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    Great Rann of Kutch
   
 

GREAT RANN OF KUTCH

Kutch in Gujarat is known to be the second largest district in India and is sparsely populated. It is a dry belt with the Great Rann to the north and the Little Rann to the east. The Great and the Little Rann of Kutch are also the breeding grounds of Flamingo, Pelican & Avocet and home of the rare Indian Wild Ass, which is now a protected species. In Kutch, I found India’s some of most exquisite handicrafts like embroidery, tie 'n' die fabrics, enamelled silverware, etc. It all started, as I couldn’t suppress any more my quest to ride to India’s westernmost corner. I chose the Greater Rann of Kutch (GRK). It constitutes the northern part of Kutch region and spreads from the Rajasthan-Gujarat Border, along the Indo-Pakistan border region to Lakhpat in the west, near the Kori Creek.

Once, not so long ago, GRK was a vast stretch of water, an inlet of the Arabian Sea. Then the area got silted up leaving flatlands which glitter with salt. When the monsoon drives the sea inland, and floods the Rann, handsome wild asses gallop across the saline desert and huddle together on the little hillocks, called bets, which become islands in an inland sea.

I divided the GRK into four divisions on the basis of accessibility:

(i) Nadeshwari (Abode of Goddess in the middle of Rann)
(ii) Dholavira (Archeological site of world fame)
(iii) Khavda (Gateway to India’s some of the most unexplored regions)
(iv) Lakhpat (Erstwhile seaport)

Nadeshwari

I reached the first post of BSF at around 6 pm. The men there were very friendly and were awed by the fact that I came on a mobike all the way from Delhi. They showed me the way to Nadeshwari. While starting from there for Nadeshwari temple, I asked them if I have to submit my camera and mobile. They promptly persuaded (and not forced) me to submit the same because of the security reasons. They also informed me that both the things would be captured if I take them beyond this point. Nadeshwari is basically a shrine of a Goddess. The way to reach the place makes you ride in the middle of nowhere in GRK. Jeep tyres made the dirt tracks that I followed. The BSF men instructed me to keep to my right or I’ll end-up in the custody at the Border. I followed the ‘rightest’ track I could see, as I had no intention to cross the border. The tracks were full of mud and it was very difficult to ride on them. The scenery was breathtaking. The sun was about to set and for miles I could only see the brownish-red muddy plain landscape. The red color of sunrays and very light brown of mud gave a peculiar mix. It is actually a vast, featureless, endless salty terrain. I missed my camera, dearly that day. I reached the second post of BSF at 7.20 pm. It was pitch dark. I parked the bike before their tent and introduced myself. The men enquired about various things and I answered them to my sincerest extent. Then they asked to check the luggage to which I readily agreed. I showed them each part of my luggage. They took away the knife that I brought for cutting the lemons. BTW, it is always good to carry lemons, sugar and salt of which I carried only the former two, as I knew salt will never be a problem in Kutch :-). They told me to ride straight and after a while I was supposed to see some bulbs. I had absolutely no idea where I was heading for. Riding was difficult. All the lights that I have on my bike were on. After riding for about 400 meters I saw some lights. I parked the bike before the gate and went inside to ask whether I can stay. Seeing a stranger, a lot of people congregated as if I was being exhibited there. Language was a big problem. Nobody understood what I meant. Then one servant who had served in Rajasthan came out of kitchen. He could get my words and did an unpaid translation for me. I was showed the way to the third BSF post. “How many posts does BSF requires to check my identity”, I wondered. It is a rule in the temple to register every staying person with BSF. The post is only few meters away from the temple complex. The BSF men appreciated the spirit and asked me to take rest at the temple.

Few moments later, while lying down on my bed, I was wondering, why do people live in so remote places? For the sake of information, the temple has food facility. It is served twice a day. Free of cost. For staying, they don’t have rooms but a big shade. I slept there. It was cool. I guess, it will be difficult for ladies. They may have some alternate arrangements for ladies too but I didn’t see even a single female inhabitant there. To explain you the whole place, it appears like a cow shed at first glance centered by two temples. One old and abandoned and the other new and currently consecrated. Both temples have no architectural significance but the following of the goddess is simply unimaginable. The place has a separate running cowshed. The caretakers offered me a cot, quilt, etc., which I never needed as I was equipped. I was about to doze off when two BSF men, who met at the second post, approached me. They courteously asked for my passport and other documents that I was carrying for identification. They informed me that at the border, things are very difficult if a stranger comes and stays and information of my stay here at the temple will have to be passed on to the H.Q. at Dantiwada (Gujarat). I complied. The documents were returned to me after about 30 minutes with apologies for botheration and the two personnel bade me goodbye for rest of the night. It was 9:30 pm but since it was not possible to converse with any of the men in the temple complex (the translator for me disappeared) so I thought it is best to sleep for an early start tomorrow.

After a relaxing nights sleep, I got up early in the morning and had my daily chores completed, behind a bush, out in the wild, on the silt of Rann :-) Although, the place has a small doorless bathroom which is hardly covered. Water, of course, is not a problem, but it tasted like brine. The temple has a freshwater tank and luckily it was filled. I offered Puja to the Goddess Nadeshwari at the temple firstly at 5:30 am and then at 8:00 am. After exploring the place a bit and enjoying the antics of wild assess I thought it best to move on to the second section of the Rann instead of exploring the Pakistan Border. Yes! A bit about wild assess first. Wild asses are bigger than the donkey but smaller than horses. Mules will be best to describe them height-wise. They are well built and grayish. A white line runs on the back to the tail and stomach portion is also light in color. They are great runners and I could see it for myself when I chased them with my bullet. They become out of sight within a matter of minutes. I had to use the expertise of BSF men to spot them again. After collecting my camera and mobile phone and clicking few photographs of the Jalol village and adjoining Rann I started for the second section – Dholavira.

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DHOLAVIRA – The Lost World


There are actually two routes to Dholavira. I preferred the long one because my objective was to cover the GRK to the extent possible. One incidence I must tell you. I was reaching Fatehgadh. The road bifurcated. I wanted the road to the Rann stretch. But then the condition was that I should not end up routing back to this bifurcation for catching the road to Dholavira. I decided to ask a local. After waiting for around 10 minutes, heard the sound of a mobike’s engine. When the biker arrived, I waved to get his attention. He stopped. He was in his thirties. I told him my query. He said road is butchered by the tractors and is not negotiable. Then he suddenly said,”Achha mere peeche aao”. Ok, follow me. Good luck for two reasons. A hindi-speaking fellow and a benefactor :-)

I started trailing him. He entered into the town. Everybody was staring at me like hell. It was like Fatehgadh had come to a standstill to watch the passing phenomenon. Few people greeted my leader. Clue – the person was local of Fatehgadh. Then suddenly he took a turn into a narrow lane. I got curious but more of a scary feeling that was, to confess. He got into the Rann. It was all silty and riding on the silt was extremely difficult though his 100 cc was much smoother. Weight factor, perhaps. After riding for around two kilometers and with more and more wilder the landscape becoming I really got scared. Where the hell am I being taken? No I was not taken for a ride. The fellow actually left me on a road only a few moments later. He guided me for my way further and also informed me about the road conditions and where I will get best views of the Rann. He burnt his fuel for what? Just to make me avoid that non-negotiable stretch of road. What must have been his interest? Nothing, I guess. Can you get a gesture like this in Metros? Over and above, read this. After reaching on the road I stopped for taking the pic of the point where the gentleman left me to keep as a remembrance. While returning back he spotted me standing. He shouted from there. He was hardly audible. Then he used his horn. You can guess the distance. I turned around to see him standing and waving questioningly. I showed him the camera for saying “No problem” and bowed in obligation. Isn’t it amazing? I proceeded further on a straight road. Few kilometers beyond, I was treated with some of most spectacular views of the Rann landscapes. Small hillocks and a large expanse of Rann. Not only riding but even simple walking on the terra was difficult. The climate throughout is of semi-arid to arid type and the region has a very erratic rainfall pattern. The vegetation is minimal and 98% of the plants, bushes and trees belong to the genus Acacia spp. (had been a botany student :-)) Salinity, erratic rainfall and a perennial shortage of fodder, makes life pretty difficult here. Nature’s denial of greenery has been prominently substituted by the colorful costumes of the Kutchi Folks. An interesting fact is that each caste is distinguished by the designs, patterns and the colors of the embroidery on their clothes.

I kept on proceeding towards Dholavira, asking the locals, trying to understand their answers and guessing broadly from East West – North South. I had to keep straight towards west but roads are not that straight and by this time I already gave up riding on the silt of Rann. Intermittently, I kept checking the BSF posts on my right to get the feedback and enjoy their point of view. The whole way is dotted by numerous small villages in spite of severe water scarcity, especially in summers.

Whosoever overtook me or vice-versa, was looking overawed. It seemed like they don’t get to see many bulleteers thumping there. Then came a big village, Amarpar. Here one state transport bus was having a break along with its passengers. Almost every passenger was scampering for water. There were two big pots filled with water. I thought tanking-up water is not a bad idea. So I also stopped. All I can say about the water is that it was black/gray. And yeah, you guessed it right – I drank it too.

Throughout the way, I found signboards from this or that charity, building houses under the Quake Relief Fund. I reached Dholavira at around 4:00 pm. The place is known as Kotada locally. The road to the archeological site was under construction in full swing, so was the spick and span resort. Even Archeological Survey of India (ASI) has constructed a beautiful complex at the place.
I parked the bike at the gate of ASI camp. When I expressed the desire to see the site to the watchman, he took me to the supervisor. This gentleman, showed me around the complete site and explained to me every detail in a very nice manner. For the kind information, here is a small account of what I experienced there.

Dholavira site is a Harappan contemporary (3000 B.C.) and was discovered by Mr. Jagatpati Joshi in 1967-68. ASI started excavations in 1990 under the directions of Dr. R. S. Bisht. The site is located on an island called ‘Khadir’ and spread in an area of about 100 Hectares in the salty marshes of the GRK. This erstwhile fortified, three-tiered city was an architectural beauty and an example of our rich knowledge of water harvesting structures. Two storm water channels, Manhar (north) and Mansar (south) flanked the city. The city had provision for rainwater and floodwater harvesting. Not even that, even filtering mechanism was also there by creating a series of reservoir. I was fed with so much of knowledge that I can write a 600-word essay on the excavation of Dholavira. Notably, world’s oldest signboard has been discovered here and so far is undeciphered.

ASI officer-in-charge, Dr. K. C. Nauriyal, is a gem of a person. He informed me that his team works here from September to April because it is difficult to work in the very harsh summer period. We chatted for around an hour and he gave me lots of knowledge about the excavations, Dholavira, and his experiences. He was very appreciative of me bitten by travel bug.
Imagine me in a Kutchi hut. It was one of the best nights of my life. Next day morning I discovered that Dr. Nauriyal’s hut is actually a mini-laboratory. It was equipped with all modern IT paraphernalia. I asked permission for a few photographs of the site to which he promptly agreed. Stay in the ASI camp, talk with a Delhi fellow in the middle of GRK and kutchi delicious food. Indelibly imprinted on my memory.

I Couldn’t Ask for More. On my way back, just after riding a kilometer, I saw “Rann – 3Kms” on a BSF signboard. One BSF post was there. But the signboard pointed in a different direction. So instead of Bhuj, I started riding in the direction of the Rann. After all, that is what I had come all the way for seeing. This route was on my itinerary when I first made the plan. But later I came to know that the road is incomplete. So I planned this day of my ride for Bhuj and further. But with my fascination for the Rann at peak, I couldn’t resist the idea of going upto the point the road was made and then come back all the way.

As I rode on the road for a kilometer, I knew I made a wise decision. The Rann, please let me tell you, is a different territory altogether. You see a large, as large as your eyes allow you to see, barren expanse of land. No vegetation at all. This second section of Rann had a difference from the earlier one. The difference was of the flooding. Yes! The whole expanse was flooded. Before me was a large sea-like waterscape. I was so fortunate to be there. The depth nowhere was more than a meter. You must be wondering, how I came to know about the depth of the whole place? It was very simple for me because I was watching one of the rare phenomena happening before my eyes. The whole place was flooded with Flamingoes as well. The view was breathtaking. Flamingoes are wader birds with long legs and neck. They have a unique down-bent bill, which helps them in feeding as they feed with their bills upside down. Believe me, I spotted Pelicans, Storks and many other birds, which I couldn’t identify. I rode straight and reached an island. It was a sheer beauty. Beauty of that small island lies in its solace, its location in the middle of the flooded Rann and its proximity to the border, which allows it to remain less visited. The place is heaven for an ornithologist. This I came to know after seeing the entries in the register kept at the BSF post. All of them doctors. One more entry but of an agricultural chemist :-). From there I could clearly see the unfinished road. Had this been a finished road, I would have been only four hours (60kph) away from Bhuj city instead of seven hours (60kph). The BSF men were very courteous after thoroughly checking my stuff. They offered me food and whatever they had there. I declined humbly.

Incidentally, the day after was the festival of the ‘Maha Shivaratri’. I thought, it would be best to be at Koteshwar Mahadev on this pious occasion. So instead of third section – Khavda, I proceeded towards the fourth section – Lakhpat.

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Damsel Cranes
Ravechi, a small hindu religious place en-route, is an another goddess temple with a large following. It was being renovated. Here also the food is being served twice a day free of cost. The place has a small all-season lake adjoining the temple wall and surrounded by trees. Ravechi fair is famous among locals during Navaratras. I had to mention the place for another spectre that I encountered for the first time. I spotted four large wader birds near the lake. When I was returning to the main road for Dholavira, I saw a second pond. Seeing the same birds there, I realized that I was watching one of the migratory birds, Demoiselle Cranes and that too in overwhelming numbers. These cranes winter here in India and fly all the way from countries of erstwhile USSR where they breed. Actually, Demoiselle is a French word, which means ‘Damsel’. They are big birds with a standing height of approximately a meter but interestingly they are the smallest of all cranes. Demoiselle cranes do lot of dancing to strengthen the bonds with their mates as they make a lifelong pair with only one individual (monogamous). Both sexes are alike in appearance and have a light bluish-gray plumage. I was so fortunate to have an eyeful glimpse of such elegant birds, hundreds of them. As I was wrapping back my camera, another spectre happened. More than fifty camels arrived at the lake to drink water, making their characteristic sound. Few local kids came to me and asked me to click the “Kujan”. Study prior to planning a trip helps. I read in the literature that Demoiselle cranes are called ‘kujan’ locally in India. I couldn’t get even a word of their language – kutchi but yes I got this word ‘Kujan’. I told the kids, I have already clicked them. I guess they were smarter and got my ‘Hindi’. After clicking the camels, a spectacular sight that was, I was back on my way to Bhuj.

Mata-no-Madh
Reached Bhuj at around 4:30 pm. It is a walled city and a definite destination with the tourists visiting Kutch. Had no time for the city so headed straight to Mata-no-madh. This Madh is actually a temple of the Goddess Ashapoora. She has a large influence in Gujarat and south-western Rajasthan. I reached Madh at around 10:00 pm in the Night. Food, Shelter or any such basic need is not a problem anywhere in Kutch region. I got food and shelter for free wherever I went except at the Hotels. Please don’t think that since the stuff was free so quality must have been inferior. In fact, even the poorest home there cooks quality food. Items…. well I don’t remember them all. They were numerous. Also, the host will not stop you…. go on eating till you are satisfied. Since the entire place has lots of salt, so they use little sugar in everything :-) Had a very good sleep in the night after cleaning all my stuff.

Koteshwar – The Shiva
I started early after darshan of Mata Ashapoora. It was 11:30 when I touched Narayan Sarovar. This small freshwater lake, adjoining Lord Vishnu’s temple is one of the five holy hindu lakes in India and is supposedly the westernmost lake in the country. Also, the Koteshwar Mahadev at the mouth of the Kori Creek is the westernmost Lord Shiva temple in the country. There are several Shiva temples in the Kutch region and the influence of Lord Shiva can be experienced.
Beauty of sea can be seen from the ramparts of the temple, which is situated just besides seacoast. Locals informed me that the Karanchi port lights are visible from here on a clear-sky night. Unlike Somnath, there is no beach here and the place is much less famous. It was amazing to believe that I was at India’s one of the westernmost places.

Spoonful Water
I spotted lots of spoonbills in the Narayan Sarovar while returning and going to the fourth section of Rann. Spoonbills were comparatively small wading birds and had unique bills. Their bills were flat at the end and it appeared as if the birds have spoon in the place of their bills. They were white in color and were eating algae in a flock of 20.

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Lakhpat - Abandoned Legacy

I started driving along the Kori Creek towards Lakhpat area as I was missing the Rann badly by then. After a few kilometers, the road runs parallel to the sea with the shore being only few hundred meters away on the left. Lakhpat is famous as a fort township. Presently, only a majestic wall encloses the township. The creeky landscape, with sea & land playing hide & seek, gives Lakhpat a unique look. It was a busy sea-port as the large delta of the river Sindhu enabled ships to reach deep into the land and leave the port easily with tides. Lakhpat got developed due to the sea-trade and, in fact, was named so because the daily income from it was one lakh koris (the local currency). The whole western creek is called Kori Creek.

Gradually, with time, heavy siltation occurred due to the tectonic movements of the earth. This shifted the course of river Sindhu away from Lakhpat towards Karanchi in Pakistan. The place eventually has become the meeting point of the sea and the Rann, though it is difficult to make out where the Rann ends and Sea starts. No more trade turned the, once flourishing sea-port, into an abandoned legacy. People left the place slowly and now the total population of Lakhpat is hardly one hundred, spread in a total of fifteen families, excluding a Police Station. The town has one old and architecturally beautiful mosque, a few Shiva temples and a Gurudwara. Lakhpat is a tourists delight but without amenities. As I visited some of the Shiva temples there, I came to know that only left occupation is little bit of agriculture but that too is dwindling.
BSF posts dot the whole creek and there is one Center of Water Adventure Sports of Indian Army. I checked it out and was rewarded by the view of a fantastic seashore alongwith a few fishermen. There was a huge Guard Tower. The guards spotted me from a distance but didn’t say anything to me. As I proceeded towards the Rann, I wondered, how Lakhpat would have bustled with activities in its heydays. Although, the Rann is visible from the fort wall as a very wide empty stretch of flooded land, a more satisfying look can be had by zooming northwards from the fort to a nearby BSF post. The thing that makes this terra all the more interesting is the virtual absence of avian fauna, especially waders. Flamingoes, even otherwise, are known to prefer non-marine marshes.

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KHAVDA – Rugged Rann


It was already 15:20 hours and I had to rush to my third section of the Rann – Khavda. The route I planned initially got flopped as the locals persistently discouraged me as the road was damaged by the recent flooding of the Rann. Therefore I had to miss the “Haji Pir Ki Dargah” and the adjoining Rann. ‘That evening when I rode to Khavda’ can itself become a full-fledged ‘landscape’ article. The unique thing about the landscape of the Rann is that it can be silty or flooded. Imagine Sun going down or rising far at the horizon on a clear sky. As good as looking at the Sun on Sea or Desert. Superb views coupled with quiet evenings and mornings.

I reached Khavda at around 19:00 hours. There was a small cluster of shops and few locals were sitting and chatting beside the road. I stopped my bike before a shop and asked the folks for a place to stay. They started enquiring me. Few moments later, the guys revealed themselves as Intelligence officials. They informed me that I couldn’t stay in Khavda as I have not brought the permission from Bhuj. I explained them that I had no information about the permission. They asked me to go back to Bhuj and bring permission. This seemed ridiculous to me as it was already 7:30 pm and Bhuj was 160 kms away and that too involved riding in the night on a bumpy road. I asked them for the nearest BSF post. They got furious over my query and said, “Tumse bola naah! Wapas jaao aur permission leke aaao”. As if I am not an Indian. I left them then and there and headed straight to the STD shop. The shopkeeper showed me the way to the Govt. guest house. Raoji bhai is a friendly fellow in his fourties. I asked for a room and he gave me one after identification. I thought it best to explain him what happened with those intelligence officials because they may trouble him later. Raoji bhai, though feared those officials, suggested me a way to protect the mutual interests. In the next few moments, Khavda found me in the BSF camp, 5 kms off the town waiting for the ‘Chief’. It was a pleasure to meet Mr. Leeladhar and Mr. M. K. Rana, his junior. Both BSF officers not only welcomed me but also assured me a visit to some ‘restricted areas’ near the Indo-Pak border after verifying my identity and learning about my interests. I returned to the guest house and asked Raoji Bhai to talk to the officers. At around 9:30 pm I went to the town to scour for food. I was lucky to find a local who took me to another local’s house. I had a sumptuous gujarati meal, the one normally taken in the ‘fast’ as it was the night of the pious Mahashivratri.

The room was excellent and I had a very good night’s sleep. Next day I was ready by 8:30 am and kept waiting for the two officers till 10:00 am, when they finally turned up. They regretted the late arrival due to some off late instructions from the headquarters and we were off to the one of the most unexplored regions in the western India. They left me at the India Bridge where no civilian could step except some privileged or authorized ones. Oh! What a sight. Unforgettable! On one side the Rann and on the other a small pool of rainwater flooded by flamingoes feeding on the algae. Five kilometers beyond that is ‘Anda Bet’ which is accessible only on the camel back till recently. Anda Bet is the place where Flamingoes lay their eggs in the GRK. And mind it. All this I enjoyed under the deafening noise of the engines of the Military trucks which kept on trailing one another, incessantly, till the time I bade goodbye to the guard at the India Bridge.

Mr. Leeladhar earlier informed me that had I brought the permission from Ministry of Environment or Defence, Indo-Pak border would not be an issue. Then I headed towards ‘Kala Dungar’. I was informed by the locals that ‘Dungar’ means a hill in ‘Kutchi’ language. “Kala Dungar” is the highest hill in the whole Kutch region, most beautiful and very critical with security point of view. It took me around an hour to climb to the top. A temple of Lord ‘Dattatreya’ has recently been renovated. It has a strange but true tradition. The food prepared in the temple premises is taken to a small hillock twice a day and the priest beats the plate and shouts – “Lome” many times. The priest informed me that a fox comes and eats the food and then only we have our food. Water shortage is the main problem there but a lot of construction activity was going on. Hill is heavily guarded by the BSF, Army and Air Force, though the latter has temporarily moved out from there.

I had little fuel (petrol) left in my tank and I knew fuel is not available till Bhuj. I approached Army guys and explained to them my problem. They were very friendly and chatted with me. After some initial hesitation, they asked me to come after one hour. They asked me to explore the hills till that time. After some rock-climbing, I was treated with some breathtaking views of the Rann. You can guess my enchantment with the Rann by the fact that I clicked at least ten snaps there. After one hour, when I returned, I was drenched with sweat. Army guys offered me food which I humbly declined. They gave me 1.5 Liter of petrol. Not even a single vehicle of theirs runs on petrol. I thanked those extra-ordinary men in the uniform. In fact I bowed before them, not for petrol but for the spirit with which they shared their precious resource without a fee. Believe it or not!

Then I came back to Khavda, took the rest of the luggage from the guest house, thanked Raoji Bhai for all the help and hospitality and headed straight for Bhuj.
On the way, I was struck with a sight which was a lesson for me. To tell you the truth, I never believed the ‘lome story’ of the Dattatreya temple at Kala Dungar. And look at this. What I saw running across the road was a full-fledged FOX. Yes buddy! A Fox, and that I saw for the first time in my life, never saw even in a zoo. Dark brown coloured – a camouflage – and very afraid of me and my machine. Kept running deep into the Rann taking brief halts to watch for me if I am following.

I never found time for the Bhuj city. I left the city at around 6:00 pm and stayed in Varahi, little short of Radhanpur. Next days halt was at my Bua’s place in Pali. There I interacted with some school children and local leaders. Next day’s news paper had a news article on my journey and arrival.


HAPPY TRAILS
Paraj Shukla

* More Photos from the ride in the west photogallery *


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