Most of us are familiar with the advertisements of Gujarat tourism that shows Bollywood legend, Amitabh Bachhan standing in the middle of a "White Desert". The location is the Rann of Kutch and the white background is actually an enormous expanse of salt. Flashes of Big B posing in the desert and wooing travellers to visit the state in his typical baritone voice, "Kuch din toh bitao Gujrat main (spend some days in Gujrat)", whizzed through my mind as we travelled from Ahmedabad to Kutch-a smooth but long journey by road-passing through some panoramic images of an endless clear sky. But reaching there as the long journey comes to an end was for me a celebration of expectations of sorts!
Like the tip of a fountain ejecting volumes of water in a rhythmic pattern, one finds oneself in the company of a clear sky that gradually serenades to create a panoramic outburst of colours at sunset. We did not have a perfect setup to catch the first glimpse of the sunset in Kutch but instead, with the sun fast approaching its horizon, we had to get off the bus and literally chase the ball of fire as it continued to change its colour and gradually faded in the endless sky.
We were about 200 metres behind the Rann at BOP Tingeribet and a generous BSF staff led us to an ideal spot to catch a glimpse of the sunset. The image of an almost orange sun in the dusk sky was a sight that we had waited for-to watch it set against the white backdrop of the salt desert was still missing as we were still away from the Rann. But we caught the sunrise the following morning. We left our camps at around 5.30 am and proceeded to the white desert. The frightfully cold windy morning in a desert may not be the best way to kick start the day but at Rann of Kutch, the fear of cold and shivers give way as enthusiasm sets in with sunrise.
The chief minister of Gujarat and other ministerial candidates arrived in the evening for a function to inaugurate the Rann Utsav. Anandiben Patel said there had been a steady increase in the number of tourists to Gujarat owing to the state government’s proactive tourism policy. Speaking at a function to mark the inauguration of newly constructed Bhunga (traditional houses with thatched roof) in Kutch for tourists attending the Rann Utsav, she said the winter festival, which started in 2005 on the vast stretches of "white sand" near the Great Rann of Kutch, has become world famous. She also added that the government was keen to make the Bhungas comfortable and yet affordable, noting that that state was home to numerous historic, religious and cultural sites for tourists. The chief minister and her entourage also took a round of the newly-built Bhungas. They later watched a variety entertainment programme befitting the occasion.
A grand Tent City of approximately 400 tents, both air- conditioned and non-air-conditioned, have been set up on the outskirts of bordering village of Dhordo in the Rann and, according to GSTNL managing director P D Vaghela, most of them have already been booked. These tents offer packages of two nights and three days at around Rs 15,000 for a couple and are mostly booked in advance. However, the adjoining areas near Dhordo have several small villages like Hodka, which offer affordable homestays at around Rs 3,500 per night, including food.
A visit to Kutch may turn out to be incomplete if one fails to take note of the numerous handicrafts, which are carried on from generation to generation in the area. The traditional basis of its prosperity has been its foreign trade in various handicrafts. The artefacts of Kutch have moved not only through the length and breadth of the country but also in the overseas market. The main handicrafts of the district are embroidery of ethnic style, patchwork, terracotta, pen knives and nut crackers. During my visit to Kutch and the adjoining areas, particularly to the nearby villages of Dhordo and Hodka, these handicrafts stood out from the otherwise markets of pomp and show.
Inheriting the bequest of craft making, the locals in the area-most of whose parents had migrated from Pakistan in their childhood-weave their dreams into different forms of embroidery. A local official informed us that Kutch is renowned worldwide for its mirrored embroideries. While these embroideries hold great commercial value, it is equally interesting to note that most of these are traditionally stitched by the village women for themselves and their families, for festive occasions and to celebrate or honour deities. Embroidery work have also contributed substantially to local income. From thread work to leather stitches, every village has a different and a unique style of embroidery.
Then there are wood carvings, one of the best handicrafts of Kutch. The Harijan people living in Dumaro and Ludia are master craftsmen in wood carving. They make various utensils like pastel roller, chapati disc, bottles, small tables and glasses of the wood with attractive carving. Generally, they use teak wood and locally available "bahuv" wood to prepare these fine artifacts.
We also visited some houses in the Banni area, which seemed to be a living museum of beautiful paintings. Rabari and Harijan women are traditionally experts in depicting their dreams in painting. The clay collected is mixed with camel dung and kept for a few days. Then it is made porous by adding water to obtain sufficient plasticity and designs are then worked on the mud wall using this clay mixture. Designs of mor (peacock) popat (parrot) anghadi (fingers) vinjno (fan) are the most popular.
Pen knives and nutcrackers of Kutch have travelled the length and breadth of the country. People of Kutch prefer to present these artefacts to their relatives and friends. The artisans, who made swords during the royal family’s patronage, are now producing the penknives and nutcrackers. The iron bars are reduced to small workable pieces. These are then worked on using forging machines.
The sound of bells once helped shepherds and cowherds communities to locate their flocks from a distance. Here in Kutch, waste iron sheets are bought from Bhuj market and converted into bells. The bells are processed to incorporate a copper sheen and acquire the distinct ring of cow-bells. Kutchi bells have also replaced church bells in several western countries.
Seashell toys and dolls made in Bhuj region is another handicraft that draws attention. The shells are collected and graded according to colour and shape and used in decorative items. Birds, animals, plants, agarbati stand and figures of Gods and Goddesses are prepared by joining the appropriate coloured shells with an adhesive.
Rann Utsav is a celebration of life, festivities and culture of Kutch and Gujarat. It is a landmark bestowing grace and elegance, where travellers from around the world gather for more than two months. A riot of colour sprinkled on the barren lands, the festival offers visitors an excellent opportunity to experience the diverse traditions and the generosity and hospitality of Kutchi people. On a full moon night during Rann Utsav, the region wakes to an endless cycle of dance and where century-old traditions are revived in a celebration. The picturesque "White Desert" is no longer far and isolated.
The colourful fairs held near the beach or the banks of a lake swing with the spirit of festivity, fervour and flamboyancy while the organised tour around Kutch is an ideal occasion to be part of the region and experience the zeal and uniqueness of the people through a celebration of life! The festival also hosts activities such as horse rides, camel safaris to bird watching, pool table, table tennis, ATV riding, paramotoring, archery, giant chess, net cricket and bicycle riding. Tourists visiting Rann of Kutch during Rann Utsav will surely enjoy remarkable moments.