reflections on bhuj
Bhuj was off the tourist trail. Not famous for it’s simple ancient
buildings Bhuj wasn’t on route to anywhere except the remarkable
villages of Kutch and the vast salt fields to the north. Kutchi shawls
and weaving is highly sought after for the boldness of it’s design
and the beauty of its embroidery, often inlaid with mirrors. The people
of Bhuj were some of the sweetest I have ever met: some of my happiest
memories as a traveler, centre in and around that area of Gujurat.
How tragic that it has been devastated by one of the biggest earthquakes
India has yet seen. The beautiful city totally flattened and so many
of those gracious people gone.
I was fortunate enough to have had two visits to Bhuj first in 1997
and then in 1999 when I returned with my wife. I had heard about the
Ayurvedic Nature Cure Centre where for the equivalent of about $15
a day you could undertake a 10 day body cleanse. This might consist
of a 3 day fast, followed by a light specially selected vegetarian
diet combined with massage, yoga, steam baths, mud packs and magnetic
therapy. After a week or so and once the backache from the accumulated
toxins in the system had gone, you emerged feeling ten years younger.
Too good to be true?
Bhuj is a 12 –16 hour trip from Bombay by overnight train – and
second class air-conditioned sleeper makes it pretty comfortable in
a simple way. The sheets are clean and crisp. The railway food is tasty
and good and the sweet milky chai, plentiful. On that first memorable
journey I shared a compartment with an economics professor from Gandhidham
and a young manager for Ikea (the Swedish furniture multinational )
whose first- class commerce degree got him the job ahead of over 1000
applicants. Only tourists and the wealthy Indian can afford air conditioned
compartments on the trains. Not that it was necessary in the cooling
early November temperatures. The train bypassed Ahmedabad ( The Manchester
of India ) an extremely polluted and incredibly noisy industrial city,
and went on to the smaller ‘partition’ city of Gandhidham.
From there, Bhuj was a half-hour taxi ride.
The Nature Cure Centre was originally built in the 60’s in the
open fields just outside the charming old city. Pretty soon those fields
were filled in with new apartment and office buildings. Traffic on
the adjacent main road was a noisy, smoky steady stream of kerosene
laced benzene fumes. Hardly picturesque. Yet the atmosphere was surprisingly
peaceful; imbued with the kindness and sweetness of the Bhuj people.
The centre itself was a two-story concrete building that had grown
in a higgledy-piggledy way as needs had increased. Rooms were shared
and meals taken in a little courtyard. People would come from all over
the world, mostly Indian but a few westerners. The centre had considerable
success treating diabetes and allergy related illnesses. But people
came for different reasons.
At sunrise a group of us would wander sleepily up on the roof top
for early morning yoga. In the chill November morning you could gaze
across to the large playing field opposite just as the first passionate
cricketers arrived. Cricket - the new religion of India. By 8.00 am
the field would be full of dozens of players, everyday of the week.
A quick game on the way to work. In the streets the schoolchildren
milling about in their colourful cardigans and wooly hats. All dressed
up cozily for a winter, little different in temperature from a Christchurch
spring. It is the smiles one remembers mostly – so freely given.
In the last 10 years Bhuj had become a popular city for the new emerging
middle class. Proud of its prosperity, new apartment buildings and
large “mansion” houses sprang up on the outskirts of the
old city. The style was an ugly and undistinguished ‘internationalism ’ and
the buildings were concrete. High rise apartment buildings were part
of the new Bhuj. In less than a decade the population had grown from
under 100,000 to about 300,000. The nearby marble quarry was busy supplying
the finishing touches of new found prosperity to hallways and bathrooms
of the new middle class homes with flush toilets and hot water from
the tap. Yet, just across the street you could still get a good shave
and a great scalp massage for a few rupees in a little packing case
stall adjacent to the new buildings. Simplicity and poverty jostling
right outside the doors of the rich. It’s the story of India.
All of India strains under the colossal weight of its ever-burgeoning
population. As beautiful as the Taj Mahal or Rajasthan’s desert
cities are – the ceaseless badgering by beggars and touts that
invariably hang around famous tourist spots can come pretty close to
ruining the experience. We as wealthy westerners, are lulled by the
brochures into an illusion that these experiences are quietly contemplative.
Spiritual, almost. Not necessarily so. Virtually everyone is on the
make. Everyone has something to sell you, legitimate or otherwise.
Bhuj was different from that. It was a place I made real friends.
Few tourists came, and it was a great advantage to remain some weeks
in the same spot. No one hassled you. All one ever needs to do in India
is to stay still for a while and sooner or later every aspect of life
will pass in front of you. Bhuj captured my heart as no other destination
has. The Nature Cure Centre was a unique place to pause for a while.
No lines of tour buses or armies of Japanese photo-opportunists.
The major town of the Kutch district, Bhuj was an old walled city.
In days gone by the gates to the city would be locked at night. How
I loved that city – it’s bright, multi coloured vivacity
and its excitement and bustle of its tiny streets. It was as enchanting
to me as Christchurch had once been when I was a child; when Cathedral
Square served a purpose as a genuine meeting place and long before
the suburban shopping malls had emptied out the heart of Christchurch’s
central city. Bhuj had wonderful organic unity, an aliveness now missing
from my home town. A genuinely thriving bustling market place with
hundreds of little shops – knife-sharpeners, gold merchants and
silversmiths, silk saris, sweet shops, kitchen utensils, plumbing fittings,
shops selling bangles and hair ornaments – such divergence.
I loved walking those streets, dodging the auto rickshaws and sacred
cows. And at 9.00 pm the shutters would come down and the bustle would
suddenly evaporate, leaving a few straggling cows wending their way
home in the gloom. A few youths hanging about on motor-scooters, but
no menace in the streets. ( No drunks. Gujurat is teetotal ). No sense
that it was ever unsafe to walk back home in the cool night. (No one
in their right mind would walk some areas in central Christchurch after
dark these days). Bhuj was safe. It was city that functioned well,
and with respect and care for each other. Relations between Hindu and
Muslim were harmonious. There were few beggars and the crime rate was
It’s gone. Flattened in about 30 seconds. The heavy sandstone
buildings of the old city completely destroyed. The ancient palaces,
the Hindu and Jain temples, The 19th C remnants of the Rahj, the little
shops, the schools, the homes. Those friends I made – the sweet
graceful people fill my thoughts in the aftermath of their tragedy.
The tailor who made me a couple of fine silk kurta shirts that I never
wear, the man in the toffee shop who made the delicious sesame toffee
that I wasn’t meant to eat, the little school with the bright
eyed cleanest children with their ribonned lustrous hair, the Photographer’s
studio with the amusing wedding shots on the board outside, the vegetable
market with its wonderful colours and unfamiliar smells. Dr Jay Sanghvi
and his lovely family with his son the same age as mine. Who will have
survived ? The life of a beautiful city – over. The lives of
so many of its inhabitants cut tragically short.
I guess there isn’t much room for cricket on the field opposite
the Nature Cure Centre: It is where the survivors of the earthquake
have been camping out. I expect the chill winter air is no longer crisply
enchanting. But maybe someone will find a ball and a cricket bat before
too long. Maybe find just enough space for a pitch within the encampment
- improvise a wicket. Create a semblance of life going on. With all
my heart I hope so.
Malcolm McNeill 1st Feb 2001