The White Rann and the Black Hills

IT WAS ONLY WHEN WE left our accommodation at Dholavira and headed east onto the causeway which connects Khadir Bet to the rest of Kutch (part of Gujarat) that we saw a truly white part of the White Rann (desert). Until then, we had seen small patches of salt crystallising on the surface of what had once been the seabed, an inlet of the Arabian Sea, before seismic activity rendered the sea into a desert.

As we drove across the causeway, we passed larges patches of what looks like freshly fallen snow. This is the salt that has crystallized after the evaporation of rain, which has fallen on the salt laden terrain. The layer of salt looked to be at least an inch or two deep. What we saw is what gives the White Rann its name. It is a truly white desert. We were also fortunate to spot three flamingos searching in a pool of water that had not yet evaporated. They were silhouetted against the morning sunshine.

After crossing the causeway, we drove for several hours towards the outskirts of Bhuj. We stopped for refreshments at Rapar, which looks like an Indian version of a small town in an American cowboy film. A woman in colourful traditional garb disembarked from a motor scooter on which she had been travelling with her husband and son. A cow wandered past her before she crossed the road with her son. A stray dog took a great interest in various used packages I threw in a bin, and then ran off.

At another stop, I drank tea from a saucer as the locals do. By pouring the tea into a saucer, the surface area of the liquid increases and the drink cools quicker than if it is in a cup.

At Bhuj, we headed north on a road that eventually ends abruptly at India’s border with Pakistan. At first, we drove across part of the Great Rann of Kutch. This is a very flat sandy area with sparse scrubby vegetation but no trees. We passed herds of buffaloes grazing in this arid area. Unlike the White Rann, the Great Rann is mostly sand coloured although I did spot occasional salty patches that looked like very light ground frost. The Great Rann is classed as a desert but it is home to a few industrial plants.

Somewhere along the long straight road crossing the Great Rann heading northwards, we passed a sign indicating we had crossed the Tropic of Cancer.

At the tiny village of Bhirindiyara, famed for its fine mawa. This is milk boiled slowly for about four hours and then mixed with sugar. It is a sweet paste faintly resembling vanilla fudge or caramel…delicious but probably not too healthy!

We left the main road leading towards Pakistan and began climbing towards the Black Hills of Kutch. We reached a sign that announced that we had arrived at the “Magnetic Field Area”. Our driver explained that here thrre is a magnetic field strong enough to drag a car. To demonstrate this, he turned off the engine, leaving the gear in neutral. Amazingly, our car began moving uphill without the engine.

We continued on our way into the Black Hills of Kutch, driving through a moonlike, rocky landscape. We drove up a series hairpin bends to Kala Dungar, the highest place in Kutch, 458 metres above the Rann.

The road between Bhuj and the side road to Kala Dungar is the main route to the largest part of the White Rann, where the annual White Rann Utsav (festival) is held in January and February. A huge tent encampment is set up on the salt covered desert and a fairground atmosphere reigns. The Utsav attracts many tourists, both Indian and foreign.

It is interesting to contrast the road from Bhuj to the Utsav with that from Bhuj to Dholavira. The former is highly developed for the large influx of tourists. Unlike many other roads in Gujarat, the one leading to the Utsav has many signs in English and is lined with resorts designed to appeal to visitors. In contrast, the road from Bhuj to Dholavira is like a route into the back of beyond. Apart from a few low-key tourist oriented enterprises near Dholavira, the road from Bhuj to Dholavira makes no concessions to attract tourists. Dholavira, unlike other parts of the White Rann, feels far away from the rest of the world and its few inducements to get tourists to part with money seem charmingly naive. However, in a year or two this is likely to change.

The change will follow the completion of a new road from Bhuj to Dholavira. Unlike the existing road that passes through Bhachau and Rapar, the new road will pass close to Kala Dungar and cross the great Lake of Kutch to Dholavirs on a new causeway. This will shorten the journey time between Bhuj and Dholavira from its present four and a half hours to about an hour and a half. The present remoteness of Dholavira, which is part of its charm, will be lost forever. The area will become much more easily accessible to tourists, and no doubt this will be beneficial for the prosperity of the locals. From a selfish point of view I am pleased that I visited Dholavira before the greater influx of visitors that will surely follow the completion of the new road.

We arrived at our hotel in the bazaar in the old city centre of Bhuj after sunset. After a couple of days in rustic Dholavira and several days in the countryside near Mandvi, the small city of Bhuj seemed to us to feel like a large metropolis.

HUMBLE BIRTHPLACE IN KUTCH

GUJARAT IS THE BIRTHPLACE of several great politicians of India: Mahatma Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel, Morarji Desai, and Narendra Modi, to name but a few. Kutch, which until soon after 1947 was an independent princely state, is now part of the State of Gujarat. It was the birthplace of an important, but now largely forgotten, ‘father’ of Indian Independence, Shyamji Krishnavarma (1857-1930).

The house in which Shyamji was born is the heart of the jumble of narrow streets in the old centre of Kutch Mandvi. Unlike the large house in Porbandar where Gandhi was born Shyamji’s birthplace is a very modest dwelling. Shyamji was the son of a poor man, who spent his working life struggling to make a living in Bombay.

We were shown around Shyamji’s birth house by Hriji Karani, who has not only founded a fine school in Mandvi but also instigated the creation of a monument to Shyamji at Kranthi Teerth.

The birthplace is now a museum, which is looked after by an elderly lady. In addition to caring fir the museum she helps her grandson and some of his friends with their schoolwork. Her grandson, aged only three, was able to speak a few words pf English as well as draw the Roman numerals on his slate.

The birthplace is devoid of household effects. Their pace is taken with exhibits, mainly photographs and paintings, relating to Shyamji’s fascinating life. Amongst the photos, there is one of the Middlesex Land Registry document relating to Shyamji’s purchase of a property in London’s Highgate, the building that was known as ‘India House’ between 1905 and 1910. This was the house where Shyamji and his ‘disciples’ including VD Savarkar plotted the downfall of the British in India. There was also a photograph of the block of flats in Geneva on which Shyamji spent the last few years of his life.

Shyamji and his wife died in Geneva. In his will, he had stipulated that his ashes were to remain in Switzerland and not to return to India until the land of his birth, India, became independent of the British.

Although India became independent, free of British domination, in 1947, it was not until 2003 that the ashes of Mr and Mrs Krishnavarma were brought to India. They were collected from Geneva by Narendra Modi, then the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and brought to India. I knew that from 2010, the black marble casks containing the ashes were put on display in a specially built pavilion at Kranthi Teerth, but I had no idea where they were kept before that.

Mr Karani showed us the small room in the birth house where the ashes were kept from 2003 until 2010. This little chamber, like the inner sanctum of a Hindu temple, now contains several photographs and a reproduction of an early flag designed for India by Shyamji’s feisty revolutionary colleague Madame Bhikaiji Cama and VD Savarkar during the brief existence of India House in north London.

A large oil painting depicts Shyamji with Henry Hyndman (1842- 1921), the British socialist whose anti-colonialist ideas strongly influenced Shyamji and his followers. Hyndman delivered a speech at the opening of India House in 1905. In the background of the painting there is a portrait of BG Tilak (1865-1929), one of the most revolutionary of the earliest members of the Indian National Congress and can well described as ‘the father of Indian independence’.
Like many other traditional houses I have visited in Kutch and Gujarat, the wooden staircase leading to the upper storey is incredibly steep, almost a ladder. The upper storey of Shyamji’s birthplace was a single room with more photographs and a tiny balcony that provides a view of backs of the houses on the street below.

Shyamji left Mandvi to study in Bhuj and then Bombay before setting off for England where he became a barrister in London and a world expert in Sanskrit based at Oxford. It is unlikely that he visited Mandvi much after beginning his impressive career. I have described the remarkable life of this son of Mandvi and esrly advocate of Indian independence in my book, “IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS”

Although I knew that Shyamji was born in Mandvi in a far from well off family, and I had already visited the town once before, seeing his actual birthplace, viewing its surroundings, and entering his childhood home helped me appreciate the ‘rags to riches’ aspect of his life.

IDEAS BOMBS AND BULLETS by Adam Yamey describes the life of Shyamji Krishnavarma and the centre for Indian freedom fighters that he created in North London. It is available from:


Lulu.com
Amazon
Bookdepository.com
Pothi.com (best place to purchase it if in India)
Kindle

Wood carving in Ahmedabad

POL

The old part of the city of Ahmedabad is divided into self-contained districts, like gated communities, called pols. Each pol has its own single gated entrance which gives sole access to a number of narrow streets. The narrow streets are lined by tall buildings, which together render the temperature of the pols at ground level far lower than the temperature in wider streets and open places in the city.

In times of trouble and strife, the gates of a pol can be closed to prevent intruders entering it. Secret passages lead from one pol to its neighbour(s). Pols have their own wells. 

Often a pol is inhabited by families that have something in common, for example religion, caste or profession.

One of the many delights of the pols in Ahmedabad (they are also found in Baroda) is that they often contain buildings decorated with intricately carved woodwwork decorative and stuctural features.

For tourists, a pol is not only a place that they can literally ‘chill out’ but also they can experience a valuable part of Ahmedabad’s living history.

A useful book

If you are planning to visit Ahmedabad or even if you live there, here is a really useful pocket sized book to get to know the city better.

Published in 2017, A Walking Tour. Ahmedabad is by M van Oostrum and G Bracken. Easy to follow walks take you through the history of Ahmedabad. If you do not wish to follow the walks, this is no problem because the book is well indexed. The book is illustrated with lovely delicate line drawings.

I bought my copy at the excellent bookshop at the Gandhi Ashram on the bank of the Sabarmati, where I was charged 595 Rupees. If you buy it in Europe or the USA, expect to pay far more!

I strongly recommend this book as a very readable and practical guide to the endlessly fascinating city of Ahmedabad.

ISBN 9789385360176

Published by Mapin in Ahmedabad