White Desert, Black Mountain

I took a break from the dental work for a little excursion into the remoter parts of Western Gujarat. This is a place probably known only to pub quiz champions, advanced bird watchers and true textilaholics: The Rann of Kutch. Here I stayed at a remarkably smart but almost deserted hotel which was obviously designed around the needs of the many wholesale buyers and NGO representatives who frequent the region. As I had not done much preparatory research, I asked for a couple of one-day excursions to include a mixture of nature, history and local handicrafts. With the the usual disclaimer about the quality of my bird photography, the following pictures will illustrate just how well this itinerary was achieved.

First stop was the a visit to the Ghafoor Khatri family; some of the only remaining practitioners of traditional Rogan Art, a form of fabric painting which uses a gum made from the castor oil plant to fix coloured pigments onto cloth in beautiful, intricate designs. Mr Abdul explained how, as part of a redevelopment project following the 2001 earthquake, he now had a school which was training about fifty local girls in these age-old decorative methods. He candidly admitted that the talent level was rather mixed but told me proudly that some of the girls were producing excellent examples of this traditionally masculine craft. Some more conservative Hindu families resisted allowing their daughters to participate and, so far, no Muslims had allowed their girls to join the scheme either. As the style being handed down is undoubtedly Islamic, this is a something of a disappointment but I can’t tell you how refreshing I found it it to speak to someone so genuinely committed to making a difference.

At the White Desert, an inhospitable stretch of salt flats where even in the depth of Winter the temperature was nudging 30 degrees, I privately nicknamed my driver Jack II for his apparently cavalier attitude towards our safety. Beset by a stinging wind, I found myself licking the salt from my lips and eyeing the contents of my water bottle speculatively. Seeing what the conditions had done to an abandoned pair of shoes and a misplaced fibreglass flamingo, I was relieved when the car started up on the first try and we made our way on to our next destination. The Sham E Sarhad, supposedly a resort village made up of traditional Kutchi Bhungas (mud dwellings) seemed to be deserted except for an English/Indian family who were also sightseeing in the region. We shared a cup of chai and they helped me to make up my mind to buy a lovely traditional wedding cloth, embroidered with flowers, animals and good luck symbols. Like many of the things on sale in this region, this piece is thirty or more years old and will respond to a little careful restoration. No wonder the savvy, city dealers comb the Kutch in order to “source” for their stylish boutiques.

The Black Hill (Kalo Dungar) is a rocky outcrop overlooking Pakistan, it is apparently famed for a story about a jackal but there was no-one around to explain further in spite of the carefully appointed visitor facilities which boasted a number of life size models of the local species of wildlife, four penned-up live emus and a not particularly threatening looking military outpost. On the way back to my base at the town of Bhuj, Jack II (named after Jack-the-Lad who drove me out to the Sunderbans last year) stopped for a couple of potential avian photo opportunities in response to my wing-flapping mimes. Things weren’t going too badly until he clapped his hands to scare them up into the air for me. Sigh. Another thing that this desert region has in common with the Delta over on the other side of India is its lack of squalor and the picturesque simplicity of day-to-day rural life. Of course these photogenic scenes can be deceptive; Northern Gujarat suffered very badly during the 2001 earthquake with as many as 10% of the population killed in some parts (the true meaning of the word decimation) but it is clear that both State and National institutions are working hard towards regeneration.

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