My first memories of the white salty marshes of the Rann of Kutch are from a high school classroom. As a young teenager, I sat in a literature session enraptured in the lore of a love that crossed borders and brought rain pouring in the salty stretches of the desert. According to the story, a young star-struck Laila rode atop a camel to meet her love Najab and when she arrived, the arid salt melted in the love soaking in a heavy downpour.
Rann of Kutch is a geographical marvel with its own pride of place in history. Sitting on the Tropic of Cancer, Rann is a land of extremes, the summer temperatures can shoot up to 50 degree Celsius and the winters can be freezing cold at 0 degrees.
Part of the Kutch district in Gujarat, the Rann of Kutch is divided into two- the Great Rann of Kutch and the Little Rann. The salt desert is rich in religious diversity and the people here are collectively called the ‘Kutchhies’. Bound by the Arabian Sea on one side and lined by the great rivers of Sindhu, Rupan and Luni on the others, Rann is also the country’s international border with Pakistan.
The Rann festival
It was only when my research for a Rann trip started that I came across the ‘Rann festival’. The prestige event, held by the Department of Tourism under the Gujarat government, is an annual winter cultural extravaganza.
The festival is a one-stop-destination for anyone who would like to explore the culture, art and cuisine of the western state. From colourful handicrafts to ‘chaats’ and Gujarati ‘thaalis’, the festival has something for everyone.
The highlight of the festival, apart from a rich showcase of the culture of the state, was the mesmerizing full moon nights on the salt desert. The idea of miles and miles of a sparkling desert, with a full moon shining over it, was just magnetic and soon I saw my backpack filling up and shoes sunning for the trip.
Rann is 85 km away from Bhuj. Our team, including Mustafa who came in a little later from Bengaluru, assembled at the railway station in Ahmedabad. From here we go to Bhuj and onwards to Kutch where the mud houses in Mangal Bhai’s courtyard will be our home for the next couple of days.
Musthu must be thanked for the mud houses, for it was his way with words that got a decent bargain. The deal also gave us a reliable contact in Kutch which we soon realized was valuable given the state of public transport in the area.
Chasing the full moon
Our team had an ambitious (as we realised later) target of around 300 kilometers to cover before we reached the desert festival to watch the full moon in Rann. At the bus station, we were at a loss to find a bus to Bhuj, but later fell for an overpriced sleeper ticket which took us to Bhuj in some three-four hours.
Nevertheless, the journey was fine, for the bus took us through the tiny little villages of Gujarat and we could watch them all stretching ourselves on the sleeper bunks.
But tragedy struck again once we reached Bhuj- no buses!
All it took was one call to Mangal Bhai while sipping some excellent tea at the bus station and we had an auto picking us up for the rest of our journey to Kutch. On our way we passed through arid grasslands and shrub forests and I soon got reminded there is a wildlife sanctuary here.
Once in Kutch, we were received by Mangal and his large family and shown our adorable mud houses. On the horizon, the sun was preparing to set and we had another cup of tea handed to us from Mangal’s kitchen. Soon we found ourselves inside a rather dilapidated jeep parked on the courtyard.
The festival site is two kilometers away and our jeep drove us through the well -lit pathways lined by food stalls, handicraft shops and other curios. On one side was a stage where there were folk artists performing in full swing to attentive audiences.
The desert is another kilometer since the main gate where the regular commotions of a tourist site were evident. The local camel ride owners wouldn’t let the cars drive in. And as always, tourists want no trouble, so some people gave up their cars and continued their journeys clinging to the colourful humps.
The moon was starting to light up the salt stretches and the sea of white was slowly getting brighter. We had a watchtower on one side and several miles to walk around. For those with an aptitude to preserve time in frames, there is enough opportunity.
Our team didn’t venture out much, for at the back of our heads we had it that Rann is a closely guarded international border under the tight watch of the Border Security Force.
After spending enough time to soak in the flavours of the white desert, we made a call to Mangal who arrived in no time for a return pick up. A sumptuous treat of authentic dal, chaval and rotis awaited us at home and was soon followed by a bonfire.
Sunrise in Rann
As promised, Mangal drove us to the festival site the next morning at sharp five but we were stuck at the gate with an unrelenting security guard who refused to open it till six. With more and more tourists pouring in to watch the sunrise, he finally gave in and we were there, watching the sunrise from one of the largest salt deserts in the world.
As the light spread, I scooped up some salt into my hand. Soiled from the mud from traveller’s boots, the white marshes have their own natural spa treatment when the rain comes. In the monsoons, the rain submerges the salt for days and weeks on end. When the water finally evaporates, Rann is back to its pristine white.
Back at home, Mangal bade us goodbye packing us into an autorickshaw that would take us to Kalo Dungar, the highest geographical point in Kutch. The hilltop is the only place from where a panoramic view of the salt desert is possible.
The view was striking; unending stretches of white, undulating in perfect curves to infinity. Standing there I told myself, Amitabh Bachchan was right, if you haven’t seen Kutch, you haven’t seen anything’.
(Translated by Jyothisha V J)