The Royal Chhatardis site in Bhuj.
Those who have lived in an earthquake zone know the terror invoked by a sizeable shake. Even more modest ones – in the four to six Richter Scale range – are unsettling. So imagine the distress of Gujuratis on January 26, 2001 when they were jolted by a quake of almost eight on the Richter scale and lasting for over two minutes. Some 20,000 people died, almost 170,000 were injured and almost a million left homeless. It was one of the worst earthquakes ever in India. The citizens of the city of Bhuj, only about nine kilometres from the epicentre, were among the hardest hit.
The memory or the earthquake remains strong in Gujarat State. Throughout our travels we listened to countless grim tales of the toll it had taken: loved ones lost, homes destroyed, possessions gone; vital infrastructure shattered. Ahead of our stay in Bhuj we were cautioned about the rawness of grief that remained even after almost two decades. Visiting the house of a renowned textile expert, one of innumerable victims of the seismic catastrophe, his son proudly but sadly pointed out the intricately carved wooden front door frame which they had managed to salvage from the rubble of their previous family home.
Of course, it’s not just contemporary infrastructure which crumbles under the forces of a quake. Antiquities also suffer. In Bhuj one such casualty was the intricately decorated Royal Chhatardis, or cenotaphs. The term chhatardis derives from the word for umbrella, because of the umbrella-shaped dome of the structures. They house no bodily remains, as these were cremated, but serve as memorials. The Royal Chhatris were built in the 18th century by Jadeja ruler Rao Lakhpatji who reserved a particularly impressive Turkish-influenced, bejewelled blue-domed structure, for himself. Walking through the extensive tract of memorials the visitor notes that rank did not save the ruler from the earthquake’s might, his cenotaph revealing significant damage among the many other fallen sculptures. But overall this vast sandstone shrine, intricately depicting gods, goddesses and royalty, retains a regal atmosphere of a bygone era of beauty and extravagance. State finances are being directed into restorations as was funding to get Gujarat back on its feet after the devastation. The resilience of the human spirit still stirs the emotions.