I was fascinated seeing Amitabh Bachchan on TV  introducing the Rann Utsav, the white salt desert shimmering under a full moon, tourist riding magnificently decked camels, bejeweled beautiful women dancing in sparkling mirror work skirts and their chunnis bellowing in the wind. Captivated, I visited Kutch thrice, and not just the Rann Utsav but also the sites from where the white salt dessert can be viewed from- Kalo Dungar (Black Hill), the highest point in Kutch and the Lakhpat fort. And I drove through the salt plains of the Rann, to Dholavira, the site of the Harappan civilization.

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Rann aglow at twilight. Image Credit: Humera Ahmed

In January 2011, when I was posted as Chief Postmaster General of Gujarat, I went by road from Ahmedabad to Bhuj, covering 300 km through an arid and stark landscape interspersed with acacia trees and patches of green castrol oil plants, dotted with saltpans and ceramic factories. On route, I often came across Rabari’s carrying their worldly belongings on camels or the pastoral herdsman driving their magnificent cattle and roofless unoccupied houses built to accommodate the 2001 quake-affected victims.

In January 2011, when I was posted as Chief Postmaster General of Gujarat, I went by road from Ahmedabad to Bhuj, covering 300 km through an arid and stark landscape interspersed with acacia trees and patches of green castrol oil plants, dotted with saltpans and ceramic factories.

Bhuj, once the seat of the Kutch Rao’s and Maharajas of the Jadeja clan, has splendid palaces like the Aina Mahal and Parag Mahal, now functioning as Museums, exquisitely carved Royal Chattris and the imposing ramparts and walls of the Bhujia fort which have survived the devastating earthquake. But most of Bhuj is newly built and the residents are nostalgic of the Bhuj before the earthquake which destroyed the old houses and structures associated with royal traditions and legends.

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Bhuj is centrally located and well connected to various tourist sites in Kutch. The  Rann Utsav takes place from November to March, at Dhordo about 80km away. I reached the site, just before sunset and was awestruck by the carnival atmosphere of the tent city. Festive crowds milled around food stalls and shops selling locally made handicrafts and textiles and ethnic wear with the distinct embroidery of various Kutch tribes.

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A view of the salt dessert from the Lakhpat fort ramparts. Image Credit: Humera Ahmed

A few minutes later I walked over to the translucent salt land stretching in endless white, reflecting the gold and red hues of the sky. Then the sky darkened-    and the crescent moon was visible for a short while. The dessert glinted a ghostly white and a cold wind blew. So I went to Hodka, 15km away at the Sham-e-Sarhad- a resort with a village ambiance of mud bhungas, mud wall mirror paintings and traditional furniture. There, seated around a fire, listening to soulful love songs in Kutchi sung by a group of local singers, ate a typical Kutchi meal cooked with fresh ground spices, with bajra rotlas.

In November 2018, when I visited the Rann Utsav I was surprised to see camel carts transporting tourists to the salt dessert from the fair and a high metal watchtower erected to view the white Rann- on which people scampered noisily. Walking into the salt desert- I beheld an exhilarating sight – the sky glowing red and gold on the western horizon as a pale full moon manifested in the eastern sky and gradually as the sky darkened it shone silvery, as it rose higher.

An altogether different experience is of viewing the huge expanse of white salt from the top of the 462 m high Kalo Dunger at sunset. But I saw it at about 11 am under the glare of a blazing sun. From here one can see the India Bridge near the Indo-Pak Border.

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Located on Kalo Dunger is the temple of the saint Dattatreya or Pancham Pir venerated by both Hindus and Muslims. In his memory a lamp is lit every night and food left for Jackals who in the legend of Pancham Pir, accompanied the Pir though the salt dessert; in that of Dattatreya, the saint had offered his body to the hungry wolves which however kept regenerating. This temple figures prominently in Keki Daruwala story- Love Across the  Desert  – a love between Najab Hussein from Pakistan and Fatimah from the Banni grasslands of Kutch. Like the lovers, children, animals and birds are not fettered by the border as beautifully depicted in Vinod Gantra’s award-winning children films–  Heda Hoda and Harun Arun.

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The Tomb of Pir Ghous being renovated. Image Credit: Humera Ahmed

Speaking of a different view of the salt dessert – it is the one from the ramparts of Lakhpat fort which I found unforgettable. I visited Lakhpat in November 2018, via Hajipur, where the shrine of Haji Pir is located. Haji Pir also known as Zinda Pir lived in the twelfth and thirteenth century and was said to have been killed by dacoits while saving cows. There are many legends surrounding his life and during the annual Urs (his death anniversary) in April, lacs of pilgrims of all religions from Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh visit his shrine. Many also come from across the border. The Dargah with its impressive arched gateway, white pillars and large green dome, rising out of the stark barren landscape echoes with devotional Sufi songs in Gujarati and Hindi every Thursday.

About 42 km away from Hajipur is Lakhpat, a town sparsely populated after the earthquake of 1819, when the Indus changed its course. Once inhabited by the rich and wealthy and an important trading post watered by the Indus, it has the tomb of Pir Ghaus Muhammed, a Sufi saint, who died in 1855 and was half Hindu and Half Muslim in his customs, which is being renovated by State Government. The 7 km circumference of the fort with its high fort walls and towers built of brown stones encircles the ghost town with its dilapidated abandoned houses. From the ramparts of the fort, the white salt plains stretching away to the sea give the impression as if the Arctic snows lay just outside the fort. A wondrous sight! A must visit.

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Humera Ahmed, Managing Editor of e-journal Ehsas for women,   has authored a short story collection-Checkmate and other stories, a Travel memoir -A Year in Himachal and a novel Jamila 

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