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Hi 🙂 Welcome to my travel series on Gujarat!

I hope that you have enjoyed the previous five posts of my nine-part series on India’s western state of Gujarat.  If you’re visiting me for the first time, you may like to read the previous post in the series:

Gujarat Travelogue – 5 : Jamnagar

Today, in this sixth part of the series, I’m taking you to India’s unique Wild West – Kutch (or Kachchh). This colourful and unique district of Gujarat is home to one of the largest salt flats in the world – the Great Rann of Kutch which lies in the northern region, starting from the state border with Rajasthan in the east and along the Indo-Pakistan border region to the westernmost end of India.

Kutch

An introduction to Kutch…

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Situated on the Gulf of Kutch, leading to the Arabian Sea, Kutch is the largest district in India with centrally located headquarters in Bhuj. It is a region of environmental extremes with seasonal salty marshes in the north and the northeast, the grasslands of Banni and the central highlands further down, and the coastal regions of the Arabian Sea in the west and the Gulf of Kutch in the south and southeast.

The Rann (meaning “desert”) of Kutch is a unique vast landscape with salty marshlands and no vegetation or habitation. It is divided into Great Rann in the north and the Little Rann in the east.

The Great Rann was once the shallows of the Arabian Sea before geological uplift closed off the connection of the sea, leaving behind a vast lake which dried up and left a large salt desert behind it. During monsoons, when the area gets inundated with water, several elevated pieces of land with vegetation (grasses, dry thorny scrub and some trees) become islands that provide habitat to wildlife, mainly wild asses. One such island is Khadir where an ancient city named Dholavira, belonging to the 5000-year-old Indus Valley Civilization, was unearthed. In the dry season, the water evaporates leaving a salty clay crust. During hot summers, the area becomes a dazzling white land.

The Little Rann to the east is well known as The Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary, named after the endangered wild ass which is sighted here in large numbers.

The Rann of Kutch harbours more than 200 bird species and some 50 mammal species including wild ass, chinkara (Indian gazelle), nilgai (Indian antelope, also called “blue bull”), wolf, blackbuck, striped hyena, desert cat and caracal. They are home to one of the world’s largest breeding colonies of the greater and lesser flamingos, and wildlife conservation areas like Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary, Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary, Narayan Sarovar Sanctuary, Kutch Bustard Sanctuary, Banni Grasslands Reserve and Chari-Dhand Wetland Conservation Reserve etc.

The history of Kutch is very old. Archaeological records reveal that the region was first inhabited by the people of Harappan civilization during 3000-1500 BC. There was a great hiatus in the history of the region between 1400 BC and 500 AD. It is documented that much later, a series of migrations took place from Sindh (a neighbouring region in present-day Pakistan) to Kutch, and in this process, Samma Rajputs, later known as Jadejas, came to this land and ruled here till the time of India’s independence. Kutch was an important node on the trade routes of this part of Asia. As such, well-known ancient travellers have written about it in their journals. Sustained by a mercantile tradition, the Kutchis (the people of Kutch) have been a very enterprising community. Their fame as seafarers, merchants and traders grew in India and abroad. In 1800s, with the arrival of the British and the subsequent growth of Mumbai, Kutch’s major port towns began to decline. During this time, almost half of the district’s population migrated to Mumbai and abroad. After the Partition of India in 1947, the Sindh province including the Karachi port went to Pakistan. So a new port was constructed at Kandla in the 1950s to serve the needs of western India. Today it is India’s largest port by volume of cargo handled and also the busiest port. The Port of Kandla Special Economic Zone (KASEZ) established in 1965 was the first special economic zone to be established in India and in Asia. It is the biggest multiple-product SEZ in the country.

Kutch is well-known for exquisite crafts like embroidery, mirror work, applique work, block-printing, Bandhani (tie-dyed) fabrics, camel wool shawls, enamelled silverware, carved woodcraft, etc. Various groups and communities of nomadic, semi-nomadic and artisan tribes contribute to the rich folk art and culture of the region. Many of these tribes have settled here after centuries of migration from neighbouring regions of Marwar (western Rajasthan), neighbouring Sindh province of Pakistan, Afghanistan and even further. Each community has its own oral traditions, dance, craft and dress.

In the past, Kutch has faced frequent droughts and many natural disasters. The violent earthquake of 2001 was the most destructive out of more than 90 earthquakes that hit Kutch during the last two centuries. It devastated lives and property as far as Ahmedabad, about 395 km away. Much of Bhuj was destroyed and damaged in this most severe earthquake. But in the next decade, the economy took an almost miraculous jumpstart due to the intense efforts of the then Chief Minister of Gujarat- Narendra Modi, presently the Prime Minister of India. His long list of achievements in the development of the state includes the introduction of the annual winter festival of Rann Utsav in the white desert, which not only attracts domestic tourists but also international tourists.

Sunday, 1 February, 2015

Kutch

After a 313 km long journey, the bus reaches Bhuj around 8:00 pm.  I disembark at the highway stop close to the station area, where most of the city centre hotels that I have listed are located. The bus staff has told me that 40 rupees is the normal autorickshaw fare to Hotel Oasis but the drivers waiting at the stand are demanding 80 rupees.  Later, one of them is ready to accept 60 rupees. The hotel turns out to be a fancy place with only AC rooms starting at 2500 rupees. I’m looking for something cheaper as I’m going to spend four nights in the city. Being winter, I don’t need an AC room. They suggest Hotel Prince which is within walking distance. I feel bad having to drag my poor trolley bag along the rough and uneven road. The second hotel turns out to be more expensive at 3500 rupees. They suggest Hotel KBN which is just opposite the road so I head towards it. I get lucky at the third hotel. Thankfully, they have a non-AC standard room at 1000 rupees plus taxes including breakfast.  The room shown to me is excellent and absolutely value for money.

The first thing that I have to do is to hire a non-AC tourist car for the next three days. All the places that I have to visit are far from the city so I need a good deal. While in Jamnagar, Mustak had given me the mobile number of a contact, Pravin Dangera, who organizes tours for visitors to Kutch. I immediately call him up and fix up a three-day sightseeing tour. First day – North-west Kutch (Mata-No-Madh Temple, Lakhpat Fort, Narayan Sarovar Temple and Koteshwar Temple ) ; second day -White Rann, Kalo Dungar, and also the India-Pakistan Border in case I’m able to get a special permit from the Border Security Force (BSF) or else city sightseeing ; third day – the world-famous archaeological site of Dholavira. Due to lack of time, I’m unable to fit in a trip to Mandvi in the south. I would have liked to visit it but anyway, there’s not much to see there except for the beach and an old palace. My travel programme is arranged. The car will be reaching my hotel tomorrow at 7:00 am so that I can return by 4:30 pm to visit the BSF headquarters in the city.

It is 9:30 pm. Very tired, I long for bed so I skip dinner and go straight to bed.

Monday, 2 February, 2015

After a quick breakfast, I leave for the trip to Northwest Kutch. The city appears to be asleep even at 7:30 am. I see empty roads everywhere. The young driver tells me that his boss, the travel agent, is waiting at Nakhatrana with fafdas and jalebis as we are going to pass by the town on the way.

Northwest Kutch trip

The northwestern region of Kutch has numerous temples, the most important of them being Mata-no-Madh, Narayan Sarovar and Koteshwar.

Northwestern Kutch

The first place on my itinerary is Mata-no-Madh, about 80 km away. It is the highly revered temple of Goddess Ashapura, the head deity of Kutch and family deity of the Jadeja clan of Rajputs who ruled Kutch.

In Kutch there are numerous temples devoted to various gods and goddesses. Among them is one hilltop temple in this region which is devoted to horse riders called Jakhs or Yaksha. It is situated at Kakadbit near Punvro-no-garh or Padargarh in Munjal (27 km from Bhuj) near Nakhatrana. A big annual fair is held here in honour of the Jakhs on the second Monday of the Hindu calendar month of Bhadrapada (August–September). This temple has an interesting story…

According to folklore, somewhere in the 10th century, seventy-two shipwrecked people, seventy-one men and one woman, reached the west coast of Jakhau. They had fair skin, were tall in stature and spoke a foregin language unknown to the Kutchis who helped them. Soon, they rode around on horseback helping the local people teaching them their art of medicine and other science. When people heard of these white-robed Jakhs, they went to them for treatment of their ailments and also for possible relief from the atrocities of a tyrant ruler, Punvaro. According to folklore, they freed the people from the atrocities of the oppressive ruler by killing him, but another story talks about them being killed by him. The people raised a temple on a hillock with statuettes of 72 white-clad horsemen. They not only revered them but also started asking for wish-fulfilment from them. The temple is situated in picturesque surroundings so it is a popular spot for visiting tourists, both domestic and international. While this temple draws people all round the year, it is at the time of its annual fair that thousands of devotees as well as tourists gather here.

Some historians believe that these people were called “Jakh” because they came to the Jakhau port of Kutch, while others say that the name is derived from the word “Yaksh” which means divine persons. It is generally believed that they were a group of Iranian Zorashtrians, while some feel that they were Greek. Whatever their ancestry, the people were grateful for their kindness and worshipped them as saints and demigods in hilltop temples all over Kutch.

A  Jakh Mandir in Madhapur about three kilometres away from Bhuj also hosts a  big annual fair during the same time, as also the rest of the Jakh temples in Kutch. Even the royal family paid homage to these Jakhs by attending the fair.

After less than an hour’s journey, the car reaches Nakhatrana. The travel agent greets me with a smile and leads me to a stall where a few people have gathered for breakfast. It looks hygienic to me and the piping hot fafdas look very appetizing. I keenly watch the man prepare the stuff with deft expertise. As for eating them, I’m not a great fan of fafdas but still I tuck in a few. The raw papaya chutney which is served with it tastes very good. The jalebis are not hot but a sweet goodie in the morning is always welcome. I get the rest of it packed to give away to the driver. The simple breakfast costs 60 rupees. I pay for it, thank the travel agent and leave.

The Mata-no-Madh temple attracts lakhs of devotees during the Navratri festival. They come walking on foot (mostly barefoot) from across the state, the neighbouring states of Rajasthan and Maharashtra, and the south Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Inside the temple, everything is written in Gujarati which I can understand a bit. Though Gujarati is the widely spoken language in Kutch, a small percentage of the population speaks the Kutchi language. After paying my obeisance to the revered deity, I return to the car.

It is now 9:30 am. The next stop is the most fascinating attraction of north-western Kutch – the erstwhile seaport of Lakhpat, some two hours away.  It is exciting to drive towards the extreme north-west part of the country and the last village in this direction. The deserted straight road passes through never-ending barren land devoid of habitation.

A closed down cement factory near Lakhpat…

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Soon I see the ramparts of Lakhpat Fort in the distance…

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The seven km long fort wall enclosing the entire town was built in 1801 and surprisingly, most of it still stands intact.

Facing north across the Great Rann towards Pakistan, Lakhpat, was once an important bustling port city. Today it’s a ghost town. Almost two centuries ago, it was abandoned when a violent earthquake hit the region in 1819 and drastically changed its geography. The Indus River which flowed past Lakhpat, changed its course of flow to the west into the Arabian Sea. The Great Rann dried up and so did Lakhpat. The erstwhile prosperous seaport became a barren land.

The changed geography surrounding Lakhpat: the present and the old course of Indus River, the present and the old shoreline of the region…

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The straight road ends at the fort. There is nobody around. The car drives past the fort’s entrance gate that opens out to a vast barren expanse with a few abandoned shacks. Inside too, not a single soul in sight.

The small road goes past a gate beyond which stands a large house. It turns out to be a gurudwara (Sikh place of worship) though it doesn’t look like a conventional gurudwara from outside. Somewhere ahead, there is an old Shiva temple too. Wandering inside the fort, I chance upon a peacock. Well, there are hundreds of them here giving company to the small population of people remaining in this fortified ghost town.

The moon peeking out from the passing clouds…

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I walk towards a bastion and climb the partially ruined stairs to where a few jawans (soldiers) of the Border Security Force (BSF) – India’s Border Guarding Force – are on duty keeping a watch on the surroundings. The India-Pakistan border is very close from here – just beyond the Kori Creek which is on the left and the vast Rann facing us. Kori Creek gets its name from the old independent currency of the Kutch kingdom. As a matter of fact, this once flourishing port city generated daily revenue of 100000 koris.

The enthralling view of the Great Rann is simply awesome. I see nothing but vast nothingness in the distance and far beyond. No life, no vegetation, no habitation…just never-ending emptiness!

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And to think that once nearly 200 years ago, there was water everywhere, busy port activities, docked ships, etc. Now it’s just vast marsh land.

The friendly BSF jawans point out the Kori creek…a faint blue to the left, very far away in the distance.

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The Great Rann is a dangerous place to get lost. There have been stories of people losing their way in this harsh region, never to return. Stones and bones of dead animals (and lost travellers) mark infrequent tracks in the vast plains.

Because of its proximity to the border, international tourists have to apply for permission to visit Lakhpat in Bhuj, which is 140 km far away. The jawans tell me that there is no fencing along this side of the India-Pakistan border, just stone pillars demarcating the line. The Hindi film “Refugee” of 2000, was extensively shot in Kutch and mostly here, in Lakhpat in the Great Rann before us.

At the observation post…

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Yours truly atop the fort wall…

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An old cannon…

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Yours truly at one of the old doorways leading out to the Great Rann…

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The view from outside the door…

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After spending an enjoyable time chatting with the BSF guys, I bid them goodbye to look around the place. There is not much to see inside the fort except for ruins of buildings.

These intricate carvings are of a fine stone architecture with took thirteen years to build…

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It is the tomb of a Sufi mystic Pir Ghaus Mohammed, who devoted himself to spiritual practice at the early age of twelve. Just nearby, there is a small well whose water is believed to have therapeutic properties for skin problems. Elsewhere inside the fort, there is another mausoleum with intricate carvings.

It is time to leave for Narayan Sarovar, which is 30 km towards the south-west.

western kutch

Narayan Sarovar (Lake) is considered to be one of the five holy lakes mentioned in the ancient Hindu scriptures, along with Mansarovar in Tibet, Bhubaneshwar in Orissa, Pushkar in Rajasthan and Pampa in Karnataka. According to legend, Narayan (a form of Lord Vishnu) appeared during a drought and touched the land with his toe, creating the lake. It is a sweet water lake on the mouth of Arabian Sea, adjacent to Kori creek.

The drive through the empty road amidst barren scrubland yields no sighting of wildlife. The Narayan Sarovar Wildlife Sanctuary is quite close but I don’t get to see even a chinkara (Indian gazelle) which is the main species in the sanctuary.

It is 12:30 pm when I reach Narayan Sarovar. The temple houses many deities but the main shrine is dedicated to Lord Vishnu.

The main shrine…

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As for the lake, there is no water in it. It has completely dried up.

The dried up Narayan Sarovar…

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There is a dharamshala (temple-owned guest house) for those planning to stay overnight. A big annual fair is held here during November and December which draws large numbers of visitors. One of the priests tells me that tomorrow is the most auspicious full moon of the year so I’m glad that I’m going to be in the White Rann to watch it.

The last stop in the trip is the Koteshwar Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, which is also mentioned in the ancient Hindu scriptures. It is just 2 km away. Koteshwar is in the westernmost tip of India. The temple is situated on a high plinth overlooking the Kori Creek.

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After endless barren land, the sea is a welcoming sight. People fishing in the shallow sea along the westernmost land mass of India…

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View of the jetty to the far left…

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Yours truly atop the outer wall of the temple…

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Closer view of the jetty…

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Being close to the border, visitors are not allowed entry to the jetty. Security forces and their boats are mobilized to keep a tight vigilance over the sea and the fishing boats.

Around 1:30 pm, I return to the car for the journey back to Bhuj. I’m finding it very boring to sit through the long journey. I yearn to walk through the flat scrubland for hours…sigh! Kutch is a sparsely populated district with no public conveyance or habitation in most areas. So tourists travelling to this part of Kutch have to hire a private vehicle from Bhuj.

Returning to Bhuj early in the evening, I get to see a little bit of the city. The jerk driver tells me that most likely I won’t be able to get the BSF permission for the border area because he has heard about a VIP attending the Rann festival tomorrow. It makes me all the more determined to get the permission. Not only is he impertinent but downright arrogant too. At a BSF premise, he actually rasps at the authoritarian middle-aged BSF personnel who is giving him directions to the BSF Headquarters. I’m shocked. Such a sick fellow!

At the BSF HQ, one of the personnel informs me that the closing hour for accepting permit applications is 6:00 pm. I have just ten minutes to write an application letter and submit one photocopy each of my ID proof, the car driver’s ID proof, his driving licence, and the car’s RC Book, and also provide the originals of all four for verification. When I tell the personnel that I need the permit for tomorrow morning, he is taken aback. “What? Then it’s totally impossible. The commanding officer to whom the application is to be made will be leaving in ten minutes.” When he says “impossible”, I’m spurred on to take the challenge of getting the permit. I ask him to repeat the requirements to note them down on a piece of paper… scatterbrained that I can be at times! He repeats that it will be of no use if I need the permit for tomorrow. Nevertheless he gives me the details. I immediately call up the driver waiting in the vehicle parking area to check whether he is carrying the required documents including the car’s RC Book. He is. This adds to my increasing confidence. There has to be a photocopy machine in the BSF office but the personnel doesn’t offer help and tells me there are a few in the nearby area. He must be thinking that I’ll give up and leave. I do leave and how…running the 100 metre distance to the car park at full speed, smiling and waving all the while at the surprised BSF guys carrying out their evening drill. The nearest photocopy shop is one km away and the mean shopkeeper charges me more than twice the normal rate of photocopy. At the BSF HQ, I make a quick dash from the car park with the bunch of photocopies in hand. I run straight inside the office and smilingly wave them at the personnel who had probably thought that he had seen the last of me. All of a sudden the expression on his face softens. He gets me a sheet of paper to scribble my application letter. A little later, the commanding officer walks out. All the while, I keep hoping that I get the permit. Soon, to my delight, I find that I have created fans among the BSF. Every now and then, one comes along and tells the other to do something so that I can get the permit. Their sweet words, “Please issue the permit to Madam”, ring in my ears warming my heart and soul as I proceed to the waiting room, where like me, 6-7 men are waiting to collect their permit. But unlike me, they have applied for it more than two weeks ago. So they are very surprised when I tell them that I have applied for it some minutes ago. They include company men and tour organizers. One of them is a manager at Archean Chemical Industries. He has come to collect the permit for a few foreign officials who are going to visit their bromine factory in the Great Rann. His description of salt plains around the factory is impressive…endless huge, thick slabs of snow-white salt …wow!!! Time goes by and it is now 7:00 pm. Two of the men get their permits, one by one, at regular intervals. The BSF guys assure me that I’ll be getting mine too. Finally around 8:00 pm, I receive my permit granting me permission to visit Vigokote, Bediya Bet (Hanuman Temple) and Dhordo (White Rann). I’m overjoyed. I have just won the challenge that I set myself! Now I’ll be able to visit the restricted area – India Bridge and the places beyond it right upto the India – Pakistan border at Vigokote. Yippee!!!

I need to take half a dozen photocopies of my permit. At a cybercafé near my hotel, the miserable owner tells me that the photocopy machine isn’t working but I can see that it is switched on. Later, the driver speaks with him in their language… and the machine suddenly starts working! Despicable, miserable wretch!

It’s almost 9:00 pm and I’m very hungry. The restaurant at Hotel Prince is said to be excellent so I head for it. I can see that the hotel has plenty of international guests. Longing for seafood, I ask the attendant for the fish variety in the kitchen. He names it, and I’m horrified. Goldfish??? No, it can’t be. Curious to know what it is, I ask him to show me a piece of the fish. It turns out to be jewfish (called “ghol”). After a sumptuous meal of fish curry with steamed rice, I return to my hotel.

Lying in my bed, I’m looking forward to tomorrow. It’s going to be a very exciting day… an entire day and night in the Great Rann of Kutch! I have planned to watch the sunset in the white desert and spend at least four hours walking alone under the full moon, far away from civilization. Sleep overcomes me very soon…

 

Coming next:  Gujarat Travelogue – 7: The Great Rann of Kutch

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