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The International Writers Magazine: India

The Rann of Kutch
Anirudh Chaoji
We had been travelling for hours on flat lands - so flat that there was not even a sign of a bump or a mound. The land was all cracked – as if the water from the whole planet had dried up. The plants were all stunted, short and spiny.


In the distance we could see some reflections… Ah! Water at last!!! But that water body seemed to move further away as we approached it. God!!! It was a mirage.
We were in the dry lands of the Rann of Kutch, where the word dry finds an absolutely different meaning, though Rann itself means "salty desert". Miles and miles of sun baked saline clay desert area, appears lifeless. Cracked land indicates water loss to the scorching sun overhead. There are no shade providing trees in sight. Only the higher grounds are dotted with a few bushy xerophytes like salvodora and acacia and a few more of the introduced Prosopis juliflora, locally known as Gando Baval, meaning a stupid tree - on account of its useless nature. There was no human being in sight. No villages dotted the horizon… this appeared to be the land of death. Well, thankfully, this was far from the reality.

kutch The more we explored this parched land, the more we were greeted with surprises. We noticed birds – cranes, eagles and yes!!! flamingos. Then we noticed movements on the ground – jackals, foxes, chinkaras, nilgais, and even the elusive desert cat and a hedgehog!!!

Now suddenly this place was turning out to be what we really wanted it to be - a nature lover’s paradise. Jugal Tiwari, our host was an encyclopaedia of knowledge of this terrain. He was hosting our group of birdwatchers from Pune, who were all too stunned by the rich diversity of the birdlife in this dead land, which ironically supports over 200 species of birds.

This area lies on the flyway of the migratory birds coming into India from Europe like the spectacular birds of prey – the majestic eagles, the fascinating buzzards, and elegant harriers. Even the local birds are no less impressive – the great Indian bustards, Houbara bustards, common cranes, Indian coursers, lesser floricans and the grey hypocoleus. Our group ended up with an impressive list of over 135 birds and over ten mammals. So then, what was it that made this dead landscape so special?

Our exploration had just begun and we were already startled by the geography of this region. Between May and October it's a different place altogether. What now appeared to be an absolutely dry area with a few water bodies, transforms into landmass submerged under the sea water that rushes in every monsoon with the strong winds and high tides and then remains landlocked. The flat desert of salty clay and mudflats, averaging 15 meters above sea level, fills with standing waters, interspersed with sandy islets called bets which are full of thorny scrub and sparse grasses. This area was in fact a vast shallow part of the Arabian Sea until plate tectonics closed off the connection with the sea. Today, at its greatest extent, the Gulf of Kutch on the west and the Gulf of Cambay on the east are both united during the monsoon.

During these times, most of the areas are disconnected from the rest of the world. As the water evaporates, it leaves behind saline land where later very little grows – not even grass!!! Some areas of depression continue to hold water till late – but alas that too is brackish – and yet people live here – tribes like the Rabari and the Bharwad. Both these tribes are still nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists who roam this land with their sheep and cattle.

The women, children and older men move with their belongings and camels to set up camps for the sun down to cook. Here, the men converge with their sheep and the families reunite – only to continue the ritual at the next break of dawn and for ever.

 Many of them however do also have settlements. We saw the beautifully decorated Rabari homes, called a bhoongas. With their round shape and a conical roof – these are a distinctive feature of this landscape. These bhoongas are designed for the hot summer conditions and are in fact a spectacular display of the artistic skills. Both these communities are skilled in a variety of crafts, the vibrant hues and colours used add beauty to the stark surroundings.
The womenfolk are known internationally for their handicraft skills including embroidery and mirror work. The Rabari women dress up in black wool that dramatically contrasts with their silver jewellery. In contrast, the men wear only white with fine embroidery. The Bharwad women are similarly skilled in an interesting art form of creating patchwork in vivid colours using scraps and waste cloth material to make items such as quilts, awning and camel saddle covers. Most of their intricately done material traditionally was used for decorating their camels and for their own utility. Over the times, the most dashing colours and all the finery found favour amongst travellers and merchants. Soon enough this area became famous for its handicraft industry.

Incidentally, trade is not new for this region. Historically, this area was a vast shallow lake that was still navigable during the times of Alexander the Great, around 2350 years ago. But even earlier than that, there existed a flourishing civilization in the form of the metropolitan city of Dholavira, a major city of the Harappan civilization, the remains of which were discovered in 1967-68 by J. Joshi. Dholavira came to be established among the five biggest known sites of the Indus Valley, or also referred to as the Harrapan civilization in the Indian subcontinent. The excavation at Dholavira brought to light a remarkable city of exquisite planning, monumental structures, aesthetic architecture and an amazing water management system. More importantly it also established Dholavira as an important centre of trade with Mesopotamia and Western Asia. This area was buzzing with activity some 4,900 years ago- i.e. from around 2900 BCE for about a millennium, declining slowly after about 2100 BCE; it was briefly abandoned, then reoccupied until about 1450 BCE. The excavation unearthed large numbers of antiquities such as seals, beads, animal bones, gold, silver, terracotta ornaments and vessels linked to the Mesopotamian civilization.

Interestingly, genetic scientist Spencer Wells believes that the first migration of early man from Africa to Australia 60,000 years ago occurred in three stages: the first to the Middle East, the next to the Kutch region, and the third on to Australia. Those who stayed in the Kutch might have become part of a great civilization that predates the Mesopotamians. The Rann of Kutch was part of the Indus Valley, which controlled a vast area of some 650,000 square kilometres — twice as large as that controlled by Mesopotamia and Egypt at the same time.

Another factor that has had a tremendous impact on the landscape of Kutch has been, some of the most powerful earthquakes. In 1819, a devastating earthquake wiped out villages in this area and created a 90km-long ridge popularly known as the Allah Bund ("wall of God"). This altered the course of the Indus River, leaving the Rann of Kutch without a freshwater supply. A massive earthquake 800 years before this is also thought to have altered the landscape. The region is still frequently rocked by earthquakes, with the last big one in January 2001 destroying towns and killing more than 30,000 people.

The resilience of the Kutchi community, that has for long only faced hardships, has ensured that the bitter past has been left behind and a bright future eagerly awaited. Today, Bhuj is a newly established and planned town. The rich cultural heritage and relics of the erstwhile princely state of Kutch do remain in some parts. Kutch is now the largest district of the state of Gujarat and the second largest district in India covering an area of 45,612 sq kms. During the monsoons, this land is virtually 'an island' resembling a tortoise "Katchua or Kachbo", surrounded by seawater and thereby gets its name. It is in these months that the Great Rann of Kutch and the Little Rann of Kutch together are often completely submerged under water.
Our interest took us to the different areas that together comprise the Kutch region. Visit to the Great Rann, or the uninhabited wasteland in the north was fascinating. It is the world’s largest continuous landmass covered with salt - covering almost 10,000 sq kilometers spread across Gujarat and Sind Province of Pakistan. Formed by the receding seas that left the salty marsh land behind, it was an amazing experience to actually walk on crunchy salt crystals and we could see just white for as far as our eyes could see.

Most of our time was however spent in criss-crossing the grasslands of Banni. Banni forms the largest single stretch of grasslands in the country. The name Banni suggests that this area is “made up” - by the sedimentation by the rivers that flowed into this area in the recent geological past from the north and the east. This had resulted in a variety of perennial grasses covering the land. Along with the Chhari Dhand lake, that is a large seasonal freshwater lake, Banni and the surrounding area is now an oasis in the inhospitable landmass. This area provides drinking water and food source for livestock and wildlife. Little wonder that we had most of our sightings of birds and mammals in this area.

During the day, the lake appeared absolutely still with only a few flamingos and common cranes feeding. However, it was during the evening that the ambience of the lake was transformed. The Sun’s ambers slowly started to drown into the lake and we began to hear weird sounds. Suddenly we had loud high pitched trumpeting cranes arriving in thousands from all directions for roosting on the lake. The birds called as long as they were on wings and stopped immediately on landing. This spectacle continued well into darkness and after a while the moonlit lake was silent as everyone seemed to have cuddled up for the night.
The experiences and sightings in the Rann of Kutch have been deeply etched in our minds. We had to head back to Pune – to a so called “civilized world” from a land that was actually a cradle of our civilization.
© Anirudh Chaoji March 2010
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