Kutch me if you can
The Rann Utsav, an initiative of Gujarat Tourism, is being held at the remote village of Dhordo in Kutch district. Pravin Mahida brings you a glimpse of the sights and sounds that the festival has to offer
'Kutch nahin dekha toh kuchh nahin dekha', reads a slogan on one of the tourist buses parked outside Bhuj railway station. And a trip to the fascinating desert destination proves as much.
Dhordo, a small village nestled 85 km from the Bhuj station in Gujarat, is hosting the 40-day long Rann Utsav, which was flagged off on December 9 and will conclude on January 15. The festival, which is an initiative of the Gujarat Tourism -- the state's tourism department -- presents tourists from lands far and wide a rare opportunity to experience the true essence of the Kutch at its colourful and exotic best -- undisturbed desert terrain, the mesmerising sea waters, camel safaris, indigenous music and dance forms, and delectable local specialties.
The Tent City
To make things smooth-sailing for tourists, the tourism corporation is offering the Rann Utsav Tour Package, for two nights and three days. The package includes trips to captivating destinations in Bhuj, like Dhordo, Hodko, Bhirandiyara and Khavda village, the Indo-Pak Border and Mandvi Beach.
The first glimpse of the festival grounds at Dhordo is breathtaking: rows of tents sprawl over 90 acres of land, forming the Tent City. The 400 tents are arranged picturesquely, some of them air-conditioned. With differently hued flags fluttering in the air and red and green carpets cushioning your feet, the location is truly resplendent.
"Around 15 bhungas, traditional egg-shaped mud huts, are being erected for tourists at Dhordo by the Gujarat government, with two star and three star amenities, on a permanent basis," said Kamlesh Patel, chairman, Gujarat Tourism Corporation. "The festival is being sponsored by several Kutch industrialists. Around 75 per cent of the tents have already been booked. We started this utsav on a no-profit-no-loss basis. But I think the Gujarat government will be earning some revenues."
"The utsav was first held for three days in 2009. It was such a success that we extended it to 26 days in 2010. This year, we decided to conduct it for 40 days. The popularity of the festival has surpassed our expectations. We will be organising the festival every year. The feedback is overwhelming," he added.
When asked why Dhordo was selected as the backdrop for the utsav, an official at the tent city said, "Dhordo is the last village of Gujarat, located around 585 km from the Indo-Pak border. Besides, it is situated in the heart of the white desert, a saltpan spreading for miles, which is the main attraction of Kutch tourism. The economy of the region has boomed ever since it became a tourist hub. The local families have a regular source of income."
Tejas Shah from Ahmedabad, who was visiting with his family, said, "The arrangements are excellent. The staff is attentive and everything is well-organised. A commendable effort has been made by the government." Deepak Modi, who is visiting with his five-member family, said, "The food is sumptuous and the staff is professional. It is impossible to bring so many people to a place that is so far removed from the city, but the Gujarat tourism corporation has made it possible."
'Hum Kachhi Madu
Kariyu Kachhi Boli
Sindhi Nathi Boli Jana
The strains of the local folk song wafted in the air, as two Katchis regaled the visitors with their rustic tunes. Their enthralling melody was accompanied by a twin-flute. This is the magical world of Dhordo.
The primary attraction is the white desert, a saltpan. Bhirandiyara village, located some 80 km from the tent city, is a must-see for art lovers. A hub of indigenous arts and crafts, you can visit the village and purchase curios directly from the artisans, or simply watch the locals create magic with their hands.
You must also make a stop at Hodko village, and put up in a resort with tents and traditional bhungas.
The tent city by night is hypnotic. Local performers, resplendent in their tradition Katchi attire, perform different cultural art forms, regaling you with their rustic tunes or energising you with enthusiastic dance moves.
The package also promises a visit to the 72 awe-inspiring jinalayas holy to the Jains, the palace of Maharao Vijay Singhji, ruler of the Kutch in the 1940s, and the Shyamji Krishna Varma Memorial which houses relics from the life of the well-known freedom fighter. One of the most attractive locations is the Prag Mahal, which was home to King Pragmalji in the 1860s. Designed by Colonel Henry Saint Wilkins in the Italian Gothic style, it is situated in the heart of Bhuj. Don't forget to walk over to the adjacent Aina Mahal palace, built during the rule of Maharao Lakhpatji in the middle of the 18th century, and recently converted into a museum.
Dhordo on the road to development
Dhordo is located 84 km from Bhuj, and is one of the 22 villages, which is home to the Bannis -- a community of Gujaratis whose mainstay is cattle breeding, and trading in ghee, milk and wool.
The Rann Utsav has put the small village on the international map. Mia Hussain Gulbeg (inset), the sarpanch of Dhordo, spoke with pride of his home: "Thanks to the festival, our village has developed rapidly. There aren't any power cuts. Our local culture is gaining recognition. We supply 10,000 litres of milk every day to the National Dairy Development Corporation at good rates. A newly constructed lake ensures that we don't run out of water, even if it doesn't rain for two years. We have a solar-modulated ATM. A committee has been formed and has been working under the Collector. Rs 4 lakh worth of profits have been accumulated by us, thanks to the publicity generated by the festival. Our village is being developed in leaps and bounds.
The light of literacy has also illumined the village. "Earlier, there was no access to education, and I am illiterate. Today, my daughter has just passed the SSC exam with flying colours. She is good at the computer and helps me with my work. There are seven computers in our village. We will be getting a wi-fi connection soon. Also, Agrocel Industries Ltd has employed 150 people from four of the Banni villages. Each earns around Rs 10,000 per month," says Gulbeg.