The beach of the Maharaja of Kutch
Gujarat, the homeland of Mahatma Gandhi and the industrial heartland of India, is not commonly found on a traveler’s map, but it tucks away some authentic treasures along the 1,600 kilometers of its coastline. Some of them include Mandvi in Gujarat and the Beach of the Maharaja.
The region of Kutch (also spelled Kachchh) is located in the north-west corner of the country, on the border with Pakistan. It was the first gateway to India for those who came from the West. It is a little known fact that the region contains remains of the Indus Valley civilization developed around 5,000 years back. It is believed that the famous ‘Rann’, the salt desert, was a part of the Indus river delta now in the Pakistani province of Sindh.
If we look at the map today, the Kutch appears as an isolated region in a forgotten corner of India, but in the past it was the point of contact between the maritime trade routes from the West and the caravan routes of the Silk Road to the North of India.
Mandvi, an ancient port on the Silk Route
Mandvi is an ancient port situated about 60 km from the main city of Bhuj, but unfortunately today it is reduced to a pale shadow of its ancient glory. However you can still find traces of the ancient maritime tradition, like the centuries-old shipbuilding industry of cargo wooden boats or ‘dhow’, the traditional vessels of the Indian Ocean.
The sailors of Mandvi were considered the most talented and adventurous and it seems they carry the same reputation till today. According to some historians, Vasco De Gama, the great Portuguese navigator and the first to sail directly from Europe to India in 1497, hired a sailor from this city for his extraordinary adventure.
Vijya Vilas Palace, the perfect romantic spot
Mandvi was also the summer retreat of the Maharaja of Gujarat who built a palace around 13 kilometers away from the port. The beach of the Vijay Vilas Palace is considered to be one of most beautiful in Gujarat.
I arrived in Mandvi by motorbike from Bhuj along a pleasant road surrounded by grass lands. An old gate at the entrance reminds tourists that the city was once heavily fortified. Mandvi was founded in 1548 by Rao Khengarji I. The appellatives ‘Rao’ and ‘Maharao’ are like ‘Raj’ and ‘Maharaja’ in Rajasthan.
In 1929, Maharao Khengarjii III, who reigned for 66 years, wanted to build a summer palace for his son and heir Vijayaraji Yuvraj and he called it Vijay Vilas Palace in his honor. The building combines different styles from Rajasthan in the form of myriad domes, turrets, terraces, balconies and fountains. From the outside it looks like a fairytale castle. Not surprisingly, it was also used as a backdrop for many Bollywood films, like ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’, a romantic story of 1999 with the star Aishwarya Rai.
The balcony at the top offers a superb view of the surrounding area and it is the perfect place to view the sunset.
A private beach with white sand
‘The Beach at Mandvi Palace’ is open to the public for a fee of Rs. 500. The five-star resort includes air-conditioned tented accommodation.
It is a perfect postcard: blue water, white sand and luxurious vegetation with a constant breeze that tempers the heat. The hotel’s restaurant is hidden behind the dunes.
In contrast is the popular ‘Wind Farm Beach’, situated on the seashore of Mandvi. It is like an amusement park with rides, horses and camels to ride on and lots of stalls to eat and drink at.
The sailor of Mandvi
On the banks of the Rukmavati River there are dozens of wooden ships under construction. The craftsmen, most of them Muslim, follow an old tradition that is not written in any book, but only exists in their heads. The wood is imported from Malaysia. The boats are commissioned by the rich merchants of the Arabic Peninsula for trade with Zanzibar or the Madagascar, the traditional trading routes in the Indian Ocean.
However, nowadays, the threat of sea piracy is damaging the shipbuilding industry. The Indian ‘dhows’ have become easy prey for the Somalian pirates and for this reason their movements are restricted in the Gulf of Oman.
Many boats are abandoned on the riverbanks before being completed. In the shadow of these giant skeletons, the elders of Mandvi, many of them former sailors, gather in the hot afternoons to tell tales about their travels around the world.