The most important site in Bhuj was considered to be the Aina Mahal (housed in the Darbargadh Palace). The palace complex was largely destroyed in the 2001 earthquake ~ previous to that it had stood since the mid-18th century. It was designed and decorated by a Dutch-trained builder who even managed to construct working fountains that reached the second floor royal apartments (though they weren't still functioning by the time I visited :-) ).
The Aina Mahal was open as a museum when I was there (clocks, ceramics, embroidery) and it was also the location of the Tourist Office. We made arrangements here for a driver and guide to go into the Rann of Khachchh.
Favorite thing: Located in the Darbargadh Palace complex (across from the Aina Mahal), the Prag Mahal was added a hundred-odd years after its neighbouring building. The views from the clocktower (pictured) were fantastic. The building itself showed more British than Indian architecure influences.
The Swaminarayan Temple's doors were actually closed to visitors the first and second time we dropped by (we had hoped to have better luck with a second try). The temple exterior itself though was very colourful and the street surrounding it quite busy.
I've read since that this temple was lost to the 2001 earthquake.
Hamrisar Lake forms the Western centre of Bhuj and it makes for a good point of orientation. It was an incredibly peaceful place to sit for a while.
Bhuj in general seemed to have a slower pace (admittedly, I was just coming from Mumbai), and this observation held up over the length of our travels.
Bhuj was a walled city with a fantastic maze of markets that seemed frozen in time. It was very easy to get lost in the winding streets ~ occasionally we'd would make a wrong turn and end up back out on a quieter road, but we would quickly wheel around and re-enter the centre of shops and stalls.
My photos from the market area didn't turn out (poor lighting), but this photo gives a peek at the nature of the slower, calmer streets of Bhuj.
This is a view over the Aina Mahal (taken from the Prag Mahal's clocktower).
The Aina Mahal had a fantastic exhibit by a local photographer when I was there. The man had spent five years living with rural tribes in the Khachchh ~ the displayed photos were largely of a marriage ceremony between a 7 and 9 year old girl and boy. The traditional dress and jewellery in the photos gave us a terrific sneak peek at what was to come in our road trip into the Khachchh. The level of intimacy that the photographer gained by investing those years with the tribe was indescribable and came through in every shot.
Favorite thing: One of the main features in the Aina Mahal was the Hall of Mirrors ~ this was a long room with walls of white marble. The marble was almost entirely covered with mirrors separated by gilded ornaments. The effect of the lighting (an ornate chandelier) was not quite as impressive as the candle-revealed Sheesh Mahal at Jaipur's Amber Fort, but it was beautiful nonetheless.
The Bhuj markets hold all sorts of interesting items ~ you'll see a lot of embroidery (it's a tribal specialty in the neighbouring Rann of Khachchh), handicrafts and jewellery.
There is also a section (and additional stalls peppered throughout the lanes) of spices and foodstuffs. It's these items that always entice me. . .with their carefully-groomed little peaks of colour. . .
The Rann of Khachchh is located in the Northwest corner of Gujarat, along the border with Pakistan.
The area south of the Rann ~ all around Bhuj ~ is called the Khachchh district and it is home to a number of tribal communities.
Fondest memory: My fondest memory is of hiring a guide in Bhuj to drive out into the tribal villages. . .and ultimately to a monastery filled with characters who can hardly be described.
Gujarat is one of the lesser-visited states in India; villages near the Rann of Khachchh are even more off the beaten path. The roads outside of the cities are fairly empty and it's more likely that you'll come across camels than cars and trucks.
It's a wonderful place to feel as if you're seeing an untouched part of the country.
The tribal areas around Bhuj can apparently be a mixed bag ~ there are a number of villages that are common stops on the "normal" tourist route. We hit one on our second day and the difference was immediately apparent ~ kids shouting at us for pens, candies, rupees. . .any chance for a genuine exchange of interest was long gone.
We were lucky to find the guide we did, through the Aina Mahal tourist office in Bhuj. Sakur came along with a driver, Salim, and I can't imagine better choices of villlages to visit.
This view from a farm near Bhuj is such a contrast to the Rann of Khachchh villages that we visited ~ we went from lush, green vegetation (and mountains in the background), to pure desert landscape. . .all in the space of 60 kilometres.
Fondest memory: As with the rest of India, Gujarat holds a variety of landscapes, language, cultures, faiths and people.
While visiting a more tourist-friendly area has the advantages of smoother infrastructure, getting out into the smaller villages almost guarantees more genuine and positive encounters.
Fondest memory: The Dhoramnath Monastery hadn't had any guests in half a year. . .so our welcome was amazing! Word of our visit even "leaked out" to some neighbours and we had extra guests to watch our badminton game in the evening.
Favorite thing: The Royal Cenotaphs are just outside the old city of Bhuj ~ we were told they were 20th century recreations of the 18th century originals. They were largely destroyed in the earthquake.