Rann of Kutch

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United under the desert moon

Once a year the Rann of Kutch becomes a meeting place for people from all over the world

Beauty in the barrenness. Once a year the Rann of Kutch, an inhospitable marshland desert in the west of India, comes to life for a few months and becomes a magnet for people from all over the world.

Fragments of music drift through the cool night air, the reflection of colourful lights can be seen in the firmament, but the Rann of Kutch seems almost untouched by this. It stretches out seemingly endlessly in the darkness of the night. The sounds of the visitors, travelling from all parts of India and the world, are swallowed by the sandy ground. Anyone standing here in the middle of the nocturnal salt desert feels in communion with others and yet strangely alone. Not an unpleasant feeling, but almost meditatively spiritual. When the full moon rises brightly, it opens up a natural spectacle that casts a spell on tourists and locals alike: it transforms the salty desert floor of the Rann of Kutch into a sea of glittering stars…

The Rann of Kutch is the largest marshland salt desert in the world covering 7,500 km2. From October to February the area dries out completely and becomes an inhospitable desert landscape, which bursts crystal white into bloom from the salt. Originally the Rann of Kutch was a bay of the shallow Arabian Sea. When the seabed lifted, the bay was cut off from the sea and a huge Salt Lake was created, which was still navigable in ancient times. Over the course of time the lake turned into a salt marsh. This is regularly flooded by up to 50 centimetres during the short rainy season from July to September. Only a few sandy, salt-free places then rise two to three meters above the water surface. When the water retreats, it leaves behind only a salt-covered landscape.

The salt cannot be used for processing into table salt, the ground itself does not offer any possibilities for agricultural use due to the climatic conditions. As a result, the Rann of Kutch is largely uninhabited. The Gujarati, the people of the region, live in harmony with this often-ruthless open space and contrast it with colourful clothing and brightly painted houses. For centuries, they have earned their meagre livelihood through cattle breeding and elaborate handicrafts. Many original traditions and customs have been largely preserved here, and on the initiative of the government of Gurajat State, tourism has been promoted in the region for several years as an additional source of income. Today, up to 200,000 tourists come to the border region with Pakistan every year to experience the magic of the White Rann, the desert landscape bathed in salt. From November to March the desert comes to life. The bright white triangles of the tented villages rise in front of the bright blue sky and for a few days become the home of local and international guests. One of them is Sanjay, who has travelled here with his family from Bopal in central India. The family father is conscious of tradition: "Why should I travel abroad when my home country has so many wonderful places to visit?" Together with his mother, aunt, wife and two children, he came to Dhordo to experience the famous magic of the moonlit desert in the Tent City. Colourful pennants and flags bounce in front of the white tents – luxuriously equipped with beds, air conditioning and showers. The guests should be short of nothing here in the middle of the desert. When the sun then slowly sets, artificial lights bathe the Tent City in bright colours. A group of local dancers is getting ready on the stage. To the sound of sitar, bansuri and tabla, classical Indian instruments, the young women, dressed in colourful traditional costumes, show off their skills.

Colours traditionally play an important role in the life of the Gujarati. Whether in clothing, carpets, pillows and blankets and even the exterior design of the mud houses – the people use bright colours to set vibrant accents against the improvident desert landscape. Red dominates, it stands for wealth and happiness. The same applies to the small mirrors that are artistically sewn onto fabrics or inlaid in craftwork items and facades. When they dance, the light is refracted in the women's saris decorated with mirrors. Applause rings out for the young women. The presenter of the evening entertainment programme announces the highlight of the day: the nightly visit to the desert under a full moon. In the open-top double-decker bus we head for the desert. On the way, the buses of other tourist groups form a line. The salt desert itself may only be entered with permission and at set times. After all, in the past the largely uninhabitable salt marsh was the subject of a territorial dispute between the hostile neighbouring states of India and Pakistan. Pakistan insisted on drawing the border in the middle of the lake that exists during the rainy season, roughly along the 24th parallel. In the case of boundary waters, international law usually defines the middle of the water as the border line. India, on the other hand, insisted on the historical border of the former princely state of Kachchh. In 1965, fighting broke out over the Rann von Kachchh in the run-up to the Second Indo-Pakistani War. In 1968 it was finally agreed to divide the region. 10 per cent was allocated to Pakistan, 90 per cent remained with India.

In the desert there is no longer any trace of the historical significance. The landscape that rises from the darkness seems too sublime. The salt, illuminated by the full moon, is turned into countless blinking stars. It shines white in the night sky. Here and there the flash of a mobile phone camera illuminates the scene. Families, young couples, groups of friends – they all succumb to the magic of the Rann of Kutch at this moment when the full moon rises from behind the cloud and transforms the desert into a glittering, fairytale landscape. "When the salt sparkles in the moonlight, the desert is the most beautiful place in the world," says Vraj Khatri, who comes to Gujarat as a tourist guide during the winter months. "People from different cultural, religious and economic backgrounds come together here to share this unique experience". Perhaps this is the real magic of the Rann of Kutch.

Mirrored luck

The handicraft and craftsmanship of the Gujarati

Colourful fabrics, artistic embroidery and elaborate weaving techniques – the design of fabrics and handicrafts has a tradition in India that is just as long and complex as the famous carving and marquetry.

Bent over very low, the old lady sits over her handiwork. With skilful fingers she sews small mirrors onto a colourful cotton fabric. In the end, a large bedspread will be made on it, which the tourists can later buy at one of the handicraft stalls in the Tent City of the Rann of Kutch.

In places where handicraft still really means work done by hand, the women sit together and do their work. They string coloured fabric squares together, decorate them with elaborate embroidery and iridescent mirror applications. Dexterity is required, as well as a trained eye and a steady hand. The young women learn the traditional techniques from an early age. What used to be mainly used to decorate the family and the home, now offers women a chance to earn money. Because the flourishing tourism surrounding the Rann of Kutch brings local and international visitors to the area. Handicraft is an integral part of the life of the people here. The diversity of Gujarat is reflected in the wealth of arts and crafts. Each individual district specialises in a different art form. The handicraft in Gujarat is a mixture of stitching, colours, patterns and embroidery. The handicraft styles vary depending on the region and the style of clothing.

The traditional Banni or Heer-Bharat embroidery is typical for the Gujarat and is mainly practiced by the Lohana community. These embroideries are made with silk thread and are famous for their vividness and the richness of colours and design patterns, including the mirrored shisha work. On sarees, the traditional wrap dress worn by women, on pillows, blankets, shoes, handbags and jewellery – the small mirrors are supposed to bring luck and therefore cannot be applied lavishly enough.

Mirror work also plays an important role for the Gujarati in the design of the home and yard. Typical for the Rann of Kutch are the so-called Bhunga houses, round huts made of clay, which are decorated with different things inside and outside. Delicate wall paintings in strong colours and mirror applications testify to the wealth of the house owners and are therefore regularly repaired and extended. This is also traditionally the task of the women, who mix their building materials from natural ingredients.

Carvings, for which the Gujarati are also known outside the region, are however firmly in male hands. Like the women's handicrafts, the artists here base their work mainly on geometric shapes and repeat patterns, which are carved into the wood with small chisels. Traditional skills are now being used to create products for today's world, which provides convincing evidence that natural and handmade products are adaptable over time. And this tradition is still relevant in current times.

The cradle of the Indus

Archaeological meeting place on the edge of nowhere

The landscape is sparse and stretches away from the small village of Dholavira in the West Indian state of Gujarat. Here and there are some small trees and bushes, beyond that only dry land. Heat and sunshine have shaped the land. An inhospitable place to live and yet the capital of a long-lost culture: about 4500 years ago, Kotada timba, one of the largest cities of its time and cradle of the Harappans culture, stood here.

For around 1200 years, from about 2650 to 1450 BC, the ancient mega-city was inhabited before it disappeared in the sands of time. The remains of the settlement were discovered at the end of the 1960s and have been partially excavated in several campaigns since the 1990s. Today it is an archaeological meeting place that attracts mainly local tourists. Jamal Bhai R Makhwana has been in Dholavira since the beginning of the excavation work over 25 years ago, first as a translator for the international archaeological teams, today as a kind of caretaker. He has learned a lot during this time, both about archaeology, but even more for the people. "Every stone here speaks to me," the 52-year-old is convinced. He feels connected to the place and its rediscovered history in a special way. His knowledge he therefore gladly passes on to the visitors who visit the excavation site and the small adjacent museum.

Here, shards of pottery, jewellery, clothing and weapons are displayed in glass showcases and tell of one of the greatest early civilisations. The Bronze Age Indus or Harappa culture was one of the earliest urban civilisations along the Indus in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent. In total, it covered 1,250,000 km² and thus a larger land area than ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia combined. In its heyday, the Indus culture probably numbered more than five million people, about 14 to 15000 of whom lived in Dholavira at its height.

To make this at all possible in the barren landscape, the early humans created an extensive and sophisticated irrigation structure for their city. Underground cisterns, cooling basins carved into the rock, channels above and below ground and the damming of two nearby small streams ensured that the city was able to successfully hold its own against the desert over the centuries. Dholavira was a strategically important trading point for the Indus culture and possessed rich mineral resources.

"Earth and water shaped mankind then and still does so. What the ground gives them is the basis for everything," says Jamal Bhai R Makhwana, as his gaze glides across the roughly 20-hectare site. The family father also tries to convey this eternal cycle to the tourists who come to the Gurajat, especially at the time of the White Rann. Like Devisigh Susai, who travelled with his whole family from Bhuj, 250 kilometres away, to Dholavira. "I also build water systems, so I wanted to show the excavation site to my relatives. It is a special and instructive place that reveals a lot of knowledge about old traditions," says the young man. In the middle of the ruins the group settles down for a picnic, the children play, whilst the adults listen to stories told by Jamal Bhai R Makhwana.

Inspiration Rann of Kutch

One Ground for your home

The sunset over the Indian Rann of Kutch salt desert and the folkloric craftsmanship of the Gujarati people forms the template for the vinyl flooring in flattering shades of violet with restrained ornamentation.

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