I share a certain relationship with Khachh. I first visited Bhuj with my flatmate in 2010 for a weekend, it was too brief a visit, we stuffed ourselves with dabeli looked at some of the earth quake rehabilitation projects attended a buffalo beauty contest and had to run back to work. I was lucky enough to know someone who was working at Hunnarshala Foundation – a fantastic organisation which emerged after the 2001 earthquake and have been pioneers in bringing out the local artisans and craftsmen and integrating their knowledge into building technology. If you are ever planning to build a mud house, contact them!
Their most interesting project according to me is Sham – E – Sharad, a community run rural resort, 70 KM away from Bhuj at Hodka. this is where I always astay and that is where the buffalo beauty contest was held that night. Villagers from miles and miles around had brought their buffaloes, camels and cows and had scrubbed them till they shone. Many of the animals were decorated with tattoos. It was an amazing experience, we walked around the pens and then into a tent where some sufi muscians from Pakistan were singing. Crossing the border in this region, at that time was not such a big deal I suppose.
I had been in Khachh for just that one evening in 2010 I knew I had to come back.
I was back in 2012 with two beautiful strong women (my cousin and best friend) right after the Delhi rape. Both of them were upset with humanity due to incidents in their personal life and my faith was destroyed by the rape.
At the very start of our journey we met Usman Bhai, he drove a broken down indica and did not have a great interest in money. He just wanted to get by. With great anecdotes and conversation he drove us from village to village where we met various craftsmen from weavers to potters. If it was a Hindu village, he would greet the people with a jai shri Krishna before asking for directions and if it was a Muslim village – he would say salam aleikum. It was hard not to believe in humanity again in his presence but our faith was restored by Khachh. We were swept of our feet by the warmth of all the villagers, the craftsmen who would welcome us into their homes and offer us tea first before showing us their works. The trust they had in us. If we decided not to buy something, they would ask us to take it anyways and pay later.
Irrespective of religion most villages in this region, including Hodka practice a purdah system where the women never leave the house. So you will not see any women here, even the resort (Sham – E – Sharad) is run completely by men – from cooking, washing to cleaning, but it does not feel unsafe, even if you are just three girls travelling by yourselves.
My mother and my cousin’s parents who heard about our trip decided to visit and I was back in Khachh for the third time in 2013. And since my mother was there with me this time, the shopping was much better. Half the things in my house are from Khachh, from the dhurries, the table runners and bed sheets to terracotta plates and cups apart from all the clothes. Usman Bhai took us around again, and despite having a non – ac broken down car, he made up for it with his wisdom and philosophy. On our way back to the Bhuj railway station, he and my aunt sang old Hindi songs and bhajans… on a deserted starlit road. He dropped us in the station and told my family not to worry about me, he said I was Gujarat’s daughter and they would take care of me. It is one of my favourite memories.
Since then, I have been itching to bring the Other to this place, to share the magic with him, but unfortunately things have changed and it is not just the fact that Usman bhai is not with us. I lost his number and don’t know if he and his broken indica have survived the change. Since 2013 the government of Gujarat has been organising a Rann Utsav, at the very edge of the white desert and it has been gaining popularity every year. Think of the most garish thing you have seen and then multiply it by a 10000, and that is the Utsav.
But what the Utsav has brought with it hordes and hordes of people, the highway is abuzz with vehicles, and you can hear it all night from your tent. Gone is my quiet khachh. The night sky in this region was my favourite thing, but now there are lights everywhere, you can see the pulsing lights from the Utsav 22KM away from Hodka and even hear the music ! The entire road from Hodka to the white Rann used to be a pot holed riddled road through the desert, now it is dotted with one resort after the other, offering you tents and bhungas and khachhi food along with aircondtioning, bottled beverages and ice cream ! Luckily only three people read my blog and Dholavira (previous post) will remain unadulterated for a little while longer.
Everyone has their reason to hate our current prime minister from the Gujarat riots to demonetisation, but mine is for the Rann Utsav. You are greeted by a giant cut out of a fort, with lights and people everywhere, this is followed by food courts, adventure sports and a lot of noise. You have to ride through this chaos to reach a parking lot after which private vehicles are not allowed. If you forget to get your permission at Hodka you can get it here as long as you have ID proof. At this point everyone is herded into government buses. I kept thinking of my previous two visits where it was just me and my companions in the Rann and was brought back to reality as I was pushed and shoved in everyone’s hurry to get into the bus. We Indians are always running a race, even in the Rann. The bus takes you a little way ahead and then you reach. The Rann is as breathtaking as ever, but they have built a concrete pathway for a couple of kilometres into it with a tacky space frame you can climb to watch the sunset. The pathway and frame were covered with people. Hundreds of them swarming all over the place, screaming at the top of their voices, eating their snacks and littering the beautiful white salt.
To say we were disappointed was un understatement, but where there is a will there is a way. The Rann is quite mushy in December, and dries out completely end of Jan / Feb. When I came with my mom, aunt and uncle late Feb we could sit on it comfortably and watch the sun paint the salt a million colours as it set. The mushiness was our saviour, not many people left the safety of the path, and we decided to escape. The Rann dries in patches and there are some very wet areas, some slushy areas and few dry patches. We navigated through the precarious landscape and found ourselves a dry patch from where we could not hear the crowds behind us and were able to see one of the most spectacular sunsets we have seen together.
On our way back we stopped at the food court to get a dabeli. A board outside the Rann proclaimed that it was a plastic free zone, but that did not apply to the Utsav. The entire food court used Styrofoam plates, plastic cutlery, tetra pack /plastic bottled / canned drinks. I asked the dabeli wallah – where all the trash went and he said away. I guess that is epitome of what swach bharat stands for – moving garbage from A to B with no efforts to reduce, reuse or recycle. As the Other often says, the man on top is the worst thing to happen to the Indian environment and it is time to say bye to the great Rann.
If you still want to visit, try coming end of Jan – Feb when the utsav will be wrapping up, the great Rann is dry and you might get a glimpse of my Khachh.