In Search of India’s Top Textiles

  • A meghwal tribal woman standing in front of her family's ornately painted bhunga - a conical mud-brick hut - in the village of Hodka.

    A meghwal tribal woman standing in front of her family's ornately painted bhunga - a conical mud-brick hut - in the village of Hodka.

  • A potter in Khavada village.

    A potter in Khavada village.

  • Great Rann of Kutch

    Great Rann of Kutch

  • A jeep takes tourists sihtseeing in the Little Rann of Kutch, the smaller sibling of the Great Rann.

    A jeep takes tourists sihtseeing in the Little Rann of Kutch, the smaller sibling of the Great Rann.

  • Men of the nomadic Rabari tribe leading their cattle across the wilderness of eastern Kutch.

    Men of the nomadic Rabari tribe leading their cattle across the wilderness of eastern Kutch.

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We have spent the morning visiting villages north of Bhuj, a flat and seemingly never ending landscape of thorny bushes and parched earth. We meet with Muslim potters painting little cups and saucers; Muslim tanners busy on a range of leather holders for tableware and smartphones; and the Meghwal tribal women—once classified as untouchables under the Hindu caste system—responsible for Gujarat’s exquisitely fine embroidery, who defy the desert’s drabness with their kaleidoscopic dresses, hand-beaten silver jewelry, and intricate tattoos. The villages themselves are clusters of conical thatch-roofed bhunga huts decorated with tiny mirrors and murals of camels and village life, and for now have been spared the influx of tourism that throngs neighboring Rajasthan. Though not entirely: there’s a tour bus parked outside one house that we visit, and the woman inside is as brusque as they come, slamming the door behind us before launching into a grueling sales pitch for mostly mediocre pieces of embroidery made from fluorescent chemical dyes. None tickle my fancy, but the woman is blocking the entrance, so I hand over a fistful of rupees for the best work and make a beeline for the door.

The next day I stop by the Bhuj showroom of Qasab, a cooperative of 1,200 women from dozens of villages across Kutch that predominately deals with embroidery. It’s designed to “basically cut out the middleman and foster quality over quantity,” says the manager, explaining that the embroiderers set their own prices for their work, and that a portion of the sales goes back into a fund for training other female artisans. While the pieces on display at Qasab are all beautiful, the one that really catches my eye—a two-meter wall hanging with 15 squares of embroidery, each from a different village—sadly isn’t for sale. Appreciating my taste for the finer things, the manager tells somebody to “bring the box.” A plain cardboard carton, the box is filled with dowry-quality pieces wrapped carefully in tissue—tapestries with stitches so tight I can barely see them, pieces that have taken the embroiderer months, if not years, to produce, each one more exquisite and flawless than the last. It’s an astonishing trove.

The next morning I rise early for the long drive back to Ahmedabad—Gujarat’s largest city—and what promises to be another highlight of my trip: a tour of the Calico Museum, regarded as one of the finest textile museums in the world. A visit requires determination, however: there’s only one tour a day for a maximum of 20 people, and booking well in advance is expected. As my five telephone calls and three e-mails have all gone unanswered, I show up ahead of opening hours and hope for the best. I’m in luck.

Founded by cotton industrialist Gautam Sarabhai in 1949, the museum is divided between a villa built by Swiss architect Le Corbusier and an intricately carved wooden and rammed-earth haveli. Forbidding cameras, phones, shoes, bags, and anything else that might be considered a nuisance and overseen by a petulant woman with the strident voice of a sergeant major, this dictatorial little museum is nonetheless the holy grail of Indian textiles. Spanning half a millennium, the extensive collection includes tapestries once owned by Mughal rulers, Kashmiri shawls that took three years to weave, 15th-century block prints. There are also several rooms devoted to the fabrics of Kutch, including 18th-century garments with aari embroidery produced specifically for the courts and a wall-size piece of embroidered peacocks threaded with gold. It is the finest collection of Kutch textiles I have seen in my travels, and absolutely worth the fuss of getting in the front door.

THE DETAILS

Getting There
The only air service to Bhuj is a daily flight from Mumbai operated by Jet Airways. Another option is to fly into Ahmedabad—Singapore Airlines flies there thrice weekly—and hire a car and driver for the 330 km journey west to Bhuj; Gujarat Tour and Travels can organize the latter. Traveling via Ahmedabad also provides the ideal opportunity to visit the Calico Museum.

When to Go
The salt plains covering the Great Rann of Kutch are best viewed from November to February.

Where to Stay
Only open from October to March, community-owned Shaam-e-Sarhad Village Resort (doubles from US$50, full-board) offers a range of tents and rammed-earth bhungas on the edge of Hodka village, 65 km north of Bhuj. Closer to town, Devpur Homestay (doubles from US$48) had friendly family hosts and spacious rooms set in a century-old palace.

This article originally appeared in the August/September print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“A Passage to Kutch”)

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