Kutch – The Trailer to Rajasthan's Main Feature

Jun 06, 2011

Visitors will find that what Rajasthan has in preserved Mughal monuments, Kutch more than makes up for in its transcendent natural beauty.

934 Camel Cart In Rann Of Kutch. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It’s raining in Bhuj in November – a meteorologically puzzling event in an area that is usually bone-dry this time of year. Chai-wallahs scatter with their wooden carts while sodden cows stop their grazing on edible detritus in rising floodwater the colour of muck. An American photographer, Todd Wilkinson, and I, have a rare appointment with the Maharaja of Kutch, His Royal Highness Maharajadhiraj Mirzan Maharao III, at 5pm. Only a little wet, we are weary from a long road trip, and ensconced in the darkened lobby, we wait for an escort who will take us to the Ranjit Vilas Palace. Despite the “brown-out” it’s a chance to prep camera, video and recording equipment. Todd, armed with two torches, spreads kilos of cables, flashes, microphones, tripods and lenses over two leather sofas.

If Rajasthan is the main feature film, then Kutch is the trailer for what India has to offer.

“Are you here to film a movie or for a fashion shoot?” asks one Indian onlooker enthusiastically. He has managed to squeeze past our cumbersome Pelican cases and settles at an awkward angle into what’s left of the available seating space. “We’re going to the Palace,” I respond, “to interview the Maharao Saheb about tourism in Kutch.”

“Tourism?” replies the onlooker sceptically. “There’s no tourism in Kutch.”

But we’ve been told differently. A decade after the devastating earthquake that hit the state of Gujarat, Kutch is slowly rebuilding itself. While the aftermath of the quake is still evident, and buildings everywhere, including the royal palace, still crumble dangerously in places, encouraging tourism is one of Kutch’s latest initiatives at growing the economy. Building a sustainable leisure industry is a long-time dream of the Maharajah, who believes Kutch, which borders Pakistan, is unparalleled in its natural beauty and heritage. Indeed Kutch has an epic history of biblical proportions. It has been fraught by natural disasters – famines, earthquakes, and invasions by ants, rats and locusts, plagues, raids by warlords and oppression by successive rulers. Yet, there is something delightful about the resilience of the people to just get on with it.

When we finally meet the Maharajah, he welcomes us like old friends, offers us Earl Grey tea, Italian coffee or any beverage other than carbonated drinks because he finds them foul. He regales us with stories of a time when camels roamed the manicured gardens. He patiently tells us the story of his grandfather, His Highness, the Maharao Kengarji, who shaped his views on life and who refused to ride on horseback as an Aide de Camp for Queen Victoria’s carriage because he felt it would demean his stature as a respected ruler.

I thought the Maharajah put the prospects for Kutch’s tourism aspirations best.

“We don’t pretend to be a better destination than any other place in India – the key is to know your strengths” says the Maharajah. “If Rajasthan is the main feature film, then Kutch is the trailer for what India has to offer.”

935 Map of Kutch.

370 bird species

A handful of resorts have sprung up offering the rising number of middle-income Indians and well-heeled foreign tourists five-star comforts and a reason to visit. Infinity Rann of Kutch, Shaam E Sarhad Rural Resorts and Rann Riders in Dasada, all report fairly robust patronage in the cooler winter months. Tourists come for the same desert safaris, camel rides, embroidery work and handicrafts offered by Rajasthan. But what its neighbour has in preserved Mughal monuments, Kutch more than makes up for in natural beauty.

Kutch is an annual route for thousands of migratory birds and supports around 370 bird species. While few destinations have attractions to draw yearly tourism such as the Taj Mahal in Agra or the Pyramids in Egypt, Kutch has the vast wide open spaces of the Great Rann and the Little Rann, vast salt flats that kiss the horizon and turn pink in the morning sun.

The majestic Greater Flamingo is a regular winter visitor, choosing the unique geography of the region to nest. But as with all things in nature, their arrival is difficult to predict with any accuracy. On our visit, the flamingos had all but disappeared. “There should be thousands of them here by now,” explains Dilip Khatau, chairman of Infinity Rann of Kutch.

The area is bursting with natural resources – limestone, lignite, bauxite, the list goes on.

Selling Kutch as a naturalist’s dream destination is not the only post-quake idea for development. In other efforts to draw interest, tax breaks for up to 20 years were given to develop local industry and to encourage investment in renewable energy projects like wind turbine farms, and minerals harvesting. And there’s plenty to mine. The area is bursting with natural resources – limestone, lignite, bauxite, the list goes on. Mega factories, the new palaces of the rich, have sprouted churning out everything from cement to salt. It is an image that jars with the transcendent landscape. The birdsong of Redshanks, Plovers, Wagtails and Warblers fill the air over languid salty marshlands, inked out against tangerine sunsets. Swathes of acacia and euphorbia fill the countryside as far as the eye can see, and where serenity is only occasionally broken by the tinkle of brass cowbells or the jangle of a ring of tarnished silver bells around a camel’s ankle.

And as for the flamingos, ironically it was on the last day of our trip after a six-hour drive to Dholavira – an archaeological dig site which formed part of the Indus Valley Civilisation in 2650BC in that we stumbled upon them – by accident. The visit to the site was a complete washout because of yet another downpour, we were not in complimentary mood about the slim pickings of architectural wonders in Kutch when we chanced upon the birds everyone was looking for. Against the backdrop of the unseasonal pouring rain, a flock of thousands waded in unison on the Little Rann beside a deserted highway, their unnatural acrylic pink beaks sifting through the shallows for krill and plankton. Two wobbly juveniles the colour of frothy cappuccino followed the adults. And no, there wasn’t a tourist in sight.