The desert in north-west India: Kutch (Flickr: anurag agnihotri)
Article Words : David Abram | 01 May

Kutch: a land apart from India

David Abram ventures to the isolated region of Kutch – brought to the world's attention by the 2011 earthquake – and finds a different enclave of India

I can think of few feelings more delicious than waking up on an Indian train, especially one rattling through the middle of nowhere. Cocooned by the swaying of the carriage, I pulled my Northern Railways bedsheet tight around me and peered out the window. It revealed a world very different from the one I’d left behind the previous evening. Gone were the frenzied streets and blue-brown heat haze of Mumbai; in their place, a great expanse of empty acacia scrub, glowing in a crisp, desert light.

A remote wilderness

I’d wanted to come to Kutch for years. A pan-shaped region, sandwiched between Indian Saurashtra and Pakistani Sind, it’s always been something of a land apart – physically remote and culturally distinct from the rest of Gujarat. Until the recent construction of permanent road and rail links, the region used to be cut off for months on end by monsoon floodwaters flowing off the Aravalli Hills to the north-east and by high, wind-blown tides from the Arabian Sea in the west. When these recede, they leave in their wake vast flats of mud and salt, hundreds of kilometres square. To the north is the Great Rann (Desert), dissected by the Pakistani border; to the south, the Little Rann, its cracked wastes broken only by opal-blue pools of brine and distant flocks of flamingo drifting above the mirage-like mist. In the past, local Rabari camel herders knew the safe routes to the ‘mainland’, but nowadays the only footprints you’re likely to find on the Rann are those of arms smugglers, desperate salt miners and herds of wild ass.

This extreme isolation explains why Kutch has traditionally been a place of refuge for tribes, castes and clans fleeing persecution. Over the centuries, a mosaic of cultures evolved under the umbrella of the region’s tolerant Hindu rulers, the Maharaos, united by a common language (Kutchi), currency (the kori) and even a system of measuring time. Yet the separate communities also retained their own distinct customs – especially when it came to dressing up and DIY. Even by the flamboyant standards of the subcontinent, Kutchi costumes and decor tend towards the wild side. It’s a cliché to interpret this as a reaction to the drabness of the desert, but the vivid textiles, mirrors and elaborate painted mudwork really do stand out against the sand like hallucinations. Travellers have always gravitated to neighbouring Rajasthan for colour, but this is where the arts and crafts of India’s rural north-west find their fullest expression.

Even so, relatively few people had heard of Kutch until the morning of 26 January 2001, when it was devastated by a massive earthquake in which around 25,000 people were killed. News coverage at the time understandably focused on the town of Bhuj (the capital of Kutch) – chunks of whose famous royal palace – the Aina Mahal, collapsed, but little was reported about the rural populations. It seemed unlikely that a life made of mud, wood, thatch and mirrors could have survived a quake measuring 6.9 on the Richter Scale. So in November 2004, while on a longer trip to India, I decided to head up there and find out.

Ship shape

First stop on my itinerary was the town of Mandvi, an hour’s bus ride south of the capital. Once a prosperous port whose mariners sailed as far as the Red Sea, Zanzibar, southern Africa and China, it boasts a scruffy beach (where you can ride on tinsel-covered camels) and some quirky hybrid architecture dating from more prosperous times. But the real attraction – in fact, reason enough for anyone of a remotely salty disposition to come to Kutch – is its extraordinary shipyard. Here, and only here as far as I can make out, ocean-going ships just like the ones that formerly crossed the Arabian Sea laden with horses, spices and Hajj pilgrims are still made by hand with Indian hardwood – and they’re truly gigantic. I counted 17 of them in various stages of completion, propped up by scaffolding in the mud along the riverbanks east of the bazaar. They generate the same sense of awe I felt when, aged nine, I first saw the blue whale in London’s Natural History Museum. Only these behemoths had gangs of workers crawling over them, hammering metre-long nails into their flanks.

Soon I was invited onto one, and my jaw dropped even further. “Hello, gentleman. You wish to buy?” “Erm, not really, thanks. I’m not sure where I’d put it.” Mr Khan, the shipyard owner, smiled indulgently and went on to explain that Mandvi’s ships are nearly all commissioned by rich Arab sheikhs from Dubai. They take teams of 50 men about two years to build and can cost up to two-crore (a crore being ten million) rupees – around £2.4 million. If I wanted one, I’d have to go on a waiting list. Business was obviously booming.

The colossal beauty of the vessels aside, it was amazing to think that this is how the ships that first brought Dutch, Portuguese and the early East India Company adventurers to these shores were constructed; and more amazing still that in this forgotten backwater, the hereditary skills and labour force for such a feat of engineering had survived the advent of iron and CAD software. Imagine stumbling across the family of shipwrights who made the Mary Rose, still building oak battleships somewhere on the south coast – without any written plans.

Somewhere over the rainbow

Back in Bhuj, I fled the Diwali (Festival of Light) firework mayhem and tried (unsuccessfully) to get some early shut-eye – a dawn start was on the cards for the next day. I’d rented a scooter (all the taxi drivers were on holiday) and arranged for a guide to accompany me to some of the craft villages north of town, in the Banni region. Mr Mohamed Hussein Khatri duly arrived at 8am sharp and, after a quick breakfast of parotta (flat bread) and curd, we sped through the drifts of cracker detritus until the rubbled outskirts of town gave way to rolling, open country.

Once you’ve got the requisite permit from the local ‘Foreigners’ Registration Office’ (a formality), you don’t have to arrange visits to the villages; just turn up. Everyone knows why you’ve come and seem delighted to see you. On arrival, we’d invariably be herded along by a welcoming committee of brightly decorated children and installed on a veranda. Then the teenage girls, prompted from the wings by shier mothers and aunts, would unfurl whatever they’d been working on.

At Bhirendiara, where women of the Harijan (formerly ‘Untouchable’) community wore rainbow-woven bodices, heavy silver neck rings and headdresses spangled with mirrors, a young man regaled us with folk songs and water drumming while we admired his cousin’s wonderful embroidery. After I enthused about their mudwork furniture and wall mouldings, they took us to a neighbouring Muslim village to see more traditional round houses with fairy-tale interiors. I watched the ninth generation in a line of master block-printers, whose former home had been levelled by the quake, make some of the most gorgeous textiles I’ve ever seen. At Zora village, a blind music teacher sold me a string of copper bells made by his brother; and at nearby Nirona, we were taken through the elaborate process by which lacquer colours are applied to turned-wood objects, creating beautiful striped glazes.

Best of all, I got to hang out in some extraordinary places. Through Mr Khatri, I could chat to the craft workers and their families, and they could quiz me about my strange life. When you’re confronted by people wearing such arresting costumes, it’s easy to see no further than the surface exoticism. But here, buying work direct from the producers, you learn a lot about people’s lives. And, not least, it’s a fantastic way to do your Christmas shopping.

Head over heels

With Bhuj a couple of hours’ drive away, we’d been invited to overnight at a couple of villages, but had decided instead to press on to Than monastery. I’d first read about this mystical Hindu site in an old colonial-era memoir, which talked of monks, or pirs, in ochre-coloured tunics, wearing ‘rhinoceros-horn whistles’ and ‘agate earrings, which distort their ears grotesquely’. ‘Wayfarers,’ Professor Rushbrook-Williams went on to claim, ‘can find food and shelter within.’

As it turns out, the professor was absolutely right, which is just as well, because Than is buried deep in the north of Kutch near the Rann, a long ride away from any hotel. It was here, on top of a majestic Mount Dhinodar, that the sage Dharamanath, founder of a tantric order of yogis known as the Kanphatas (‘Split Ears’), is said to have performed a 12-year penance, standing on the crown of his head. The Maharaos later endowed the monastery with a set of walls (to keep out marauding Sindi pirates), and it was a relief to see that these, and the domed shrines and finely arched yoga cells inside them, had survived the 2001 earthquake.

Only one Kanphata yogi remains in residence but, explained the caretaker – the septegenarian Mr Ganga-Bad – he was on walkabout. We were, however, welcome to eat with him and the rest of the staff if we wanted, and sleep on the roof of the monastery. And that, after a splendid vegetarian thali eaten cross-legged on the floor with the woodcutter, cowman and odd-job-wallah, followed by a fine night’s sleep under the stars, was how I came to awake in a kind of timeless Indian paradise. At sunrise, with the first rays lighting up the monastery shrine, I rose to watch wild peacocks gathering on the adjacent rooftops, while sandalwood smoke and devotional music drifted across the walled courtyards.

From Than, you can walk up a rocky ravine via an ancient pilgrims’ trail to the mountaintop, where Dharamanath performed his yoga marathon. It’s now the site of a neatly painted little temple, home to a single Kanphata yogi, Hiranath Baba, and his acolytes. Appropriately enough, they were pulling headstands when we arrived, but broke off to brew a kettle of hot, sweet tea for us. With dreadlocks down to his heels, and thick agate earrings that did, indeed, disfigure his ears grotesquely, the Baba was every inch the genuine article. Kanphatas practise intense yoga and other austerities in pursuit of magical powers, and villagers from all over Kutch file up here to revere the yogi and leave an offering at his door.

Before beginning the descent, we paused to admire the magnificent 360-degree view that extends from the temple terrace over Kutch and the Great Rann to the north. Staring across that eerie, crystalline expanse into the haze hiding Pakistan, it is easy to feel like you’ve left the modern world behind, and reassuring to find a corner of the subcontinent that remains un-impressed by modern ways; where tradition still thrives in spite of considerable adversity. Whether it will continue to do so in the wake of the 2001 quake – since when tourist numbers and all-important handicraft sales have fallen off to virtually nothing – is uncertain. But at least, as a visitor, you know your presence here is – for once – increasing its chances of survival rather than the other way around.

But the crowning moment of my travels occurred near the ruins of the 6,000-year-old Harappan city at Dholavira, in the remote north-east of Kutch. To reach the site, you have to cross a ten-kilometre causeway. I got benighted and, as usual, was offered a bed – a string charpoy in a farmer’s courtyard. His wife cooked me a delicious supper of khejri rice, hot ghee, millet chapatis and milk, still warm from the goat; and as I lay there afterwards, staring at the Milky Way, while Mr and Mrs Dan listened to the BBC World Service in Hindi on their crackly radio, it seemed inconceivable that I’d be boarding a train back to Mumbai the next day – indeed, that such a thing was even possible.

When to go:

The relatively cool winter period, between late November and early February, is the best time to visit, although even then expect highs of around 28-30°C. The heat really hits in March and lasts until the onset of the monsoon in June.

Health and safety:

Malaria is rife during the end of the monsoons (August-September), and water-borne diseases such as hepatitis and dysentery are present, but you should be able to avoid these by being careful about what you eat and drink. Be sure to check for recent updates before you travel. Dress conservatively, especially out in the villages.