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Romancing the great Rann

Romancing the great Rann
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Having lived our entire lives in Gujarat, Dinesh Shukla and I have often been mesmerised by the stunning sight of the shimmering salt desert of Kutch on moonlit nights. At a tourism seminar, a few years ago I was therefore happy to hear the Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, talk about the beauty of the white desert in the moonlight at a tourism seminar and his plans for a desert festival during the winter full moon.  It was early morning when we started out to attend the Rann Utsav, organised by Tourism Corporation of Gujarat Ltd., at the village of Dhordo near the saline desert plains of the Great Rann of Kutch.  After the permit formalities at Bhuj, we continued on the Bhuj – Khavda highway, passing the airport and then driving on the road through the Banni grasslands. The Banni is one of the largest grasslands in South Asia, interspersed with scrub and wetlands. This has made it an excellent area for birds. We saw flocks of migratory ducks at lakes and marshes, dryland birds like sandgrouse on the open plains, and magnificent steppe eagles and harrier hawks hovering over the grasslands.  Kutch Safari Lodge is superbly set on an elevation overlooking Rudramata Lake where we saw some colourful  birds. We stopped at villages like Sumrasar Shaikh and Bhirendiara to see the intricate embroideries of the Banni region.

Presently, we came to the intersection from where we turned for Dhordo. We took a lunch halt at Shaam-e-Sarhad, an interestingly and imaginatively designed resort at Hodka. Shaam-e-Sarhad is part of the endogenous tourism project of Government of India’s Department of Tourism and UNDP. The resort is designed like a village in Kutch, with accommodations in traditional mud-walled roundhouses called `Bhungas’ that were once characteristic of this region though now being replaced  by more modern constructions. The `Bhunga’ is an architectural marvel, superbly designed to combat the climatic and geological conditions of this region – it has a tightly thatched conical roof as weather-proof as a weaver bird’s nest with an overhang that keeps the surrounds shady and cool, thick mud-and-dung covered walls that keep the interiors cool in summer and warm in winter, terracotta storage spaces for food products and a circular shape that helps air circulations and also is more earthquake resistant than a square or rectangular wall. The exterior walls are decorated with murals and the doors are also ornate. The interiors are intricate with relief patterns and tiny mirrors covering the clay plasters, and niches and shelves providing cool storage spaces.  The resort is run by a committee from Hodka village with proceeds going for community projects. We wandered around Hodka village where girls and young women from the Meghwal community were at work on embroidery.

After  lunch, we headed for the site of the Rann Utsav tourism festival. A special tent village was set up for tourist accommodations with clusters of deluxe a/c tents comprising a patio shaded by an overhang and provided with seating, a bedroom and a washroom. Each cluster has a common facility area.  Around the tent village, we saw the craft bazaar where craftspeople from different parts of Kutch showcased their handicrafts.  Kutch has an extraordinary density of women artisans who do distinctive styles of embroidery. Hindu pastoral groups like the Rabaris and Ahirs are adept at mirrorwork and free flowing motifs. Islamic pastoral groups like the Jaths and the Muthwas do exquisite embroidery. The Sodha Rajputs and the Meghwals, mostly migrants from Sindh post-partition and the 1972 India-Pakistan war,  specialise in distinct embroidery styles like Suf, Paako and Kharek embroidery.    Leather crafts are made by Meghwal men. Other crafts of Kutch include Ajrakh printing, tie-dye or bandhani, woodcarving, lacquered woodwork, metal crafts, silver jewellery, stone carving, pottery, hand-cast melodic bells and handloom weaving, among others.  Says Ajay Agrawal of White Rann Camping and Hospitality, an arm of events and exhibitions service provider Lallooji & Sons which operates the tented complex, 'this craft mart gives an opportunity for tourists to interact with artisans, while generating employment for the local peple. We have also ensured that visitors feel that they are in a tented resort and not in a tourist village'.

In the evening we strolled around the tented complex where tourists were enjoying the  The musicians of Kutch are known for Sindhi bhajans and Sufi music. The next morning, we drove to Kala Dungar, famous as the Black Hills of Kutch.  At the pinnacle of one of the highest points in Kutch, the Dattatray temple is a key place of pilgrimage. A unique feature of this hill is that the priests feed the jackals with temple offerings – these wild animals come when the priests call them for food! The scrubby hillsides trilled with birdcalls – we got a good sighting of white-eared bulbul. At the hilltop, we were treated to a superb panoramic view of the Great Rann of Kutch. The Great Rann of Kutch was an arm of the Arabian before geographical forces converted it into one of the world’s largest salt deserts. It becomes a seasonal marshland when the rains, tides and flooded rivers fill the saline depressions with water.  Driving back towards Dhordo, we stopped at various villages to see local crafts.  Khavda on the way has centres of NGOs like Kutch Mahila Vikhas Sangathan (KMVS) with sales outlets of crafts of Kutch.

After lunch at the tented tourist village, and some rest, we joined the other festival tour participants for the White Desert Safari. From the tourist complex, camel carts took us over the clayey soil of the Great Rann of Kutch till we came to a vast salt flat in time to view the glorious desert sunset.   A platform was set up for the concert of Langas, hereditary professional musicians who sing of life in the desert and also Sufi songs.  As it grew dark, the full moon was visible in the limpid desert skies along with a canopy of stars.  The moonlight bathed the salt plains in its white light, a beautiful sight.   We started back by camel cart for the tented village, in time for dinner.

The next morning, we started out for a birdwatching trip in the Banni region. We drove from Dhordo to Moti Virani where NGO, Centre for Desert and Ocean, has its camp. There is also a resort called Infinity Rann of Kutch nearby. We drove to Fulay where we were excited to see a grey hypocolius, which is an elusive cryptically coloured slender and long-tailed bird that is rarely seen elsewhere in India, in a salvadora grove. From Fulay, we drove with a guide into the Banni grasslands where we saw a graceful Indian gazelle, a desert fox and a desert gerbil.  This is excellent raptor country – we saw laggar falcon, steppe eagle, imperial eagle, Bonelli’s eagle and white-eyed buzzard in less than 30 minutes. The guide brought us to Chhari lake where we climbed into a watch tower for a panoramic view of the lake, the arid grasslands and scrub, and the Dinodar hill. The lake attracts large flocks of birds. Through our binoculars, we could identify demoiselle and common cranes, white pelicans, spoonbills, ibises, about a dozen species of ducks and many wading birds.

We returned to Fulay and then continued our journey to the coastal town of Mandvi.  Kutch district is unique in the proximity of  the desert to  the sea. At Mandvi, we watched artisans building dhows, ocean-worthy sailing or mast-less vessels four storey high, at the the Rukmati River estuary. Nearby is a workshop where miniature models are made to guide the dhow builders. The dhow is largely hand-built with no modern machinery used in its making.  We lunched at Zorba The Budha, which has a sumptuous thali. The market nearby was also good, with some shops selling handicrafts of Kutch. Mandvi is famous for its beach which was buzzing with activity in the late-afternoon. Families were enjoying speed boat trips, camel rides, pony rides and street food – Mandvi is famous for its dhabeli which has peanuts and local masala filled in a slit bun.

We drove out to the Vijay Vilas Palace which looms up majestically in 450 acres of grounds. The palace is impressive with huge domes, cupolas and turrets. Within the palace, we saw the drawing room with its colonial-period furniture, royal portraits and artifacts. We ascended the steps to the rooftop with intricate latticed screens looking out over the estate to the sea visible in the distance. In the 1940s, the Maharao of Kutch stayed in this breezy palace estate by the sea during the summer months when the capital of his princely state, Bhuj, in the hinterland became too hot.  
We climbed the staircase to a pavilion with a superb view of the estate. Turbaned retainers of the royal family showed us sites where blockbusters like Lagaan and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam were show on location at Mandvi.

The palace estate is fringed by a virgin beach. The Beach at Mandvi Palace offers a/c tented cottage like accommodations sheltered from the winds by bushes, with the beach behind them. We dined at the thatched roof open sided beach restaurant enjoying the view of the sunset on the western coast of India.
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