“But first, tea.”
After bathing away the last crumbs and wrinkles of our overnight train ride, thoughts had turned to exploring the city we'd waited so long to reach. And I liked Neha's priorities.
Stepping out of our homely, palace-view guesthouse it was only a short walk to a busy market lane where twelve rupees apiece netted us a miniature cup of steaming, sugary tea and a first-class roadside people-watching spot. People-watching, that is, and cow-watching. While I had long been used to Bangalore's freely roaming black and white dairy cows, the cattle that meandered through Bhuj were something else: huge, pale-coated creatures with elegant dark eyes, quite pretty really - but the horns. The curved, pointed horns the size of my arms. Just plodding down the lane right at you. Oh my.
It's a fascinating city: industrious yet quaint, a springboard to the mighty White Rann of Kutch and increasingly a centre for textile tourism. But it's impossible to experience - or write about - Bhuj without noting the effects of the devastating Gujarat earthquake of 2001: measuring 7 on the Richter scale, the huge quake killed over 20,000 people and made more than a million homeless as 8000 villages across the region were reduced to rubble. Kutch was the worst-affected area. But while those who witnessed the devastation may have expected the quake to set development back by several decades, the huge amounts of aid that poured in alongside government grants were put to good use; in the first two years after the quake, nearly all the damaged villages were rebuilt and a concerted economic boost has seen many new jobs created.
With much of Bhuj now reconstructed, the lasting damage left on display at the Prag Mahal and Aina Mahal palaces is striking. Situated right next to each other, this regal compound still echoes the grandeur of the past but large patches of crumbling stonework and shattered jali lattices on ornate windows lend an eerie sense of abandonment to the worst affected quarters, now home only to flocks of satisfied pigeons. That said, the sections still open to the public are well worth a look: with the every whim of their original inhabitants catered to, you can never underestimate the wonderfully peculiar things you can find in these palaces.
The 19th-century Prag Mahal is a surprisingly European-looking Italian Gothic beast, its sandstone and marble towers and arches evocative of a distant Florentine cathedral or even London's St Pancras railway station. Particularly interesting are the enormous Durbar Hall in duck-egg blue, white and gold, ringed with fraying taxidermy and stout classical statues revealing chiselled six-packs beneath gleaming golden robes; and the tall clock tower from where you can look out over the whole of Bhuj city.
Next door, in comparison, the interior of the century-older Aina Mahal or 'Palace of Mirrors' is like that auntie with the giant spangly earrings who likes to wear really bright lipstick; a maximalist riot of colour and glamour of Iris Apfel proportions. Badly damaged in the quake, the rooms and corridors still open for viewing are filled with every imaginable size of gilded mirror, elaborate chandeliers, beds with solid gold legs, aristocratic portraits and colourful glasswork. It was unapologetically flamboyant and I loved it. Gold is a Neutral, after all.
After a walk to Hamirsar Lake for the sunset, we called time on the day's sightseeing and filled up on a delicious Gujarati thali (more on that soon!) but over the next few days I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the city a little more. On several mornings we waited at a main junction for shared transport out towards the textile villages of Bhujodi, Kukma and Ajrakhpur where the rush hour brought with it a fascinating cross-section of Bhuj society and fashion. The modern gent wrapped up against pleasantly cool morning temperatures; black-robed Rabari women with heavily tattooed hands and feet; busy young men delivering a tray of puffs from a bakery; rainbow-bright modern sarees and pure white turbans; bespectacled commuters with their insulated lunch bags.
New wide roads and short, neat buildings fill large areas of the city these days following strict post-quake rebuilding guidelines; Bhuj has grown outwards instead of upwards, to nearly four times the size it was in 2001. It is to Saraf Bazaar though, the scene of our original tea-drinking, that my mind wanders when I reminisce about Bhuj more often than not. Inside what remains of the old walled city, the charm of this bustling street is irresistible. Hot jalebis steam behind the glass counters of snack vendors; patches of vintage tribal embroidery are jumbled together in boxes just ready to be rummaged through; heavy gold and silver jewellery gleams from the window cases of narrow stores. Ladies in jeans alongside those tugging colourful veils further over their faces all stop to admire bangles or check the quality of today's vegetables while scooters honk and swerve past. Intricate Rabari-style embellished blouses hang on display alongside every hue of bandhani scarf or saree you can imagine.
And there, in the midst of all this, is the tea shop. An oasis of chipped cups and saucers, a seemingly timeless constant in a city that has endured much and now faces the evolution of its identity once again on the tides of economic investment and increasing connectivity with not just the rest of India but the rest of the world. If much is to change, I feel lucky to have made it here now rather than later.
More tea, I think. Let's sit and watch the world, exactly as it is, stroll past for just a little longer.