I am invited to address a conference of District 3060, but before I can decline the invite, the venue dangles before me like a juicy carrot — the conference will be held at the Rann of Kutch, says the invite from DG Parag Sheth. How can you say no to the treasures that Kutch offers you?
We land at Bhuj, and are scheduled to drive down to the Tent City — a distance of 85 km — the next morning. The short drive to Bhujodi village unfolds a treasure trove of the best crafts and embroidery, bandhni and weaves that Kutch has to offer. This is a 500-year old village, which is famous for its woollen carpets — made from both camel and sheep wool. Given the harsh winters, carpet making was once an essential, but today the skilled weavers of Bhujodi send their products across the world. While for the mass market a plethora of machine embroidered patches are churned out, to be slapped on to kurtas, the unique beauty of Kutchi bags, patches, chunnis and stoles lies in the meticulously hand embroidered pieces.
While woollen carpets were not a big draw to someone from Chennai, I found the rest of the treasures in Bhujodi irresistible. Beautiful cloth bags crafted by hand and complete with mirror work; bandhni stoles, dupattas and shawls made by the local women, who infuse so much colour and beauty into these garments, really take your breath away. And by Chennai, Mumbai or Delhi standards, these are so inexpensive, and so much fine labour goes into them, that it is criminal to bargain with the artisans.
I walk into the shop of Abdul Miya who has a treasure trove of bandhni silk sarees; granted the silk is not of the finest variety being art silk, but how he manages to sell a bandhni sari, with beautifully embroidered motifs, and a blouse piece with a border … all for a mere Rs 1,500, beats me.
The next morning, we head for the Tent City, where nearly the whole facility has been booked for the District conference. DG Sheth had no idea when he announced the conference venue as the White Rann that he would get 2,400-odd registrations! The result was that perhaps for the first time in the history of a Rotary District Conference, there were two conferences, held back to back! For there was no way to accommodate all the delegates at the same time in the Tent City. PDG Deepak Agarwal, Advisor to the Conference Committee, said that the Tent City normally has just over 400 tents, but to accommodate the Rotarians, an additional 200 tents were set up. And which other State in the country except Gujarat would do such a thing? But then which Gujarati would say no to extra business, and the Tent City is run by the Gujarat/Kutch Tourism.
There was such a huge rush to attend the conference that at one lunch I shared with Sheth’s two sons, they said they, along with all the 30 members of the conference committee, had no permanent place to stay. So they were camping outside the Tent City!
The Tent City is a small township by itself and is built over a whopping 1.5 million sq metres in Dhordo, the village adjoining the White Rann. The unique thing about this exotic travel destination is that it springs to life only for three months in a year (mid-November to mid-February). That is because for the rest of the time the White Rann turns into a massive salt water marsh. Only in winter the water recedes, leaving behind what seems like a massive white sea, unless you feel the crunch under your feet when you walk. For avid travellers among us, used to shoddy accommodation and terrible service when any Government — State or Central — runs a tourism venture, the beautifully done up Tent City, so beautifully combining the rustic with the modern, comes as a pleasant surprise.
It is difficult to imagine that the luxury tents on offer, complete with air conditioning and an attached bathroom with running water, spring up only during the winter or the Rann Utsav, as Gujarat Tourism brands this facility. It is the first week of January and the City has sprung up, vibrant with colourful tents, aesthetically done up street lamps, with straw bins as lamp shades, and traditional bhunga-like structures dotting the landscape. The bhungas are circular mud huts; built with thick mud walls and conical thatched roofs. These are the traditional dwellings of villagers near the Greater Rann of Kutch region and are perfectly designed for the hot, arid summers and freezing cold winters.
An exquisitely and tastefully done VIP Lounge was recently set up when Prime Minister Modi visited the Rann Festival. Two large dining halls, VIP areas, and different clusters are laid out to give you an ample feeling of space. After all Kutch is believed to be the largest district in India spreading over a whopping 45,000 sq km. But when in the tents, visitors would be well advised to keep their voices low; the tent linings don’t make great sound mufflers and what you speak can be easily heard by passers-by! Vehicles are normally not allowed inside the Tent City, and battery operated cars take care of the pollution.
Delicious Kutchi food
The food on offer is delicious and encompasses the best of Kutchi cuisine, which is simple and yet exotic at the same time. Where else can you get hot Bajra Rotlas with a variety of vegetables? And then there is of course the Kutchi dabeli, which is a spicy potato preparation spread between two layers of pav or burger bread and garnished with pomegranate, peanuts etc. It is served with a variety of chutneys made from tamarind, dates, garlic and red chilly. To Maharashtrians it will be reminiscent of their own vada-pav, but trust me, the two are very different. To me, the piece de resistance was of course the unbeatable combine of masala khichdi and kadhi, sweetened with jaggery.
But while the luxury tents and the Kutchi delicacies are for the well-heeled, it was great to note that each year, as the Rann Utsav kicks in, immediately outside the Tent City and at a walkable distance springs up a beautifully designed marketplace where the rural artisans can sell their wares to the tourists. Once again, because touts are mostly eliminated, the products on offer — from beaded neck pieces, dazzling ear rings, embroidered bags, jackets, cholis, patches, door frames, jootis, bandhni stoles, shawls, chunnis, saris, wall hangings, table runners, kurtis and salwar sets — are very reasonably priced. Of course bargaining should be avoided as most of the money goes to the artisans and craftsmen, but alas … I heard haggling going on all over the place.
Though I didn’t make it to the Flamingo City where thousands of flamingos congregate to breed, we did what is religiously done by every visitor … watch the sun set over the gleaming white sands of the desert. As this is a border region, which was on high alert after the Pathankot terrorist attack, the BSF team was very much in evidence. Now and then we saw BSF men riding on camels, waving to us, and before heading for the sunset point too, you have to cross a BSF check-post.
With over 1,000 Rotarians heading to this spot, it was a festival-like atmosphere with the colourfully decorated camels getting a lot of work! Entire families enjoyed camel rides, with the less adventurous opting for the camel carts. As the sun gently dipped over the horizon, the rapidly changing colours of the desert skyline were mesmerising. One would think that there would be nothing to beat the deep orange globule painting the sky in a riot of colours as it set and well after it had bid adieu. But apparently being at the White Rann on a full moon night is an even more spectacular experience.
Well a good reason, along with the Flamingo City, to return!
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat and Pervez Bhagat
Described often as one of the well-kept secrets of Gujarat, the town of Mandvi offers history, culture and of course pristine, less-known white sand beaches from where a spectacular sunset can be enjoyed while you enjoy a camel ride. If you have deep pockets, you can have your private beach by booking accommodation at the Vijay Vilas Palace, owned by the royal family and a part of which is let out to tourists.
A 75-minute drive away from the town of Bhuj, on smooth and pothole-free roads for which Gujarat is famous, Mandvi is as famous for its beach as its dabeli, a Kutchi delicacy. Not to mention its traditional shipbuilding industry, where even today ships are manufactured. This is not surprising as once upon a time Mandvi was this region’s leading port of entry, and famous for its ships that were handcrafted with blocks of wood. Ship building was started by the Kharva caste and they still build small wooden ships. Among Gujaratis, the Kutchis are considered very hardworking people.
Apparently the Mandvi merchants owned a fleet of a few hundred ships and before the advent of steamboats these were used to trade with East Africa, the Malabar coast and the Persian Gulf. Being at the junction of two important trade routes — spices and the desert camel caravan route — this was a money-making city of Kutch, even more prosperous than Bhuj. There are folktales of how Mandvi’s shippies would sail to Africa and bring back huge talking parrots.
A major attraction in this town is the Vijay Vilas Palace. Built with red sandstone and many Mughal style domes and cupolas, it has a mix of architectural styles; Moghul in the domes, Rajput in the intricately carved marble jalis and jharokas, which form a definitive part of this splendid palace. Built in the 1920s, it has impressive and decorated arches and coloured glass doors and windows. Small wonder that it is a favourite shooting haunt of Bollywood films, and the caretaker was at pains to point out the carved jalis on the terrace where the most famous songs of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam were picturised.
Another attraction of Mandvi is the Jinalaya Jain temple, a spectacular white edifice which is built in a sprawling 80-acre plot. A major Jain Pilgrimage centre, it offers accommodation too, but only for Jains.