THE EARTHQUAKE of January 2001 reduced much of Bhuj to rubble, this was a fascinating walled city, with beautiful palaces and havelis, and a bazaar famous for its rich handicrafts and jewellery. Bhuj was the capital of the prosperous princely state of Kutch, whose wealth derived from its sea trade with East Africa and the Persian Gulf ports. African slaves were an important part of Kutch’s maritime trade, and their many descendants still live in the city. The town’s main attraction was the Darbargadh Palace complex, which houses the fabulous Ana Mahal or “Palace of Mirrors”. Built in 1752, it was badly damaged in the 2001 earthquake and is now closed. The palace and its contents are linked to the remarkable life of its Gujarati architect, Ramsinh Malam. Shipwrecked off the East African coast as a 12-year-old, he was rescued by a Dutch ship and taken to the Netherlands, where he spent the next 17 years.
There, he blossomed as a craftsman, mastering Delft tile-making, glass-blowing, enamelling and clock-making. When he returned home, the ruler of Kutch, Rao Lakha, gave him an opportunity to display these skills. The Ana Mahal was thus decorated with Venetian-style chandeliers, Delft blue tiles, enamelled silver objects and chiming clocks – all made locally under Ramsinh’s supervision. At the same time, local crafts of the highest quality were also displayed, such as a superb ivory-inlaid door, jewelled shields and swords, and a marvellously detailed 15-m (49-ft) long scroll painting of a royal procession, complete with African pageboys. All these formed part of the palace museum, which should reopen after repairs. The royal cenotaphs, the Swaminarayan Temple and the bazaar are now unfortunately in ruins, but the excellent Folk Arts Museum still stands. It has a choice collection of Kutch textiles, embroidery, weaponry and other local crafts, and a reconstructed village of Rabari bhoortgas.