Kutch, Gujarat : Dholavira & The Great Rann | Horn please, OK?

Kutch, Gujarat : Dholavira & The Great Rann

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Day 3 : Zainabad -> Dholavira -> Rann of Kutch Lake ->Bhuj
When : February 2014 | How far : 460 kms | How long : 12 hrs 

Lost World :The 5000 year old city of Dholavira

Heard of the Harappan Civilization? Dholavira is where its at. 
Or to be accurate was where it was at (see, doesn't sound as good) 5000 years ago. 

A drive across the salt desert brought us to a little island called Khadir Bet. You might wonder how much scenic variety a salt desert might have to offer. You'd be surprised.

An early start from Zainabad was necessary to cover the extremely long drive to Dholavira ending at Bhuj. Our host looked surprised when we told him of our plan. Said we were crazy for trying to cover it all in one day. The roads weren't great and Dholavira had more to offer than could be seen in a couple of hours. He suggested we stay overnight. 

The only accommodation in Dholavira is a State Tourism Department guest house called Toran Tourist Complex. We called to check for rooms but nothing was available. That decided it for us. 

Travel tip : If you plan to stay at Dholavira during the Rann Utsav,  make reservations in advance at Toran

The recommended route to Dholavira from Zainabad is via SH18 to Radhanpur. At Santalpur we turned on to NH 15 towards Balasar and from there drove down SH 51 to Dholavira.  

SH 51 cuts through the Rann of Kutch Lake (Great Rann). Since summer was still a few months away the water hadn't dried completely. We passed scattered pools of water in various stages of crystallisation

The varying depths and different stages of evaporation gave each pocket a different colour. There were blues and pinks and yellows. They looked like gem stones scattered on the salt desert. 

The Cradle of Civilization

The Harappan Civilization, one of the earliest in the world (3300 BCE) flourished along the Indus river which flowed through Afghanistan, Pakistan and north western India. Archaeologists have discovered 8 sites from the Indus Valley Civilization in India and Pakistan. Dholavira is the most recently excavated one (1990) and the 5th largest. 
Wishing you'd paid attention in history class? Check out this video to feel smarter and nod along to what we're saying. 

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has a museum at the site with artefacts retrieved from the digs. Pottery shards, beads, seals and stone implements tell a story of a culturally rich and technologically advanced people.

Following our own advice, we hired a guide. Ravjibhai lives in the neighbouring village and used to work for the ASI's excavation team. Budget cuts halted the dig 8 years ago. He now works at the museum and doubles up as a guide for willing tourists. 

City of God 

The Harappan site at Dholavira spans 250 acres though the ASI team uncovered ruins spread over 120. With few signs installed it was difficult to understand how to navigate the site in a meaningful way. We were glad we had Ravjibhai along with us. Having worked for nearly 12 years at the digs he knew all the stories and an incredible amount of history. 

Dholavira was at one time surrounded by water making the land fertile. It was occupied 7 times during the Harappan civilisation. Natural causes like earthquakes and epidemics are believed to have wiped out the 7 settlements at different points in time. There were nuanced differences in the the architecture during each stage of occupation, some of which were plainly visible. This round stone was used to prop up a stick to support the roof providing better support to houses during earthquakes. 

The site contains ruins of a citadel, a middle town and lower town. Massive reservoirs with perfectly smooth vertical walls,  covered water drains and a self cleaning bathroom (think water drainage) are some of the more interesting structures. 

Our guide pointed out the base of a column with a surface as smooth as marble. This he said had probably been achieved using ropes and stone implements. 

Ever since the excavations stopped 8 years ago, nature has been trying to reclaim Dholavira. There are plants growing out of the covered drains and loosely packed earth covering the excavated structures.  

The most incredible thing about Dholavira was the ground which was littered with hundreds and thousands of bits of beads, uncut coloured stones, fragments from terracotta bangles and pottery shards. 
Incredible because there were tangible pieces of 5000 year old history lying at our feet and incredible because all of it wasn't enough for the government to continue excavations.

An Emerald Island 

After our walkabout in Dholavira, Ravjibhai asked us if we wanted to see the Great Rann. He said he knew of a spot which would let us walk on to the Rann. We said yes and directed us through some dirt roads to the Kutch Fossil park. We reached a BSF outpost (we were 20kms from the India-Pak border) where we left our car and walked. This is what lay in front of us.  

That's not sand. Its salt. 

The Rann of Kutch Lake can easily be mistaken for an island in the Maldives. The brilliant shades of blue and green give an impression of depth. But in truth the water is barely 1 to 2 feet at its deepest. In fact in summer the lake dries up completely making it possible for people to walk across. Our guide told us stories of people trying to cross over from Pakistan which is only 20 kms from where we were standing. 

This lake also sees thousands of Pink Flamingos which migrate here for the winter and head back in February when it starts getting hot. We were two days too late! Talk about bad timing. Long pink feathers partly buried under the salt were testament to their visit. 

Travel tip : If you want to see the Pink Flamingos, plan your trip in December or January. Its also when the Rann Utsav is at its peak.

On our way out of the park we met a BSF officer looking for a ride back to town. Chatting with him we discovered that he worked for the intelligence gathering unit of the BSF. His job was to visit villages nearby and talk to people to find out if they'd seen any unfamiliar faces around and gather general intelligence to determine cross border activity.

Our first real life encounter with a spy! The day was getting better and better. 

Travel tip : When in Dholavira, hire the services of Ravjibhai. You won't be disappointed. You can get in touch with him on +91.953.756.6312

The Great Escape from the Great Rann

It was time to head to Bhuj. Our guide seeing our enthusiasm for the beauty of the Rann told us of a place where we could drive out on to it. He gave us the number of a friend who would be able to show us how to get there.

We used Google Maps and the directions he'd given us to find the spot. We passed a temple (Ekal Mata ka Mandir), the last sign of civilisation and drove for another 3 kms through a forested area which opened out in to the magnificent Rann. 

The Great Rann or the White Rann or the Rann of Kutch Lake is a gigantic, partially dried up salt lake. The salinity of the water is so high that the evaporated water leaves behind chunks of pure white salt crystals. In summer, the salt crystals form a thick hard layer making it fairly easy to walk on the lake. But in winter and the months right after, the lake is still squelchy and very treacherous. Walking can be a challenge, driving is just foolhardy. 

We spotted a car out in the Rann, 500 meters ahead of us. As we approached, the car turned and headed back. In a few minutes we were the only two people as far as the eye could see. Everything else around us was a brilliant white. 

It felt like the perfect setting to get some nice shots of the car. We drove it off the tracks left by earlier visitors and on to fresh, white, undisturbed salt. A very stupid move. We felt the car sink a couple of inches and heard the wheels spin uselessly in the sticky soil. 

Travel tip : Avoid driving your car on to the Rann. If you must, follow the tried and tested tracks left by others. DO NOT try out a new route - and DO NOT stop your car. 

No amount of revving the engine would move the car. We had anticipated this and carried a pair of wooden planks but our car was too heavy for them. We finally resorted to digging around the tyres with our bare hands. Never thought we'd see the day. Never say never. 

There were 2 hours of sunlight left and 2 bars of battery left on our phones. Our helpful guide's friend proved to be unhelpful.      

Elbow deep in black, slick muck we spotted a bus driving on to the Rann. We stopped digging and ran towards it trying to get the driver's attention. The bus stopped and disgorged 40 holidayers. They came up to us to find out if they could help. 20 men lifted, tugged and pushed but the car remained obstinately stuck in place. 

The holidayers gave up and headed back to their bus but not before chastising us for being too adventurous. Two guys lingered behind. We looked at them suspiciously. One of them said he lived nearby and owned a tractor. He could send for it and help us pull the car out. It sounded like a good plan and the only option we were left with. The holidayers suggested I go with them and get dropped off at the Ekal Mata temple. Its safer, they said. 

It felt like a significant moment. Defining, even. A test of trust. A choice between getting on to a bus with a bunch of strangers who promised to take me to a 'safer' place or staying behind, stranded in the middle of a salt desert with two strangers who promised to help us get out.  

I didn't know separation anxiety was a real thing till I boarded that bus and watched Abhinav and the car turn into specks in the receding horizon. 

Our friendly neighbourhood holidayers and the man with the truck delivered on their promises and we were back on the road 2 hours later. 

Travel tip : If you plan to drive on to the Rann, carry a shovel, some long planks of wood and a tow line for your car 

We were exhausted from the day's ordeals and the 3 hours that it took us to get to Bhuj was one of the toughest drives we've done. 

Stories from the entire trip
Day 1 -> Mumbai to Zainabad
Day 2 -> Zainabad to Patan
Day 2 -> Patan to Modhera
Day 2 -> Little Rann of Kutch
Day 3 -> You just read it
Day 4 -> Bhuj to Lakhpat
Days 5-7 -> Bhuj to Vigakot

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