Kutch - an arid wasteland rich with culture and craft

April 1st, 2008 - 10:50 am ICT by admin  

A file-photo of National Geographic
By Azera Rahman
On the fringes of India’s border with Pakistan is the vast marshland called Kutch, a wasteland of breathtaking beauty that is home to a hardy, creative people who are not only rewriting rules of gender and hierarchy but have made it the region with the highest density of craftspeople anywhere in the country. Often called “Nature’s most hated child”, Kutch never fails to amaze visitors with its dried wells and arid beauty. A vast swathe of the 45,612 km district with 966 villages forms the Rann of Kutch, the great salt marsh.

Geological evidence cites that the Arabian Sea scooped out massive hollows of brine in the region that mingled with the arid topography to form intermittent salt flats that broadened inland into a shallow arid basin. It is said Kutch was once under water.

As one travels through Kutch, the dry grass and sparse crop of castor seeds and peanuts give way to the pristine white deserts of the Rann of Kutch.

Somewhere en route to the last village in the region, Kaladungar, which is nearly 120 km from the town called Bhuj, a strange sight captivates. The endless white desert that stretches into the horizon suddenly seems to melt into the sky to form a plain sheet.

“This sight baffles everyone. It’s amazing isn’t it? Pity, one cannot do full justice to it with cameras. The best of the best have tried, the Discovery channel and the National Geographic to name a few, but everyone failed,” said Pavitran Vittal, an official in the state tourism department.

Kutch is a survivor, it has stood the test of time since the Jurassic age when dinosaurs roamed its desolate terrain and the first civilisation fanned out along an ancient delta at the mouth of the Kutch basin.

Archaeologists have discovered the biggest Harappan civilisation site in a village called Kuran in the Pachcham island of Kutch.

Located strategically along the India-Pakistan border, Kutch has survived two skirmishes with Pakistan and several earthquakes, including one that almost razed the town of Bhuj. But hardships have tempered Kutch with steel.

It is one of the upcoming tourist destinations in the state. For more than a decade now, the Rann Utsav, an annual cultural festival, has been luring tourists with three-day packages that include tent homes, camel cart rides on full moon nights and outdoor soirees of traditional Kutchi and Gujarati folk arts.

“The desert almost comes alive on the full moon night with the colours of ethnic Gujarat,” says a senior tourism official. The crowd is a mix of Indian and foreigners.

The Gujarat government is planning to celebrate the festival next year in a bigger way to increase the number of footfalls in the state and build a fossil park following the discovery of dinosaur fossils in Kaladungar.

Another rural tourism project, Shaam-e-Sarhad, gives tourists a feel of rural Kutch. It remains packed with visitors between October and March, the best time to visit Kutch.

The mostly Muslim dominated region is sparsely populated. Thirteen of the 18 tribes, which reside in this semi-desert, semi salt marsh land, are Muslims. Each tribe occupies a pocket of the region with 15-20 families.

A striking feature in the villages of the region is the attire of the people. The Kutchi people love adorning themselves in bright and colourful outfits with lots of mirror work, and ample heavy jewellery.

Kutch prides itself in its strong tradition of crafts and embroidery like Kharek, Paako, Rabaari and Mutuwa; and not surprisingly has the highest density of craftspeople in the country.

The embroidery, mostly done by the women, maintains the gender balance at home.

“We take equal part in household decisions with our husbands,” said 20-year-old weaver Natha Behn in her tiny home in Ludiya village.

“It takes me a month to make a kanjari (long blouse), complete with the embroidery and the mirror work. It costs me about Rs.200 (approx $5) and I sell it for about three times more. I also make bags, blankets, dolls, cushion covers and other items,” Natha Behn told IANS.

Natha Behn makes about $20 a month. “My husband herds cattle. But more often than not, I earn more than him.”

Anjuri Kaya, well into her 50s, said: “Things become difficult during monsoons. The region is waterlogged and we have to sell our wares at a much cheaper rate to the middlemen. Otherwise things are pretty good.”

The women also make sure that the young girls of the village go to school, along with the boys. Considering Kutch’s literacy rate, 64.06 percent for men and 40.89 percent for women according to the 1991 census - this initiative by women is considered a big step ahead by many.

“The people have to understand that it’s important for girls to complete their education. Considering that women have an important say in the family, this initiative by them is a ray of hope.

“Moreover, they make sure that their daughters are capable of earning their own bread and butter. They are empowered,” said Pavitran Vittal, an official of the Gujarat tourism department.

Women of the region have also played a major role in pulling Kutch out of the debris left behind by the devastating earthquake back in 2001.

Ludiya, a Dalit village, one of the many villages in Bhuj district destroyed by an earthquake in 2001 is now a pretty hamlet with beautifully painted mud huts and a bustling school.

“After the earthquake, we thought that it was the end. But then some NGOs came forward to help us and we started rebuilding our village,” said Khaju Kaya.

“The women brought money with their handicrafts and made all this possible,” he added.

Kutch is a storehouse of treasures. A hill in Kaladungar has become the latest hunting ground for archaeologists who have discovered fossil remains of dinosaurs in the region.

Atanu Chakrabarty, secretary of the state’s tourism and small-scale industries department, said numerous dinosaur fossils have been found in the region. The Geological Survey of India (GSI) and the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) have authenticated them.

“The fossilised eggs of dinosaurs and their body, embedded in rocks, were discovered in the hills of Kaladungar and they have been authenticated by the GSI and ZSI officials. It dates back to 65 million years ago,” Chakrabarty said.

Plans, still at a preliminary stage, are on to develop the place into a dinosaur fossil park.

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