Category Archives: India

India: The People and Handicrafts of Kutch

Laundry day.

While the natural beauty of the Kutch region in the state of Gujarat is absolutely astounding, most of the visitors that do come (there are not many), come for the village handicrafts that abound in this area. Different tribal villages specialize in different types of embroidery, terracotta pottery, lacquerware, and other crafts.

A Jat woman embroiders a traditional neckpiece for women.

We knew we wanted to visit a lot of villages, not only to see the handicrafts but to hopefully meet some of the people. When planning our trip I saw in various travel books and websites that the man to see to arrange a village tour was Mr. Pramod Jethi. He can be found in the city of Bhuj (the city where you have to fly or take the train into to reach the Kutch region), at the Aina Mahal Museum, where he is curator and has a small tourism desk there. Mr. Jethi (literally) wrote the book on Kutch and knows everything about its 875 villages and multiple tribes. So, when we arrived in Bhuj the first thing we did was go see Mr. Jethi. After discussing with us what we were interested in seeing and mapping out a 3 day itinerary, he called one of his autorickshaw drivers/guides names Bharat, who came to pick us up there in a matter of minutes. Permission is needed from the police to visit certain villages, but Bharat arranged all of that for us. He was also a wonderful translator and very encouraging of our photography.

Village mosque.

The next three days were a whirlwind of villages, beautiful handicrafts, and generous people who invited us into their homes. And what homes these were! Although small (only one room), it is easy to tell how important artistry is to the people as soon as you see the beautiful painting and mudwork inside and outside of the huts. We were truly amazed at the beautiful mirrorwork  in many homes. Lunch everyday was had in someone’s home–some accepted payment and some did not.

Ceiling of a circular hut in the village of Ludiya.

Mud and mirrorwork in someone's home in Ludiya.

Outside of someone's home in Ludiya.

Just because they live in a desert village doesn't mean they don't have a television! And of course, the television has to be decorated.

But things are still a little old school...

Someone's home in Dhordo.

Storage in a home in Dhordo.

Lunch time!

Rabari women use a mixture of cow dung and mud to make a clay for coating their homes with.


Hard at work refinishing the floors.

Dishes in a Jat home.

Jat women in their home.

Kitchens are outside; these women wash dishes.

The outside of a home in Khodai.

Detailed mudwork inside a Rabari home.

Not all the homes were so beautifully painted. The region suffered a devastating earthquake in 2010 and many homes were damaged.

Traditional Jat women wear red dresses.

Of course, the children were always fascinated with us and wanted to have their picture taken! In the Rabari village of Khodai there was a wedding going on and we became the unofficial photographers of the groom’s side!

The groom is in the middle.

I don't have to tell you how awesome this guy is.

This guy is equally as awesome, in a different way. Wedding attire? Sure!

We interacted with several different tribes: Dhanetah Jat, Gharacia Jat, Harijan, and Rabari. Mostly, the men work in the desert grazing cows and sheep while the women take care of the home. They each have their own specific type of embroidery that they wear. Some are nomadic or semi-nomadic and they ended up in Kutch from places like Jaisalmer, Iran, and maybe even Afghanistan.

Check out his ear holes.

A Rabari woman demonstrates the tools attached to her solid gold necklace: a toothpick, earpick, and nail file

A Rabari mother and daughter outside their home.

A Rabari woman demonstrates her traditional ear piercings.

This man is part of a nomadic Rabari tribe.

The nomadic Rabaris travel with everything on their camels' backs.

This mother and daughter belong to the Harijat tribe.

Harijat woman in Bhirendiara.

Aside from the various types of embroidery, we also got to observe and learn about some pottery making with very unique painting on it, handmade copper bells (the Kutchis use them for their camels and buffalo so they can find them), the dying art of lacquerwork, and rogan–Nirona village is home to the last family that creates handmade rogan.

This woman paints a terracotta plate by rotating it on a stand to get an even, circular pattern.

Handmade pottery from Khavda village.

Broken pottery.



Detail of a Jat embroidered dress.

Lacquering is an intricate process. The crafter operates the lathe with his feet, spinning the item he wants to lacquer in this case a spatula) back and forth, first cutting grooves into the wood.

Next, he takes a colored wax stub and holds it against the rotating object. The heat created melts the waxy substance onto the object, coloring it.

Other colors are added, usually in stripes.

Finally, designs are added using various techniques.

These women sell handmade dolls and stuffed toys.

The ancient art of rogan painting is created with boiled castor oil that has turned into a gooey paste. Colored powder is mixed into the oil and an iron rod is used to paint half of the design onto fabric.

After one half of the painting is finished, the artist folds the fabric in half and a mirror impression is transferred to the other side.

A finished rogan painting. How insane is that detail?

Iron bells with copper coating are also made by hand in Kutch.

The crafters don't use any welding to create the bell, it's all done by connecting notches and hammering down the top to attach to the cylinder.

They make them in all sizes.

The bells are used by Kutchis on their cattle so they can find them when they stray from the flock.

During our three days of village exploration we spent one night in Bhuj and one night at the Shaam-E-Sarhad Village Resort in Hodka, a lovely village with a tribal owned and operated hotel. The hotel used traditional mud huts and “eco-tents” that they updated with modern amenities and are actually quite luxurious. Plus, you get a nice group dinner buffet and traditional live music around a bonfire after the meal.

The eco-tents of Shaam-E-Sarhad in Hodka.

Inside our eco-tent.

Even though the bathroom was technically outside it was super nice!

The lobby/dining area.

Our visit to Kutch was our favorite week in India. While we saw many beautiful places throughout the country, Kutch is an environment like no other. The combination of natural magnificence, fascinating culture, and friendly people came together to create a truly magical experience. And, we were certainly lucky to get such an excellent driver/guide who definitely enhanced our experience.



Filed under Accommodations, Culture, Food, India, People, Villages

India: The Nature of Kutch Inspires

For our last week in India at the end of January we decided to venture to the Kutch region of Gujarat. Not highly touristed, most visitors to India don’t make it to this desert area known for its exceptional textiles and handicrafts. (Although they do have an aggressive ad campaign with Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan touting “the silvery sands of Kutch.”)

We were excited about visiting small villages and seeing beautiful handicrafts, but we had no idea that the area had so much natural beauty. We arranged an autorickshaw driver to take us to some of the villages surrounding Bhuj, the largest city in Kutch (which means it was still pretty small). Our driver, Bharat, turned out to be excellent, taking us to villages and areas we surely would not have seen without him. As we drove away from Bhuj and into the desert outback, we soon realized we would be driving through one of the most beautiful areas in India.

Castor oil plants are abundant in Kutch and treasured by the population.

Bharat soon taught us about castor oil, whose fields we kept driving by. Castor oil is produced by drying out the flowers (the spiky green things) and then crushing them to release the seeds. The seeds are then crushed to reveal a waxy, oily substance–castor oil–which as you probably know can be used for myriad medical treatments, lotions, and other remedies.

Dried castor oil flowers.

Bharat shows us the castor oil seeds.

After some more driving we came upon a watering hole, surrounded by camels and water buffalo. It really was beautiful and made me want to go to Africa even more!

We also drove through some gorgeous marshland filled with exotic birds.

On our second day Bharat took us to this gorge he knew about. Honestly, I don’t even know where we were, but suddenly he had us climbing down into a canyon!

I certainly had no idea something like this exists in India! Did you?

We also some interesting birds nest and had an adventure getting our autorickshaw through some water.

But the grand finale was seeing the “White Desert”–those silvery sands that Amitabh touted. Kutch is home to the Great Rann, reputed to be the largest salt desert in the world. It takes up a large portion of the Thar desert and goes straight across the border to Pakistan. Bharat told us the only way to traverse the white desert is via camel and after seeing it–and walking on it–I believe him. Some of the salt is dry and hard but the further in you go the more marshy it becomes and soon you find yourself sinking into the desert.

Doesn't this salt chunk look like the shape of India?!?

Check back soon for posts about the villages and handicrafts of Kutch!


Filed under Animals, India, Natural Beauty, Transit

India: Last Visits to Mumbai Favorites

After traveling for three weeks, we finally made it back to Mumbai for a couple days before setting off again. It was our last chance to visit old haunts, see our friends, and to show our visiting friend Judy a few of our favorite sites, shops, and of course, foods.

I’ve already written about our favorite sites and shops, but I’ve been remiss in sharing some of my favorite Bombay food joints. I’ve already mentioned the amazing pani puris available everywhere and our favorite South Indian restaurants, but here are few other favorites that we took Judy to:

1) The Haji Ali Juice Stand, which stands right outside the Haji Ali Margue, sells amazing fresh juices, as well as the amazing Pakistani delicacy falooda. Falooda sounds and looks kind of gross, but trust me, it’s good. It’s made of rose syrup, vermicielli noodles, basil seeds, tapioca pearls, jelly, and anything else they can think of to throw in there!

The faloodas are super popular, as you can see by the number of orders this guy is fulfilling!

Our falooda. That sounds like a pet...

Judy has mango juice and I have strawberry-kiwi-mango.

Manor had fresh grape juice.

Fruit hanging in the Bombay night.

2) One of our favorite desserts in India became rabdi, a caramelized pudding. Before we left for our travels I heard about Kailash’s in Colaba in Mumbai, which was supposed to have the best rabri, so we finally made it over there with Judy. It was so good we got seconds!

3) We had dinner with some of our Bombay friends at Sheesha, a lovely rooftop restaurant in Khar West with great food and fun hookahs for dessert!

4) Juhu Natural has some of the best ice-cream in India! They specialize in unique and seasonal flavors like anjeera (fig), toasted almond, coconut, sitaphal (custard apple), jackfruit, and many more. Yum!


Filed under Food, India

India: Udaipur

The Rajasthani city of Udaipur is called the Venice of the East, supposedly due to its lakes. While I’ve never been to Venice, I am pretty sure Udaipur is nothing like it.

Udaipur is beautiful in an Indian way; meaning it has lots of old buildings with elaborate arches, but the streets are still dirty, there are still many poor people around, and those lakes? Their shores are full of women doing laundry, which is of course typical in India and beautiful in its own way.

But Udaipur does have some beautiful structures, notably Palace Hotel, which floats in the middle of the lake and is where the James Bond movie Octopussy was filmed, as anyone or any sign will tell you.

And of course, there is the City Palace, where members of the royal family still reside. While non-guests of the Palace Hotel aren’t allowed on the island, the City Palace is open to visitors. It’s worth getting a tour guide as the building is quite large and full of exquisite details, including finery imported from all over the world.

You can also take a lovely boat ride (more like a ferry than a gondola) around the lake and to Jagmandir, or the pleasure palace as it’s known. It’s actually not a palace, but more like a fancy island playground, complete with expensive drinks and spa (which a worker insisted on giving us a tour of). When we visited they were setting up for an event that looked fabulous and we had fun imagining what Judy’s upcoming wedding would be like if it was held there.

Udaipur hosts some gorgeous sunsets and most of the hotels advertise their rooftop restaurants with beautiful views of the lake. Of course we had to go the one called “The Highest Rooftop in Udaipur” and resisted the one across the street that claimed, “Better than the Highest Rooftop.” It was nice to have almost every meal with a view, though!

The food in Udaipur is very good, thanks to a healthy inflow of tourists. We loved our dinner at The Whistling Teal, which is actually the only non-rooftop place we ate at! But it does have a lovely garden setting and excellent food and service.

Dhungar Maas, a smoky curry. Kathi rolls in the background!

Elaichi Shrikhand, cardamom-flavored hung yogurt.

We wanted to love our meal at Millets of Mewar, a health and eco-concious cafe, but while the food was mostly tasty, the service was abysmal. Aside from interminable waits for the food, when it finally came most of it was wrong. We did go to one local place, a bit outside the main part of the city, called Natraj Lodge. The name of the game here is thalis, namely Gujerati ones. Thalis are platters with multiple bowls that keep getting refilled with curries, vegetables, dal, yogurt, rice, plus pakoras (fried bread balls), rotis, and a sweet, cardamom mini flatbread. You soon realize that you probably don’t even need the refills! Oh, and did I mention this all costs a little more than $1?

Serving up the curries until you tell them to stop!

Judy's first thali!

Fresh gulab jamun is one of India's finest treats. They can be found streetside in giant pans like this, or in most restaurants.

But the food highlight was taking a cooking class on our last morning. There are dozens of options to choose from, but we ended up with Sushma’s. It was just the three of us and Sushma, the instructor. She had a great menu planned and took the time to go over the classic Indian spice box and even taught us how to make chai! We made a sweet and sour pumpkin similar to what we had at Gunpowder in Delhi, a yummy curry with fresh paneer (fresh paneer is amazing, a super easy to make! I can’t wait to try to make it at home), fantastic yellow dal (lentils), and of course rotis. I was curious about how to make parathas, both stuffed and plain, so Sushma showed us that as well. I never would have guessed how you fold and roll the plain paratha dough to make it flaky. And, all the recipes were printed out and ready for us to take home.

Fresh paneer curry

Sushma demonstrating how to make sweet and sour pumpkin.

Trying my hand at roti rolling.

After letting the roti cook in a pan briefly, you then put it directly on a flame so it puffs up. But careful not to let it burn!

To make a plain paratha, first you cut a slit in the flattened dough and then roll it around into a cone.

Next, you pull out the cone into a sort of flower, before flattening it again with a rolling pin. This gives it the yummy, flaky layers after you bake it!

A delicious homemade lunch!


Filed under Culture, Food, India, People, Sites, Transit

India: Camel Safari

One of the most popular activities to do in Rajasthan in general and in Jaisalmer specifically is a camel safari. They can be as long as several weeks (although we only heard of one person doing that!) or as short as an afternoon and evening. Most people do an overnight, but after our overnight train ride and impending overnight bus ride, as well as the prospect of a rather chilly night, we opted to  just do the afternoon to evening outing.

Inside the fort of Jaisalmer there are dozens of travel companies offering camel safaris. We opted to go with a company called Ganesh that was recommended by Lonely Planet, which they publicize quite loudly on a large banner near the entrance of the fort. The owner was definitely a good salesman and the three of us were very excited for the journey as we set out in a Jeep through the Thar Desert.

This overturned rickshaw is an unfortunate example of some of the reckless driving so ubiquitous in India. But luckily, we weren't in it and it seemed no one was hurt!

We were supposed to stop at some villages, but after the first one we told them not to stop at any others because the “village” was extremely disappointing. As soon as we got out of the Jeep a bunch of young children immediately started asking us for money. There was nothing to be seen of the village; it was unfortunately just a few poor families who have grown used to tours coming here and have taught their children to beg in a very aggressive manner. When we politely declined to give them money the children began to grab and poke us and we basically had to run back to the car. I hated being made to feel like a snob, but I refuse to give money to beggar children because it simply continues the cycle of parents or others using children to get money. Of course I feel terrible for the children and the poor families, which is why I am glad that I was able to do some positive volunteer work while in Mumbai.

When we finally reached the place where our camels were waiting we climbed aboard and were led through a very lovely desert walk. There of course isn’t much to see in a desert besides sand, cacti, and other camels, but it was very peaceful and even somewhat meditative. My camel was somewhat enamored with the guy on the camel in front of me (we went with three other people) and kept nudging his head into the guy’s legs and waist.

After a couple hours we reached some sand dunes where we saw a gorgeous sunset and then had a simple but yummy dinner cooked over a bonfire. We were hoping to stay a while longer to lie under the stars before heading back, but for some reason the driver insisted on us leaving almost immediately after dinner.

We had fun having Manor act the part of being stranded in the desert.

We kept seeing weird tracks in the sand and then we found this creature, who was the one making them.

So we got a quick peek at the expansive, star-filled sky, but we all wished we had been able to stay a little while longer–although it was getting very cold! We were indeed happy to get back to our warm beds at Hotel Tokyo Palace in Jaisalmer.


Filed under Animals, India, Villages

India: Jaisalmer

After driving for hours through the mostly barren Thar Desert of Rajasthan, the golden fortress walls of Jaisalmer are a stunningly romantic sight to see. Jaisalmer was founded in 1156  by Jaisal Singh, a Rajput king, and it is quite obvious why it is called “The Golden City.”

When we first walked toward the fort I was somewhat taken aback with the aggressiveness of some of the sellers lining the entrance, but I soon learned that in well-traveled Rajasthan almost everyone is trying to make a buck off of tourists. We soon became tired of everyone asking “What country?” and then as soon as we answered them trying to sell us something. Living in Mumbai and having traveled to less touristy places like Kolkata and Aurangabad we had somewhat avoided this side of India until now.

However, as long as you don’t let it get to you and sometimes make the effort to observe and have a real conversation with people it becomes manageable. Waking up early helps, as evidenced by Manor’s photos from his morning excursions.

Inside the fortress walls are of course many shops, but there are also lots of beautiful Jain temples and the architecture of most of the buildings is very beautiful and keeps to the ancient carved haveli (mansion) style that is popular here.

View from Canon Point

Jain Temple

Jain temple

Jain temple

Jain temple

Jain temple interior dome

Jain temple interior monkey detail

Jain temple god hand detail

Jain temple god detail

Jain temple marble gods

Everything is not inside the fortress, however. Aside from our lovely hotel (The Hotel Tokyo Palace), there are several ancient havelis, or mansions. These havelis mostly belonged to very wealthy families and have now been preserved and turned into museums. We went to the Patwon Haveli, which was indeed very beautiful, plus it provides a good way to learn a lot about how families kept their homes.

Patwon Haveli

Patwon haveli painted wall

Patwon Haveli perfume bottles

Patwon Haveli turban room

Also outside the fort is a lake across the road, which makes for a lovely sunset spot. There is a small hill from which you can see the fortress and there were a bunch of boys flying kites in the fading light.

Every night at 7:30 the Desert Cultural Centre & Museum puts on a traditional puppet show so we decided to check it out one night. The founder of the museum is the one who introduces each piece, and he pointed out (as did several signs) that the museum is the effort of a single man (himself). We chuckled at his introductions for each piece, which were quite long in Hindi and the English always included the phrase, “This is a very interesting program.” The puppet shows were accompanied by live traditional music and the puppets’ “moves” were actually quite impressive, like a young boy throwing a ball and a man riding a horse in many different positions.

Although getting to Jaisalmer takes some effort, its uniqueness is rewarding and it’s golden beauty can’t be topped.


Filed under Accommodations, Culture, Festivals, India, Sites

India: The Magnificent Taj Mahal and other Agra Offerings

After our friend Judy’s successful arrival from New York via London to Delhi we hopped on a train to Agra. As Judy pointed out cows, rickshaws, garbage, and other Indian anomalies that Manor and I had grown used to we were reminded again how bizarre and fascinating India can be!

We didn’t get to Agra until the evening and we planned to go to the Taj Mahal at sunrise so we decided to take it easy and ate dinner at our guesthouse and attempted to go to sleep early. That plan was foiled when a rowdy group of Brits decided to drink three bottles of vodka and get into a huge fight. Ah, low-budget traveling.

We did still manage to wake up before sunrise and made the trek to the south gate of the Taj, the only one that opens at sunrise. We were determined to be one of the first people in so we could have the Taj somewhat to ourselves. Although there wasn’t much of a sunrise as it was overcast and it even drizzled briefly, our early rise paid off when we stood in front of the truly magical love letter that is the Taj Mahal.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I can confidently say that seeing pictures of the famous mausoleum in no way measures up to the real thing. The perfection and symmetry are beautiful and the magnitude of it is simply astonishing. This was Manor’s second time seeing it and he reported that he was no less impressed.

We took our time walking around all four sides and inside and although there were of course some people there with us, when we left there were hordes and hordes coming in. Waking up early definitely pays off! Plus, we got to see this awesome couple:

After some breakfast we returned to our guesthouse for a much-needed nap before heading off to the Agra Fort in the afternoon. As previously mentioned, I was unimpressed with the Red Fort in Delhi, so I wasn’t sure if the Agra Fort would excite me at all, but I was pleasantly surprised.

When we first entered it seemed like we could only see one small part of it, but a small staircase in the back of one of the pavilions opens out onto a huge area of many more pavilions and structures, as well as balconies with views of the Taj Mahal and some beautiful wall engravings. We easily spent several hours there and probably could have spent several more. But alas, evening was approaching and we still had one more sight to see: the Baby Taj.

We had seen the Mini Taj in Aurangabad and we had seen the Taj Mahal this morning, so of course we had to complete the trifecta and see the Baby Taj! And what a cute name! The Baby Taj, known as an inspiration of the Taj Mahal, is officially known as the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah and the man buried there, Mirzā Ghiyās Beg, is the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, who is buried in the Taj Mahal. It is similar to the Taj Mahal in terms of symmetry and style, but the Baby Taj’s main building is covered with gorgeous floral inlay work. It’s much smaller than the Taj and we perused the grounds in about a half hour. If you have the time, I definitely recommend checking it out. Agra has so much more to offer than just the Taj Mahal!

As darkness fell we headed back to our hotel for some rest and dinner before getting on the overnight train to Jodhpur. We unfortunately didn’t spend any time in Jodhpur, but instead hopped on a bus directly to the desert fortress town of Jaisalmer.


Filed under Accommodations, India, Sites