February 28, 2020
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Salt Is... Yes, Sweet

Human warmth amid a harsh landscape, the contrast lingers...

Salt Is... Yes, Sweet
Rahul Surve
Salt Is... Yes, Sweet
This is one of those rare days when you want to send up a prayer of thanks for the miracle of modern travel. We began our journey in a congested, bad-tempered airport on the edge of Delhi. But here we are now, two flights and a hour’s drive later, on a string cot padded with bright quilts and cushions, under a midnight blue, moonless sky splashed with stars, in the still heart of the banni (grasslands) of northern Kachchh. Wood crackles and burns in an open-air fireplace and the verses of Kabir, sung in deep, plaintive voices, fill the air:

Chun chun maati mahal banaya
Moorkh kahe ghar mera
Khaak mein khap jaana bande
Maati se mil jaana
Thoda karo abhiman...

An hour or two later, we reluctantly let the singers from the nearby Meghwal hamlet leave with their simple instruments and head for our own tryst with maati—circular mud huts called bhungas, with conical roofs of intricately woven grass. Insulated in this warm cocoon from the chilly wind blowing across the banni, you sleep undisturbed and wake up to find yourself in a living museum of Kachchhi craftsmanship—elegant patterns in mud and mirror work on the walls, delicate jaali, carved wooden windows and painted doors with laquered handles....

We are at the 26-bed Shaam-e-Sarhad Rural Resort, quickly discovering that ‘resort’ is a misleading description, suggesting a brittle smartness this simple cluster of bhungas and tents, with villagers strolling easily in and out of it, thankfully lacks. On the other hand, calling it an ‘endogenous tourism project’ launched by the central government and undp and run by the villagers of Hodka with the support of the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, while factually correct, sounds frightfully earnest, which this informal place is not.

But yes, if you get a kick out of ecologically, nutritionally and developmentally correct holidays, you will probably have a blast here. So put down your bags, discover with satisfaction that meat, cigarettes, booze and TV are all no-nos, and check out the eco-friendly garbage disposal system. On the other hand, if virtue bores you, but you can forsake your addictions for a rare opportunity to soak in the raw, unsignposted beauty of a harsh landscape and a rich, pluralistic culture with a strong sense of exceptionalism ("this is Kachchh," they tell you, "Hindus and Muslims get on here"), you won’t feel out of place either. If it helps, you won’t have to forsake comfortable mattresses, western-style loos, running water and cleanliness. Or attentive service. The place is overrun with shy, earnest young men from the village in salwar suits and bright rumals (scarves), sweeping mud floors, delivering bed tea on time, tracking receding levels of dal in your katori and smearing ghee on your bajre ki roti.

Top, Meghwal women doing embroidery; the interior of a bhunga at the resort

You have met them before, the people of Hodka and several other villages scattered across the banni, at arty-crafty bazaars in Delhi, Mumbai or Chennai. You’ve admired their exquisite embroidery, patchwork and leatherwork, bargained a bit, bought a little —or maybe not—and moved on. Now you’re visiting them at home, drinking very sweet tea and discovering people with fascinatingly varied levels of exposure to the world, from men who spend their day grazing cattle and women who giggle and rush inside when they see you coming, to artisans who have travelled the world over.

Like Bhasara Bhura. Bhasara belongs to the talented scheduled caste community of Meghwals that traces its roots to Mewar and lives in two of Hodka’s 11 hamlets (Halepotras, a Muslim community with Sindhi roots, occupy the others). An award-winning craftsman, he carried Hodka’s mud all the way to a museum in Leipzig to build a bhunga. "German mud doesn’t work," he explained. "You need the chikni mitti from here. But I did blend it with German gobar." Umra Kana, also a craftsman, travels to Delhi to sell and Pakistan to visit. Whenever a harsh visa regime allows him, he goes for weeks to Sindh, where about 1,500 or so Meghwals, including his own sisters, live, with a big bundle of gifts and returns with another bundle. As a brother, he revels in these trips, but the craftsman and perhaps the patriot in him is quick to point out that the embroidery on the Indian side is far superior. The Thar Express, from Rajasthan to Sindh, has made Umra’s journey easier, but still, it takes three days, door-to-door. "On a good camel, I could have left in the morning, crossed the rann (the saline desert separating India and Pakistan) and reached Pakistan before night," he says wistfully.

Rann and banni, khara pani (brackish water) and meetha pani (sweet water), dry, parched lands and wetlands, India and Pakistan, polarities are woven into the rough texture of daily life here. To get a feel of cohabiting opposites, you need something Shaam-e-Sarhad doesn’t provide, a good sturdy car, preferably a four-wheel drive that can slide off a metalled road and race down a dirt-track faster than you can say bhunga. So we get one, driven by an intrepid young man called Sultan, and Shaam-e-Sarhad lends us its unofficial mascot, Pandhi Bhai, a tall, Heathcliff-like Halepotra with kajal-rimmed eyes, an enchanting habit of breaking into sudden song and a disconcerting tendency to switch from Hindi to Kachchhi to Sindhi in mid-sentence.

He guides us through a criss-crossing network of dirt-tracks to shimmering wetlands with coy clusters of flamingos and cranes that take off hurriedly in graceful arcs at the click of a camera shutter. As we drive, vegetation dramatically give way to stretches of flat, bare land, with not a person in sight for miles. Past the village of Dhordo, on the edge of the vast expanse of nothingness called the Great Rann of Kachchh, we gaze at stretches of crusty salt that look like melting snow. At India Bridge, the last, desolate civilian point on the India-Pakistan border, with none of the in-your-face flamboyance of Wagah, we chat with homesick Border Security Force sub-inspectors from UP, Bihar, Kashmir, and Andhra Pradesh. At Kachchh’s highest peak, Karo Dunghar (Black Hill), we watch in awed silence as foxes creep out of the hills to the sound of a temple bell and feed off milk and rice set out for them.

At some point, our guide reminds us it’s election day and he needs to vote. So we pull up at a polling station, and watch a breathtakingly colourful festival of democracy unfold. Men in peacock blue, parrot green, purple, magenta salwar kurtas, and ajrak shawls, Muslim women in long, flowing, frock-line abos and loose salwars, odhnis covering their faces, Meghwal women in heavily embroidered skirts and long blouses, huge nose-rings dominating their faces, bangles weighing them down from upper arm to wrist, all flooding the street as they walk to the polling station, and patiently line up to vote. If there is a Vibrant Gujarat, it is here.

Hodka is an hour’s drive from Bhuj. The resort is open from October- March. For bookings contact: 02832-654124

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