After much thought we zeroed in on the Great Rann Of Kutch and reached there on a full moon night last week. We chose to visit a less explored part of the area called ‘Ekal Ka Rann’ to experience the sunset and full moon on the white desert. To our pleasant surprise the vacation was not just about the Rann but also its people, traditions, cuisine, rural life and understanding the notion of borders.
Our first 2 days were spent a little village called Chobari, about 5 hours from Ahmedabad. The area was the epicentre of the massive earthquake that rocked Bhuj in 2001.
We stayed at the ‘Meriya Nature Resort’, a village homestay run by Ramjibhai Meriya, a journalist, photographer, conservationist and a virtual encyclopaedia on the Kutch region. His home was next to a lovely lake. A wide range of birds including migratory birds could be spotted near the lake and the farmland around Ramjibhai’s home.
The Ekal Ka Rann , named after the Ekal Mata temple at the edge of the white desert was about 15 kilometers from his home. We reached the Rann at about 5.30 and walked some distance. The place was simply amazing. We watched in awe as the desert seemed to change colours with the setting sun. Soon it was dark we soaked in the vastness of space. Later we saw the moon rise and the white surface glisten in the moonlight. No words can describe the serene beauty of a full moon night on the Rann.
The best way to learn about a place and its culture is to interact with local people. We were lucky to be staying in a village homestay. Ramjibhai’s brother in law who was also present there told us about how the family had been affected during partition with some members having stayed behind in Pakistan. Later some of them, he told us came to India and even gained Indian citizenship. He also told us about how he had heard tales of people riding on horses across the Rann from Chobari to Rahim Ka Bazar which now lies in Pakistan to get their provisions.
“This land belonged to all of us, it became 2 nations at the time of partition!” he told us. As we continued to explore the region, we realised that Pakistan was never far away.
The next day we drove about a 100 kms to visit Dholavira, the largest Metropolis of the Indus Valley Civilization. The better known cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa lie in today’s Pakistan. Dholavira was first established about 5000 years and we were told that the place was destroyed and re-established 7 times over a period of 2000 years. The last settlement dates to about 1500 BC.
Dholavira was once an island. Today the sea bed has risen and the island is surrounded by the Rann. The 7 km drive along what is called the Rann of Kutch lake is beautiful.
The excavation site of Dholavira is interesting and the water management systems are extremely impressive. We also drove to the fossil park at Dholavira.
While the fossil park was disappointing, the view of the Rann from the park was amazing.
And Pakistan lies just 40kms across the Rann.
Dholavira is a remote village and even today there are no restaurants or places to stay. Ramjibhai arranged lunch for us with a villager who was also our guide. Having grown up in Dholavira, our guide Ravjibhai was familiar with the place and knew all the details about the archaeological site. He told us that barely 10% of the site had been excavated and studied. When we asked him why excavations had stopped, he smiled and said, “ jab zindon ke liye paise nahi hai toh murdon ke liye kahan se ayegi!”
He also took us to his home for a simple and delicious Kutchi lunch. We then visited Ramobhai a leather craftsman who lived a few homes away. He sat in a dark corner working on a beautiful leather handbag. The wallets and bags made by him were beautiful. He took pride in his work and it was nice to know that he got orders on a regular basis from big cities.
While talking to Ramjibhai we learnt that Chobari along with Khavda was a major centre for production the milk sweet “mavo”. His son son brought some Mavo for us from the village. It was delicious. The next morning, on our way to Hodka we stopped at Bheembhai Patel’s Mavo making centre to pick up 2 kilos of freshly made Mavo.
On the advice of Ramjibhai we also stopped at Dhamadka, the original centre for Ajrak Block printing.
Believed to have been first practised by people of the Indus Valley Civilization, the traditional method of block printing using natural dyes is still prevalent in parts of Kutch and Sindh in Pakistan. Several centuries ago the Khatri family settled in Dhamadka and was involved in traditional ajrakh block printing. We were told by Dr.Ismail Khatri, now a resident of Ajrakhpur, and man striving to keep the ajrakh tradition alive that a river near Dhamadka dried up in the late 1980’s. Families began to depend on borewells. Also with increasing competition from mill made cloth, many traditional practitioners of ajrakh printing went elsewhere for work. The earthquake in 2001 destroyed Dhamadka. Many of the surviving families chose to leave the village and restablish themselves in Ajrakhpur near Bhuj. The family of Sulaiman Khatri chose to stay behind at Dhamadka. These elderly men are extremely proud to have kept this ancient art alive. They emphasised that even today no chemicals are used in the process of ajrak printing. We visited both Dhamadka and Ajrakhpur.
After some shopping we reached Hodka situated in the Banni Grasslands for lunch. Hodka was just 20kms from the popular ‘Tent City’ on the Rann. Sham-e-sarhad the resort we stayed in was managed by the Hodka village Panchayat.The employees were all locals and every one of them was proud of the quality of service they provided.
Following a lazy afternoon we went to the Hodka village to meet the leather artisans there.
Community living in these villages seemed very different from what we see in cities. Every compound had a cluster of homes. These were occupied either by members of a family or people or practising a specific profession. The cluster we went to had leather artisans. We picked up some hand crafter leather wallets from them. The children of these artisans were extremely talented and young girls made beautiful bead jewellery. Their enthusiasm was amazing and we got some pretty jewellery made by these girls. “You are so young. How did you learn to make this?”, I asked a young girl. She shrugged it off saying, “ Hum to hamesha se banathe hain!”
The following morning we drove to Kalo Dungar. On the way we stopped at ‘Siyaram Sweets’ at Khavda for some more authentic Mavo!
Kalo Dungar was more crowded and touristy. The view of the white Rann was nice but we felt that it paled in comparison with the view from the Dholavira fossil park. Driving back from Kalo Dungar, we decided to test whether the hill was actually ‘magnetic’ as the locals claimed. We were shocked to note that our vehicle moved at a constant speed of about 40 km/hr even when the engine was switched off. The vehicle even climbed a steep portion at a speed of 20 km/hr. All of us were thrilled to experience that.
Our next destination was the India Bridge. Civilians are not allowed beyond India bridge because of the area’s proximity to the border with Pakistan. We had the army’s permit to drive on the road to the border. Locals advised us that it may be unwise to drive upto the border in an Innova as the road conditions could be bad. However at the BSF checkpost we were told that we could drive about 15 kilometres upto the ‘Martyrs Memorial’ and return.
All of us were thrilled to drive into the restricted zone. We stopped at the Martyrs Memorial built in memory of soldiers who died fighting at the Rann during the 1971 war with Pakistan. We also visited a BSF camp there. We had carried some sweets for our soldiers. The chief there came to meet us and spent some time talking to all of us. We also had tea with them. For us, it was an opportunity to meet people of the Indian army and just say, ‘thank you!”
We had to leave behind our phones and cameras at the India Bridge check post. So all we have is beautiful memories of this part of our trip.
It was also our final glimpse at the white Rann. For the first time we got to see some deer running along the Rann.
The next day we decided to spend some time seeing Bhuj. On reaching we found that most tourist destinations were closed as it was a Thursday. We then decided to drive to Koteshwar and Narayan Sarovar.
It was a 3 hour drive to Koteshwar, the western most temple in India. Beyond this lies the disputed waters of the Sir Creek. On a clear night in Koteshwar, we were told that the lights of Karachi city could be seen. Though it was still day, my sons and I looked around for a while and were convinced we could see Karachi!
Legend has it that the Shivlinga at Koteshwar was gifted to Ravana, the Lord of Lanka by Lord Shiva himself. Huein Tsang the Chinese traveller also mentions the temple in his writings.
The nearby Narayan Sarovar, a spot as significant as the Man Sarovar was disappointing. It was completely dry.
While Koteshwar was a beautiful the long drive did make it tiring.
That night we drove back to Bhuj at stayed at an artisan and crafts village called ‘Khamir’. Here we learnt some more about forgotten crafts and traditions that the organisation is trying to revive or keep alive. We met weavers of Kharad, practitioners of different types Kutchi embroidery. We also learnt about ‘Kala Cotton’ an organic cotton that is not water intensive.
It was time to head home. From Khamir we drove back to Ahmadabad for our return flight. Our driver who was also visiting Kutch for the first time was also very happy with places we had been to. Meeting the BSF personel had been the highlight for him. Finally he insisted we have dinner at a restaurant run by people from ‘his’ part of Gujarat, Porbandar. He told us that there was a lot to see in his part of the state and we told him that we would plan a trip there in the near future.