My whirlwind Kutch trip often made me feel overwhelmed. It is a region which is best enjoyed with time, and even a short trip consisting the highlights of Kutch is guaranteed to be an explosion of information and experiences. The sheer feeling of drowning in exquisite details and equally colourful legends of the region saturated my mind so much that I actually spent one whole day busily typing down my Kutch trip notes. Those 24 hours flew by in the oddly decorated room at the awkward airplane shaped KBN Hotel in Bhuj and had I had more time (or energy) to spare, that funny hotel would have made a travel story by itself.
Bhuj, with its unque melting pot character is one of the highlights of Kutch
Incidentally, that was also the only evening during my entire trip which I dedicated to exploring Bhuj and though, it cannot be included as one of the highlights of Kutch, the town had a lot of character. Though most popular for being the jumping off base for Kutch trips, Bhuj is quite interesting on its own right and it is a great shopping destination as well. Bedecked with a few palaces, cenotaphs and remnants of a fort, this dusty western frontier town makes an enjoyable day exploration and it boasts of some seriously good eats.
And there are the Rabaris who roam the bazaars of Bhuj
A little market near the Prag Mahal palace offered excellent street food and its narrow winding adjoining lanes had some fine handicrafts shops. These catered to both tourists and locals and more than once the sight of well-heeled urban travelers rubbing shoulders with exotic Rabari ladies met my eyes. The Rabari ladies were sights to behold and I could never stop gaping at them in a most embarrassing way. Picture perfect in their black/maroon completely backless blouses, flowing dark skirts, veils, heavy intricate jewelry, and kohl-lined eyes, the Rabari ladies were photographers’ favourite muses. In my eyes, seeing them go about their daily chores in Bhuj market was one of my highlights of Kutch trip and I badly wanted to photograph them, in vain. Known for their uppity, slightly pugnacious nature, most Rabaris are not very fond of being photographed and the best you can do is stare at their exquisiteness from afar.
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The stunning, fiery Rabari ladies of Kutch
Traditionally, a nomadic tribe of cattle herders, the Rabaris have roamed the deserts and plains of western India and East Pakistan for almost thousands of years. Believed to have migrated from the Iranian plateau more than a millennium ago, this indigenous group with a peculiar Persian physiognomy are now found in Gujarat and Rajasthan. A spectacularly photogenic community, Rabaris still prefer to cling to most elements of their unique culture and lifestyle, something which, due to changing times is getting harder for them every day. Art flows through the veins of these people and the Rabaris are known for their very distinctive mirrored and whitewashed mud mural work that adorns their homes and villages. This unique mirror work is quintessentially Gujarat and is definitely one of the highlights of Kutch.
Rabaris incorporate historical events as motifs in their embroidery
Rabari women are skilled in this art and they are also famous for intricate mirror embroideries. These ladies simply love bling and they decorate their embroideries on clothing, bags, household decorations and animal trappings with intricate bead trimmings and tiny mirrors. Their chosen patterns highlight significant events, rites, and values in their lives and they are also tapestries denoting historical events important to the entire tribe. This practice has helped the younger generations to be aware of their community heritage and the Rabari women dedicate long hours to embroidery. The unique practice of incorporating historical events of importance to the community into their art is followed by quite a few Kutchi groups and from songs, embroideries to mural paintings, Kutch artwork is soaked in heritage. Some of these traditions go back to hundreds of years and it is quite safe to say, that Kutch is a land of living history.
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Introducing Rogan Art, one of the highlights of Kutch
Rogan Art of Nirona is one such rare craft which is probably one of the biggest highlights of Kutch. It is over three hundred years old and the traditional Rogan flower motifs and designs point towards its Persian origin. Practiced by only one family in India, this artwork is created, when castor oil is heated over a fire for more than twelve hours before casting into cold water. The mix of hot and cold produces a thick residue called Rogan, which is mixed with natural colours and the Rogan artist uses it to paint on cloth with a six-inch wooden stick. A Rogan painting is extremely fine and its delicate patterns are strongly Persian in influence. With each piece taking umpteen number of hours, backbreaking manual labour, and difficulty in finding takers, it is no wonder that Rogan is a fast dying art. Although with the Indian Prime Minister recently presenting a Rogan painting to the US President Barrack Obama, has put this art on the global map, the only practicing family of artisan Gafforbhai Khatri of Nirona village still find its future unsteady.
The legends of Kutch are as fascinating as the place itself
The future of a lot of Kutch crafts and heritages are shaky and my days in the region oscillated between being filled with hope and despair for them. While some arts like Ajrakh, Batik printing, a handful of embroideries, bell metal and lacquer work seem to have gotten fresh breaths of life, many crafts and traditions are fast fading into oblivion. These fast dying Kutch heritage include the regional natural history and my visits to the interior villages revealed some interesting obscure local folklore. The story of the Paggis (the erstwhile community of footstep watchers and informers of the King), the local flavour and housewives tales of the Ahir’s Shiva Ratri Mela, the fierce isolation of the Shama community or coal gatherers near Kala Dungar etc had revealed the real highlights of Kutch beyond the glossy tourism advertisements and I am left with lifelong impressions of the region. In my eyes, Kutch is a magical land, a phantasmagoria of beauty, legends, and traditions and during my visit, I was often struck by its natural mystical charm.
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Hidden rock pools, and tales of ancient shepherds roaming the Banni grasslands of Kutch
It was during the drive towards Kala Dungar from Bhuj, that Ketan, my friend told me the story of the Magnetic Hill and immediately, the stony, dry land came alive with secrets. That day was also very hot with desert tornadoes locally known as Shaitan ki Savaris or Bhamras tormenting us and our little rental car puttered uphill past bejeweled, tattooed camels. All around me, magnificent rocks formed harsh crevices and gorges and the tall savanna grass provided some dashes of stark yellow. The wild acacia trees stood out as stark silhouettes against a harsh sun and a cloudless blue sky expanded overhead. For my lush tropic loving eyes, it was a sight too dry to be beautiful, when Ketan told me about the locals’ belief in water lying deep in the rocky bosom. This startling tale came along with many other anecdotes and he excitedly pointed to the surrounding scrubby vegetation which once provided leaves for tea to the ancient Kutchi shepherds. Those stories told tales times when the entire region was a vast green field and on that hot day, the shimmering salt desert looked nothing close to a pastoral ground. Folklores, as I learned later are one of the highlights of Kutch and they seem to provide the locals with the strength to keep their tradition alive.
Kutch, supposedly changed overnight from a lush fertile plain into an arid badland
Otherwise, without such folklores, the landscape of Kutch looks too stark, barren and white, making one disbelieve any ounce of truth behind such tales. Yet, the Duttaray Temple perched atop Kala Dungar Hill screams of a time, when the shrine was a pitstop for Hinglaj pilgrims ( a very important Hindu temple now in Pakistan’s Balochistan district). Those were the times when Indian subcontinent had no borders and the dark silhouette of the Kala Dungar was used as a landmark by travelers crossing the huge desert or the Rann of Kutch. Rann, also, according to the legends was once a fertile lush place through which the river Indus flowed rapidly. Old locals and folklore from the region claim that before the massive 1819 Rann of Kutch earthquake, the flowing Indus helped the farmers reap a bountiful harvest of crops like red rice and Sindhi chookha etc. The endemic Banni grasslands of Kutch at that time was popular among the pastoral nomads and animal herders until the river changed its course after the earthquake of 1819.
Devastating earthquakes, ancient volcanoes and much more
Ever since the vast region has become arid and a fantastic plethora of seasonal salt desert, marshy wetlands and the torrid gushing of the Arabian Sea into the mainland during monsoon has taken over. Wildlife and people of the region have adapted accordingly and the volcanic outcrops of rocks grew in importance for navigational purposes. The aridity brought along with it many spooky tales and the Chir Batti or the ghostly lights which are said to mislead people into the desert or the swampy marshes are one of them. According to local legends, these lights have always been a part of life in the Banni grasslands and the adjoining Rann for centuries and they, along with places like Kala Dungar are parts of the phantasmagoria called Kutch. The Kala Dungar, due to its volcanic past is also been glittering black and the legendary guru’s shrine on top consisted of yet another magnificent local tale. As I said, Kutch is more than a destination and you need to immerse in it completely to enjoy the region to the fullest. This unique geographical triangle is incomplete without its interesting history and folk tales heritage and in my eyes, these are the true highlights of Kutch.
The story of Guru Duttaray and his pack of wolves
It is said that once when Guru Duttarey stopped there on his way to Hinglaj, a pack of hungry wolves came close to him looking for food. Being a spiritual figure, the guru was not attacked by the wild animals and even, when he gave them one of his fingers to eat, they refused to consume the meat. The guru, then, made some sweet rice porridge or meetha chawal for the wolves and the tradition of handing out evening meals to the local wildlife still exist today. I listened to this tale in rapt silence as sunset settled over the ancient land of Kutch and the Duttaray Temple was the fitting place to catch the falling light. It was also my last day in the region and I spent some time atop Kala Dungar to take in the aura of Kutch.
The highlights of Kutch have to be felt, smelled, tasted, and believed in
The hazy white Rann spread in front of me and somewhere in the vast desert, flamingo colonies, a controversial retractable bridge and thousands of legends existed. With the dimming of the daylight, Kutch got enveloped in a strange violet hue and a soft salty breeze tousled my hair. The breeze smelled of the sea, green vegetation, sun-soaked stones, and monsoon vapours. The keening sound, it made as it blew over the ancient land reminded of the folk songs and in my eyes, Kutch has remained in that moment. People usually make places, except in that fantastic westernmost region of India, where nature despite its aridity remains one of the highlights of Kutch. It is, after all, the spring well of the local life, legends, arts, and heritage. What a glorious place!
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