The untamed, wild west of Gujarat is bounded on its north and east by marshy salt flats and desert scrub (the Ranns, Greater and Little) and on the southwest by the Gulf of Kutch and the Arabian Sea, the province of Kutch is a distinct realm in every sense – kachbo means tortoise in Gujarati and in the rainy season the area becomes a tortoise-shaped island. Isolated from Gujarat and arguably closer to Pakistan and its pre-Partition Sind populace, it is a special place and with a modest effort, is hugely rewarding for the intrepid traveller. Northern Kutch or the Banni area is a semi-desert with no perennial rivers and dry, acacia thorn scrub whose subsistence inhabitants rely on livestock and the sale of their traditional craft.
Threaded through with the color of its local ethnic tribes and their distinctive handicraft it is a festival of tribal arts, crafts and culture of the creative people of this region which contrasts sharply with the stark desert surrounds they call home. With some research and preparation (do read Judy Fraters excellent book Threads of Identity, Mapin Publishing, 1995; see box below) it could very well be your most memorable and inspiring part of your visit to India. Home to several indigenous pastoral communities (Jat, Haridjan, Ahir, Rabari, Halepotra) the first mention of Kutch dates back to 150 AD despite civilization here having much older roots as evident from a number of Harappan sites that have been excavated here and the fact that the Indus River used to flow through this region until a massive earthquake in 1819 altered its course forever. Arab invasions from Sind pushed refugees into the western region and tribes from Rajputana and Gujarat migrated across its eastern boundaries. The Samm Rajputs and later the Jadejas ruled and built a renowned seafaring trade with Malabar, Mocha, Muscat and East Africa, until Kutch was absorbed into the Indian Union in 1948. Another devastating earthquake in January 2001 again altered the landscape but what you will find today are a friendly, resolved people well on the path to rebuilding the fabric of their lives.
Note: You will need a permit to visit the villages north of Bhuj and although this is easy to arrange, as it is free, it takes a little time and patience. Take an extra photograph and a copy of your passport and visa (including the originals) and present yourself to the District Superintendents Office (11am – 2pm, 3pm – 6pm Monday – Saturday), complete the form naming the villages you need to visit, get it stamped and be on your way.
The dusty, baking hot capital of Kutch is slowly being reconstructed after the devastating 2001 earthquake which killed over 10% of the city’s 150 000 people. It’s a great place to purchase crafts and textiles, that is if you have not already done so from the creators themselves up in the Rann for half the price, and sadly a terrible place to overnight with no adequate accommodations or attractions. If you really have to sleep here there is only one option, the new Hotel Ilark (02832/258999 www.hotelilark.com in Station Road, by far the best place in town and recently built by a wealthy construction businessman. Ask for their super deluxe rooms (Rs. 3500) or suites (Rs. 4000) (ac/ fan, TV, guide, airport transfer, doctor on call, Internet is free in their business centre).
GETTING THERE AND AWAY
Jet Airways to daily flights to and from Mumbai. You can book at their offices near Bank of Baroda on Station Road (02832/253671) or at the airport (02832/244101). You can also train directly to and from Ahmedabad: catch wither the 9116 Nagari Express which departs 10:30pm and arrives 5:15am, or the 9032 Kutch Express (departs 8pm arrives 2:45am), before continuing on to Mumbai (11:45am).
A raised, newly resurfaced tar road leads north of Bhuj to the Banni Villages and the craft hubs of Hodka, Dhordo and Khavda where decorated mud thatch-roofed huts (liponkan) form the stop off for your meeting with traditional Rabari and Ahir cultures and an opportunity to inspect their handiwork and wares. Ludia is another good stop to pause, meet the locals and inspect the work. Take your time doing this and be patient. The traditional dress is arresting and their cholis (backless blouses) will have you literally asking for the shirts off their backs. The mood is relaxed and there is very little pressure to buy, so take your time and do not be shy to have a good look at all the work. It may seem like a lot of effort to unpack but try to see it as an education and there is no reason not to have a healthy interaction without buying. We did however encounter a certain surliness when we didn’t buy from a woman who apparently is famous in Paris with the French media. Be warned, even the Kuchi Rabari can be spoiled. Beautiful embroidery can be found at Bhirendiara and do stop at the famous NGO Kala Raksha (see box below) (02808/277238 www.kala-raksha.org) that provides a fixed price outlet, small museum and workshop.
Less than 20 miles north of Bhuj, Hodka is another obligatory stop. The Shaam-e-Sarhand Rural Resort, (02832/654124 www.hodka.in) a successful sustainable eco-tourism project run by the local Halepotra tribe is located here and offers rustic accommodation in mud huts or bhungas (Rs.2500) or 6 luxury tents with private bathrooms (Rs. 4000). Whilst it is very basic this “Sunset at the Border” is an authentic homegrown project that is run by the people for the people and will give you not only the proximity you need to the local villages but also the insight to witness the daily lives of a local Kutchi community at work.
Perhaps the most comfortable place for an overnight stay in the area, although a little off the dusty beaten track is the Infinity Rann of Kutch Resort (02835/273431/2 firstname.lastname@example.org, www.campsofindia.com) at Chari Fulay, Nakhatrana, 60km from Bhuj. With 16-luxury, a/c, tented cottages with attached bathrooms set around a green lawn and a large blue pool it is an ideal base for comfortable accommodation into the Banni area of the Greater Rann. It is recommended that you use this rather than the long trek down to Mandvi unless you want to mix and match and see more of the area and have a dip in the unattractive ocean.
The small, dirty coastal town of Mandvi on the Arabian Sea is approximately an hour’s drive (23 miles south-west of Bhuj and just beyond, literally on the beach, plays host to a giant Suzlon wind farm and more importantly a few miles away the Mandvi Beach Camp (09873013118 www.palacesofindia.com Rs. 6000), a compact collection of 12 comfortable a/c tents with fan and clean attached bathrooms (showers and flush toilets), a good beach restaurant and attentive staff. It’s certainly not a destination in its own right, the beach is windswept and eerie, and the town offers nothing more than an early morning photo opportunity at its wooden ship building yard as you pass it on your way down to and back up to Bhuj. Part of the same property and owned by the same family is the neighbouring Vijay Vilas Palace (Rs 15 and Rs 50 for cameras) which is a sight to behold looming over the beach like the now dilapidated, defunct set of some old movie (it was used in the Bollywood hit Lagaan).
Working out of Sumrasar Sheikh, 25km north of Bhuj, the Kala Raksha Trust (10am – 2pm, 3pm – 6pm; 02808/277238, www.kala-raksha.org) is am authentic and successful grassroots social initiative dedicated to the preservation of traditional arts encouraging the creative capacity of the artist. The trust has a small museum; works with over 800 artists from 7 different communities and can arrange visits to villages to meet with the artists. There are some magnificent pieces on sale, of which a substantial proportion goes to the artists who also help price the works. Most of their network are women from marginalized communities and it is here that you can learn about the craft and styles, as well as be taken for a village tour where you can observe the women meticulously plying their craft in embroidery, dyeing and patchwork techniques.
(Please note there is also another excellent local co-operative Shrujan, in Bhujodi, 12km north of Bhuj, which also works with a network of 80 plus villages and has some excellent pieces of the highest quality.)
If your interest extends beyond the ordinary, do contact Judy Frater whilst in Bhuj. She is a specialist in textiles on the local ethnic tribal cultures and communities, has lived with and studied them for many years and is author of the informative book Threads of Identity, Embroidery and Adornment of the Nomadic Rabaris (Mapin Publishing 1995). She can be contacted on judy@kala- raksha.org for specialist tours or can be arranged by Mr Malik at Rann Riders.
Covering 1873 square miles the Little Rann, to the east of The Greater Rann or simply Rann of Kutch, is a vast, salt encrusted desert plain that becomes a marsh during the monsoon rains. It is home to nine communities including the nomadic Mir, the Kharapat Rabhari’s, Bharawads, Bajania, Kholi, Patels, Padhars, Jats, and Wadi’s (snake charmers) as well as the endangered wild ass, a petite tan and chestnut relative of the horse that consistently denies the locals repeated attempts at cross breeding and refuses to pose for pictures. Found in loose herds which roam for grazing it is capable of running at top speeds of in excess of 20mph. Rather stop the jeep and try approach it on foot, where it may just sniff the air and allow you a shot with your camera. The reserve is also home to wolves, desert foxes, jackals, nilgai and blackbuck antelope, 380 species of birds including the endangered species such as Mcqueens bustard, sociable plover, Indian courser, the sand grouse, as well as flamingoes, pelicans and cranes during the winter migratory season.
Look out for the Tangalia weaving endemic to this Little Kutch region.
The only place to stay and the real reason for visiting the Little Rann is the eco-friendly Rann Riders (SS)(see below) based just outside the charming little village of Dasada and a stone’s throw from the Little Rann. The passionate and erudite owner Mr. Muzahid Malik together with his helpful and welcoming team, will attend to your every need, and with the amazing activities on offer (such as overnighting in the Little Rann on a camelcart) your experience here will surely be memorable. The pretty resort contains 22 deluxe suites in cottages resembling the kooba houses of the Bajania community of Dasada, and the bhunga houses of the Kutchi Rabari’s. Moreover, they are all designed using locals materials and labour, all with attached bathroom shower, fan and ac, and dry dressing rooms, tastefully decorated and set amidst lush flowering indigenous garden with a newly renovated rim flow pool producing organic food (grown out back) and serving local cuisine – you will be forgiven for thinking this is a mirage. To the contrary, Mr Malik’s family has deep local roots, a committed passion for the area and a real understanding of international tourism and its demands not usually seen in Gujarat. He is a veritable mine of information on the area and can arrange tailored itineraries and bespoke outings and activities by request and is an ambassador of the area having provided invaluable support and insight to many famous artists and authors on the unique aspects of the area. Make sure you ride up front with him on the desert jeep ride.
Rann Riders. Dasada, Distr. Surendranagar, Gujarat, (tel: 09879786006 mob: 09879786006 www.rannriders.com www.littlerannofkutch.com) 22 deluxe suites all with ac and fan, 6 in-house local english speaking naturalists, cultural folk dancing after dinner. Breakfast, lunch and dinner and mineral water, cooldrinks, softdrinks, juices and tea all included. Free Internet,no wifi, V, MC, DC.
Activities: Jeep safaris to Little Rann of Kuchchh for birdwatching and wildlife; Jeep safaris to local villages to view local tribes, communities and culture
Camelcart safaris for the villages; Camelcart safaris with or without accommodation to Little Rann of Kuchcch: stay on the periphery of the desert or lakeside on a camelcart caravan (including dinner, folkdance, bonfire); Horseriding on local Kathwadi horses) half day trips; Photographic tours (vehicles equipped with tripods and beanbags). Rates: Rs. 6,500 per couple inclusive of all food, drinks and 2 daily safaris. There is an entrance permit to the sanctuary which is currently Rs 1050 per day and includes up to 5 pax.
For special interest tours including photography, tribal and cultural excursions and wildlife in Gujarat please contact the owner Mr Malik at email@example.com. Airport transfers (Rs 3000 Ahmedabad) / railway transfers (Rs 2000).
The warp and weft of the woven word
The Rabari people make some of the most elaborate costumes and folk embroideries in the world. The range of variation in their clothing, jewellery and embroideries expresses their complex histories and subgroups including their migrations and their ever-changing environments. The style with which a craftswoman works is not chosen but assumed – it is a style which evolves over generations of shared and personal experiences and it reflects the continued narrative of a community. Equal to embroidery is the style of their dress and adornment. The style is critical in establishing identity and communicates instantly the community to which the individual belongs with subtle variations denoting status in that community. More than community markers these styles are also languages, which relates values and experiences. Embroidered camels and elephants remind the Rabaris of their roles as camel herders amongst royalty, scorpions and water bearers reflect the harsh life in the desert. Although the Kutchi Rabaris continue to embroider prolifically, many Rabaris today spend a substantial amount of time embroidering commercial cloths instead of their traditional pieces. Young generations look to cities for jobs and not to the time honoured traditions, so if you do purchase know that you are buying a piece of history set in time. Each element: colour, fibre, stitch and weave have meaning and this craft must be seen as a historical narrative of largely non-literate tribal peoples, whose history is unwritten, but rather woven.
(Some passages taken from Judy Frater’s book Threads of Identity, Embroidery and Adornment of the Nomadic Rabaris (Mapin Publishing 1995).
A Confluence of Art and Crafts
Gujarat offers perhaps the widest and most diverse range of handmade artifacts and textiles. Look out for the following styles.
Use to decorate entrances to homes, these horizontal strips are embroidered in various geometric and floral motifs.
Popularized by Bollywood films as cholis, these traditional heavily embroidered backless blouses are worn by the Rabbari women and make a striking statement against the dusty desert backdrop. These are beautiful ether framed or made into cushions.
Stitched together n geometric shapes of varied textures and colours and peppered with embroidery these are unique Gujarati works and can be used for wall hangings, bed covers and table-cloths.
The weavers of the Meshana district are apparently the best in the world and their work is available for purchase all over Kutch.
The craft of mixing cotton and silk weaving this is found in Patan and Mandvi.
Perhaps one of the more popular styles and art forms, dating back to the 17th century and using only pure vegetable dyes and pigments such as turmeric or indigo. Look out for the prized Arjakh range which is also available in Ahmedabad.
Bandhini or tie-dye is not just the product of a bunch of hippies trying to kill time but rather is an art form in its own right and forms the base of a number of other styles on which they embroider or use mirror work.
Metal and silverwork
A long history of metalwork is found in Gujarat, especially in the old utensils in brass and copper such as trays, boxes, chains and nutcrackers.
After visiting the temple in Patan pop in and see how the art of double ikat weaving is alive and well. Traditional saris weaved by the famous Salvi family are frequently snapped up by royalty and fetch a hefty price for their fine detail and quality.
In Kutch, look out for camel leather in saddlery, shoes, bags and belts, with all the detail and pattern you would expect from these creative tribes people.
Iraqi dates, Israeli tech, Kutchi soil!
Given their history Iraqis and Israelis refuse to see eye to eye on anything. Not so in arid Kutch where necessity isteh mother of invention, and collaboration. Farmers are growing Barhi, a variety of Iraqi dates using Israeli technology. About seven years ago, Pravin Gala, a local Kutch farmer, imported Barhi tissue to experiment with its local application. Eight more farmers joined in the trials and today with the use of Israeli drip irrigation methods and computerized monitoring systems, there are around 30 000 date palms spread over 60 acres all in different locations.
The quality is so good that plans are afoot to import a 1200 tonne cold storage facility to supply local demand and for export to Europe, Canada, Malaysia and the US. The yield is about 25kg per plant but is expected to rise to 200kg in the next few seasons, more than double the local indigenous Kutch variety which is also not as sweet.
Kutchi Pastoral Groups
Kutch has a number of distinct ethnic indigenous tribes who can be identified by their colours, styles of dress and activities.
The Rabari whom are the largest group rear cattle, buffalo and camels and sell their byproducts such as ghee and buttermilk. They are known for their fine embroidery. The men wear turbans and loose white cotton trousers with skinny leggings, a tight white jacket (khediyun) and a shawl thrown over their shoulder. The Rabari women wear choli’s or backless blouses with black dresses or pleated jackets, usually a bright red head cloth, are laden with heavy silver jewellery and their arms are stacked with white ivory or plastic bangles from the elbow upwards. Child marriages are customary and are performed usually over a 5-day period. Upon the birth of a daughter the mother commences the embroidering of the cloth which will form the most valuable portion of her dowry. In Bhujodi, just north of Bhuj, the Kutchi Rabari weave blankets and shawls from camel wool with the use of pit looms.
The nomadic Ahir are also cattle farmers and originally migrated from Sind. Similarly the baggy trousers and khediyun are typical and topped with a white head wrap. The women dress like Rabaris with more facial jewellery especially the heavy nose rings. The children sometimes wear bright topis or skull caps which is a Pakistani trait.
Also cattle herders and semi-nomadic migrants from Pakistan, the Islamic, pastoral Jats dress in black and the women wear plaits and heavy nose rings. They usually live in makeshift thatch dwellings that can be easily packed up and carried but some have recently begun to settle more permanently due to land scarcity and