Colours of Kutch

A vast saline wilderness that is home to ancient tribes-that's Rann of Kutch in a nutshell. Zoom in and you will see that the vibrant colours of the country's only salt desert come from the clothes its people wear and embroider, their circular huts, known as bhungas, decorated with paintings and beautiful mirrorwork, as well as their food (ask for a Kutchi thali and you will find all colours of the rainbow on your plate). So any journey to Kutch, more specifically the Rann, is incomplete without a dekko into the world of these tribesmen. A handicrafts trail is a good way of doing that.

Kutch's rich handicraft traditions thrive in the Banni grasslands, which lie to the north and northwest of Bhuj, the district headquarters. This huge expanse of grass and scrublands, bordering the Great Rann, is home to Hindu pastoral groups like Rabaris and Ahirs, Muslim pastoral groups like Jaths and Muthwas, and migrants from Sind like Sodha Rajputs and Meghwal Harijans. Each of these communities has its own distinct styles, stitches and patterns of embroidery. Since the Banni grasslands are also a paradise for birdwatchers, my wife and I were excited about exploring this part of Kutch.

Starting out from Bhuj, a town that has, quite literally, risen from the rubble after the killer earthquake of 2001, we drove to Rudramata Dam and reached Kutch Safari Lodge just in time to witness the sunset. We met Judy Frater here, an American museologist who currently heads an NGO called Kala Raksha. The organisation promotes the artisans of Kutch. She engaged us in a conversation about the distinct styles of embroidery in Kutch.

"Suf is a painstaking embroidery focused on the triangle. Sodha Rajputs and Meghwals fill symmetrical patterns with tiny triangles called 'sufs', and accent stitches. Khaarek, on the other hand, is a geometric style that fills the entire fabric. Another type is Paako, a tight square chain and double buttonhole stitch. To see the extensive use of mirrors, pick up embroidery of Hindu pastoral groups, like the Rabari and the Ahir. Women of the Islamic community of Jaths make an array of geometric patterns in cross stitch. The embroidery of the Mutavas, also Muslim herders, are renditions of local styles in a method that is also geometric."

Next morning, we stopped at Sumrasar and Bhirendiara villages before reaching Hodka, which is home to several communities, including Meghwal Harijans and Muslim pastoralists like the Halepotra. We entered one of the hamlets inhabited by the Harijans. In one of the houses, two young women were embroidering their own trousseau. As we stood watching, a villager approached us, asking if we would like to see more. Thereafter, we stopped at his house and admired leather embroidery on bags, fans, horse belts, cushion covers and mirror frames.

Next on the itinerary was Khavda where, besides embroidery, we also saw samples of block printing. We even came across potters making terracotta products, which the women paint using cotton rags and brushes made from bamboo leaves. Around Khavda are a number of villages that specialise in different crafts, including camel and goat hair weaving.

Next morning, we headed west to Moti Virani near Nakhatrana for birdwatching. We stayed at the guesthouse of The Centre of Desert and Ocean. The owner, Jugal Tiwari, a passionate birdwatcher, arranged a vehicle for our cross-country drive to Chhari Dand, a freshwater lake in the Banni grasslands.

The drive through the grasslands gave us a chance to spot the imperial eagle, greater spotted eagle, tawny eagle, white-eyed buzzard, red-headed falcon and laggar falcon. At the wetlands, we spotted the flamingo, pelican, ibis and spoonbill. In the distance we saw large rafts of ducks swimming close to the shore. A trio of friendly fishermen invited us for an impromptu lunch meeting over fish, cooked with garlic, chilly and salt, and millet rotis. It was indeed the kind of ending we had dreamt of.

A vast saline wilderness that is home to ancient tribes--that's Rann of Kutch in a nutshell. Zoom in and you will see that the vibrant colours of the country's only salt desert come from the clothes its people wear and embroider, their circular huts, known as bhungas, decorated with paintings and beautiful mirrorwork, as well as their food (ask for a Kutchi thali and you will find all colours of the rainbow on your plate). So any journey to Kutch, more specifically the Rann, is incomplete without a dekko into the world of these tribesmen. A handicrafts trail is a good way of doing that.

Kutch's rich handicraft traditions thrive in the Banni grasslands, which lie to the north and northwest of Bhuj, the district headquarters. This huge expanse of grass and scrublands, bordering the Great Rann, is home to Hindu pastoral groups like Rabaris and Ahirs, Muslim pastoral groups like Jaths and Muthwas, and migrants from Sind like Sodha Rajputs and Meghwal Harijans. Each of these communities has its own distinct styles, stitches and patterns of embroidery. Since the Banni grasslands are also a paradise for birdwatchers, my wife and I were excited about exploring this part of Kutch.

Starting out from Bhuj, a town that has, quite literally, risen from the rubble after the killer earthquake of 2001, we drove to Rudramata Dam and reached Kutch Safari Lodge just in time to witness the sunset. We met Judy Frater here, an American museologist who currently heads an NGO called Kala Raksha. The organisation promotes the artisans of Kutch. She engaged us in a conversation about the distinct styles of embroidery in Kutch.

"Suf is a painstaking embroidery focused on the triangle. Sodha Rajputs and Meghwals fill symmetrical patterns with tiny triangles called 'sufs', and accent stitches. Khaarek, on the other hand, is a geometric style that fills the entire fabric. Another type is Paako, a tight square chain and double buttonhole stitch. To see the extensive use of mirrors, pick up embroidery of Hindu pastoral groups, like the Rabari and the Ahir. Women of the Islamic community of Jaths make an array of geometric patterns in cross stitch. The embroidery of the Mutavas, also Muslim herders, are renditions of local styles in a method that is also geometric."

Next morning, we stopped at Sumrasar and Bhirendiara villages before reaching Hodka, which is home to several communities, including Meghwal Harijans and Muslim pastoralists like the Halepotra. We entered one of the hamlets inhabited by the Harijans. In one of the houses, two young women were embroidering their own trousseau. As we stood watching, a villager approached us, asking if we would like to see more. Thereafter, we stopped at his house and admired leather embroidery on bags, fans, horse belts, cushion covers and mirror frames.

Next on the itinerary was Khavda where, besides embroidery, we also saw samples of block printing. We even came across potters making terracotta products, which the women paint using cotton rags and brushes made from bamboo leaves. Around Khavda are a number of villages that specialise in different crafts, including camel and goat hair weaving.

Next morning, we headed west to Moti Virani near Nakhatrana for birdwatching. We stayed at the guesthouse of The Centre of Desert and Ocean. The owner, Jugal Tiwari, a passionate birdwatcher, arranged a vehicle for our cross-country drive to Chhari Dand, a freshwater lake in the Banni grasslands.

The drive through the grasslands gave us a chance to spot the imperial eagle, greater spotted eagle, tawny eagle, white-eyed buzzard, red-headed falcon and laggar falcon.

At the wetlands, we spotted the flamingo, pelican, ibis and spoonbill. In the distance we saw large rafts of ducks swimming close to the shore. A trio of friendly fishermen invited us for an impromptu lunch meeting over fish, cooked with garlic, chilly and salt, and millet rotis. It was indeed the kind of ending we had dreamt of.

Good to know

Rann Utsav: the best time to experience a moonlit night in the salt desert is during Rann Utsav held in December-January. This festival gives you a chance to explore Kutch through special tours and cultural programmes.

The highlight is the camel cart safari that takes you into the sun-burnt plains from the tented village built for the Utsav. The sight of the white desert bathed in the light of the full moon will stay with you long after you have gone back. The festival is from December 9 to January 15, 2012.

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