Colours of Kutch
You are passing through the Tropic of Cancer, reads the signpost. Welcome to Kutch! For as far as my eyes could squint in the blistering sun, I saw stretches of barren land interspersed with dry thorny scrub and some grass blades bravely spurting from the arid and saline clay desert land. Welcome to Kutch, indeed!
On my way to the Rann of Kutch, I glossed over the barren stretch focusing on the expectations that had brought me to this part of the country, despite several warnings from well-meaning friends. But then, I have the habit of seeking out the diamond from a bed of coal.
Since my tenacity had landed me in the most desolate, sun-baked land in the country, I decided to brave it out. Through the miasma of heat, I spotted the expanse of white. Like freshly deposited snow, a layer of salt covered the parched earth, and I forgot all about the sizzling temperature.
The earth was a shimmering surface that hurt the eyes with its brilliance. Without the sunglasses, it was almost impossible to open the eyes. It took a while to adjust the vision to the vista. The surface was absolutely flat and when the eyes adjusted to the whitewashed panorama, one could distinctly see the horizon where the white earth met the stark blue sky.
This was the White Rann, the salt marsh, where all traces of saline moisture are known to evaporate in sweltering temperature to leave behind piles of salt that can rise up to form little white mounds. Geographically speaking, the Rann was once a part of the Arabian Sea. This area is also the sanctuary of the endangered Asiatic Wild Ass known to most people as khhacchar.
The famous mirage effect began weaving magic. Sometimes the place felt like a large lake, and at other times, I almost felt I was standing amidst slushy snow leftover after a night’s snowfall. Even as I made an attempt to walk over the surface, a warning rang out — ‘don’t step out. There are dal dals (swamp) here. What seems like a hard surface, actually has a soft swamp underneath.’
Adventure has its limits. I leapt back to the security of the beaten track and busied myself with the camera, while my guide filled me up with details about the place. Way back in the later part of the 15th century, the warriors from Sind arrived to take control of the area around Rann. It was Rao Khengarji I, who took control of a hill called Bhujiyo Dungar and began ruling the area. He also founded the town of Bhuj, which became the capital of Kutch. Named after the hill, Bhuj is a desert town, with a vibrant culture. Interestingly, Rao allowed a free passage to the pilgrims travelling to Mecca. In return, the Mughal emperors exempted him from paying nazrana.
The monotonous landscape gets its vivid colours from the beautiful craftsmanship and embroidery of the local villages. In fact, the Kutch region is famous for three things — its colourful traditions, embroidery, handicrafts, music and folk songs. The Kachchhi embroidery has made impressing inroads into the world of designer clothes across the globe. The traditional Ahir embroidery comes from the villages of Dhaneti and Padhar. The block printing comes from Dhamanka and Anjar.
They are also into tie and dye work, much like the one done in Rajasthan, which may be due to the migration of skilled artisans from that state. Weaving is a way of life in some of the villages adjoining Bhuj. I saw a couple of barrel-like huts topped with conical roofs. These were called bhungas, I learnt. They are a masterpiece of architecture and are earthquake -resistant. Because of this reason, they survived the earthquake in 2001, in which most of Bhuj suffered immense damage. Their tiny windows opened out like magical peepholes in a castle turret. Many of the huts were decorated with fascinating artwork, giving them a picturesque look.
The Banni grasslands, located at the edge of the salt desert, are famous for many things. Amongst that is the Karo Dungar (Black Hill) and the India Bridge. We headed for the Hodka village. What followed was a rainbow experience, as I went from one tiny village to another, watching women working their nimble fingers on beautifully embroidered pieces of fabric, sewing colourful pieces to create a magical composite of appliqué work, men engaged in weaving and block printing. It was an enchanting world of colour, skill and diligence. Despite the little resources they possess, the villagers are extremely hospitable and the offer to share their humble meal is difficult to refuse.
The humble bajara no rotla, smeared in ghee and eaten with a piece of jaggery, was an unforgettable experience. We stopped at the Shaam E Sarhad at Hodka, a resort owned by the Hodka community. The resort showcases the lifestyle of the locals, and provides professional hospitality to travellers. It was to be our home for the night. Seated under a star spangled sky, we tapped our feet to the tune of the Kachchhi folk music even as we planned the next morning’s itinerary.
At the crack of dawn, we started for the India Bridge, which is under the control of the Border Security Force (BSF). About 70 km from here is the land post to Pakistan. The brigde is manned by BSF jawans, who do not allow civilians to cross, unless you have a permit from the headquarters. Standing at one end of the bridge, I recalled a scene from JP Datta’s movie Refugee, parts of which were shot in adjoining areas.
The trip to Karo Dungar proved to be a soul enriching one. As I stood at the 400-year-old Dattatreya Temple on the Black Hills, I was enraptured by the sight of the earth and sky embracing each other in a tight grip that made it impossible to discern the horizon. My eyes delighted in an enchanting view of the Great Rann. A strange tableau of events unfolded before my eyes even before I had gotten over the magic of the indiscernible horizon.
After the ritualistic aarti began a loud beating of steel thalis and the men began calling out to invisible guests to partake the prasad. In a flash, much to my surprise, responding to the invitation, a pack of foxes arrived to feast over the prasad laid out by the priest. It was an amazing sight as dozens of foxes relished the victuals laid out for them.
According to a legend, Lord Dattatreya, while walking on the earth, stopped over at Karo Dungar. There he found a pack of jackals that were starving to death. The kind-hearted God offered his body to them as food. Even as the jackals feasted on him, his body regenerated. This has led to the tradition of offering food, each evening, to the foxes that inhabit the area. India is incredible indeed!
The next morning, I made my journey to Bhuj to discover the beauties of the town, but that’s another story.