You need tenacity to get to the ancient Indus Valley city of Dholavira. Villages in the eastern badlands of Kutch are so remote you are required to obtain a permit to travel. You have to apply in person in Gandhidam, so expect to spend a day getting it organised if you have made Bhuj your base. Then it's a 250 kilometre hike along an increasingly lonely road from Bhuj towards the sensitive border with Pakistan. A bus will take seven hours to get you there, but with your own car and driver you can stop off along the way at any of the frontier villages, or bird-filled shallow lakes and really enjoy the journey. There is a long bridge from the mainland to the island over a scorched white desert of salt in the dry season, and the sea in the monsoon.
The 5000-year-old Harappan city of Dholavira lies in the northernmost reaches of the Great Rann of Kutch, on the floodplain island of Khadir. The Harappans were part of the spectacularly successful Indus Valley Civilization and possessed the same high intelligence as their better-known western counterparts in Egypt and Greece. Dholavira is one of the five most notable Indus Valley settlements, the best known being Mohenjodaro, a Unesco-listed site in Pakistan. Many of Dholavira's unique artefacts are in showcases at the National Museum in Delhi, but a few ancient seals, beads and other small items are on display in the small circular visitor centre and museum on site.
The excavation stretches over 100 hectares, most of it within a hillside fortification. Visitors are left without supervision to scramble through the citadel, cemetery, two stadia, many dwellings, several monumental gateways (including one with the first 'sign board' in the world above its entrance) and sturdy walls. To get to this unique city, which has stood for thousands of years, you must walk across a concrete bridge over one of the two rivers which flow round the hill in the monsoon. Built in the 1990s, the bridge is already crumbling.
The settlement was hewn from the rocky hill on which it sits and is unique among Harappan cities for its innovative engineering methods in collecting and conserving water: the site is dotted with dams, covered channels, perfectly preserved (and still working) reservoirs and storm water management systems. There are no guides, no touts and no-one there to sell you trinkets. If you persist you might be given a small pamphlet about the site, but it would be wise to bring your own information.
During my one-on-one tour with the caretaker, I asked him how many people he saw a year, “about 200” was the reply.
“What about foreign tourists?” I said.
He laughed, and indicated with a shrug that we were the first he had seen in a long time.
This is a shame, because the drive from Bhuj alone is an adventure, and worth a two day detour from the honeypot textile villages around Kutch's capital. The area is a naturalist's paradise. We saw flocks of demoiselle cranes and three species of ibis, as well as harriers, spoonbills, pelicans, storks, kites and countless other birds in the shallow waters which sprinkle the plain. This startling and unique habitat is also home to the nilgai, the largest antelope in Asia, of which we saw plenty.
Kachchh (Kutch) is full of history, ancient and modern, much of which is represented in this eclectic but charming privately run museum. Founded in 1877, it contains ancient artefacts, including pieces from the magnificent Harappan site of Dholavira. There is a gripping photographic explanation of the 2001 earthquake, but its strength lies in its detailed coverage of the local tribes of Kachchh.
On the ground floor a series of life-size tableaux, with meticulous attention to detail, depicts the different communities of this often hostile expanse of land. Each scene shows men and women at work wearing traditional costume unique to their caste. A lengthy description of the community in Hindi and English accompanies each scene.
Upstairs there are stunning displays of Kachchh's world renowned textiles, from embroidery so fine it looks as though it was sewn by fairies, to glorious beading, mirror-work, bandhani and the dying crafts of ikat and hand-painted Rogan art.
Price: 50 INR
Hours: Thu-Tue 10am-1pm, & 2.30-5.30pm (closed 2nd & 4th Sat of month)
Google map: bit.ly/wt9kpb
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