Kutch Museum: An Overview

in Overview
Published on: 15 August 2019

Hanoz H.R. Patel

Hanoz H.R. Patel is a historian and a museologist. He has worked in the field of research and documentation with several national institutes and museums across India. His interests lie in travelling, mountaineering, cooking, reading and exploring Indian mythology.

The princely state of Kutch was established in 1147 by Lakho Jadani, who migrated to Kutch from Sindh. With his twin brother, Lakhiar, he established Lakhiarviro, their capital, near present-day Nakhatrana, thus marking the beginning of the dynasty of Jadeja Rajputs in Kutch. In 1549, Khengarji I consolidated and united the entire Kutch region under the suzerainty of the Jadejas. Matrimonial alliances with rulers of the Gujarat Sultanate provided legitimacy to the Jadeja claim over Kutch. Khengarji I initiated several important projects to modernise Kutch, such as the creation of a port at Mandvi, establishing a new Kutch currency, moving the capital to Bhuj and so on.

Maharao Khengarji III (1875–1942) was the longest-reigning ruler of Kutch state. He was considered a progressive and reformist ruler, and commissioned several major development projects in Kutch. The creation of a vast network of railways, called the Kutch State Railway, connected several important towns and ports. Maharao Khengarji III is also credited with the development of the port of Kandla and the elevation of the state of Kutch to the status of a seventeen-gun salute (a salute given to the head of the princely state. The number of shots to be fired was decided by the British crown). He attended all three Delhi durbars (courts) and participated in the 1921 League of Nations conference in Geneva on behalf of India.

The establishment of the Kutch Museum in Bhuj by Maharao Khengarji III gave the state the distinction of having the first museum in Gujarat. At its inception, the Kutch Museum was part of the School of Art, also established by the maharao. On July 1, 1877, the museum was formally instituted inside the same building that housed the School of Art. Both the museum and the School of Art were under the principalship of J.D. F, who previously worked at the Sir JJ School of Art in Bombay.

On the occasion of Maharao Khengarji III’s wedding on February 19, 1884, several artists from all over India were invited to Bhuj to create traditional works of art. The artefacts created during this period were later donated to the newly proposed museum. Thus, 5,897 artefacts constituted the first collection of the Kutch Museum.

As the museum’s collection grew over time, there was a necessity for a larger building to house it. The location of the new building was chosen in the vicinity of Hamirsar Lake, near Nazar Baugh Garden in Bhuj. On November 14, 1885, the foundation for the current building of the museum was laid. The foundation stone was laid by Sir James Fergusson, the then governor of Bombay, and hence the museum was initially known as the Fergusson Museum. At the time, the new two-storied building was constructed using red sandstone at a total expense of around Rs 32,000. Maharao Khengarji III commissioned the design and construction of the new museum building from state engineer Mr McLelland who, along with the state architect (gaidher), Jairam Gajdhar, employed the local skilled workforce colloquially known as mistris (masons) for the task. The museum building was constructed in the Italian Gothic style of architecture. In the period before the independence of India, the museum was open solely to the royal family and their guests. It allowed entry to the public only during certain important events.

The multidisciplinary collection of the Kutch Museum exhibits the distinct diversity of the Kutch region through its artefacts—ranging in themes such as art, archaeological findings, numismatics, epigraphy, weaponry, handicrafts, embroidery, textiles, royal regalia, etc.

Archaeological and Epigraphical Collections
Archaeological explorations and excavations in the Kutch have resulted in the discovery of historical artefacts, leading to a better understanding of the extent of human habitation in the region. Some of the artefacts from these explorations, such as prehistoric stone tools, shards of pottery and tree fossils, have been displayed at the Kutch Museum along with additional information about the geography of the Kutch region. The area is well-known for the presence of sites from the Harappan Civilisation, of which Dholavira—located on Khadir Bet Island (Greater Rann) in Bhachau Taluka—is one of the largest to be excavated in India. The Kutch Museum has in its possession two original seals dating back to the Harappan period. A rectangular seal was obtained from Khirsara village, while a square seal was excavated in Dholavira. The square seal portrays an animal motif resembling a unicorn. The museum also exhibits Harappan artefacts such as the remnants of perforated pottery, terracotta utensils, bangles made from conch shells and cylindrical beads.

The Kutch Museum’s rarest and most significant artefacts are the stone inscriptions belonging to the period of the Kshatrapa dynasty. The epigraphical collection in the museum comprises 12 inscribed stone tablets, the oldest of which has been dated to 89 CE (Saka year 11). The stone tablets mention the names of ancient rulers such as Chastana—the founder of the Kshatrapa dynasty—and Rudradaman I. These artefacts were obtained from Andhau, near Bhuj, and Khavda, near the famous Black Hill of Kutch. The discovery of these stone tablets brought the history of the Kshatrapa dynasty forward to Saka year 11, 40 years ahead of Saka year 52 (130 CE), as had been ascertained earlier. The museum also houses an important stone tablet that names the Abhir ruler, Ishwardev (332 CE), and is the only known inscription of the Abhirs in Gujarat. Another important epigraphical artefact displayed in the Kutch Museum is a set of ninth century unbaked clay seals depicting Buddha in the bhumi sparsha (touching the earth) mudra, discovered in the Siyot (Kateshwar) Caves near Lakhpat Taluka in Kutch. These seals show that Buddhism was active in Kutch during this time.

Handicrafts and Embroidery
The region of Kutch is a cradle of several forms of art, and its indigenous communities are proficient in a variety of techniques, such as embroidery, tie-dye, weaving and pattern work, bead work, lacquer work, ivory work, filigree work and metal smelting. The textile collection, exhibited on the first floor of the Kutch Museum, consists of clothing, animal decor, home decor, handbags, ornamentation items, etc., in various local styles.

The world-renowned embroidery of Kutch is produced by several schools, based on the communities that practice these indigenous crafts. These schools are Mochi, Khatri, Lohana, Jat, Mutva, Ahir, Kanbi and Rabari. The aari bharat (or mochi bharat) is an immensely decorative form of embroidery practised by the Mochi community. The embroidery form derives its name from the aari (a hooked needle), a tool used in this process. Kanjari embroidery is practised by several communities residing in the Banni grasslands. Kanjari is a long blouse with intricate embroidery patterns and abhla work (mirror work). It is said that a mother starts working on a kanjari as soon as her daughter is born, since she has to gift it to her daughter at her wedding. The embroidery patterns and designs of the Banni communities, like the Mutvas and Jats, showcase—in the portrayed motifs, methodologies and styles of stitching patterns—traditional influences of the Sindh region, from where they once migrated.

Rogan artworks constitute another interesting aspect of the collection of the Kutch Museum. The rogan technique is a form of painting on textiles that uses natural colours mixed with castor oil. The natural colours, prepared from vegetable dyes, are dense and bright. The process of painting or printing begins with the preparation of colours (boiling the mixture of natural pigments with castor oil for a period of up to two days), after which a thick paste is applied on the cloth in the form of the intended motifs or images. Interestingly, the metal rod used to apply the paint never touches the cloth. Generally, the artist only paints one side of the cloth, after which it is folded over to create a mirror impression on the opposite side. This art is said to be practised only by a couple of families from the Khatri community, who reside in Nirona village, near Bhuj. The ‘tree of life’ is the most prominent motif in the rogan art form, which is said to have originated in Persia.

The bharat embroidery style is another profound art form prevalent in Kutch. The term bharat colloquially means ‘to fill’. The form uses dense stitches with mirrors, and is generally used to embroider apparel, bags and animal clothing. The most prominent bharat forms are practised by the Ahir and Rabari communities in Kutch. The textile collection of the Kutch Museum also houses specimens of mashru weaving. Traditionally practised by Muslim communities, it is a weaving technique that produces a fabric with cotton on the inside and silk on the outside. According to a belief among Muslims, silk is not supposed to touch their skin. Mashru derives its name from a term in the Arabic language meaning ‘that which is allowed’, signifying that this technique does not violate their religious beliefs.

Ethnological Dioramas
The museum also showcases ethnographical exhibits in the form of life-size dioramas of the indigenous communities of Kutch, such as Vaghadia Rabari, Kashi Rabari, Ahir, Mutwa, Meghwal, Pathan, Fakirani Jat, Charan, Bhil and Koli. The dioramas present an elementary view of these communities, showcasing their traditional costumes, ornaments, household items and objects of daily life, supported by photographs of the same.

By 1549, Maharao Khengarji I had politically united the entire Kutch region, and consolidated the dominion of the Jadeja dynasty. In 1617, he decided to sanction the minting of a currency specific to the state of Kutch. The currency, known as kori, was produced at the royal mint in Bhuj. The value of the standard Kutchi kori corresponded to about one-third of an Indian rupee. Its denominations were called adhiyo, dhabu, dhinglo, dokdo, ardho kori, paylo and trabiyo. The highest denomination of the currency was 10 kori. During World War II, the Kutch State issued paper currency. However, as India gained independence and Kutch merged with it, this currency was never distributed. In its numismatic collection, the Kutch Museum exhibits various denominations of the Kutchi kori along with a diverse collection of coins from various other dynasties, time periods and countries. The most interesting specimen in the coin collection is the ‘Jai Hind kori’, which was commissioned prior to the merging of Kutch with independent India, and has the words ‘Jai Hind’ inscribed on it in the Devanagari script.

The Kutch Museum possesses a wide range of ceremonial arms and weaponry. It houses a rare Hydari cannon, gifted by Tipu Sultan in 1795 CE to Jamadar Fateh Muhammad, the chief of the Kutch Army. The cannon has Arabic inscriptions on it, and the story goes that Tipu Sultan wanted to acquire the popular Kutch horses in return for it. A ‘bell cannon’—named so because it is shaped like a bell—is displayed on the exterior premises of the museum. Before firing, the cannon is loaded with hollow iron balls filled with materials like stone, glass and iron. Two such cannonballs are also on display. Another cannon exhibited at the museum is of Portuguese origin, with an inscription in the Portuguese language on it.

An interesting artefact of the armoury collection is a weapon known as bhuj. The bhuj, as the name suggests, has its origins in the Bhuj region. The weapon has an axe-like blade on the top, while at the base of the handle is a concealed knife, commonly known as gupti. The knob on which the blade rests is designed to resemble an elephant.

Noteworthy Artefacts
The Kutch Museum houses several unique and rare artefacts in its collection. A seventh century bronze statue of Buddha, standing in samabhanga (posture of perfect balance) and performing the abhaya (fearless) mudra, is a certain attraction. The inscription on the pedestal of the statue, written in Devanagari, states that the statue was commissioned by a person named Nag Singh, for his guru, Kirti Devi. This attests that Buddhism allowed women to be priests, unlike other religions of the time—including Hinduism.

The rare collection of Jain sculptures in the museum includes the Raas Mandal sandstone sculpture, depicting Krishna’s raas leela (dance of divine love) with the gopis.

Another notable artefact is a wooden sculpture of Airavata, the mythical elephant that carried the Hindu god, Indra. The seven-trunked sculpture belongs to the eighteenth century, and was procured from a derasar (Jain temple) in Mandvi. The sculpture is painted in the traditional Kutchi Kamagiri style, and was used as a ceremonial artefact during religious processions. Indra is seen sitting on top of Airavata, indicating that the ‘Lord of the Gods’ (according to Hindu mythology) is travelling to pay his respects to the newly born tirthankara (spiritual teachers in Jainism). On each trunk of Airavata is a temple housing an idol of a tirthankara. The sculpture of Airavata was commemorated in the form of a special-edition stamp on the occasion of the Kutch Museum’s centenary in 1978.

The Kutch Museum since 2011
Though the 2001 earthquake in Bhuj tested the structural integrity of the museum, its collection suffered only minor damage. Dr Y.S. Raval, an archaeologist, was appointed to undertake a project to retrieve the portion of the collection affected by the earthquake. Under his supervision, artefacts were retrieved from the rubble, restored, properly documented, and relocated to a safe environment. The museum building was also restored, keeping its exterior facade intact while remodelling its interior structure. Adjacent to the Kutch Museum is Alfred High School, the oldest high school in Kutch, founded by Maharao Pragmalji in 1870. After the earthquake, the school was merged with the Kutch Museum, thus expanding the museum’s structure. The newly renovated building was equipped with preventive measures against earthquakes and other natural disasters. The museum plans to install new galleries and exhibitions in the extended portion of the new building in the future.

The oldest museum of Gujarat, the Kutch Museum has gone through several phases of development over the years. It was established as a part of the school of art which then evolved into a full-fledged museum under the patronage of the Royal Family. The museum received its first collection on the occasion of the royal wedding of Maharao Khengarji. He was considered as one of the most progressive rulers of his times. Maharao’s dedicated attention aided the museum to flourish. In modern times, the museum has evolved to represent the culturally diverse district of Kutch.


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