Only the hopelessly romantic or intrepid traveller ever really makes it here, for the town of Lakhpat is perched literally on the edge of India. As you head out for this once thriving port city hidden away at the mouth of the Kori Creek, in the Kutch district of Gujarat, you are swallowed by the vast emptiness that stretches out before you. Not far along is India’s border with Pakistan.
During the 134-km-long drive from Bhuj, it’s just you, nature and the open road, interrupted occasionally by a maaldhaari and his herd. But at journey’s end, the most breath-taking sight awaits – the majestic walls of a fortified city edged by the Arabian Sea.
It was from here that Guru Nanak set off on his journey to Mecca for Haj in the early 16th century
The magnetic lure of Lakhpat is matched by its timeless quality and sense of desolation. It is a ghost town, whose tale is kept alive only by the occasional visitor who makes the arduous journey here. Listen carefully and the silence is filled with the story of this once prosperous port, its historic importance and religious significance.
Lakhpat is especially important for Sikhs, for it was from here that Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, set off on his journey to Mecca for Haj in the early 16th century. Today, a Gurudwara stands on the spot where Guru Nanak is believed to have stayed, built in his memory in the early 19th century. The shrine, its whitewashed walls and tiled roof gleaming in the sunlight, holds the relics of the revered Guru, including his wooden footwear and palkhi or cradle.
The Gurudwara is beautifully maintained and it received a UNESCO Asia Pacific award for Conservation in 2004. It has a 34-metre-tall Nishan Saheb, a saffron clothed flagpole with a banner bearing the Guru’s symbol, the Khanda Saheb. An active place of worship for Sikhs, the Gurudwara provides simple accommodation for pilgrims to stay here.
Guru Nanak, the first Guru of the Sikh faith, is believed to have travelled the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent as well as West Asia, seeking wisdom and sharing it with those he met. His travels are known as Udasis or ‘prolonged absence from home’. He is believed to have undertaken four Udasis during his lifetime and passed through Lakhpat on two of these epic journeys.
During the Guru’s time, the town was known as Basta Bunder, and there are many legends associated with its change in name. One story suggests that it was rechristened after Rao Lakhaji, who ruled Kutch in the 18th century, whereas another story says the money brought into the town by trade made the people so rich that there were many lakhpati traders who lived there. It was a town of millionaires.
Lakhpat was indeed a flourishing commercial centre between 1750 and 1820, fuelled by trade in timber, textiles and ghee. Its strategic location at the mouth of the Indus River on the western edge of the Indian subcontinent facilitated trade with other ports in Western India, and those of West Asia and East Africa. Since it sat plum on major trading routes, Lakhpat became an economic powerhouse and cultural melting pot as well.
The town reached its zenith during the time of Fateh Muhammad Notiyar, a military commander of the Jadeja Rajputs, who ruled over Kutch in the 18th century. In 1801, he built the imposing Lakhpat Fort, which boasts 20-foot-tall walls that stretch across a circumference of 7 km, punctuated by twenty four watchtowers and four gates.
Legend has it that Notiyar raised the funds to build the fort by raiding the neighbouring Bhatias of Bergaon. He launched his raid when the revered mystic Musa Pir, who lived there, was in Mecca on Haj. Notiyar used his absence to take the townsfolk by surprise.
However, the tide soon turned, when an earthquake in 1819 dramatically altered the destiny of Lakhpat. In one fell swoop, the calamity devastated this bustling and prosperous town and shifted the course of the Indus River further north. Not only did this diminish Lakhpat’s importance as a port, it also made it that much more difficult to recover.
But recover it did, even if it took almost a century. And, by the 1930s and 1940s, the enterprising and hardworking residents made Lakhpat economically important once again. The town became the taluka headquarters and boasted a customs house, large warehouses, a school, a library and a bustling bazaar.
But Lakhpat was ill-fated. Disaster struck again, this time in the form of Partition in 1947. Not only were the age-old ties of language and culture between Kutch and Sindh severed, economically too it was the end as Bibidullah port, which was responsible for the town’s regained prosperity, was placed out of bounds due to its proximity to the India-Pakistan border.
Although now virtually abandoned, only a few people live here, it is a symbol of religious harmony. Right next to the Gurudwara is the Tomb of Pir Ghous Muhammad, a 19th century Sufi mystic who observed both Hindu and Muslim religious practices, due to which he is revered by both communities. His tomb, built from stone and decorated with intricately carved motifs, is known as kubo locally. Interestingly, most of the carvings are said to have been done by Brahmin devotees.
Lakhpat is also home to the Dargah of Syed Pir Shah Abu Tarab, a magnificent nine-domed shrine also known as the ‘Lakhpat Masjid’. Ancestors of the late 18th century seer had settled here from Persia and he was sought by kings and nobles for guidance due to his great scholarship. The tomb, built from locally quarried stone, is a gorgeous, early 19th century structure embellished by exquisitely carved wooden doors, windows and jaalis.
Lakhpat has all but receded from public memory and is barely recognisable from its glory days. Yet, every now and then, devotees of the Sikh community make the challenging pilgrimage here to keep the faith.