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Stories from Kutch Part 1 : Dholavira

Kutch has such an exciting ring to it, that its mere mention brings on a spirit of adventure and a longing to return to nature. The mind can’t help but introspect on human civilisation in this ancient land. I have travelled to Kutch since 2005 and  every time, it feels as if a new story will unfold.  The land is arid but a nostalgic reminder of how our modern lives evolved. The basics are still practised in the form of animal rearing, embroidering textile and creating hand-made objects to celebrate life, all superintended by the forces of nature.

The Region

The region comprises of three parts –  the Great Rann, the Little Rann and the Banni grasslands.  The Banni Grasslands are created by the movement of the Earth (the earthquake of 1816) and the sediment deposits from the flow of water, in the form of the Indus River. Once a lush green flourishing land, the Rann is now vast salt marshes. These grasslands are an arid zone, yet saturated with richness that feeds its famous livestock and cattle. A large tract of Banni converts into seasonal wetland if the monsoons are good. The wetlands then attract a large numbers of migratory birds from the world over.

The Rann spreads across from Gujarat to Rajasthan on the north and westward into Sindh, Pakistan. This entire region was originally a single culture originating from the Harappan civilisation. One of the largest and grandest cities was Dholavira, located on an island in the heart of the Great Rann.

Journey to Dholavira

Dholavira is a top bucket list spot. So, with an effusive Lila Bhai Rabbari as a driver of his trusty Santro (car) we set off from Adipur, Gandhidham after yet another gujarati kari and rice lunch on Sunday noon. The food here is consistently delicious, be it a Dhaba but especially if it is from the home of your host. Experience and statistics suggest Gujarat is safe for travel, with its well established infrastructure. The people are not only helpful, but also kind.

Lila Bhai decided to take off from the highway in favour of the more vernacular roads, to allow me the experience of rural Kutch and save a buck on the toll, I suspect! On instruction, I was the navigator on google maps offline mode, the only delay was that we were stuck for like twenty minutes. The road was jammed with cattle being rounded for a village feast. I loved every moment of it! The cows here are gorgeous, well fed with enormous horns or quite small curved horns, beautiful all the same. The Kutch cattle are original breeds known for their rich milk produced by feeding on the Banni grasslands.

Along the journey we came across the usual suspects – a camel caravan, some Nilgai and as Lila bhai described fortunately a mongoose, a sign a good luck.

We travelled through villages and large village ponds, temples and waved out to many yatris on pilgrimage. A special feature of Gujarat and maybe Rajasthan is the number of women on pilgrimage walking to the nearest or farthest temple depending upon the nature of wish demanded from their dear god.

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Figure 1: Feast Day for the village cattle

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Figure 2: Camels going grazing for the day

Driving to Khadir Bet

The plan was to reach the fossil park and watch the sun set there, a site that has to experienced to be believed. Khadir Bet is an island within the Great Rann, access to which is via a seven kilometre long single lane metalled road with the white stretching till the horizon as far as the eye can view. Lila Bhai spotted a little dot, which he sure was the kutch Ass, I could not even spot the dot. He attributed my inability to vast time spent watching the screen and his trained eye to being a good driver, I smiled.

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Figure 3: Driving across the Rann into Kahdir Bet Island

Once inside Khadir Bet, the usual arid scenery resumed – fields, grazing cattle and livestock, people is fine attires. Each community is identified by its specific attire, the embroideries on it and the jewelry of the women. Rabbari & Ahir men wear a similar top garment “kediyo” a full sleeved bodice with open gathered frill while the bottom garment is dhoti for the former and a loose salwar for the later. The clothing of the women is another chapter, probably one chapter per community.

Welcome at the homestay

By 1730h we had already arrived at the homestay and consumed a welcome cup of hot sweet tea.  In these parts, it is served in cups and drunk from the saucer, a fine balance! My hosts live in the Dhola Vira village with their four buffaloes and two cows. All the children have flown the nest and hence Mrs. & Mr. are happy to entertain travellers. Mr. offered to guide me to the Fossil Park – we drove from the village past the ancient site, along the fields and up hill into the Fossil Park gates. Further driving uphill, I spotted a chinkara and then at the peak of the drive a view of whites expanding into the horizon. You smell the sea, taste the salt as the moist breeze hits your face.

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Figure 4 : First view from the hill-top

Fossil park and the sunset

The fossil park at sun set defines surreal! The sight of whites expanding endlessly is awesome. It makes you want to run with the blowing wind and jump in the non-existing water. Descending the hill, no really running down hill is exhilarating as if the salt is required to be tasted, touched.

Even before the mirage appears, water makes itself felt under the soles of the feet. It squeezes out from beneath the salt with every step you take into the salt expanse. You want to taste it, again!

All around the winds are swishing past, the clouds halo the sun and in the far distance the Bhanjano hill stands out. Sadly, it is dark and time to leave.

The Fossil Park hosts two fantastic large specimens of ancient trees, petrified, said to be of the Jurassic era.

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Figure 5: Sun setting behind the Bhanjano Hill

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Figure 6: The Salt Beach

Food and conversations

We arrive home to dinner, a sit down on the kitchen floor, moong dal Khichdi, Kari and freshly roasted bajra roti with a dollop of cow’s milk butter. Finger licking delicious! We talk a bit, Lila Bhai who has been welcomed into the home as community guest is chatty as ever. He offers to share his knowledge about a pregnant buffalo.

Sleeping under the open night sky

Mrs., calls it a night, shows me my room and starts preparing the bed outside under the open night sky. I want to sleep out too! We set the beds but the warm covers she had given seem odd, though she promises they will be required. Settled and tucked in I look up and see the most stars one can see in a view.  “Ten thousand saw I at a glance” twinkling in sprightly dance. I spot the ‘great bear’ constellation while slowly drifting away, woke once, missed the great bear and then woke again.  There was a faint pre-light sky and finally the first light beautifully creating ripples in the clouds.

At the first light the hosts jump out of bed, milk the cows, have a first cup of tea. I happily admire the patterns in the sky! By seven they are milked, bathed, fed water, etc. and are sent out to the edge of the village. Here, the cowherd collects them all to go grazing. It’s the urban equivalent of leaving the kids till the school bus, every cow and its parent bidding farewell for the day.

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Figure 7: Morning Light

The Harappan City

We head to the site, the Harappan Metropoly. Two rain water streams surround the city. We crossed over one to enter from the east side towards the majestic citadel. They planned their cities at right angles, managed water systems, made beads of semi-precious stones and were successful traders.

I witness the wind-swept, beautiful morning skies with oblique light filtering in. What’s more, I see the sweet red Peelu fruit, meant to quench one’s thirst. Apparently viper snakes also reside on the Peelu cautioned ASI caretaker. He even mentioned a female cobra sighting too! It feels nostalgic climbing those smooth cut steps of the ramparts, sitting on the high rock on west, viewing the fields, grazing cattle and miles of white kissing the horizon. Suddenly, a sound above my head shakes me out of my dreamy state.  A  flock of flamingos fly past right above,  so close their beating wings are heard.

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Figure 8: The dholavira site

This is life today, this was life once.

It is difficult to decide what is more exciting being a part of ancient history or watching nature take is course.

The water management system is very cool to say the least the interconnected tanks are probably the origin of step-wells. Water surrounds the entire citadel strategically. Whether viewing them from above or having walked down the steps, one can visualise a culture that evolved from here.

Apparently, only thirty percent of the sight is excavated.  Maybe it’s good till we learn to manage and better protect our heritage. The caretaker described a group of industrious Japanese who carried their own bags and published a three thousand-page book.

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Figure 9: Lila Bhai walks along the southern reservoir

The ASI Museum

The ASI museum is informative and the caretakers generally from the village are happy to share their knowledge. Museum timings are 1000h till 1730h, but one can get access to the site earlier.

It was soon time to leave, to head back to the computer screens and share these experiences.

Tanveen Ratti