Craft shopper's paradise Bhuj is a must-visit destination in Gujarat

city palace
City Palace, Bhuj
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Bhuj, once the capital of prosperous princely state of Kutch, was among the richest towns in the region, whose wealth was derived from its sea trade with East Africa and Persian Gulf. Bartering of African slaves with India's textiles, was an important part of the Kutch maritime trade. Many of the families are descendants of these slaves who settled down in Kutch and are still seen in the area. Bhuj also continues to be a major textile hub attracting millions of people from across the world.

After years, despite some disastrous earthquakes, the city always manages to attract people from all over India and abroad. Bhuj is a real paradise for those who love to shop in the bazaars famous for the region's beautiful handicrafts and jewellery. The most frequently visited places for tourists on a trip to Bhuj, are the magnificent Aina Mahal, the bell tower at Parag Mahal, the Kutch museum believed to be the oldest museum in the region and Hamirsar Lake. There is also the Sharadbaug Palace, which was the residence of Madan Singh the last ruler of Kutch, till he passed away in 1991.

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Aina Mahal in ruins after disastrous earthquake

As in the case of many other heritage sites, there is an interesting legend about its name. It is said that Kutch was ruled by Naga chieftains in the past. Sagai the beautiful queen of Sheshapattana allied and married King Bheria Kumar, and persuaded him to rise up against Bhujang, the last Naga chieftain. Bheria was defeated and in keeping with tradition, Sagai committed sati after the battle. The hill where Bhujang had lived came to be known as Bhujia Dungar and the town at its foothill was named Bhuj.

Bhujang was later worshipped by the people as a snake god who called him 'Bhujanga'. A temple built in his name attracts pilgrims who continue to worship him till today.

History tells us that Bhuj the city, was established by Rao Hamirji in 1510 and was made the capital of the State of Kutch by Rao Khengarji in 1549.

After 1590, when Rao was forced to acknowledge Mughal supremacy, Bhuj was known as Suleiman Nagar among Muslims. The Bhujiya Fort was built by Devkaran Seth, around the 1730s while the city walls were built by Rao Godji 1 in 1723. These walls unfortunately were not as effective as they should have been.

They were attacked on six occasions, but were able to push back the enemy only on two occasions. The last attack was on 26th March 1819 when the hill fort of Bhujia was captured and went into the hands of the British army.

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Shri Swaminarayan Temple was built after the original temple structure was destroyed in earthquake

Bhuj, unfortunately, appears prone to earthquakes, the first one being on June 16, 1818 when the town only had a population of 20,000 people. The earthquake destroyed 7,000 houses killing more than 1,100, people. About one-third of the buildings that escaped ruin, were heavily damaged, and the north face of the town wall was totally flattened out. The next earthquake, was much more disastrous and shook Kutch in 2001. At the time as capital, Bhuj was considered a fascinating walled city with beautiful palaces, bazaars and havelis.

After the earthquake, it was so badly affected, that there were talks of bringing the remaining parts of damaged buildings down, to ensure safety.

The Aina Mahal an 18th-century palace, was built by Rao Lakhpatiji in 1761. The chief architect and designer of Aina Mahal was Ram Singh Malam, assisted by local mistris. It was constructed with marble walls adorned with gold filigree and glass. The marble walls of the palace are covered with mirrors and gilded ornaments of Venetian glass.

The palace was damaged in the earthquake in 2001, however, a portion of the palace which was not too badly damaged has been restored and houses the museum. This includes the royal bedroom with its walls covered with Venetian glass mirrors, a music room, a courtroom, antique furniture, arms, a palanquin and paintings.

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Prag Mahal named after Rao Pragmalji II, was commissioned by him and construction work began in 1865. It was designed by Colonel Henry Saint Wilkins in the Italian Gothic style, using Italian Marble and the best variety of sandstone from Rajasthan. Many Italian artisans were involved in its construction and their wages are said to have been paid in gold coins. The construction of the palace, which ultimately cost 3.1 million rupees, was completed in 1879, during the rule of Khengarji III (Pragmalji II's son) in 1875.

The locally skilled Kutchmmistris were once again involved in this project, helping Colonel Wilkins, to create the elegant Prag Mahal.

The Prag Mahal Palace was severely damaged by the earthquake in 2001, but worse was yet to come. Thieves burgled the Palace in 2006, managing to carry away antiques worth million of rupees - and damaging all the items that they could not carry away! These included imported chandeliers and statues from the Durbar Hall and stuffed animal heads from the walls of the Main Hall.

While it may not be possible to bring back to its original state, the Palace exterior is more or less restored. The halls in the palace and the tower have also been repaired and are open for public viewing. Visitors can now enter the main palace halls and climb up the stairs of the bell tower, which offers splendid views of the city.

Bhuj is a famous destination within India for observing the historic craftsmanship of the Kutch region, including the textile crafts of 'bandhani' (tie-dye), embroidery, and leatherwork. Artists of nearby villages bring their exquisite artwork for sale at the Bhuj Haat, which is situated near the Jubilee Ground.

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