The Great Rann of Kutch

This unique geographical locale is way to cool to not share about.  I didn’t know what Kutch was until I arrived in Gujarat and heard it casually mentioned as one of the top-choices for a weekend trip. Though lacking in the copious amounts of Kingfisher beers present in the popular Diu or Mount Abu, I would make a strong argument for Kutch. Situated in the extreme Northwest of Gujarat, the area borders Pakistan and is most known for its famous ‘white desert’- the Rann of Kutch, as well as unique Kuchi culture and handicrafts. So when Christian casually mentioned he was tagging along for Lisette’s last-weekend-in-India-getaway, I popped a quick Whatsapp on Tuesday, and by Friday evening boarded an overnight bus with Christian, Lisette, Sushmita, and Niccolo.

We stumbled out of the bus into the freezing isolated streets of Bhuj around 5 a.m., disoriented by the complete darkness and lack of sleep.  We didn’t really have a plan – we were staying in a ‘tent resort’ set-up closer to the actual Rann desert, some 45 minutes’ drive from Bhuj. Luckily, to surprise Lisette on her last weekend in Gujarat, the dynamic Dhwani and her cousin Karishma were chasing behind our overnight bus to join the weekend fun. Of course, they had arranged a jeep and spoke Gujarati so we were saved. Tiny tour guide to the rescue!

Everything in Kutch involves a lot of driving to places which are nowhere near one another. The 7 of us piled up in the jeep and tried to pick which spots made the most sense to visit. Tourism has only been promoted in the area fairly recently. This time of year in Kutch there’s festival, Rann Utsav, where you can pay a lot of money to stay in a tent, ride camels across the Rann, and score other tourist package deals (pretty far outside of our price range). But not too long ago the Rann had a history a lot more complicated than Indian families clicking sunset selfies.

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Kuchi women hoping to sell us some wooden handicrafts. The white bangles they’re wearing reflect the sun and keep them cool.
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Sushmita & Lisette trying it for themselves!

India’s Border Security Services heavily patrols the area, some 50 kilometres from the Pakistan border. During the 1947 Partition, Pakistan received the Sindh province and Karachi, while India received the majority of which is now called Kutch. In 1956 the salty lowland was the site of a heated border dispute and skirmishes between the Indian and Pakistan militaries. While Pakistan received a portion of the Rann, it was only 10% of their original claim, while India received 90%. Tensions flared up again in 1999 when the Indian army shot down a Pakistani Navy aircraft plane in Indian airspace near Kutch, killing all 16 personnel on board.

Kutch is much older than modern border conflicts – its history traces back to Indus valley civilizations and prehistoric times. The region was even traversed by Alexander the Great when the Rann of Kutch was a salt lake. The earliest writings of Kutch are by the Greeks, when Alexander was exploring the Indus River and came upon a great lake – which is now the desert we know of as Rann of Kutch. Ancient Hindu mythology refers to Kutch a ‘tortoise land’, a vast and wild desert. Control and rule of the tortoise land fell into many hands: the Bactrian Greeks, to the Sakas in the first century, to the Samudragupta, Arabs in the end of the 7th century, and Rajputs. Eventually under the British Raj it became a princely state for many years known as ‘Cutch’, and was one of the first states to accede to India during Independence.

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Most recently in 2001, Gujarat was rocked by a massive earthquake hitting 7.7 on the Richter scale. The epicentre itself was in Kutch. Many lives were lost. The period after the earthquake marked the beginning of accelerated industry, tourism, and industrialization, especially along Kutch’s coastline. This ‘modern development’ meant that oddly, the remote and desolate sunrise view of the Rann was crowded by about 60 Gujarati families on holiday, plus a Canadian, German, Dutch, American, Italian and 2 Indian girls shivering under the bare and unforgiving desert sky. Because I know you want them, here are some neat shots.

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Crowds catching the sunset from the viewing tower.

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The crew!
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Credits to Christian for attempting to catch the stars in the cool moon-style shot (despite the light pollution)

Since we were camping in some funky tents nearby, we actually visited the Rann twice – once at sunset and once at sunrise. Word of advice: definitely carry your passport with you, as Indian Border Services aren’t exactly the most forgiving of bureaucrats…a race ensued in the last 15 minutes before sunset to either: a) obtain some sneaky special permission to literally cross 5 metres past the gate to the desert area, or b) go back and grab the passports. Not surprisingly, sneaky special permission is not easily obtained from Border Services. Scanned digital copies are a no-go. Luckily our driver hit the gas and sent the jeep flying back to the tents to obtain the critical documentation in the nick of time.

A small ecological tangent: yes, that is water in the desert. If you squint it looks a lot like a slushy, icy parking lot in January…until you realize that you’re surrounded by strange, crunchy salt crystals, not snow and ice. The lingering water is because during the monsoons the Rann is actually a brackish sort of lake technically classified as a ‘salt marsh’. Half the year area is covered in mudflats of standing water. Salt marshes, like bogs are incredibly unique and fragile ecosystems. That’s why there’s definitely a need to keep an eye on the Kutch Offshore Oil Basin. Approximately 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas has been discovered. The state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation is trying to buy up more reserves in the basin and do exploratory drilling before beginning production in 2 – 3 years, despite dropping oil prices. While this may be in the coastline region, drilling can have an impact on the entire ecosystem surrounding it.

 

 

We were a little early to see the Great Rann completely dry after monsoons, but the affect was nonetheless breathtaking.  There’s an astounding wonder that comes when you lose track of where the earth meets the sky in all its expansiveness. Luckily, that weekend we found some time to lose track of well…time. We laughed around a campfire and under the stars. We left leisurely in the morning, stopping for chai, milk cake, dabeli, and sightseeing along the way in no particular hurry. Barely 48 hours after arriving, we were back on a bus and dreaming about the open desert sky.

This blog is dedicated to the tiny one, and her expert tour-guiding skills.

Read more about current events in the region: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/12/election-change-fate-agariyas-gujarat-171209115608568.html

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