A constellation of stars is shining bright like scattered glistening gems in the clear night sky of Kutch. The shooting stars are darting across the sky like the swift sailfish leaping through the water. The shimmering moonlight is creating magic on the silvery salt landscapes of Rann of Kutch in the western state of Gujarat. The night is silent except for the sweet song of a bird wafting in the rather salty air. It is close to midnight and five women, who are travel junkies, are lying on the pure white salt desert and enjoying the stellar world created by nature. Kutch provides a bouquet of enchanting vistas to people who want to be far away from the madding crowd.
‘Lal Dharwasa’ glowing in rich colours of ‘Bandhani’
As the group of five women was entering the iconic ‘Lal Dharwasa’ in Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat, the merchants near the gateway told them to be wary of pickpockets. The grand entrance to the historic ‘Lal Dharwasa’ has an antique touch to it and the architectural excellence is stamped on the structure. The street had a strong smell of ‘pan masala’. People can enter ‘Lal Dharwasa’ through three entrance gates and when the women travellers entered the place it was jam-packed.
It seems that people are not aware of the spread of coronavirus. The five women, who travelled with caution by wearing masks and maintaining social distancing, found it very surprising to see people not wearing masks and giving scant regard to social distancing at ‘Lal Dharwasa’. They asked to each other, ‘where is mask?’, ‘where is social distancing?’ They saw a sea of people at ‘Lal Dharwasa’.
Though you can get everything under the sun at this age-old market place, there is great demand for rich-coloured ‘Bandhani’ garments and ‘Chaniya Choli’, a traditional Gujarati attire.
The dresses of all hues created a festival of colours on the streets and the prices of garments started from Rs 150. ‘Lal Dharwasa’ is a market place where you can buy goods at the cheapest rate in India.
Sabarmati reflects peace
After the cacophony of ‘Lal Dharwasa’, the quintet of eves reached the Sabarmati ashram. The Sabarmati River was flowing quietly without paying heed to the hustle and bustle of the Ahmedabad city. The Gandhi ashram sat pretty in a tranquil place on the banks of the Sabarmati River. The modest structure doesn’t have the antiquity or the grandeur of Gujarat, but it oozed with simplicity and hospitality reflecting the nonpareil qualities of the great man who lived there. The inside of the ashram reminded everyone of how simple Gandhiji and his wife were. The walls of the building could have been a mute witness to some epoch-making decisions in the history of India. One could also hear the mantras of ahimsa (non-violence) resonating in the ashram. It is indeed a delectable sight to see sun setting in the western horizon with the birds chirping in the background. The birds jostled for space to spend their nights in the trees in the vicinity. You can scribble a few lines for your loved ones sitting on the banks of Sabarmati and later post that letter in a special envelope provided by the ashram. When the women came out after a visit to the museum, a post office was staring at them.
As the night was rapidly enveloping the streets of Ahmedabad, the group boarded a bus to Kutch after having dinner.
When the five avid travellers reached Bhuj, which is 334km from Ahmedabad, at 5.30am, they were shivering inside their woollen clothes. After alighting from the bus, they decided to have a cup of tea in a bid to keep the rather biting cold at bay. The masala tea, which was served in small glasses, made with thick milk helped the women to get rejuvenated. After having tea, the travel junkies boarded a bus to Kutch, which is a two-hour drive from Bhuj.
The women reached their tent at Kutch when the sun was slowly peeping out of the clouds. And now there was warmth in the cold weather. They were received with a cup strong tea. The breakfast was sumptuous and the spread included ‘poha’ (rice flakes), ‘kichdi’ (dish made of rice and lentils), roti, bread toast, banana and salad. And to top it all, a glass of special ‘chaas’(buttermilk).
The fascinating ‘Bhunga’ and Black Hills
After having a rather heavy breakfast, the ladies decided to visit Hodka, a typical Gujarati village, which was 10 minutes away from the place where they stayed. They decided to walk to the hamlet. First they thought that the dry land they were walking on was barren but they were surprised to know that it was indeed agricultural land. As rain was scarce in the Kutch region, ‘bajra’ (pearl millet) was cultivated once in a year.
The tent owner in whose tent the group stayed told them that rain was few and far between in Kutch. Though the tent owner wore the traditional dress of a farmer, he owned large tracts of land in the region. He invited the quintet of women to his house, which was a conventional Gujarati home with floor smeared with cow dung. The mud walls of the house were fixed with glass pieces and the roof was thatched with straw. The houses with this unique architectural excellence are called ‘Bhunga’. When a lamp is lit inside a ‘Bhunga’ house, the light is reflected across the structure through the glasses pasted on the mud walls. Interestingly, the fame of ‘Bhunga’ homes had reached foreign shores and it is said that a ‘Bhunga’ house was put in place in a Japanese museum.
When the travellers entered the house, the tent owner’s mother, wife and two daughters were weaving exquisite designs on the garments with their magical fingers. The women were wearing sets of ‘choora’ bangles and all sported big nose rings, which were the smaller versions of the bangles. Even an 18-month-old girl child who was playing in front of the house had a nose ring. The women in Gujarat wear nose studs or rings as part of societal customs.
After having lunch in Hodka, the women tourists travelled to ‘Kalo Dungar’ (Black Hill), which is the highest point in Kutch.
The searing sun had made the plains of Kutch hotter and the mirages gave an indication that Kutch is indeed a desert. Before entering ‘Kalo Dungar’, driver Karan, who is taking the women around, did something extraordinary. The car, which was put into neutral, began rolling backward as if something was pulling it from behind. This area is called ‘magnetic point’. But certain travellers believe that it is just an optical illusion.
When the women explorers reached ‘Kalo Dungar’ at 4pm, the sun was shining like it was noon. Street vendors were selling all kinds of colourful wares such as bags, foot wears and dresses on the both sides of the pathway leading to the top of the Black Hill. Some people with camels were wooing sightseers to go up the hill on the back of the camels and some others were singing songs sitting in isolated places on the way. For these singers, they try to make both ends meet by whatever income they get from singing. The Dattatreya temple, which is more than 400 years old, on the hill top is very popular.
‘Kalo Dungar’ is the highest point in Kutch and one can get a mesmerizing panoramic view of the Great Rann of Kutch from the summit. The salt desert will look like an ocean from the top of the hill. As the place is near Pakistan border, army posts can also be spotted in the vicinity. You can see the Pakistan border in the distance with the help of a telescope.
Sunset in salt desert and starry night
The setting sun had created a magical spell on the salt marshes and the holidaymakers were dancing to the tune of Gujarati folk songs accompanied by ‘Bhangra’ band. The festival season of the Great Rann of Kutch is between the months of November and February. During the festive days, visitors from various parts of the country flock to Kutch. The Covid-19 pandemic took the sheen off the festival in the past two years though earnest efforts were made to illuminate the streets and make the gala memorable.
One of the attractions of Kutch is the camel ride in the fading light of evening. The western horizon would start gearing up to gobble up the sun by 5.30pm and the sunset, which gives the hope of a tomorrow with lots of happiness, is a spectacle to watch.
With the sun going down, the Kutch sky is lit up with moon and stars. When it was close to midnight, the women vacationers went to the salt desert to experience nature’s spectacular offerings. When the five travellers lied down on the desert and looked at the sky, the vista was so beautiful that they doubted whether they were in heaven. It is said that if the local residents lost their way in the desert, they will try to find the right direction with the help of stars.
Chiming bells of Nirona and secret of Lakhpat Fort
When the five-woman backpackers entered the house of 70-year-old Hussein, he along with his son was busy churning out copper bells. Both were making bells with their hands and without the help of machinery. The bells, which are interconnected, produced heart-touching melodies when the wind caressed them. The father-son made bells quickly in front of the women trippers too.
People from abroad also place orders for these wondrous copper bells. The price of the bells starts from Rs 650 as their size and the sound they produce determine the price. As per Hussein’s demand, the ladies wrote their names both in English and Malayalam in the visitor’s diary.
The group stepped into the Lakhpat Fort when the mercury was soaring at noon. Hundreds of wealthy traders used to stay at this place many years ago. The Lakhpat Fort, which is named after Rao Lakha who ruled Sindh in the 13th century, was a prominent coastal trade center of the 18th century. Many migrated from the fort after it was taken over by Fateh Muhammad in 1800 and this ended the halcyon days of Lakhpat. The ramparts of the fortress throw light on the lost glory. If you look around from the top of the fort, it would seem that sea is in front of you but it is the expansive salt marsh that is giving such an illusion.
The Vijaya Vilas Palace was shining in the evening sun as the five globetrotters reached Mandvi. The palace was the nerve center of the Jadeja royal family that ruled Kutch. While sitting on the terrace of the palace, one could get a bird’s eye view of the Mandvi beach. One could also see that earthquake had dented the rich regal past of Kutch.
Leading the way
It was Indu, the brain behind ‘Escape Now’, an exclusive travel platform for women, who led the eves to Kutch. Indu hops from one expedition to another and she loves meeting strangers and spending quality time with them. Indu’s travel groups will be having only a maximum of 20 women, and that’s the beauty of her tours. As the team is small, everyone has an opportunity to interact with each other and build lifelong friendship.