21 June 2017
Secrets of Gujarat
by Annie Owen
Gujarat. Morning. The pale sun rises silently casting a soft light across the vast, flat, dun coloured landscape all around me. I hear not a sound as I gaze over the hand painted mud and wattle wall and three white cranes flap lazily above and past me against the clear blue sky.
A puff of dust in the distance gradually becomes recognisable as a turbanned man in dusty white dhoti, cycling from his distant village towards the road. The temperature climbs steadily as another day begins in Kutch.
Gujarat, India’s westernmost state, never fails to intrigue and fascinate me. The Northern region of Kutch is a blond desert landscape of seasonal wetlands and bone dry desert in which lie around 950 villages populated by communities and tribes used to the harsh, dramatic climate.
Further south lies a more verdant landscape dotted with historic Rajput Palaces and countless sacred sites. This is the state into which Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born and in which he changed the course of Indian history with the famous salt march to the sea at Dandi.
Inland, to the west, lies the wildlife sanctuary attracting countless birds and the last of the Wild Ass population.
And then there is the sun temple in Modhera, the stepwell in Pathan and the city of Ahmedabad, where Gandhi lived in later life at the Sabarmati Ashram; home now too to the world famous Calico Textile Museum.
I have been visiting the Rann of Kutch since 2003. The road out of Bhuj heads due north straight towards the border with Pakistan. Countless birds fly up as I pass, and the sun bakes the pale flat sandy landscape where the odd camel wanders along a meandering dusty path.
Suddenly, a throaty roar breaks the peace and a three wheeler motorbike cum truck races past, its driver’s colourful headscarf flapping wildly as he passes... and then he is gone, on to the border town of Khavda, and there are just some bullocks blinking lugubriously as they bathe in the shallow muddy roadside water.
Dramatic though the desert undoubtedly is, for me the real drama has always been the desert people. The crafts and embroideries of these tribal groups is stunning, never more so than when seen in the context of their desert homes. Each embroidery style is a statement of tribal identity and pride. Three young girls run past me through the sand, their embroidered kajari (blouses) glittering beautifully in the sunlight.
Mirrorwork and dust; red threads and pink. They disappear, giggling, into their mud and thatch homes and the moment has passed, but the memory stays. In another village, I step around two cows, past a woman carrying a brass pot on her head, and step into the shadowy workshop of the village bell maker.
I hear the rhythmic beating of his hammer on metal long before I reach him. His son and brother stoke the fire and together they produce bells of all sizes, whose sonorous sounds will always remind me of the cattle at dusk, wandering back home as the sun sets across the desert.
Back in my village resort, after a vegetarian dinner of freshly cooked Gujarati food, I wrap a finely woven cotton shawl, bought from a local spinner and weaver, around my shoulders as I lie back on a village quilt covered charpuoy by the fire, whilst the local musicians play their instruments long into the night.
If I am lucky, the resort staff will get up and dance as the embers fade beneath the stars in the desert sky. Tomorrow, I will head south. Much further south, after a night or two in an historic Rajput Palace hotel in Gondal, I am in a favourite homestay in rural Palitana.
This fertile agricultural landscape lies around the foot of Shatrunjaya Hill, sacred to the Jain community. There are 3200 steps up to the top of the hill where 863 Jain shrines are tended by priests.
No person is allowed to stay up there overnight, so as I begin my steady climb at sunrise, I am overtaken by white-clad Jain nuns chanting and counting their rosaries as they bound lightfootedly up to the shrines.
The less able pilgrims take dholi, comprising a plastic chair lashed to bamboo poles carried by two men, also somehow able to run past me at speed. It is worth it; every step. Breathtaking in more ways than one, I wander amongst the shrines in an atmosphere of calm and focussed faith.
This is a very special place indeed.
As I, somewhat reluctantly, begin my descent back down I see Gujarat laid out before me and, not so very far away, the homestay, and its verandah where I plan to relax for the rest of the day.
I spend time in the Little Rann of Kutch, unable to believe the number and variety of birds that I see, before driving northwest to the city of Ahmedabad. It is an eventful journey.
Driving to the beautiful 11th century sun temple in Modhera I pass a group of nomadic Rabhari tribespeople, dressed in black and carrying their belongings on their camels; charpuoys, pots and pans, children, goats, all piled up together.
I pause in Pathan to visit the unique Patola weaving museum and the stunning 11th century Rani ki Vav stepwell there before heading into Ahmedabad city.
I revisit the Calico Textile Museum and squeeze in a visit to a man hand drawing beautiful kalamkadi shrine cloths of simple beauty and devotion.
I pass by the Le Cobusier designed Mill Owners' Association Building, and grasp, not for the first time, as my head spins with pleasure, that all I can do is count the days before I can return to this most extraordinarily varied, exciting and fascinating of Indian states.
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