Gujarat, the westernmost state of India, is popular for its non-spicy vegetarian food, handicrafts and, the White Rann. In the Kutch district, one can find all three splendours of Gujarat. It is the westernmost part of Gujarat and shares an international border with Pakistan. Bhuj is the most important city of the region. Bhuj, along with other parts of Kutch, suffered a devastating earthquake in the year 2001. The local government, in a bid to resurrect Kutch, has since then extensively promoted all that Kutch has on offer to tourists — The Great Rann of Kutch (White Rann), the unique handicrafts of Kutch and the the place’s historical significance.
Visiting Kutch properly takes at least one week. The main reason for this being the huge distance between places. In this itinerary, the following are covered: Bhuj, Bhujodi, Ajhrakhpur, Nirona, Ludiya and the White Rann.
How to reach Kutch
Ideally, Bhuj should be the base city for a Kutch trip.
By flight: Bhuj has an airport which is served by some airlines; however, flights are generally very costly. Ahmedabad is the budget option.
By train: Bhuj is the nearest and most convenient railhead in Kutch. Bhuj is well connected to major cities like Mumbai, Delhi and even Kolkata.
By road: Ahmedabad is the nearest major city with good road connectivity. State and private buses regularly ply on the Ahmedabad-Bhuj route. If you intend to rent a car and self drive on the Kutch trip, then Ahmedabad is the city from where you should do it. Self driving car rental services are absent in Bhuj city. However, scooters and motorcycles can be rented from Bhuj city for multi-day Kutch trips.
Why Bhuj should not be underestimated
In a bid to see the White Rann, visitors often overlook the touristic delights that Bhuj can offer. It is a small town which grew around the Hamirsar Lake. We visited Bhuj on the first week of March and found the lake mostly dried up. A walk through its narrow alleys and sleepy neighbourhoods disclosed to us the town’s fondness for cows and bulls. They are found roaming the streets everywhere and usually they have elaborately curved horns. Once in a while, we came across half destroyed buildings which must have been someone’s home before the earthquake. The deep cracks on the walls of some houses spoke of the narrow escapes their residents had had.
Aina Mahal (Timing: 9AM – 11.45AM ; 3PM-5.45PM, Thursday closed) – Aina Mahal was constructed under the rule of Maharao Lakhpatji by the talented Ramsinh Malam. Ramsinh had spent 18 years in Holland and had acquired a fine knowledge of European artwork. Aina Mahal lives up to its name which means ‘the palace of mirrors’. In the earthquake of 2001, Aina Mahal suffered some serious damage. However, a part of it was restored and can be visited by tourists. Some of the things to lookout for in Aina Mahal includes the Nagpanchami Ashwari scroll — a 47 feet long scroll describing a royal procession, the Fuvanra Mahal, the Hall of Mirrors and the Hira Mahal.
Entry fee is INR 20 per person and INR 50 per camera (be it DSLR or phone camera). We carried a DSLR with us and paid INR 50 for it. Once we were inside, we tried shooting videos with our phone camera, but we were not allowed to do so. There is no guide service, or any literature which you can consult before taking the tour. The explanations are not enough and sometimes the script is Gujarati. It would take a maximum of 1.5 hours to explore Aina Mahal including photography.
Prag Mahal (Timing: 9.30AM – 12.15PM ; 3PM – 5.45PM) – Prag Mahal lies adjacent to Aina Mahal. Its construction started during the regime of Rao Pragmalji II and ended under the rule of his son. Prag Mahal exhibits a Gothic style of architecture. The design was headed by Colonel Henry Saint Wilkins. The marbles and artisans involved in the construction of this palace were sourced from Italy. Just like Aina Mahal, this palace too suffered extensive damage and most of the palace is off-the limits for tourists. During our visit, only one hall and two small rooms on the first floor were open for public. The hall had a collection of stuffed animals which were probably hunted by the royals. Chandeliers, stained glass windows, huge mirror and chairs were some of the other accessories. The small rooms contained wardrobes, dressing units, carriages, chairs, tables, kitchen equipments, models of a ship building business in Mandvi and a wooden mannequin head on which the turban of the king was prepared. A clock tower adorns the external walls of the Prag Mahal. It is possible for visitors to climb up to the top of the tower and enjoy the vista of Bhuj city.
Entry fee is INR 30 per person and INR 50 per camera. Car parking charge is INR 30. 1.5 hour is more than enough to explore Prag Mahal including photo sessions. The external walls of Prag Mahal and Aina Mahal do not speak much about its royalty. The premises of the palaces flaunt some half destroyed structures like a well, outhouse and dangerously dangling balconies.
Ajrakhpur (handicraft village) – Ajrakhpur is 15 kilometres away from Bhuj and a private vehicle is definitely recommended to take one from Bhuj to Ajrakhpur. The village is where the Ajrakh block printers live and practise their art. The Ajrakh block printed sarees take a minimum of 14 days to complete. It involves several meticulous steps and extensive use of indigo. By visiting Ajrakhpur, you can actually see the artisans performing their jobs. Visit the workshops which are mostly attached to their residences and check out the collection at the retail outlets. After all, how often do we come across an entire village engaged in one form of profession?
Allot atleast 1.5 hours to explore Ajrakhpur. If possible, ask for Ismail Mohammad Khatri. Visit his workshop and talk to him. The artisans of Ajrakhpur allow genuinely interested travellers to check out their workshop for free. Starting price of sarees hover around INR 3000 and jackets are for INR 1800.
Bhujodi (handicraft village) – If Ajrakhpur is famous for its Ajrakh style of block printed fabric; Bhujodi is popular for its weaver community. Bhujodi is about 14 kilometres away from Bhuj. The spinning wheel is actively used here to manufacture thread from yarn. The crafters create fabric from wool. They gladly give all tourists who land at their doorstep a sneak peek into their workshop and explain in detail all the processes involved. Shawls, stoles, decorative bed covers are their specializations. No matter how successful the entrepreneurs are, they still seek the suggestions of the village elders before taking any major art related decision.
Allot atleast 1.5 hour to explore Bhujodi. I walked into the workshop of Vankar Vishram Valji. His son answered all my inquisitive questions with patience, showed me around his workshop and let me pore over his collections. He can be reached at +91 9408305584/ +91 98790 24556 (email@example.com ). Prices of articles start at INR 500.
Bhujio Dungar – One of the lesser known attractions of the city includes the Bhujio Dungar or Bhujio Hill. It lies in the eastern part of the city. A fortification runs throughout the perimeter of this hill. On top is a small shrine dedicated to the snake God, Bhujang Nag. Several flights of steep staircases take one to the top of the Bhujio Dungar, at the doorstep of the temple. It offers a bird’s eye view of the entire city of Bhuj and is the best spot to bask in sunrises and sunsets.
We attempted climbing the stairs just before sunset. The task needs a decent amount of physical fitness. Do not try climbing up if you are unfit, or allow a lot more time to take sufficient breaks. The incredible view, the silhouette sunset and the pleasant breeze, made up for the tough climb. It is possible to walk on the fortification from one end to the other. It is advisable that one should climb down before dark; however, the staircases are lit up at night. Exploration should take approximately 2 hours and entry is free of cost, of course.
Chhatedi – Bhuj surprised us with the unique features it possesses. The Chhatedi or Cenotaphs of Bhuj are one of a kind in India. Sadly, much of it was destroyed in the earthquake and reduced to rubble. But many still stand in an intact or semi-intact form. Some of the scenes of the visually stunning Bollywood movie Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam were shot here. The problem, which is persistent with all other architectural landmarks of Bhuj, continues even here – the significance of the landmarks is not well documented. The Chhatedi built by the royals of Kutch is supposed to be a memorial place for all those soldiers who died at war and whose mortal remains were never recovered. Tomb-like structures with elaborate artwork erected in honour of the deceased came to be known as the Chhatedi. Admission is free and it remains open throughout the day. It is advisable to visit this spot in the first hour or last hour of the day to avoid burning in the Sun. Adjacent to the Chhatedi is a garden and the handful of shady trees there are the only resort to escape the sunshine. Chhatedi can be explored within 0.5-1 hour duration.
Ramkund Stepwell – Literally tucked in the centre of the city, surrounded on all sides by residential houses, this is hands down the most unheard of attraction in Bhuj. It is a small square stepwell with Hindu mythological characters etched on its wall. The ancient stepwell of Bhuj does not appear on Google Maps. It is nearby the Kutch Museum. Entry is free and it can be visited all day long.
We found the stepwell to be in a sordid state. We were the only visitors, there were no caretakers and the water was extremely dirty and stinky. Reserve 15 minutes for this ancient stepwell.
Nirona Village (handicraft village) – Nirona village is a hub of handicrafts. The village boasts of three artforms and each stands apart from the other. The village looks like just any other Indian village but behind the closed doors, the hands of extraordinary artisans are always at work. Block at least 3-4 hours for Nirona in your itinerary.
The Rogan Artists of Nirona — Ideally, your first stop should be the Rogan artists of Nirona at the residence of Sumar D. Khatri (+91 9998788855). In the entire world Rogan Art is practised only in Nirona Village by the Khatri family. The colours used for this art is manufactured using castor oil. But the detailed manufacturing process is a secret kept well guarded by the family members. The technique of how the painting is done freehand over the cloth using just a pin is worth accolades. The master craftsmen give live demos to all travellers who express an interest in their art. Buying is optional. Most of the products are very expensive and they are aware that not everyone can afford them. But that doesn’t stop them from giving the demo. Mr. Sumar can be reached through Whatsapp too. If you intend to visit in high season, it would be better if you make a call and set up a prior appointment. You can easily spend about an hour in the Khatri workshop.
After an elaborate one-to-one session of an hour, we bought the cheapest product that was available — a handbag worth INR 500. But, in our rush, we forgot to actually pay Sumar and left his house. Two minutes later, we rushed back and paid him. But I was shocked that he never even asked for the money. Yes, this is the level of their hospitality.
The Copper Bell Makers of Nirona — A short walking distance away from the Khatri household is the workshop of Luhar Faruk (+91 9558069627). They specialize in making handmade copper bells. They do not use welding to join the various parts of the bells but they use the method of interlocking — hammering in the joints in a specific way. The entire family helps in running the business, including the women. The bells are quite affordable (price starts at INR 50) and just like the Khatri household, the Luhars too welcome everybody and give them a demo. Allot an hour for the copper bell makers of Nirona.
The Lacquer artists of Nirona — About 10 minutes walk away from the Luhars is the residences of the Lacquer artists of Nirona. Lacquer art is practised by the Wada tribe and the entire tribe lives together, in close proximity to each other. The paint used in this art is obtained by mixing the sap of Rhus tree with natural and artificial colours. The colour is applied to wooden objects like kitchen utensils – spoons and spatulas. Floral patterns and geometric shapes are painted over the objects. Just like the other artists of Nirona, the Lacquer artists also provide a free demo. The Wada tribe appears to be somewhat primitive in their lifestyle and economically weak.
Dedicate about half an hour to them. We bought a colourful spatula for INR 300. When we made the purchase, young women of the tribe suddenly rushed beside us, exhibiting their own handicraft dolls. But it was obviously not possible for us to buy from everyone.
Kalo Dungar and magnetic hill —Kutch features with flat, straight roads. Kalo Dungar is the highest point in Kutch. The road to Kalo Dungar is the first time you will see any elevation. A certain part of the road is supposed to have a magnetic field around it where cars can move uphill even with their engine shut. The place is well labelled, please keep your eyes open and do not miss switching the engine of the vehicle off at this point to observe this rare phenomenon. On the hilltop there is a temple. The Dattatreya temple is 400 years old; the aura inside the place is extremely soothing. The area around the temple has been developed to cheer up tourists. It offers a panoramic view of the Rann of Kutch Lake and the White Rann. Salt deposits are clearly visible on the shore of the lake as swathes of white. Visiting this place in the afternoon is not an issue even under the scorching Sun owing to its windiness. Just a few kilometres away from Kalo Dungar lies the international border with Pakistan and hence visitors are not allowed to go beyond Kalo Dungar. There is a rest house or Dharamshala building in the temple complex of Kalo Dungar where travellers can pay and stay (+91 9426160007). It is recommended to schedule your visit to Kalo Dungar during afternoon and have the Prasad served in the temple as lunch.
Grant yourself about an hour or two for Kalo Dungar. During our research we learnt that it is possible to go beyond Kalo Dungar, up till ‘friendship bridge’, if we can arrange another special permit for it. The road to it is mostly barren, with uniform landscape, and the journey is long. Also, hikes to Flamingo city can be arranged, which is hours away from Kalo Dungar, with a special permit and a guide. However, we did none of these as we were short on time.
Ludiya (handicraft village) — The mud huts of Ludiya are the most fascinating feature of the village. Known as Bhungas, the aesthetic appeal and the shape of these huts set them apart. Colourful motifs beautify the exterior of the Bhungas. The tribes living here migrated from Rajasthan long ago. The women specialize in embroidery and mirrorwork on fabrics. They still wear the traditional Kutchi attire and conduct business in a very deft fashion.
Ludiya could be done in 0.5 hours if you stick with light shopping. Personally, I found Ludiya very photogenic and emanating with local flavour of the place. The older women of Ludiya are very smart, professional and witty. The price of the tiny items like embroidery dolls start from INR 100.
White Rann near Dhordo — The 30 kilometres drive from Ludiya to White Rann is remarkably unique. There are no village, no habitation, no trees and no animals. The White Rann or the white salt flats, that we come across in photos is the climax for this two day itinerary. Like the Kalo Dungar, the White Rann is very windy. The unending expanse of white is blinding; using a sunglass is absolutely recommended. The car parking space has a tall tower where one can climb and enjoy the view of the salt expanse. One is free to walk, sit or run in the salt desert. Camel carts and ATVs ply on the desert and can be hired. The sunset is breathtaking. The moonless starry sky and the white expanse lit up by the full moon are both equally enjoyable. The salt flat is the perfect place to indulge in quirky trick photography.
Technically one should leave the desert at 7 PM, but there was no-one around to enforce this rule so we ended up staying there till 8 PM. Sunset happened at 6.50PM and moon rose at 9PM, so between 7.30PM-8PM it was absolutely dark, nothing was visible save the lights coming from the parking lot.
Transportation and costs involved
Bhuj is a small town and autos can be hired to take you from one point to another. The locals of Kutch are very friendly, helpful and well behaved, including the auto drivers. They more or less charge a uniform rate and are very honest.
Prag Mahal and Aina Mahal are walking distances away from the hub of the town. We turned on Google Maps and walked through the narrow alleys to reach the palaces. It took us 15 minutes and in return we got ample opportunities to enjoy the Bhuj vibe.
From the premises of Aina Mahal and Prag Mahal, which are adjacent to each other, we hired an auto to take us to Ajrakhpur and Bhujodi and drop us back to Bhuj. He charged us INR 800 without limiting us to any fixed hours.
The auto which took us to Bhujio Dungar from a point in Bhuj city charged us INR 200 for a return trip. He dropped us off at Bhujio Dungar, gave us his phone number and asked us to call him up once we were done hiking.
For the exploration involved in the second day we hired an AC sedan with a driver. It cost us INR 2700 (Raju Bhai Jothva – +91 9586697101) for the full day, up to a maximum of 300 kilometres distance. We paid separately for our driver’s lunch.
The formula for pricing followed by most of the drivers in Kutch region for AC Sedan car is as follows: 300 Km per day x INR 9 per kilometres = INR 2700. Toll and parking charges are payable by guest. Driver allowance is INR 200 per night.
Motorcycle can be hired for INR 600 – INR 800 per day from Bhuj.
Government Permission to visit White Rann at Dhordo and beyond
Since the White Rann at Dhordo and the area beyond is very close to the international border with Pakistan, it is mandatory for every traveller to acquire permission at the checkpost in Bhirandiyara. This is granted on spot; the only requirement is showing a valid I.D proof. The price is INR 100 per person and INR 50 for a vehicle. This permission allows access up to Kalo Dungar. To go beyond Kalo Dungar, a separate permit is required. We are not sure if the permit is granted on single entry or on a per day basis.
Food in Gujarat – Our experience
The taste of food is remarkably different from the spicy food that the rest of India flaunts. Our trip was so tightly scheduled that we hardly got time to enjoy the delectable food. We sampled pav bhaji of Bhuj. The bun was coated in a sauce which had a rich taste of garlic to it. When we ordered puri bhaji, the size of the puris were like those of idlis.
We tasted the Gujarati Thali for dinner — rice, rotli, sweet tomato curry, tangy daal, potato curry with a strong garlic flavour and buttermilk. Buttermilk in this part of the world is better known as chaas. Chaas is widely consumed by the locals of Gujarat throughout the day. Rotlis are the common chapattis or rotis available all over India. The rice was definitely not plain rice. It had a strange taste which we had never associated with rice and was sprinkled with cereals like daal. All the curries had their own unique tastes; the recipes are definitely not the same as the rest of the country. We ordered and ate in our accommodation. The price for one Gujarati thali was INR 150.
We bought mewa, a special kind of sweet made by boiling milk, from Khavda, a village near Kalo Dungar. It was toothsome and sinfully sweet. It cost us INR 50 for 250 gm as far as we remember.
Accommodation in Kutch
The cheapest accommodation options are present in Bhuj. We stayed in Royal Guest House. It was situated in the heart of the city, yet in a very peaceful neighbourhood. We made our booking through Booking.com. Our room was not spacious but both the room and bathroom were spotlessly clean, air conditioned, properly lit and the staff was very well behaved. We also saw a well maintained air conditioned dormitory. Foreigners are regular customers of this establishment.
If you hire a private vehicle, it is possible to stay at the parking lot of the White Rann till moonrise and return back to Bhuj at night for your onward journey. The roads are very safe and locals are trustworthy. Keep in mind though – it is a journey of 87 kilometres.
As far as my research goes, independent camping on the White Rann itself is illegal. During Rann Utsav, tents are arranged near the White Rann and cultural programmes take place. In order to stay in the tents, visitors are supposed to dish out exorbitant amounts of money.
Hodka and Dhordo
The villagers open their homes and welcome guests in the villages of Dhordo and Hodka, which are nearest to the White Rann. Also, there are resorts and campsites in the two villages where visitors can board in. The lure of staying in the bhungas is what attracts visitors here. The minimum price tag which I came across was Resort Naveen (+91 9429380246) at Dhordo. He quoted INR 3500 for one night couple stay in a twin accommodation non AC bhunga inclusive of all meals.
I got this information in one Facebook group and I am sharing it here. A person named Dhana (+91 7359770984 and +91 9428566757) offers homestays in Ludiya village for INR 400 per person per night. Meals are charged INR 100.
As mentioned earlier, Kalo Dungar has a Dharamshala (+91 9426160007) in the temple complex where you can stay. I was quoted a price of INR 700 for air conditioned room on twin sharing and INR 500 for non air conditioned room on twin sharing. The concerned personnel, however, mentioned that more people in one room can be allowed and price for that is open for negotiation. There is proper parking space for vehicles.
Apart from this, there is Toran Resort which charges outrageously high rates.
Correct time of the year to travel to Kutch
The salt flats of Kutch remains submerged in water in the monsoon months of June – September. Tourists start visiting from October and it lasts till March. The Rann Utsav is held from December-February every year and this happens to be peak season at the White Rann. In the months of October- December the salt flats still remain marshy. From March onwards the heat increases in the desert.
We went in early March when the tents at Rann Utsav were wrapping up business. It was hot no doubt, but we were rewarded with far less number of tourists.
Helpful pointers for a trip to Kutch – Learn from our experiences
- There is a strong sense of fraternity etched in the communities of Kutch. The locals are welcoming, helpful, friendly and mostly honest. Treat them with respect and expect warmth in return. Be cautious if you intend to take photos as some of them may not enjoy being the subject of photography. Always take permission, don’t just barge in. Don’t pester if they refuse, move on.
- We travelled on the Holi weekend of 2018, on 1 and 2 March 2018 to be precise. It was the fag end of the tourist season and the last weekend of Rann Utsav. Prices may differ if you choose to visit during peak time. Also, I was told the road to Kalo Dungar during the peak season is sometimes packed with cars.
- From what I have heard, during December the salt flats of White Rann are still marshy. Walking over it may soak your shoes. When we travelled in early March there was no trace of any marsh. The salt had hardened completely.
- There was a considerable gap of about 2.5-3 hours between sunset and moonrise in the White Rann on the day we visited. In those gap hours you can witness absolute darkness and a sky with twinkling stars.
- Gujaratis do eat food which is not just khakra, fafda, dhokla and jalebi. Those are worth tasting as their flavour is unique.
- A part of White Rann also lies on the Bhuj-Dholavira road. It is known as Ekal ka Rann named after the Ekal mata temple from where the salt flat starts. Government permission is not required to visit this part of White Rann and many people who have been there say it is better than the White Rann near Dhordo. Even in peak season this place remains crowdless.
Wish you all the best for your trip. Do let me know if I missed anything, or if you want me to add something! I am all ears to know how your trip to Kutch was!