The first thought to come to my mind when Basil mentioned Bhuj, was the devastating Earthquake of 2001, measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale. The earthquake had far reaching consequences on the region; some of which we were about to see. Basil painted vivid images of the Great White Desert of Kutch, a region we had learned about in school textbooks; most of which I had conveniently forgotten. Putting aside my poor textbook memory, I was quick to say, “Let’s do it.” Although I had visited Gujarat on countless occasions before, I somehow found it exciting to explore a destination not many tourists visit, leave alone have heard of. And as a reward, we were about to discover that Bhuj and its surrounding villages were not just a region that had come under international spotlight because of a devastating earthquake or barren land in an arid desert. The region is much more than that; it’s an eclectic melting pot of culture, arts perfected over centuries, and topography quite unlike you’d ever imagine.
“Making the Journey the Destination”
There are several ways of getting to Bhuj. The city is well connected by all the means of transport namely – air, rail, and road. Since luxury wasn’t on our agenda, we decided to travel economy with the trusted means of mass transport in India, the Indian Railways. The Kutch Express departs from Borivili at 6 p.m. in the evening and reaches Bhuj early morning, the next day. Our train was delayed by an hour and we were apprehensive if our travel guide (organized by the resort) would wait for us. But to our pleasant surprise, he was parked at the waiting stand. The White Indigo would soon become our trusted companion for the next two days. Our village resort was located 63 Kilometers from the Bhuj railway station, in an idyllic village named Hodka, situated in the Banni region. The journey to Shaam-E-Sarhad, our village resort, was reasonably drawn out as we passed vast stretches of arid land, lit brilliantly yellow by the afternoon sun. The lyrics of ‘Hotel California’ played in my mind as the warm air brushed my hair. At the same time, my mind kept veering towards thoughts of vehicular breakdown. Fortunately, bird sightings by our friend helped me divert my tired mind and focus on the topography and wildlife quite unique to the region. The cattle, especially the buffalo, are prized possessions and can fetch up to a lack of Rupees. Some of the most diverse birds inhabit the region, making the long journey bearable and interesting. The region is known for its mirages and we are often disbelieving of the vehicle in front of us. More often than not, we turned out to be wrong. The highlight of the trip is the Tropic of Cancer which passes through this belt. It makes a perfect photo opportunity and also a quick pit-stop. We passed by vast fields of castor seeds. The seed almost resembled an alien head.
After a certain distance, we finally saw civilization. It was interesting to see the locals dressed in pathanis, making us acutely aware of the melting point of cultures at the border. Since the region is a restricted area it is necessary to take permits to stay in the village. Although the amount should be about 300 INR for a group of three Indian tourists, the police could charge you anything between 300 INR to 450 INR for the entire group plus vehicle, for a two day stay. The permit form requires your basic details such as address, profession, and id proof. Barring the id proof, all other details can be filled in short form. The shopkeeper manning the desk reminds us of an often repeated Indian saying, “Yeh India hai, yahaan sab chalta hai.” which is literally translated as, “This is India, everything is allowed!” We proceeded further and made a stop at the police checkpoint. A smiling police officer greeted us and asked us if we were headed to the white desert. After the police officer gives us our permit, we finally are allowed to continue our journey. Excited as we are, it’s approaching noon, not very long from check in time. We finally arrive at this small by-lane from the main road which leads us into our village resort, Shaam-E-Sarhad.
The Pit-stop: Shaam-E-Sarhad
Shaam-E-Sarhad is a unique venture, jointly promoted by the Ministery of Tourism, Government of India, The United Nations Development Programme through the District Collector and a host of NGOs of Kutch. The resort provides employment to the local villagers from Hodka village. Once you enter the resort, you get the feeling of witnessing an oasis in a desert. Pieces of rural art adorn the dung dried, mud walls of the resort. A collage of mirrors, arranged in patterns shine brightly in the afternoon sun. The roof of the dining area is a huge canopy, decorated with multi-colour pieces of cloth resembling the sky during the Kite Flying Festival of Sankranti. As we check-in we are requested to wait till our ‘room/tent’ gets cleaned. As we proceed to our room, we pass by handicraft exhibits and other pretty mud huts on the way. Local women dressed in colourful clothes are in the process of thatching new huts with fresh mixes of dung. Catching the glistening rays of the sun is a white hut adorned with pinkish-red leaves of bougainvillea. I had to stop by the hut and capture this visual and somehow the scorching heat of the sun didn’t seem to matter. Our room was a huge tent with a double bed and two side beds and could house up to five guests. It had fans, electrical points and hanging lanterns. The restroom was a huge area separated by two folds of tent cloth and was well equipped with modern amenities such as a shower unit, basin, and western latrine. Lunch was a sumptuous spread of rotis, vegetables, papad, and rice with desert to satiate our sweet cravings at the end of the meal.
Chasing the Sun at Karo Dongar – The Black hills of Kutch
After a light nap, we sipped a hot cuppa tea from an earthen pot and set out to see ‘Karo Dongar’. En-route we stopped by a village selling various artifacts. We left there empty handed but not without few pictures, capturing the brightly painted houses, glittering with mirrors in the afternoon sun. Once again, we stopped in another village where we bought embroidered chappals for 200 INR. We headed to another souvenir shop where an elderly was making a dicey concoction of seeds and water. On being prodded by us, he revealed that it was Ganja. He had been having this concoction for the past 15 years, soon after he gave up alcohol. Admittedly, he had got addicted to it and had to have it twice a day. Obviously, he said that one has to have a permit for not only for selling the seeds but also drinking it. On coaxing him to give up his habit, he asked us how old we think he is. Giving him an estimate of 60 he says that at least he has made it this far without any major ailment. And asks us a rhetorical question, ‘Do you think you will make it this far?’ and answers it himself by shaking his head emphatically. He explains to us that what we eat isn’t the purest form of nutrients, considering the dilution and adulteration that happens in the cities. He also gave us a brief history of the drug, saying it was brought to India by the British and was consumed by the Maharajas and subjects alike. After he drinks tea and smokes a joint, we decide it’s time to bid adieu to our shopkeeper and continue with our journey.
Soon we find ourselves in a contrasting terrain, encompassing sandy-brown rock structures spread over a valley view on either side. We stopped en-route to capture this offbeat terrain. Finally, our ascent leads us to the tip of a hill known as Karo Dongar (Black Hills). The area shows a strong presence of the Indian army as well as packs of stray dogs. But more surprising, is the location of a Mandir and even more startling the fact that the priests feed jackals as a tradition. Since it’s yet time to witness sunset, we waited restlessly and aimlessly, scouting the area for information. A tourist board informed us that we were 1437 ft above sea level and from the tip of the hills (at viewing point) one can see the Great Rann of Kutch – The Salt Desert spread in all three directions. Millions of years ago, these hills as well as the land with it were submerged below the sea. Some evidence of this can be found from the fossilized shells you will get to see here. Soon it’s time for the temple priests to feed the hungry jackals. It’s amazing to see the priest walk a reasonable distance away from the main tourist point and sound the dinner bell by clanging a spoon on a plate. Just as the priest leaves the feeding well, we saw a tiny snout peering from the ledge and before you know it a pack of jackals start feeding on their generous meal. However, the packs of stray mongrels that breed near the temple don’t take kindly and fill the atmosphere with strong territorial howling. As daylight slowly diminishes, we tread uphill the steps to make it in time to viewing point to catch the last glimpse of the setting sun. The viewing point, is situated at the tip of the hill and gives a viewer a panoramic view of the great desert of salt. As Basil set his camera to record the sun in its various stages of descent, my mind is totally bewitched by this breath-taking scenery, set amidst the underlying turbulence of the two countries separated by this saline border. We finally bid adieu to the flaming sun and head back to our camp. The night has its own share of entertainment for us. After a rather heavy dinner, we are guided for a special performance by local men, who dance to the rhythm of folk songs. The night sky, brilliantly lit up by a gazillion stars, the soothing desert breeze and the mellifluous sounds of a folk song provides the perfect ending to a long day.