Located right on the Gulf of Kutch in Gujarat, with the Rukmavati River flowing on the east, the town of Mandvi has a rich history. A fortress was established here in the late 16th century and the town itself was a bustling sea port and trading centre. Its landmark temples and mosques drew people from all over the kingdom of Kutch and beyond. Today it is a slower, calmer place known for its soft sand beaches, whispered legends, and migratory birds. Though not as famous as its northern neighbour Bhuj, Mandvi remains a great place to soak in history and enjoy Kutchi hospitality, all at a leisurely pace.
Shipwrights are dwarfed by their creations at the centuries-old shipbuilding yard in Mandvi. Photo: Richard I’Anson/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images
The 400-year-old shipbuilding yard on the bank of the Rukmavati River is testament to the town’s maritime past. In its heyday, this yard probably resounded with the sound of hundreds of men at work. As ships became larger and more modernised, Mandvi gradually faded from prominence. Today, the shipbuilding tradition continues on a smaller scale as expert craftsmen from the Kharva community carve out large wooden ships entirely by hand. Although they make only a few a year, each vessel is a thing of beauty brought to life from hardy sal wood.
Back in the day, Mandvi’s merchants sailed to Southeast Asia, Arabia, Africa, and even as far as England. From their travels they brought home stories, treasures, and interesting architectural influences. The palatial homes they built often incorporated different European styles. Take a walk around the narrow lanes of the old town inside the remaining bastions of Mandvi fort and marvel at the eclectic architecture. Traditional Gujarati homes are embellished with delicately carved angels, balconies with flowered trellises, baroque motifs, and stained-glass windows. Despite the damage suffered during the 2001 Bhuj earthquake, it isn’t hard to imagine their erstwhile grandeur. Friendly residents will often invite you in for tea and chat about their ancestors and colourful history.
From about November to early March, Mandvi plays host to greater flamingoes and other migratory birds. Photo: M Acharya/Dinodia Photo-LBRF/Dinodia Photo Library
Mandvi’s wetlands, mud flats, and coastal areas provide excellent birdwatching opportunities for amateurs and seasoned ornithologists alike. Winters are especially great as hordes of migratory birds arrive in and around the Gulf of Kutch. Go early to catch the sunrise along Mandvi creek and spot flamingos, brown and black-headed gulls, demoiselle cranes, and sandpipers among others.
Dhrabudi beach, half an hour east of Mandvi, is an unusual spot; it has a host of statues, broken pillars, and religious idols. As many old temples and homes that were destroyed during the earthquake were rebuilt, there were elements from the original structures which could not be restored. Somehow these pieces found their way to the beaches. Initially, many of these were deposited straight into the sea or strewn on the beach, but eventually locals collected them and placed them in a central spot. Today, a makeshift temple has sprung up here, making this stretch of sand a curious space dedicated to these bits of Mandvi’s past.
Though dabeli is a classic roadside snack, Mandvi’s dabelivalas create new flavours to suit changing taste buds. Photo: CS Stock images/Shutterstock
Said to be the birth place of the famous snack dabeli, Mandvi has several street vendors and shops that claim to offer the best version of it. The dabeli is a Kutchi take on a burger or sandwich. It contains potatoes mixed with spices, topped with chutney and roasted peanuts, all stuffed in a pao. Apparently, it was invented in the 1960s by a local vendor called Gabhabhai. While many shops in Mandvi claim to make the best dabeli, Joshi Doubleroti Wala near the water tank in the old town and Jayesh Rotivala near the bus stand are known for their delicious and authentic versions (prices start at ₹10).
Built as a summer resort in the 1920s by the then Maharao of Kutch, Vijay Vilas Palace is a beautiful red sandstone structure fusing Rajput architecture with colonial elements. It is set amid sprawling landscaped gardens with marble fountains and water channels. The upper terraces and ground floor are open to visitors, and walking through them feels like travelling back in time. Both the palace and its grounds have been used in several Bollywood films, including Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Lagaan. With the sea as the backdrop, the large terrace with jaali work and colourful tiles is the perfect setting for visitors to re-enact their favourite scenes from the movies (open daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; entry ₹40).
Appeared in the February 2017 issue as “Memories of the Sea”.
Getting There Mandvi is located in southwestern Gujarat. The nearest airport and train station are in Bhuj, 60 km/1 hrnortheast of Mandvi (taxis cost about ₹1,500 one way).
Stay A short drive from town is the shoreside Serena Beach Resort. Rooms are Swiss-style tents equipped with modern amenities and a large balcony to enjoy the view. The resort showcases Kutchi culture, art, and history in its decor (www.serenabeachresort.com; doubles from ₹7,000).
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