Imagine Bengal like this: all the rivers have dried up. Periodically, there are earthquakes. For mile after mile there is only desert scrub: thorn and cactus. The ground is so dusty, drab and lifeless that you even have to play your cricket with a tennis ball. Would it not be terrible to live in such a place?
If Bengal has an alter ego, it surely has to be Kutch, a region just such as this over on the other wing of the Sub-continent, bordered by Sindh, Rajputana, and some might add, the Gujarat state of which it is an administrative part.
For many, Jerusalem is the image of the ideal city, yet who would want to live in that divided, rancorous city today? By way of contrast, rural Kutch, is something of an ideal. If you don't believe me, come and join me on a quick visit.
We could do worse than start in the centrally-located Devpur, an earthly enough village but with something of the celestial as the name implies. One hundred and fifty years ago, the local Thakur with the remit of twelve villages, a Jadeja related to the Maharao who ruled the whole of Kutch, built a small palace on top of the hill, and at the same time, constructed a mosque and a temple on either side of the village square.
The trio of buildings are still there in good repair, much of the palace now given over to a school though. Throw in a mango orchard and, for all the petty squabbles that no doubt still go on, what more ideal place could you have?
About five hundred years ago, the founder of the last Kutch dynasty was instructed to establish his capital city on the head of a snake, perhaps the cosmic Naga. Accordingly, he drove a nail into the ground. Unfortunately, an overly zealous courtier caused him to doubt his aim. He withdrew the nail, saw blood on it and hastily drove it back in. It was too late. The snake had moved and this time the nail got fastened on to the tail. This discrepancy, it is said, is the cause of constant earthquakes.
Bhuj, the small capital of tortoise-shaped Kutch, has bounced back from its last shattering earthquake in 2001. The wonderfully-wrought Aina Mahal, marble palace of mirrors, is badly damaged but no place could be more serene than the courtyard of the renovated Parsi house that was once the possession of Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Indian to win a seat in the British Parliament.
Resilient residents in the villages roundabout have once again restored their craft traditions: the Khatris of Ajrakpur, masters of block-printing, and their namesakes of Bhadli, equally masters of bhandani or tie-and-dye for nine or ten generations, market to the biggest cities in the world.
Down on the coast is the port of Mandvi, its honky-tonky beach full of the food-stalls and swings and rides and boat-trips that are magical for children of all ages. Mandvi craftsmen continue to build and refit the wooden ships for the coastal trade that from time immemorial have circumnavigated the Indian Ocean from Malabar to Zanzibar.
That Arabia is a short sail from Kutch is evident among the romantic ruins of Lakhpat, a multicultural city once so wealthy it coined a word for us: lakhpati. Sadly, an earthquake in 1819 altered the course of the River Indus that ran past its vast walls and wrecked an extensive trade that finally ceased with Partition.
For all its ruins, Lakhpat has lessons for us. The gurdwara, resurrected out of the former port authority house, celebrates the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, an “udasi” or itinerant speaking up for the oppressed, who stayed here on his way to Haj. In the best Sufi tradition, he gave one of his sons to Islam, one to Hinduism, something the eclectic collection of songs in the holy Granth Saheb also reflects.
Grandest of the monuments perhaps is the kubo or tomb of Pir Ghaus Mohammed, a Sufi saint who composed songs about Krishna among others, and was revered by Muslims and Hindus alike as a great healer. Nearby is the tomb of another Sufi saint, Hazrat Saiyed Sh'a Abu Turab. In contrast to the modern urban centre of Ahmedabad, the tombs of the Sufi saints here remain inviolate and honoured.
The memory of traders too can be seen in the ruins of their great houses, most prominently those of the Bhatias and the Akbanis. The reputation of the latter was such it was said that when people were in distress they were always helped out either by God or the Akbanis.
A longer perspective on the ephemerality of our contemporary lives is provided by the great salt marsh that is the Rann of Kutch, stretching for silent white miles after miles as if in northern Canada or Siberia, fossilized trees on its edge. Here you stumble across the great pyramid of walls that was the port city of Dholavira, linking the river systems of the Indus and the now defunct Saraswati.
Seven cities succeeded one another, the third destroyed by a residual earthquake, until the site was finally abandoned in 1900. 1900 B.C. that is. The sophisticated town planning, especially the hydraulic and drainage systems, would be enviable to many even in of our own times. The upper, middle and lower towns were apportioned according to their respective classes, a stadium between them.
In the Banni, the rich grasslands of the north, are to be found diverse communities. The Maldharis, camel-breeders, some perhaps from central Asia, had not seen a car before 1980. Among them are the Fakirani Jats, who left Medina 500 years ago and still sing the songs of Abdul Latif. A favourite one is where he compares himself to a copper bell, mined, hammered, fired and beaten into shape before he is ready to sound the name of God.
The semi-nomadic Rabari, who say they are happy if their animals are happy, wear beautifully-embroidered black, perhaps to use up the wool of the black sheep they do not sell, perhaps to commemorate the death of Krishna or perhaps to mourn the death of one of their girls who committed suicide rather than be dishonoured by a rajah.
The curse of barrenness that fell on Kutch is supposed to have been uttered by the sage Dhoranmath when he agreed to suspend a penance he had undertaken so long as whatever wealth his eyes fell on first should become baked earth. Not so long ago, a boy at a local archaeological site showed a doctor a perfect terracotta bead and told him it had been gold until cursed by Dhoranmath.
The curse may yet prove to have been a blessing. The terracotta of Kutch is not as famously transformed as that of Bengal into art as great as, say, the temples of Bishnupur, but the many diverse crafts based on their earthy materials, here, do make for a rich culture.
Kutch embodies the old ideal of civilisation as a network of village communities. Diverse as are the communities, there is little or no record of communal discord. Who knows but that the frequent earthquakes have had the beneficial effect of bringing all together in a common effort in order to overcome the devastation they themselves cause.
John Drew is an occasional contributor to The Daily Star literature Page.