Part One: Gir, Somnath, Kutch
Two years ago, Gujarat Tourism came out with commercials advertising to – no, urging – people to ‘breathe in a bit of Gujarat’. Temptation took the forms of the White Rann, Dholavira – the cradle of the Indus valley civilization, the lions of Gir and the temple of Somnath.
My friend was tempted. When she suggested going to Gujarat for our workplace’s holiday shut down, I couldn’t resist. I, in turn, lured another friend into coming along. Amitabh’s voice and Gujarat’s hidden treasures had worked their magic on us.
Gujarat is not what you’d expect, which is mostly gold-clad men and ill-mannered,’backward’ or uncultured people. Far from it, the state is one of the most exciting places to be in. It really does have a lot to offer – spectacular terrains, bird watching during migration season, near-perfect and wide roads – a testimony to the sound, rapidly developing infrastructure – and a richness of culture and cuisine.
I’m horrible with planning (actually, just very lazy), so one of my friends planned the entire holiday in a way that would allow us to spend ample time at Gir, Ahmedabad, Kutch for the Rann Utsav, Baroda and Diu over almost two weeks. Gujarat is a big state and we needed to plan our holiday to spend more time seeing places and less time travelling, so we made Ahmedabad our ‘base camp’. (Not to mention that having a friend in Ahmedabad was a bonus.)
The three of us landed in Ahmedabad on a cold December day, a week before Christmas, and spent our first night doing a tour of National Institute of Design, followed by a train journey to Junagadh. The train was delayed by at least two hours – a total bummer because we had to kill time among the many people who made a patch of the platform their temporary home, which effectively left us with almost no place to stand on or put our luggage down. We had a taxi pick us up from Junagadh and drive us to Gir Birding Lodge. Our first taste of Gujarati cuisine was when we stopped midway for tea and snacks. It was a small roadside chai shop, not unlike those you may find anywhere in India. The difference was that its wall was stocked with Fafda and namkeens and a few sweets.
Gir Birding Lodge shares a perimeter fence with the jungle, so we were pretty sure that we would catch sight of lions and other wild animals. In the three days that we were there, though, we only managed to see Green Pigeons, a Malabar Squirrel, a Neelgai and tons of deer. No lions. Unlike the nights, the days were pretty warm, so the animals stayed deep inside the forest and away from the commonly-travelled jungle routes. That apart, the lodge property is big – cottages dotted by an orchard growing mango trees, guava and jackfruit. The food was excellent and the service impeccable.
Somnath is a couple of hours away from Gir, so we hired a cab on our second day there to visit the historic temple. The temple has been destroyed at least 12 times by various empires and been reconstructed every single time. The Mughals looted jewels from the idols and murals inside the temple, leaving only the debris of devastation behind. It’s no surprise that security is extremely tight and one has to leave all bags in a locker room situated a little distance from the temple entrance. Still, people flock there to pay their respects to the Gods and Goddesses housed inside and flanked by an expanse of wide, glittering sea to their right.
On our way back, we stopped at Veravel – the town where boats are made. Watching a boat being put together from scratch is an awe-inspiring experience – you feel so little when you stand next to the structure. After feasting on Khakra Jalebi – something you must eat when you go to Gujarat, especially from the little carts on the roadside that fry them on the spot and serve it to you with spicy Green chillies wrapped in newspapers – we headed back to Gir. Tempted as we were to take a second Safari, we decided against it because it would have left a serious dent in our holiday budget. But if you’ve got a large group of people who don’t mind sharing the expense, you must go for it.
We checked out the next day and headed back to Ahmedabad using a private transport bus – an adventure in itself. Once there, we spent the night at a friend’s place, resting, ordering in and watching TV. The next day, just as we were getting ready to explore the sights (and most importantly, the cuisine) of the city, one of my friends received news from back home and had to leave immediately. From then on, it was just two of us and an itinerary, with no planned travel mode – it was all state bus and taxi.
Bhuj was where we stopped next, because that’s where we were supposed to board a mini bus to Kutch. Bhuj is a quaint, sleepy town just two hours from the Rann of kutch, preserving all its history and old-world life like a jar of pickle. And what a tongue-tingling pickle too – the old men of the town wore traditional Gujarati outfits complete with turbans; Lambada women with ears and noses showing all the evidence of being subjected to years of wearing heavy jewellery and dazzlingly embroidered mirror work skirts and blouses freely roamed the streets. Young mothers milked cows in the backyard while young boys and girls went to school, pelting each other with bite-sized stones or jostling each other playfully. The terrain of Bhuj is absolutely beautiful, and I wish I had more time because I would have liked to explore the palaces and ruins just outside the town, promising a taste of royal history.
The bus ride to Kutch was even more of a surprise – vast barren land for as far as the eye could see, with little ponds and giant rocks and sparse green scattered over it. Dry grass growing everywhere, and in the middle of all that barren-ness, the most beautiful, big, brown-bodied and black-necked Indian Sarus Cranes. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t own a telephoto back then, or I would have got some awesome shots. Our tour guide told us that Kutch was one of the best places to spot migratory birds during December – they flew from all over the world to peck away here.
As the bus trudged on – and here, we finally met the sort of Gujarati families that give the entire community a bad name, much like select people of all other communities do – we saw an expanse of white sparkling in the afternoon sun. We had arrived at the Rann of Kutch.
Sight-seeing around the Rann was a part of the itinerary: we had a long walk to reach Kala Dongra – the highest point in Gujarat with, again, gorgeous terrain – and the Indo Pak Border to which we weren’t allowed because there were six buses of tourists with tons of kids and old people. But what enticed us most was the White Rann itself – once we had dumped our bags in our tent, we couldn’t wait to go.
A short bus ride and a bumpy camel ride later, we were on the Rann of Kutch.
The view is stunning. Everywhere you turn, you see white ground. Glittering white. Dull white. Salty white. (Yes, I tasted.) The White Rann gets its colour from the salt in the water that freezes over during winters. It’s like Salt Lake City, except it’s in India and the only one of its kind. It’s fascinating to see the desert surface turn slightly to slush as night falls and go back to being rock solid during the day. Of course, when you discover that the phenomenon is because the water evaporates in the sun and the moisture starts settling in again when it sets, you feel a little stupid but fascinated still. A lone army camp in the middle of the Rann was hosting a singing party one night, and on the other nights, there were local performers from the village playing for the crowd.
To be there as the sun goes down, lulled by the magnificence of the sight and the lilting, soulful tunes of the ektara accompanying rustic voices is to experience happiness and lightness of the heart in its purest form. There’s nothing but you and a world without worries. On a full moon night, the place transforms into a surreal fairyland of magic and bright stars.
And as I stood there, in the middle of all that magic, I thought: it cannot get better than this, it just cannot. This is it. I have seen beauty the way it was meant to be seen.
But I was wrong. There was more breathtaking beauty awaiting me on the rest of my journey.