SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Mystical simplicity

WHERE SPIRIT ROAMS FREE: The Rann   | Photo Credit: PHOTOS: GUSTASP AND JEROO IRANI

GUSTASP AND JEROO IRANI

Vast, expansive spaces, myth, legend, history, and simple folks with trusting smiles. That's the essence of the Rann of Kachch.

IT was a place of shooting stars; of gorgeously plumed peacocks that strutted on parapets at dawn and endless peace. In the remote outpost of Than Monastery, on the edge of the salt and sandy wastes of the Rann of Kachch, we were not surprised to learn that a Hindu saint had meditated here in a headstand position for 12 years undisturbed!Or so the legend goes. The story was related to us by Gagubhai, the wizened and be-whiskered caretaker who took us around the ancient monastery and related how members of the Nath Sampraday sect still practise their ancient rituals on a hilltop nearby. Later, with the courteous hospitality typical of the region, the caretaker offered us cups of sweet tea with a toothless smile and then refused the tip that we proffered.

Serene refuge

Kachch is not a tourist honey pot; it brims with palpable serenity and pops with Kodak moments. For, here is a time capsule ensconced in the heaving mercantile State of Gujarat of which it is a part yet seems divorced from it in many ways. Indeed driving through Kachch was a breeze and the largest district in the country is a scenic refuge from urban chaos. Occasionally we would get caught in a rural traffic jam of mud-caked buffaloes or woolly sheep and goats prodded on by a lackadaisical shepherd who moved to his own timetable. A couple of camels grumbling and rumbling like mobile washing machines would sometimes demand right of way as their owner dressed in a kediya (short tunic-like shirt) and dhoti would wait patiently. His wife, perched atop the ship of the desert, would sit cradling her worldly possessions including a frisky lamb! These cameos were like slashes of colour against a dun-coloured canvas. Occasionally swirling dust devils would give way to banks of green bawal, a wild weed, introduced in the area to stop the inexorable march of the desert.

Total trust

Often there would be a group of frail figures squatting by the roadside, waiting for the local bus that probably failed to turn up or arrived very late. If a truck or a charka (a cart drawn by a large motorcycle) turned up, they would clamber in with grateful smiles and total trust. In these parts, the word "unspoilt" is not a tourist brochure cliché, we discovered, as we shared endless cups of tea and companionable moments with locals who invited us into their spotless bhungas. These are traditionally decorated dwellings made of mud, beautifully painted without and within with floral and geometric designs studded with chips of glass and mirrors. The inside of the conical thatched roofs would sometimes be painted in myriad hues. A cavalcade of children inevitably trailed in our wake, the girls in swirling colourful skirts or lehengas, ears weighed down with earrings. As we squatted on the mud floor, the conversation often meandered around our hosts' buffaloes, and the weather (in the Banni area where we were staying, the people are largely cattle breeders); how the rainfall had been more copious this year than in previous years... In our conversations we unravelled the almost mystical simplicity of their lives pervaded by a sense of order and a unique pastoral stillness.

Peace all around

Peace was the leitmotif of our Kachch sojourn when we stayed at the Shaam-e-Sarhad (Sunset at the Border) located in the village of Hodka in the Banni grasslands close to the Rann of Kachch. This unique resort, promoted jointly by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, the United Nations Development Programme through the District Collector, was set up with the help of the Kachch Mahila Vikas Sanghatan (KMVS), other NGOs and the local community. It is today owned and run by the Banni community in collaboration with hospitality professionals.Here we stayed in a traditional bhunga with a carved wood door where the walls glowed with mud paintings studded with glass and mirror chips, typical of the region. With its mud seating, blood-red cushions, wooden dresser and French windows that led to our private patio, the bhunga was a comfortable oasis beyond which the trackless desert rippled. (Comfortable tents are also available.)

All in a day

As the morning light streamed through the drapes on our French windows, we would jump out of our bed to catch the sun rise in the pearly mist of dawn and then sit down to sip our morning cuppa. As the day drained of colour, the nights would be filled with the slight caress of a soft breeze that carried the melody of croaking frogs and chattering cicadas the most evocative sounds in the world. Indeed, Carol Douglas, a tour operator who brings tourists interested in culture and textiles to Kachch, would often sit outside in the open, recording nature's orchestra. Sounds of music filled our second night at the resort when a trio of local musicians stirred our senses while they plucked on local instruments and sang about Kachch and its haunting beauty. While we enjoyed the creature comforts of the Shaam-e-Sarhad (luxurious attached baths included), and the wholesome local cuisine that was served, we made forays into the cultural heart of Kachch, its spotless villages which move with a great collective, creative hum.

Exquisite craft

Kachch is like a vast craft park, a spokesperson of the Kachch Craft Centre had said as he took us around this resonant-with-magic place. We caressed block-printed fabrics at Ajrakhpur, relocated after the earthquake of January 2001. And there were more, like Hodka, Dordo, Ludia, Khavda each one a showpiece in itself. We met master craftsmen and award winners who had never stepped outside the boundaries of the village till they got recognition for masterpieces (like a quilt that took 12 months to fashion) and then were sent abroad to participate in craft fairs.We tiptoed into homes where doors were left hospitably open; sipped buffalo milk with the headman, admired his computer and the beautiful mud painting on the walls of his home. In another instance, a mother invited us into her snug bhunga to admire her tiny infant who slept snugly in a crib, eyebrows and eyes outlined with kohl while the proud midwife who had brought her into the world 10 days ago, looked on. Ludia was the most picturesque; the bhungas brushed with shades of ochre, rust and red and within, Vira behn spread her gorgeous wares on the hard mud floor... a colourful riot of cushion covers, bedspreads, punkha, leather work mirrors et al.

Authenticity

What we loved about Kachch was its innocence in the matter of tourism. Here we felt and heard the sounds of a village slowly awakening; the whimper of a child, the cough of an elderly grandma, the peal of temple bells... As we sipped tea on our private veranda, in the soft dawn, our pulses slowed to the overwhelming rhythm of nature around us. We were happy, for, we seemed to be the only ones in that part of the country that morning. Quickfacts
  • Bhuj, the district capital, is easy to access by air, road and rail.
  • While one can stay in the capital and explore Kachchh, the back-to-nature Shaam-e-Sarhad resort located in the Banni grasslands (and closer to the Rann) makes an excellent base as it blends nicely with its surroundings.
  • For more information visit >www.hodka.in Email: >info@hodka.in or >marketing@hodka.in Tel: +91 (2832 654124). Or contact Gujarat Tourism
  • Tel: +91 79 23222523, 23222645 Web: >http://www.gujarattourism.com