Bhuj is the gateway to a unique landscape that doesn't exist anywhere else in this world. It's called Kachchh. The vast expanse of these endless arid plains looks like a desert, but it's not a desert. It's not made of sand, but soil encrusted with salt. The British coined a new word for this new land. They called it Rann, the Rann of Kachchh.
Mythology has it that many centuries ago, most of the land of Kachchh was submerged under water. Needing more land to live on, the people of Kachchh went to a saint called Dhoramnath and requested him to help them. To answer their prayers, the saint went up the hill of Dinodar and meditated standing on his head for 12 long years. The meditation is believed to have created so much cosmic energy that the sea retreated, leaving behind enough land for people to live on. Now, there is ample land in Kachchh.
What's scarce is water and food. Yet, distinctive flora and fauna survived here, adapting to these salty conditions, with the unique ability to subsist on meagre resources.
And as you drive down from Bhuj to Banni, pray that you come across an amazing wandering community called the Rabaris. These friendly gypsies lead a pastoral life, rearing either camels or sheep. Knowing too well that fodder here is sparse and far between, they wander from one oasis to another, coming back to a place only after they have given nature enough time to recoup.
The shelters they make are basic. There are no doors and no windows. In fact, they spend their entire day outdoors, returning only to sleep at night. When they leave the place they inhabited, there's no trace of their having lived there.
The cooking is done outdoors with dried twigs and branches, which they take great pains to gather. The greens are strictly reserved for the camels and the sheep.
The way they conserve the scarcely available water is very interesting. After finishing their meal, they wash their hands in the plate, then wash the plate with that water, and then drink that water. A little shocking to the uninitiated. But to the discerning, it's water conservation at its best. In one go, they complete three activities with the same quantity of water.
Rabari men wear white dresses but the women wear black. There's an interesting story about why they wear black. A few centuries ago, a Hindu ruler called Sumro, who had protected them from Mughal rulers, died fighting for them. From that day onwards the women started wearing black as a sign of perennial mourning.
On the way to Dinodar hill, we saw an ecological disaster of an unimaginable scale. In the early '60s, it was noticed that the soil from the farmlands near the coastline was eroding into the sea. A shrub called Prosopis was imported from Australia and it successfully prevented the erosion. In the euphoria of success, nobody bothered to check out the exact nature of the shrub and its propagation. And in a moment of madness, quintals of the seeds of this shrub were procured and aerially seeded across the coast.
Before anyone could realise it, this shrub had spread uncontrollably like a green cancer. It invaded the whole of Gujarat and Rajasthan, and is now advancing northwards to Punjab and Haryana. It has almost wiped out the indigenous vegetation of Kachchh that took millions of years to adapt and survive on minimal resources. This shrub has no use for man or animal; and with roots that go as deep as 25 feet, is continuously depleting the abysmally low ground water levels of Kachchh. The Kachchhis call it 'Gaanda Bawal' or the Insane Babool.
And as you gently sip the salty tea offered by the hospitable Rabaris, you may begin to wonder if there are other instances in nature where you have given a shrub an inch and it has taken a mile. Nay, several thousand square kilometres of it.
How to get there
With Bhuj as the base, you can travel around Kachchh. If you don't have your own vehicle, you will have to hire one from here.
Places of interest: Banni for a hopeful tryst with Rabaris. Bhujodi for weaving. Khavda for block-printing. Ludiya for handicrafts. Dholavira for Harappan excavations. Than for the monastery of Dhoramnath.
Where to stay: Plenty of options in Bhuj. Log on to gujarattourism.com to take your pick.