names that set the generally loud tone of the cluttered palace dining tables and interior spaces.

The Aina Mahal Palace of Bhuj, built around 1750 AD, is a good example of Kachchhi vernacular architecture. The chief rooms on the first floor are an audience hall and the hall of mirrors where entertainments were held. The white marble walls covered with mirrors are pure opulence that the princes of Kachchh indulged in. The rooms were lit with elaborate Venetian pendant candelabra and chandeliers.

Central on this floor is the bold and intimate interior space of Hira Mahal, Maharao Lakhpatji’s bedroom. The bedroom displays many luxurious objects of decorative arts among which is a diamond-studded sword and shield presented by the Mughal emperor Alamgir in the 18th century AD. The Hira Mahal has 27 Rococo style mirrors and many other glass objects specially made for this room.

The Prag Mahal is the chief visual-identity element of Bhuj.  Rao Pragmal commenced its construction in 1865AD. This pale red-brick, stone structure took over ten years to build, costing over 20 Lac rupees. Designed by the architect Colonel Henry Saint Clair Wilkins (without a doubt recommended by the British Resident at Bhuj court), the Prag Mahal flaunts the Italian Gothic style and has a 150-foot-high bell tower. It is a cheerful riot of terra-cotta moulds, painted walls, marble capitals and columns, entablatures and friezes. The Prag Mahal showcases many varieties of marble available in Kachchh – the jet black marble from Habba quarry; the brown-yellow marble from the Khavada quarry and the variegated marble from Dewara quarry. The Vijay Vilas Palace of Mandvi and Ranjit Vilas Palace of Bhuj followed the Prag Mahal during the later decades.

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 A textile example of Kachchh

House-making in the wood had attained the status of high art, centuries before the middle-ages of India, though examples of great beauty now are found only in Gujarat; in some regions of the Himalayas and in the South of India. The havelis (a haveli is a grand mansion) of the towns of Gujarat: Vaso, Godhara, Dahod, Palanpur, Radhanpur, Patan, Sidhhpur, Himmatnagar, Ahmedabad, Kapadvanj, Dholka, Kheda, Khambhat, Vadodara, Dabhoi, Champaner, Surat, Mandvi, and Bhuj. The Kachchhi master carpenters have created masterpieces of columns, pillars, brackets (an example is Fateh Mohmmed no Khordo), balconies (an example is the Aina Mahal), ceilings, chabutaras or bird-feeders and windows.

Nature in all her delicacy is ever-present in Kachchhi woodwork: ornate patterns, floral motifs, birds, animals and human figures lend a fluid quality to these creations.

Kachchh had a rich tradition of wall painting in the local folk style called Kamangiri, done by the Kamangars who were both Hindu and Muslim artists. This school of painting, developed during the 18th century AD, reached its height during the middle of the 20th century, after which it has been steadily deteriorating.  Kamangiri paintings always had religious themes and infused the realm of the house with spiritual energy. Fortunately, Kamangiri paintings have survived in the house of Captain McMurdo, the first British Political Agent at Anjar.

If Kachchh paintings ‘surprise and delight’, then Kachchhi silver works charm with their intricate ornaments and sensuous forms. Like in the painting and woodwork, a Kachchhi silverwork absorbs the landscape; meditates on it and then interpretes it in high-grade silver: animals and flowers; trees and vines; birds and leaves adorn every square millimeter of the surface of Kachchhi silverware.  Kachchhi silverwork design takes inspiration from many sources; there are Dutch stylistic sources and Mughal and Portuguese motifs in them that show complete mastery of technique.

The famous bandhani (tie-dye) and block-printing, including the resist-dyed and printed ajrakh are the textile crafts of Kachchh. The towns of Mandvi, Abdasa, Anjar and Dhamdka are the leaders in the practice of these crafts where the Khatri community dominates its production. The famed Kachchhi embroidery that does not stop to inspire both international fashion designers and Bollywood alike, is mostly the work of village women; a product of their dowry preparation in ancient tradition. The textile scholar Judy Frater states that “the myriad styles of embroidery of Kachchh present a richly textured map of regions and ethnic groups.

Each style (a distinct combination of stitches, patterns and colours, and rules for using them) was shaped by historical, socio-economic and cultural factors. Each has regional elements, shared by several different communities and ethnic distinctions to varying degrees.”  Kachchhi textiles can be viewed as an attempt by Kachchhi people at rendering its stunning landscape into their textile weaves, texture, stitches and colours.


Pix by Vatsal

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