It’s time to get festive in the Indian state of Gujarat. Discover how best to enjoy the Rann Utsav festival and where to find Kutch’s other top travel experiences…
Kutch isn’t just the largest district in Gujarat. In fact, it’s also the largest to be found in India. Stretching from Rajasthan to the edge of Pakistan and the Arabian Sea it’s a district that’s as diverse as it is big.
The Great Rann of Kutch is perhaps the most well-known feature to travellers; a flat desert that fills with water in India’s monsoon season but that ebbs and evaporates away to leave salt-cracked plains that stretch far into the horizon. Stand on this expanse and you’ll soon be humbled by its immensity but take the time to explore and you’ll soon find there’s a colourful myriad of cultural hues to found beyond these stark white plains…
Rann Utsav is also known as the ‘White Desert Festival’; a unique opportunity for travellers to experience a taster of this region’s cultural flair. Kutch is renowned for its tribal communities - each with their own music, cultural dress and dance traditions – and so over a three-month period (November – February) the Tent City plays host to a series of folk music and dance performances that showcase and celebrate this rich cultural diversity.
Taking place upon the semi-parched grasslands of the Banni and beneath the winter moon, the festival is a flamboyant affair with colourful fairs and markets and the chance to also admire the craftmanship of local vendors. A stay overnight at one of the tents also makes for a good chance to venture out further to discover some of the other highlights in the region.
There are plenty of unique wildlife spotting opportunities to be found in Kutch. For example, a jeep excursion into the wilderness of the Rann can have you pay a visit to the Wild Ass Sanctuary. Locally known as 'Ghud Khar', these sturdy creatures were once common across north-western India, west Pakistan and south Iran but now are only to be found here.
Like the Indian Wild Ass, many of the animals in the Rann and wider district have adapted to survive in this unforgiving environment; this means many species which can be spotted here are not easily found elsewhere. A visit to the Narayan Sarovar Wildlife Sanctuary is home to some of them, such as the endangered chinkara; the only gazelle in the world with horns on both males and females.
Bird lovers won’t be disappointed either. During the rainy season the sandy islets of the Rann are a breeding ground for greater and lesser flamingos whilst Chhari Dhandh, situated near Fulay Village in Nakhtranan Taluka (around 80kms north-west of Bhuj) has around 370 bird species and is particularly rich in raptors, water birds, waders and larks.
Bhuj is the closest town to the Rann Utsav festival and also recognised as the principal hub in the Kutch region. Prag Mahal palace makes for a striking and somewhat unusual find as you explore; with a grand facade that takes inspiration from European architectural styles but also interspersed with intricate Indian elements and stonework. The Aina Mahal palace, or ‘Hall of Mirrors’, can also be found next door.
There are plenty of other cultural aspects to the city for those in the know to enjoy. Nearby, but relatively unknown amongst tourists, is the Ramkund Stepwell: a small square well which offers a moment of quiet from the hubbub of the streets; whilst the Royal Chhatardis make for a nice meander thanks to their ornate stonework.
The Kutch museum is also to be found in Bhuj, next to Harmirsar Lake. Not only is it the oldest museum to be found in Gujarat but also offers a fascinating insight to the history of tribal and folk traditions of the district, something that can still be seen to this day and experienced as you meet with local communities.
Top Travel Tip
Whilst enjoying Rann Ustav and the highlights of Bhuj be sure to also strike out for the ancient City of Dholavira.
Located on Khadir island in the Rann of Kutch, the ruins of this this archaeological site give evidence of a 5000-year old (Bronze Age) Indus Valley Civilisation that thrived in an unforgivingly arid environment.
The highly organised planning of the town and its sophisticated water and waste management systems has distinguished the historical site with UNESCO status.
If you tuck into local Gujarati fare, you’ll get a taste for India’s exotic flavours and exciting vegetarian cuisine. A traditional Thali Meal can be ordered at many restaurants and encompasses several different dishes served in small bowls, all served on a large platter.
With breads and sweet, sour and spicy chutneys, pickles, ghee and a chopped vegetable salad on the side, a Thali in Gujarati is all about offering variety and creating a balance of tastes, textures, heat and colour between each of the dishes. It can consist of a few steamed or fried farsans (snacks), a shaak (main course with vegetables and spices mixed together into a curry or a spicy dry dish), kathol (braised pulses like beans, chickpea or dry peas), yogurt dishes, raita or sweet shrikhand, rice or khichdi, daal and sweets like halwas and basundi.
As you travel, you’ll find many different varieties of Thali: the food of central Gujarat has a distinct sweetness to it, even in its hottest dishes; on the Kathiawad peninsula there is a preference to incorporate garlic, onions and chillies; whilst dairy products like curds are used in abundance in Kutch thanks to the region’s arid grassland and large population of livestock.
Top Travel Tip
Gujarati farsans (snacks) are a great ‘pick-me-up’ during your travels.
As you’re making your way through Kutch be sure to keep an eye out for dabeli; a popular street food snack that sees a sweet and spicy potato filling pressed between a burger bun with tangy chutneys on top and garnished with pomegranates and roasted nuts.
It’s said that this tasty treat originated in Mandvi, so a pitstop at this coastal city is the ideal opportunity to pick up a bun (or two) and to chow down as you gaze out across the Arabian Sea.
Fancy a walk with far sweeping views? 25kms north of Khavda lies the Black Hills of Kutch with Kalo Dungar its highest point. Climb to the top of this hill and you’ll soon understand the tremendous efforts that were needed to undertake a crossing of the Great Rann, with the desert horizon vanishing into the sky.
The hill is also the site of a 400-year-old temple to the Indian deity Dattatreya, which legend has it stopped here and fed a band of staving jackals with his body. In tribute to this, for the past four centuries, priests at the temple prepare a batch of prasad and feed this to the jackals after the evening Aarti (ritual). If you wish to visit, hiring a jeep from Khavda is your best option with some easy-going hikes to enjoy around the hill too.
The elaborate embroidery and distinctive design of Kutch’s handicrafts is something to behold. These can most readily be found in Bhuj in the shape of glamorously embroidered clothing and sprawling quilts, hand block printing, wood carvings and ornate jewellery. However, the town further makes a great base from which to explore some of the surrounding villages where you can meet these artisans in person, see them at work and buy crafts direct from them too. More widely, Gujarat has an immense variety of embroidery styles shaped by each region’s history and culture, with different stich combinations, patterns and colours (and the rules for using them) retaining a special meaning. Be sure to strike a conversation with these local creators to find out what the patterns on their wares may signify.
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