Eternal in Kutch

We were on the road again. Sincerely paying heed to the advice of locals since we got here, we were driving towards a spot that wasn’t part of our packed itinerary for the day. We had taken a turn from the smooth highway into a rough patch of road, following a track left dusty by bullock carts ahead, and something told me it was going to be worth it. Minutes later, in the middle of nowhere, we found ourselves staring at herds of flamingos in the distance, flying over what looked like a vast blue sea, except it wasn’t the sea. It was a salt marsh.

Photograph by my friend, Flynn Francisco

Taking in the sight of the flooded salt marsh. Photograph by my friend, Flynn Francisco

 

I was in Kutch, the largest district of India that lies, in all its charm and poise, in the western most corner of Gujarat. Ever since I stepped out of the station in Bhuj on a chilly morning, and made way through the sleeping town to our budget hotel, I was drawn in completely by the rustic vibe. The bucket list was pushed out of mind and clouded by the realisation that I had plenty to learn and discover while I was there.

Destroyed to a large extent during the massive earthquake in 2001, the commercial capital, Bhuj, had visibly fought back and rebuilt itself into a much bigger and populated town than it was before. The few towering buildings, however, contributed very little in altering the old-world charm that it had held onto since the time of the Jadejas. Amidst the hustle bustle of a hundred local shops and eateries, Bhuj veiled the scars of the life-altering natural calamity very well. Sometimes though, I over heard it in the conversations of old locals who sat by the small Hamrisar Lake every day. Another time, I noticed it in the ruined compounds of Aina Mahal and Prag Mahal – palaces that now served as museums of the rich heritage of Kutch’s ruling dynasties.

Bhuj - as seen from the clock towers of Prag Mahal.

Bhuj – as seen from the clock tower of Prag Mahal.

 

Somewhere between walks through mustard fields and mawa devouring breaks in highway tea shops, I had fallen in love with the rustic life of Kutch, and wasn’t really looking for more surprises. This was, however, before I had visited some of the most talented artists in the country and stood in awe watching them explain their inherited skills. While the shooting location of many soaps, Bhirandiyara, had the most welcoming doors, and huts covered in mud-mirror work to the very last inch, Nirona housed a rare treasure in the form of Hussein Mohammad and his family who are believed to be the only ones to have ever known and practiced Rogan Art – form of painting done using a residue of castor oil.

Later, on the last day spent in Mandvi, moving away from huts to a shipbuilding yard, I saw locals build huge vessels from scratch. There, in a large space by the river, men, working in groups of 20 people each, lay scattered and busy. Every single one of them devoting two and a half years of his life to building a ship that would be towed to Dubai as soon as it was done.  How, through any miracle, could these villages humbly hold talent in such abundance and not tumble away in pride?

Colorful and welcoming entrance to the huts in Bhirandiyara

Colorful and welcoming entrance to the huts in Bhirandiyara

The youngest family member showing us an example of Rogan Art

The youngest family member showing us an example of Rogan Art

A vessel in construction in Mandvi's shipbuilding yard

A vessel in construction in Mandvi’s shipbuilding yard

Such was the beauty of Kutch.

One moment, I was walking knee-deep in history as our guide showed us around the excavated site of Dholavira, silently watching the lessons from school replay and come into life. The very next moment, I was just miles away from the border of Pakistan, staring at a flooded part of Rann of Kutch that lay there like a mirage in all its beauty. I hadn’t expected to be anywhere near the salt flats for another day, but I had forgotten how vast it was, spread across the district in different forms.

Turns out I was far from prepared even for the most celebrated vision of Rann of Kutch that lay in Dhordo. While walking towards what looked like infinity, careful enough to not break the continuity of the spread with my footprints, it was easy to believe that the world stood still right there in that moment. It took me a while though to believe we weren’t walking on star dust, but salt, thick layers and miles of it.

There, watching the sun set, I recalled I had checked something out of my tiny bucket list this year. I was taking in a sight that I had been making up in my head for months now. And if you are wondering how I felt back then, I’ll tell you it was all too surreal to be true.

Photography by my sister, Samita Santoshini

Photography by my sister, Samita Santoshini

 

Note: I went around Kutch in the first week of December in the company of two friends and my sister.

Want to explore the vibrant district of Kutch? Read on.

Take a train/flight from Mumbai or Delhi to Bhuj. The train journey from Mumbai takes 16 hours. Once in Bhuj, book a room in either Hotel Prince or Hotel KBN. Budget travelers can check into the Deluxe Room in Hotel Anjali that is currently available for Rs. 840 per night.Neelam Restaurant offers good vegetarian food. Those looking for Gujarati thali can eat in Toral, while those looking for multi cuisine, non-vegetarian varieties can eat in Jesal – both the restaurants are in Hotel Prince. Alternatively, good breakfast can be had at the road-side stall, Omlette Centre.

Ask your hotel to book a car for your travels to neighbouring regions in the next few days. Charges are 2100 per day for a non AC car.

Note: The villages, except for Mandvi, do not generally have restaurants or hotel facilities.

Advertisements