Kutch as a region is characterized by its extreme intensities, the geographical space, the topographical formations, the climate, the vegetation-its flora and fauna, and of course its people. Anything, any aspect you choose to look at displays its intensity of extremes, which are as though its natural trait.
Geographically it is still undergoing its transitional stage for settlement of its earth’s crust and thus still has its moments of thrust and upheavals at periodic intervals of decades and centuries. Vast desert expanses, also the hilly terrain, and the coastal landscape characterize its topography. Its climate is equally distributed between intense heat and extreme cold, however, it can give you a mix of both in harsh summer, as on a hottest day even, if you are in shade you feel the coolest comfort within your sheltered area, without requiring any mechanical device for ventilation! Its flora is dotted all along its landscape with a hardy shrubbery and its land if carefully cultivated can give you a rich plant life found anywhere in the country even the bamboos! It also has very rich herbal and medicinal plants, which provide nature cure.
This is being manifest in the royal retreat known as Sharadbaug where almost all the species of Indian sub-continent are grown. Its fauna includes deadly scorpions to wild ass and camels. And above all these are the people of Kutch, which form the overall culture of this interesting region. The people comprise of the communities ranging from nomads, folk and the particular urban trading communities, which are world famous and are also dotted all over the world in forefront of trade and commerce. Their enterprising spirit and the sense have placed them as the top business magnate in the most important and progressive western countries. Thus the culture comprises also from most exquisite handicrafts to computer giant who also now happens to be one of the richest Indian in world community! The trading communities through their entrepreneurship, ventured from simple grocery business to computers, and like wise the crafts communities have excelled from beadwork to bell metals and the arts of shelter building! Their knowledge and understanding about the region and its physical characteristic has been instrumental in developing their sensibilities reflected in their arts and crafts. The land, the people, and their characteristic ambience have attracted the attention from world over. It is being constantly rediscovered and researched by the interested researchers, documentation experts and connoisseurs from other cultures. This has helped project various aspects of this region and its culture throughout the world. Every such effort has brought out an extra dimension to the already existing body of knowledge and its rich aura that permeates through the world civilization.
Arts and crafts traditions:
The kutchee crafts and arts have received periodic impetus through royal patronage and also craftsmen of eminence, which were attracted by the royal patronage to work amongst the royalty and raise the level of richness of life in general in the region. There are several such phases and the recent history of 18th century could provide us with one such important instance. “The reign of Maharao Lakho (known locally as Lakhapatji) ca. 1752 onwards, with the help of Ram Singh Malam, a versatile genius, the characteristic period of Kutchy art, crafts and architecture heralded which is the heritage of the present…”Ram Singh nicknamed the Navigator, seems to have been born in Okhamandal about beginning of the eighteenth century. He was a Wagha by caste, followed the sea from very early years, and in a shipwreck was rescued by a Dutch ship, which carried him to Netherlands while he was barely a lad. The young Kathiawadi had a natural talent for using his hands; he became an expert in the tile work, the glass blowing, and the enamel work for which the Dutch craftsmen were famous. He also learned clock making, designing of buildings, and stone carving, after the European fashion, as well as the elements of foundry work and gun casting. He stayed in Europe for some eighteen years before he decided to return to India. He returned to his kinsfolk in Mandvi where he found reception, which exceeded his hopes. It was at this time when Prince Lakho, at about the time of his accession to power, took Ram Singh under his patronage”. (Ref:The Black Hills, Kutch in History and legend: by L. F. Rushbrook Williams. London, 1958)
Representative building traditions:
Architecture of this region, the building arts, also exhibits the same extremes as perceived elsewhere. The rustic simplicity of its shelter forms, and its exquisite beauty of its inner attributes, whether urban or folk, display tremendous commonsense and intense underlying desire for taste and beauty reflected through its making. Whether it is a palace or ‘bhunga’ (as one of the shelter forms is known) it is conceived with the same underlying penchant for richness of living shared by the cultural cross section of the society in this region. Both these extremes share the commonness of cultural exuberance and rooted ness to their context. These excelling extremes of the two ends of the cultural spectrum place this culture into rareity amongst the civilizations of the world.
One of the most fascinating forms of shelter building in this region is traditionally known as a ‘bhunga’ which is a shelter made out of mud with inclining wall enclosing a circular area, ranging between 12 to 15 feet in diameter, having a conical straw roof supported by a post rafter. The height up to the rafter beam is about 8 feet and the apex of the roof ranging between 12 to 15 feet. This form of shelter, common to Banni region of Kutch, is grouped with several similar ones in a cluster formation built on a low platform constitute a family shelter. This form of shelter has become the most representative form of the folk tradition of architecture of this region emerging from the indigenous skills and use of local natural materials available to them from environment around. The resultant form out of the use of local materials, employing the crafts skill traditionally known, exhibit their characteristic preferences, ability and skills to appropriate a living space which responds to the natural conditions and becomes analogues to the ecology around. The shelter almost self-organizes itself into nature in which they prefer to live as a necessary implement and it is conceived in the way as natural as they make other implements for their living needs. This folk shelter is a result of an inherent intuitive skill to devise a shelter from the materials and implements they develop from within their surroundings, and their insight to assemble and assign appropriate structural use to materials emerges from their day-to-day association with nature. Understanding about the nature of materials and their existence potential is also acquired through their constant handling of these materials and their unity with nature around them and their complementarity with it. Their lives are but because of their oneness and their respect for the forces of nature that they live with and this feeling of dependence and obtaining life support from the land where they settle.
The Folk traditions:
‘Bhunga’ is a local term used for a shelter, which has a surrounding wall, which is built with a wooden scantling locally known as ‘trati’, using local woods from shrubs and plants growing in the vicinity. The wood used are ‘jaal’, ‘kerdo’, local babul and ‘gangethi’. This trait is also tied at various levels by circular bands known as ‘sampdi’, using date palm leaves and its ribs or the stems of a plant locally known as ‘akda’, to retain the circular profile and is plastered with mud in layers by hands, externally as well as internally. These layers are also contained with small niches and alcoves in the interiors and are raised at floor level making a circular platform all around. The raised level is used to place cabinets and storage drums, which are also very artistically made out of similar materials and processes, fitted with mirrors and painted in decorative colors so that the entire interior gets a very fine ambience with subdued light from reflective surfaces. The roof, which is conical in shape, is known locally as ‘chhaj’. This is fabricated out of shrubbery and grass locally found in the fields. The vegetative materials used are ‘shania’ (fibers from reeds), grasses like ‘dhrab’, ‘khipdo’, ‘jhinjhavo’, and ‘paan’ (weeds). These are very finely woven into thatch blankets and properly tied and placed on the conical scantling already prepared using ‘vala’ which are centrally supported over a post at the apex and are supported over the peripheral circular base created by the top of the mud wall. The roof projects over the mud wall like a hat as it protects the top of the wall from any possible rainwater onslaught and also offers a strong bearing on the periphery. The inner truss is comprising of a beam supported on wall at a lower level and a post in the middle supported over the beam and holding the apex of the cone where a circular wooden disc support the ends of the ‘vali’ which span from the central disc to the peripheral wall in a radial formation, closely packed to support the thatch blankets. The circular disc, the beam, and the posts are made from local babul wood and the disk and the posts are intricately carved using simple chisels into a geometric relief on wood surface. The keenness to decorate even smallest part in their shelter speaks volumes of their attitude to celebration of the living and life in general. The radial ‘vali’ are also tied in a concentric spiral by a reed rope to keep them in a conical position before the thatch is placed. The folk architecture represented by their ‘bhunga’ thus epitomize the whole folk culture and reflect the attitude of people in treating craft as an important aspect of their overall life style.
Traditions of Durbargadh : An example of Bhuj
The urban architecture in Kutch also represented similar penchant for originality of a distinct idiom and response to the nature in which the people had to live within the built environment. The city like Bhuj exhibited a very tight knit physical environment with buildings in stone hugging closely to protect against the heat and dust. The houses opened inwards and had wonderful shaded environment to obtain shade. Darbargadh in Bhuj is also an example of royal enclosure, which exhibited a clustered environment broken down into smaller settlements occupied by the various sections of the royal family. Each cluster of apartments was organized around a small court, which virtually crated a shielded microenvironment for the group of dwelling places. These royal apartments were built in the same traditional idiom as the houses in the town, using similar materials and space arrangements within. As is a common practice with princely houses, the Pragmal Palace was attached to the west side of the Darbargadh a couple centuries later as a new palace and it was then that the old Darbargadh was partially vacated. The princely properties are a good source to understand the architectural idiom of the traditional culture and Darbargadh in Bhuj is one such indicator to understand the urban domestic architecture at its best in this culture.The most important aspect of the Darbargadh have been the complex of royal chambers which were used as the main public rooms of the Darbargadh and are exquisitely made in order to reflect the other extreme of the arts and crafts of the kutchee culture. It would be important to understand and appreciate these works in order to appreciate the richness of the culture of this region.
Fuvara Mahal (Hall of Fountains)
The Fuvara Mahal or the hall of fountains was used to perform Vraj Haveli Sangeet. The Lakhapatji Maharao (1752 –l761) made this hall in 1752. The room is at first floor level, and is 15m square on plan. Constructed out of timber and stone peripheral wall, the room provides a very insular environment from external hot climate of summer months. The central area of the room is approximately 12m square; and constituted the living area. It originally contained pools and fountains, linked to a syphon and system of water supply. A 2.4m wide-open walkway extends around the periphery of the room; the walkway is bounded externally by 450mm thick masonry walls and internally by a square grid of timber columns supporting the roof trusses, which span in two directions. The perimeter masonry walls rise about 3m above floor level, where they terminate, and are capped by a 2.4m wide roof slab above the walkway. The striking architectural feature is that the internal timber posts rise a further 3.2m or so above the top of the masonry walls and perimeter roof strip, to support a timber truss carrying a flat roof over the center of the room. The vertical timber sides of the trusses have large openings, and form a clerestory. The roof trusses are unusual structurally, in that there are no horizontal ties at their base; some horizontal restraint is however provided at this level by the roof slab over the walkway acting as a ring beam. The trusses have bolted metal strap connections, which mean that they postdate the rest of the construction; their detailing also looks different. It is possible that they represent a repair after the l8l9 earthquake, probably carried out in the mid nineteenth century. The combination of the evaporative cooling effect of the pools and fountains, and the natural convection currents set up by the tall roof and clerestory was climatically designed to suit the hot summer months. These attractive and unusual features indicate a high degree of ingenuity in its design.
Ayna Mahal (Hall of Mirrors) and Hira Mahal (Diamond Chamber)
These are situated on the first floor adjacent to the south side of the Fuvara Mahal; the Hira Mahal lies within the Ayna Mahal. They are both representative of exquisite craftsmanship adorning the traditional interior space, which was designed to create a climatically comfortable environment in a hot desert climate. The mirrors (pieces of mica) fixed on intricate patterns integrated with the structure increased the luminosity of the surfaces enhancing the brilliance of the ambient light, which was allowed within the interiors to develop a soothing effect. Such halls of mirrors with jade were important features to display the wealth and prosperity of the princely families. The flooring was also done using exquisite ceramic tiles which also became a ver prominent craft, though imported from outside.
The palace was an ingeneous work of the kutchee mind and its internal exuberance to celebrate the life style of the erstwhile rulers is worth reviewing in the pages of history; “The great masterpiece of Ramsingh is the Hall of Mirrors, in the Old Palace. The walls are of white marble, covered with mirrors separated by gilded ornaments and the hall is lit by elaborate pendant candelabra, with shades of Venetian Glass, may of which are brought to Bhuj by Ram Singh himself. The most remarkable feature, however, is the fact that with the exception of a narrow walk near the walls, the entire floor of the hall is a pleasure-pool, lined with the china tiles, which Ram Singh manufactured. From the middle of the pool rises a square platform, to which access is gained by a narrow raised walk The Hall of Mirrors is on the second floor of the Old Palace; but Ram Singh devised ingenious pumps and siphons to raise up water to fill the pleasure-pool, and to operate fountains which cast spray in an intricate variety of patterns, charming the eye and cooling the air. Even in the heat of the Kutch summer day, before the rains have broken, the Aina Mahal is a pleasant refuge. With the entrance darkened against the glare, dust and burning world outside, lit by the light of many candles, and cooled by the surrounding water and by the spraying fountains, the central platform forms a refuge, which afford a remarkable anticipation of the solaces of modern air-conditioning. It was here that Maharao Lakho composed the poems, which are still read; watched the dancing-girls whose classical art his patronage did so much to revive and listened to the Bards and Charans who had perfected their study of Vrij Bhasa in the college which he founded. And all around the Hall of Mirrors are the evidences of Ram Singh’s ingenuity and the friendship, which bound him to his patron. The small state apartment, carpeted with exquisite Kutchi silk embroidery, its walls paneled high with the same priceless fabrics, still contains Maharao Lakho’s bed, on which lie his sword and buckler. It is filled with a curious miscellaneous collection of objects-chiming clocks-Dutch, English or French: celestial globes: some antique pictures: mechanical toys: glass and china- all connected in some way with Ram Singh and with the arts and crafts which he introduced so successfully into the land of his adoption. On the walls of the corridor, which surrounds the inner chamber, are a variety of paintings, some European and many Indian. Eighteenth century cartoons by Hogarth, and portraits of such nobilities as the Empress Catherine the Great are arranged in close proximity to paintings of much historical interest depicting the formal durbars of Maharao Lakho and his successors. A curious characteristic is the occasional introduction of real gems into the ear-rings or necklace on the painted surface of a portrait…its interest lies in the blend of European and Indian artistry which is typical of the cultural impulse which Ram Singh gave to Kutch- a true forerunner of much that was to happen on the wider stage of India a good deal later… So much of what Ram Singh and Maharao Lakho achieved between them managed to last, and to inspire traditions of skilled craftsmanship, which can be traced to this day, although in shape sometimes sadly deteriorated, in Kutchy embroidery, in Kutchy carving, and in Kutchy metal work…. The costs were enormous. The Aina Mahal alone accounted for eight million koris…Though small in comparison with many of the better known masterpieces in other parts of India, and sadly ruined by the earthquake shocks which have overtaken them from time to time, these buildings of Ram Singh have a quality of their own which is refreshing illustration of what the genius of India and the craftsmanship of Europe can achieve”. (Ref: Ibid.)
The building arts in kutch reflect a distinct character resulting from the sensibilities and commonsense approach of the people of kutch. The regional climate, the topography, available materials and relevant crafts techniques with excellent skills qualify the emerging expression which whether it is folk or urbane reflect the same level of consciousness of culture of people. It is a tremendous heritage for our civilization and need to be appreciated for its evolving potentials. A kutchee dance song (Ref: Ibid) is apt to summarize this.
Ho! The black hills of our land!
Ho! The white milk of our land:
Sweet is our water and air!
Loyal in heart and in hand
We Kutchis hold true to our land!