I didn’t plan it this way, but it turns out that this sunny Sunday morning, fate is on my side. Traffic in Ahmedabad is crazy, I heard it from Manish, my young bespectacled driver. I get his statement with the slightest touch of incredulity, for all I can see along the way are a few stray vehicles doing whatever it is – with the first morning rays Amdavadis doing on still Sunday morning. No one is on the road because it’s a Sunday, he says. So that explains it. There are three of us on this trip. There’s Manish, of course, quiet and focused, his eyes on the road, his hands on the wheel and as far from the Doors song as it gets. Then there’s Nilesh, Manish’s friend and backup driver when the drive gets too tiring or when he’s at the wheel he feels sleep coming towards him. Nilesh is the easy going, laid back and smiling Veeru against Manish’s quiet and intense Jai. And of course I’m here; navigationally disabled, prone to motion sickness, and slow to converse with strangers. Yeah, we’re a weird threesome right.
While I’ve explained to Manish that this is essentially a journey and I’ll be asking him a lot of questions, my first few about street names and mileage make him look a bit startled. An hour later he seems resigned to my incessant questioning and doesn’t return with a startled “Kya??” with every question. As we drive across the Jamalpur Bridge which crosses the Sabarmati, I feel the excitement inside me like a kernel of corn about to pop. We are on the way! This seven-day journey takes us through different landscapes. There are endless miles of undergrowth giving you uninterrupted views of the blue sky meeting dusty earth with patches of green here and there to break the monotony; there is the Rann itself, big, isolated, sparkling and beautiful and then of course there are the narrow roads that pass villages, past women wearing backless blouses and colorful lehengas (a flared long skirt), past shepherds with wrinkled, weathered faces under their great white turbans and past herds of sheep, which bane every driver’s existence.
Our journey begins as we leave Ahmedabad in a westerly direction Limb. We take NH8A at Sarkhej and drive through Chotila, all the way to Morbi. From Morbi we go to Kutch and set up our metaphorical camp in Bhuj. It is from Bhuj that we undertake our journeys to the lesser known parts of Kutch: the small villages outside Bhuj, to Mandvi (the harbor town) and the ancient, silent ruins of Dhola Vira. It’s August and the monsoons are on their way out, putting this state in a bit of a weather limbo. It’s hot but not intolerably so and humid – at least while you’re still in Ahmedabad; it gets much drier as you approach Kutch – and not significantly cooler at night than during the day. The roads are mostly smooth, and as you drive past villages you are likely to be ambushed by their colorful inhabitants as they timidly ask to be taken to the next village, group of houses or temporary camp. The fact that we happened to pass by is just a stroke of luck.
Most days these villagers walk for miles in the hot sun and dust, never losing their composure or even sweating and I can’t help but be amazed. They have adapted so well to the conditions – their dry, dry, dusty land – that almost nothing soils them anymore. Survivors of droughts, earthquakes, famines and floods, this is possibly one of the last remaining places in the world where total strangers are greeted with a smile.
Colors of a gloomy landscape
The roads throughout the journey are mostly smooth, well laid out and adequately signposted (although most of the signage is in Gujarati and Hindi). On the few occasions when a linker looks as good as good, we ask the locals who then gather in loud groups, discuss our specific problem in rapid-fire Kutchi, and then explain the solution in great detail. They’re friendly, these Kutchis. With their outfits as colorful as their landscape is gloomy. The men we meet usually wear white. White dhotis, short white kurtas smocked just below the chest and richly tied white turbans. The women, in perfect counterpoint to this simplicity, wear almost every color of the rainbow, made more stunning by the glittering mirrors and embroidery that are hallmarks of this region’s artisanal heritage. The artisan villages we visit are yet another example of the Kutchis’ cheerful acceptance of their harsh landscapes and way of life. From round mud huts with thatched roofs, women and children emerge, with color and laughter in the air. Many of these women, who keep their homes and tend to raise livestock, are also part of a supply chain system of NGOs that work to spread knowledge about Kutchi craftsmanship and make the women self-sufficient while they are at it .
Colorful embroidery, hand-woven fabric wickerwork, intricate threadwork and glittering mirror work are some of the specialties of this region. Add to that the sumptuous, rich food that is an essential part of Kutchi cuisine, and Gujarat becomes a must-visit for each traveler’s route. A Kutchi thali is an elaborate affair. It starts with a tumbler of buttermilk and doesn’t end until you realize you’re almost unable to move because of the amount of food you’ve voraciously ingested. Whatever you may or may not need to worry about on this trip, food – if you enjoy authentic Indian cuisine – should not be on that list. History, geography, facts and myths, Kutch has a little bit of everything, just like its famous thalis.
ON THE ROAD
Your best friends on this trip are bottled water, plenty of sunscreen, headgear (which might stop your hair from lugging a camel at the end of the day), and Electral. Yes, that white powder is a lifesaver in a country where it’s all too easy to get dehydrated without realizing it until it’s too late. You could do what I did. Carry two bottles of water; one pure and the other with Electral mixed in. Enjoying both alternately ensures that you are saved from the ghastly effects of too much sun and too little replenishment. Speaking of replenishment, Kutch is home to a lot of inhospitable terrain, but the people more than make up for it. We experience this hospitality wherever we go. In the villages we visit, we are not allowed to leave home until we have had at least a cup of tea or a buttermilk drink.
On the day we make the foolish mistake of not refueling before driving off, the small village where we stop to beg for some fuel turns out to be full of angels in Kutchi costume. While we wait for the gentleman to fish out his little jerry can of liquid that will take us to the next pump, our vehicle is slowly surrounded by the shy but curious locals. When Manish explains our problem to them, they resolutely walk away and come with lower water, tea – which they pain to serve us in small saucers – and buttermilk to help.
There are several offers of lunch before we leave, but as we need to get back to Bhuj before sunset, they are declined. As we drive off, they thank them in all the languages we know, and small packets of food are put in our hands. It’s not complicated stuff; two thick chapattis smeared with ghee and a few pieces of pickle, but I do not remember a meal I have received with more gratitude. Our vehicle of choice for this trip is a Qualis, which works admirably on the highways, but is insanely difficult to maneuver through the narrow galis of the villages. A smaller driver is likely to curl up on the ground and wail at the challenge, but Manish deftly backs into side streets and cuts through lanes with surgical precision as I squeal every time we dodge a wall of mud by inches and a herd of cows by inches. While it’s a bit of a gas guzzler, the Qualis is well suited to many of the not-quite-roads we drive through.
A smaller vehicle can weave through the villages with ease, but there are a few tough spots on this drive that your small car will probably never forgive you for. Years later, you continue to hear a grinding, rattling sound from your engine, which translates from carspeak, simply, “Remember that long-winded dirt road you took me through? I haven’t forgiven you for it.” Also, for certain stretches of the road, you’re almost rubbing shoulders—or fenders—with trucks, buses, and camel carts. While the camel cart is easy to handle, the trucks can get a little intimidating. However, I will say this for them: I have never seen such courtesy among truck drivers as in Gujarat. They don’t honk at you all the time, they don’t do the road despite their bulk, and they even let you pass with a rude gesture. Drivers in Delhi could learn something from it. We drive Ahmedabad on the Ahmedabad Link Road – known to Manish as the Rapar-Sarkhej Road – and catch NH8A, which will serve as our mother for most of this drive. We pass through Sarkhej, Bavla and Bagodara, after which we take a break for tea at Hotel Amber.
After the tea and toilet break we leave via Bagodara, still on the NH8A towards Limbdi. We drive through Sayla, Chotila and reluctantly join NH8A at Bamanbore as we head towards Morbi. From Morbi we head to Bhuj passing through Bhachau, Dudhai and Kukma. There are two stretches of road on this journey that will test your patience. Trying the whole 30 km journey in and out of Morbi; much of the road is under construction; and the last 30 km to Dhola Vira, for which the road is mostly one lane, has no facilities to speak of, and quite often turns to dirt road. Apart from the desolate stretch from Rapar to Dhola Vira – for which you absolutely have to turn up – almost all roads on this route have more petrol stations than you might know. In some sections, you may encounter three within a 1 km radius. In the unlikely event that you are conscious of your fuel, you will most likely find your favorite after a short drive of several miles. Service stations and tire repair shops are few and far between when you’re out and about, but as you get closer to a city you’ll usually see them awkwardly sharing border walls with the petrol pumps.