The black hills of Bhuj

Unusual Gujarat

The black hills of Bhuj

It was a mildly sunny winter afternoon as we arrived in Bhuj towards the end of our tour of Gujarat. With time running out for a long drawn visit to the archaeological site of Dholavira, we looked at other places that could be visited in a short span of a day.

The man at the enquiry in the state bus station was the one who turned out to be our guide. He not only scrapped the idea of going to Dholavira located in a far flung wilderness, but suggested an interesting place that could be covered in a day. The destination was Kala Dungar and we were excited to hear about a white desert located near a legendary shrine where wild jackals are fed.

All set for the visit, we spent the evening at the sprawling Swami Narayan Temple, one of the first to be built in Gujarat as early as 1822 AD. Later, we learnt that the old temple was also a victim of the damages of the earthquake in 2001, after which the present modern temple has been built. Dedicated to Nar Narayan Dev, the shrine is richly endowed with intricate carvings and colourful patterns.

Temple tales

As we boarded the bus at 6 am, we were met by a group of devotees who visit the Dattatreya Temple every Saturday and volunteer to serve there. I got lucky as one of them was seated next to me, and was keen on explaining the significance of the temple and its legends. The shrine on top of the hill rising to 1,515 feet is dedicated to Lord Dattatreya. The deity with three heads and six arms is a symbol of the holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara in one body. The unique feature of the temple is that wild jackals are fed with cooked rice here. When I wondered how a carnivorous animal could eat rice, my co-passenger narrated an old legend associated with the practice. Ages ago, there was a king here known for his benevolence. He once undertook a penance for Lord Dattatreya on the hill. The lord, who wanted to test the king’s devotion, appeared in the form of a hungry jackal. When the king offered the rice he had prepared, the jackal being carnivore, mocked him. The disappointed king then cut a piece of flesh from his own body and offered it to the denizen, which the jackal devoured at once. Pleased by the king’s devotion, Dattatreya appeared in his true form and blessed him and his mutilated body regenerated. Ever since, the practice of feeding the jackal has continued, and even today, after the aarti, a prasad of rice would first be offered to the wild jackals who promptly arrive and eat happily. A platform has also been built for the purpose at a safe distance from the temple to avoid disturbing the animals. Several clay images of jackals have also been placed around the temple. As the story came to an end, so did our bus journey. We followed the others to visit the temple to get a glimpse of the idol of Dattatreya.

White mirage

But we were eager to see the other wonder at Kala Dungar. The White Desert. The vast expanse of a marshland extending over 7,500 sq km welcomed us. In fact, visitors to these parts come here mainly to see this wonderful natural landscape. Ensconced within the periphery of the Rann of Kutch, it is an expansive flat land extending for miles. Long ago, this was a shallow land where the Arabian Sea inundated. When the geological upliftment of the land took place, the sea remained cut off leaving a few marshy salt water lakes ideal for some species of wildlife such as flamingoes. The monsoons and a couple of tributaries from nearby areas keep the lakes filled, as they go dry in summers. But as such, this land has been called a seasonal marshland.

The vast fields are layered with heaps of salt crystals giving it the sobriquet of White Desert. Unlike the deserts of sand, the salty layer lends a luminous appearance to the landscape. The lesser hill ranges with scrub jungles surround the salt fields and are good for short hikes. But the best thing to do is watch an ethereal sunset.

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