KUTCH: A museum brimming with history, villages resplendent with handicraft and the Rann with last rays of the setting sun… Ashish Dutta is smitten

I alighted from the train at Bhuj, the principal town of Kutch, on a wintry morning. Unlike most small towns, the railway station is just off the edge of the town and not engulfed by dusty bazaars, cheap hotels or snoopy touts. Bhuj was still lazing out of slumber when my auto rickshaw purred through clean, wide, double roads, past the large Hamirsar Lake bang in the middle of the town where, under the slanted young sun, hundreds of birds — cranes, pelicans, herons, stilts and others — had swooped in for their annual winter sojourn. Kutch is a favourite ‘vacation villa’ for winged visitors from as far as Siberia.

Bhuj is the ideal place to foray into the interior regions of Kutch. But before penetrating the hinterland, I decided to take a peek at the 4,000-odd years of history of the region at the Kutch Museum in Bhuj.

The collection started from potteries and artefacts from the late Harappan period of about 1,900 BC. There were Buddhist seals, Kshatrap inscriptions from the 1st Century, 6th and 7th Century statues too. The museum reminds Kutch as a member of that rarefied club of Indus Valley civilisation. Standing amid priceless relics, I felt the tug of uninterrupted tide of history in my veins.

Next morning, I drove out of Bhuj, through arid stretches. Trees got fewer and stunted. Small hills and rocky mounds appeared once in a while at a distance. Each hill, whatever its magnitude, was crowned with a temple whose white sikhara and fluttering flag could be spotted. At ground level, our car patiently negotiated sauntering camel carts that occupied a good part of the road.

After about three hours of drive, our vehicle veered off the road and took a short dirt track that ended abruptly — I was at a tiny Kutchi village. At that hour, most of the men folk had gone out to graze animals or to trade wares in the ‘town’. The women, in resplendent costumes and jewellery, their chore of cooking and washing over, were mostly squatted in the porch of their hut or just at the door inside the room, busy at embroidery. Kutch is inhabited by diverse communities such as Jat, Rabari, Sindhi, Muslim, Sodha and others. A village belongs to a particular community, and each community specialises in a particular art form. Jat embroidery has closely stitched patterns, where the “stitches outlive the cloth on which they are sewn”, and the colour and motif reflect the age and marital status of the wearer. Mutwa embroidery by a Muslim community of Banni region has sparkling intricate floral and abstract designs with tiny mirrors. From the heap at the corner of the porch, I picked up a mid-sized shopping bag with bright and thickly arranged embroidery. How many days of artistic labour must have gone into its making? For once, I did not bargain.

Dhordo — my next destination is a tiny outpost of a village, 82 km from Bhuj, but centuries away. Standing isolated at the edge of the Great Rann of Kutch. Like a sentinel surveying the expansive nothingness that lay beyond, I stood on a machan and from that vantage point stared at the Rann. Later, I walked down the Rann, on wet slushy sand covered here and there with crusty white salt, as far as the eyes could see. And witnessed the sun setting, slowly, in the distant horizon. And nothing, just nothing, stood between me and the setting sun. Not a shrub punctuated the panorama. Not a slight modulation of a dune. Not even a blade of grass. Just windswept, flat-out salty sand-bed. I realised that to come here to ‘see something’ is to miss the point. For, in the last rays of a setting sun, the Rann was the physical expression of the metaphorical Zero. Nothingness. Or all-pervading?