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India: Gujarat: Adalaj, Ahmedabad, Bhuj, Little Rann of Kutch, Mandvi, Modhera, Nal Sarovar, Patan

Mandvi, Gujarat, India: Ship builders at heart
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief

Vijay Vilas Palace, Mandvi, Gujarat, India

For 400 years, the shipbuilding industry has been the center of life in Mandvi. It was once the principal port of Kutch and of Gujarat. At its peak, exports were said to outnumber imports fourfold, and their revenue reflected that. Ships came and went from East Africa, the Persian Gulf, the Malabar Coast (now called Kerala, in south India), and South-East Asia. During Rao Godiji's reign in the 1760's, he built and maintained a fleet of 400 ships, one that sailed as far as England and returned. The city used to have 8-metre tall fortified walls around it, but today only a small portion remains.

Motif, Vijay Vilas Palace, Mandvi, Gujarat, India Mandvi was founded as a port town by the Khengarji, the king of Kutch, in 1574. The first temple to be built was the Sundarwar temple, followed by the Jama Masjid in 1603, the Lakshminarayan Temple in 1607, the Kajivali Mosque in 1608 and the Rameshwar Temple in 1627. For all of this to have been built in the first 50 years of the town's existence is a clear indicator of its importance to the kingdom. Indeed, at its peak, Mandvi's wealth easily surpassed that of the capital at Bhuj, and it was only after ships grew too large for its harbour and began to prefer Mumbai that Mandvi started fading from the scene.

As ships grew larger and Mumbai became an ever-more-powerful center of commerce, fewer and fewer vessels would moor at Mandvi, preferring Mumbai or Surat. Today, with a harbor far too small for modern supersized shipping operations, it is no longer a major shipping port, but shipbuilding is still done by hand on the banks of the Rukmavati River.

We landed at Bhuj at 8 AM. We headed straight in our cab to Mandvi, which was about an hour's drive from the airport. At the outskirts of Bhuj, we stopped a while to enjoy a typical roadside Kutchi breakfast - jalebis, phapdas and milk-dominated cutting tea. Our first stop was the Mandvi Beach. Since it was past 10 in the morning, there were hardly any people around. After walking on the sand and enjoying a soothing fresh coconut drink, we headed to our next, and important sight - the Vijay Vilas Palace.

Local Transportation, Mandvi, Gujarat, India The palace was built during reign of Maharao Shri Khengarji III, the Maharao of Kutch, as a summer resort for the use of his son & heir to the kingdom, the Yuvraj Shri Vijayaraji and is therefore, named after him as Vijaya Vilas Palace. The construction of palace started in year in 1920 and was completed in year 1929. The palace is built with red sandstone. It has all the elements of Rajput architecture and draws largely on the plan of palaces of Orchha and Datia.

The central high dome on the pillars, the Bengal domes on the sides, the windows with colored glass, carved stone 'jalis', domed bastions at the corners, extended porch and other exquisitely stone-carved elements, make the palace adorable. The palace is set in the middle of well-laid gardens with water channels and marble fountains. The mixture and mingling of architecture and style of different regions of India, as such, can be distinctly seen in design & architecture of the Vijay Vilas Palace. The carved stone works of Jalis, Jharokas, Chhatris, Chhajas, murals and many other artistic stone carvings, colored glass work on windows and door panels all have been done by the architects and craftsmen from Rajasthan, Bengal and Saurashtra, as also by local Kutchi artisan community - the Mistris of Kutch. The balcony at the top offers a superb view of the surrounding area.

Terrace, Vijay Vilas Palace, Mandvi, Gujarat, India From the palace, we drove to Shyamji Krishna Varma Memorial.

Shyamji Krishna Varma was born on 4 October 1739 in Mandvi. He was an Indian revolutionary fighter, lawyer and journalist who founded the Indian Home Rule Society, India House and The Indian Sociologist in London. A graduate of Balliol College, Krishna Varma was a noted scholar in Sanskrit and other Indian languages. He pursued a brief legal career in India and served as the Divan of a number of Indian princely states in India. He had, however, differences with Crown authority, was dismissed following a supposed conspiracy of local British officials at Junagadh and chose to return to England.

India House, Shyamji Krishna Varma Memorial, Mandvi, Gujarat, India In 1905 he founded the India House and The Indian Sociologist, which rapidly developed as an organised meeting point for radical nationalists among Indian students in Britain at the time and one of the most prominent centres for revolutionary Indian nationalism outside India. Most famous among the members of this organisation was Veer Savarkar. Krishna Varma moved to Paris in 1907, avoiding prosecution. He died in 1935.

He had made prepaid arrangements with the local government of Geneva and St Georges cemetery to preserve his and his wife’s ashes at the cemetery for 100 years and to send their urns to India whenever it became independent during that period. Requested by Paris-based scholar Dr Prithwindra Mukherjee, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi agreed to repatriate the ashes. Finally on 22 August 2003, the urns of ashes of Shyamji and his wife Bhanumati were handed over to then Chief Minister of Gujarat State Narendra Modi by the Ville de Geneve and the Swiss government 55 years after Indian Independence. They were brought to Mumbai and after a long procession throughout Gujarat, they reached Mandvi, his birthplace.

Beach, Mandvi, Gujarat, India A memorial called Kranti Teerth dedicated to him was built and inaugurated in 2010 near Mandvi. Spread over 52 acres, the memorial complex houses a replica of India House building at Highgate along with statues of Shyamji Krishna Varma and his wife. Urns containing Krishna Verma's ashes, those of his wife, and a gallery dedicated to earlier activists of Indian independence movement is housed within the memorial.

In the 1970s, a new town developed in his native state of Kutch, was named after him as Shyamji Krishna Varmanagar in his memory and honour.

Beach, Mandvi, Gujarat, India Our final destination for the day was Gorewali Resort, near the Rann of Kutch. It was a 3-hour drive. Enroute we had to cross the town of Bhuj, which gave us an excuse to have a typical Gujarati thali – a plateful of delicacies – which included the regional special Undhiyo and Poli.

Late afternoon we were at the gates of Gorewali Resort – our home for the next 2 nights.

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