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In Pursuit of a Mirage

September 26, 2009

My travelogue on Rann of Kutch, published in today’s  Hindustan Times.
This is the unedited version.

Legend goes that when Babar was scouting for routes to find an easy way to cross the Hindu Kush mountains over to India, a wise man suggested that he follow the tracks  of the Indian Wild Ass, which in those days  roamed all over  North West India, Pakistan and Iran. When my guide DevjiBhai, saw the incredulous look on my face as he narrated this story, he simply said “Come with me for a safari. Not many can survive such tough conditions.”

Blue Bulls or Nilgais (Nilgais or Blue Bulls-quite a tongue twister.)

A couple of hours later, as we rode over the bleak and barren landscape, flat as a pancake, the sun beating down on us, the salt laden winds cutting across ,DevjiBhai ‘s words kept ringing in my ears. After countless trips to the salubrious mountains, here I am on a battered jeep, driving through, what for me, was one of the most inhospitable and unwelcoming of all terrains- Little Rann of Kutch.

I couldn’t have asked for a better guide for my stay in Rann. DevjiBhai Dhamecha, a local from Dhanghadra, one of the few villages dotting the border of the sanctuary, started out as an amateur photographer, chronicling life in the sanctuary. Over the years he became the voice of Little Rann, and protecting the sanctuary has since been his sole ambition in life. We stayed at DevjiBhai‘s Kooba huts, circular mud huts with conical roofs, built on the style of Banjania tribes of Northern Gujarat.

Kooba Huts

The Rann of Kutch is a vast saline wasteland of around 30,000 sq kms, between the Gulf of Kutch and the Indus in Pakistan and is the largest declared biosphere in India. This inhospitable terrain is an effective deterrent for illegal immigrants – a wrong turn in this endless desert could indeed prove fatal. This vast expanse was once an extension of the Arabian Sea, but centuries of silting have turned it into an extensive mudflat, inundated during the monsoons, salty and cracked in the other seasons. The Rann (salt marshes in Hindi), was a navigable lake during the time of Alexander.

Surprisingly enough, the Rann has five distinct wetlands which are a rich habitat for a wide range of water and terrestrial birds including the famed flamingoes. We took the highway which ran alongside the sanctuary to a marshy area where DevjiBhai assured me I would still be able to see a few of those remaining migratory birds – given that it is almost summer now and they have flown back to cooler climes. I expected to spot a few desultory birds, and was pleasantly surprised to see rows and rows of birds, carpeting the entire marsh – a colorful tapestry of the white Demoiselle Cranes, the Pink flamingoes and red-wattled Lapwing, interspersed with the Little Cormorant, Pelicans, Lesser Flamingoes, Herons and Egrets. In the winters, I can only imagine this place turning into a bird lover’s paradise.

Wet marshlands-2 Flamingos and Egrets and Damesoille Cranes

Trying to get a better shot of the birds, I waded through the black mud as quietly as I could. My foot slipped and I was unsteady for a moment. Enough to alert the birds and I witnessed the magnificent sight where the entire lot took to the air en masse, and the only sound I heard was the distinct flapping of a thousand pairs of wings.

On the way back to the Kooba huts, we were lucky enough to cross a group of Maldharis, as they were packing up for the next leg of their journey. The Maldharis are nomadic herdsmen who migrate annually after the winters from Kutch and Saurashtra to Madhya Pradesh. From their long black headscarves and magical symbols tattooed on the arms, we were told that they were the Rabaris, believed to be descendants of the Huns who invaded India in the 5th century. The women were tall and well built and clearly very business savvy as they demanded 300 rupees before I could even take off the lens cover from my camera!

The next day’s safari, far inside the sanctuary, transported me to a different panorama altogether. In a landscape where nothingness defined everything, it was DevjiBhai’s experience that guided us around the flat land and a bare horizon broken only by the occasional salt pan or sometimes a bet (plateau or elevated island).

The only other tire tracks we saw were that of salt trucks. Gujarat is the largest salt producer in India and a third of it comes from the salt pans of Rann. And due credit must be given to the hardy Agarias, the traditional salt workers, who battle hard conditions ,camping in the midst of the desert to eke out a living from the salt pans. It is important for the water to keep flowing through the salt pan without interruption so that salt crystals are formed properly-which makes it imperative for the Agarias to pitch tents with family, in the summer heat. As the summer heat intensifies, the salt in the blistered earth is transformed into a radiant dazzling whiteness “Even after an Agaria is cremated, the soles of his feet remain intact “, rues DevjiBhai who himself hails from a family of salt workers. “Years of toiling bare feet in the salt pans harden their skin to the extent that even fire cannot burn it.”

Agaria Tribes

(Agaria Salt Worker)

I was prepared to see mirages in the desert, of course, but that still did not bar me from making the classic blooper, the first time I spotted a ‘lake’ far off in the horizon. In my defense, I actually thought it was an artificial water body constructed by the salt workers. A few moments later I saw a couple of trucks hovering above the shimmering reflection and I was finally convinced that it was a mirage after all.

As we moved away from the salt pans, the hard cracked earth gave way to the softer sand of the deserts, where we drove across herds of the chestnut brown Wild Asses (Equus Hemionus Khur).Locally known as the Ghud Khur, it is one of the sturdiest animals able to withstand the desert heat and survive on scrubby grass and food of prosopsis– the few saline resistant plants that can grow here. The Rann is the home of the last surviving Asiatic Wild Asses and along with the Blue Bulls (Nilgais) they are most easily spotted fauna in the desert.

In the monsoons, tidal waters flood the land and the land becomes totally submerged as the Rann fills up with seasonal brackish water ideal for shrimps. The desert metamorphosises to a huge fishing pond and the Agarias give way to the local Maachlimars who then use boats for shrimp cultivation. That explained the rather surreal scene of boats lying abandoned in the midst of the barren deserts!

Evening set in and as the jeep took one last turn, I saw smoke coming up far away from an Agaria camp. A family of salt workers preparing for dinner maybe? For me it was a step into a difficult hostile terrain – I could enjoy the novelty of this unique terrain, unparalleled in the world, comforted by the fact that I was just hours away from the comforts of city life. But for that family of Agarias, the summer has just started. And with it the beginning of hard toil under the relentless sun, with not even a tree for shade.

salt pans (Salt Pans)

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Sumeet permalink
    September 26, 2009 12:51 pm

    makes me run for the Rann…… 🙂
    interesting….i found this to be the best of all your articles i have read till date….

    • lostonthestreet permalink*
      September 26, 2009 5:53 pm

      thank you and all the best for your caferati event

  2. Gita Hari permalink
    September 26, 2009 2:38 pm

    Hey that’s a very interesting travel story – i could visualise the picture of the barren Rann and the salt pans….

    • lostonthestreet permalink*
      September 26, 2009 5:54 pm

      thanks gita..coming from an established travel writer,I am even more glad.:-)

  3. sid permalink
    September 26, 2009 5:43 pm

    u cud have put the pic of the guy who almost pulled my arm off for 300 bucks :-)..well the most exciting part of the trip for me was when our jeep got stuck in the middle of the desert..would hv liked that pic as well:-(
    the publisher probably didnt like the idea of giving too much publicity to devjibhai..and edited his name from the article..:-) nonetheless he was a very knowledgeable and good guide and the food he served was awesome..
    like the flow in the article..good read

    • lostonthestreet permalink*
      September 26, 2009 5:55 pm

      that should come in a separate article titled ‘harrowing experiences of a traveler’

  4. Anupa permalink
    September 27, 2009 8:10 am

    Enjoyed reading 🙂 Now I have to add this to my ever growing list of places to see! To think that I even lived in Gujarat for 2 yrs…

    And congrats on the article being published.

  5. September 29, 2009 1:33 pm

    Need to go there..

  6. September 29, 2009 1:53 pm

    ok…i did not read a thing….i just looked at the beautiful pics…and that pic of the lady…is THE best….did’nt know there were flamingos in India!

  7. February 15, 2010 6:50 am

    You prepared an excellent position with what you said. Folks should read your article so they can get a greater point of view on this issue. It was fantastic of you to present excellent information and encouraging reasons. After reading this, I know my mind is pretty clear on the subject matter. Carry on the great work!

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