My only connection with the town of Palanpur, thus far, was the last name of a fellow student in college. Evidently, he hailed from the town’s royal family! The royals have long gone, as has my friend, the Sahibzada, who is now settled in the UK! Today, Palanpur – not to be confused with it’s namesake in Himachal – is nothing more than a district headquarter bordering Rajasthan, with the locals speaking a peculiar dialect of Gujarati, with hints of Rajasthani in it!
We have arrived here on a crisp January morning on the overnight train from Bombay and have a few hours to kill before heading back west! Sounds a little counter-productive, I know, but sometimes you just have to go east in order to go west 🙂
January is the month of Makar Sankranti in western India, a festival of harvest, and one that marks the peak of winter. It is also kite-flying season, and the men and machines that maketh the colourful kites are out in full force on the streets of Palanpur!
Gandhidham, our final destination for today, lies some 230 km to the west and train 9151, the 2:45 pm departure from Palanpur, will get us there. We potter around the station closer to our departure time, and indulge in some Rabri, which every other food kiosk at the station seems to flaunt. It isn’t nearly as good as the original, which hails from nearby Mount Abu!
The route from Palanpur to Gandhidham is one that I have been yearning to do for the longest time, from the days when it was still metric. The smaller gauge, as with many other parts of the country, is a thing of the past, replaced instead by the ubiquitous broad gauge. Only two pairs of passenger trains ply the route today, and despite that fact, #9151 doesn’t appear to be bursting at its seams. If anything, it harks back to the more laid back days of the metre gauge – plenty of empty seats to stretch out on, and the occasional character for company!
From a rail enthusiast’s perspective, the route is action packed – a single line with heavy freight traffic, necessitating several crossings! For the casual traveler, however, it can be a bit drab, as for most part it is semi-arid and flat – a terrain characteristic of Gujarat and Rajasthan. The monotony is broken somewhat by the Arinda or Castor plant, whose purplish buds add a dash of colour to the landscape.
As daylight slowly gives way to dusk, the first patches of white appear on the ground, signaling our proximity to the salt desert. A few km west, and shortly after sunset, we pass through the Little Rann of Kutch!
A beautiful sundown is followed by a stunning full moon, and as we roll in to Samakhiali Jn., the lunar candlepower is more than sufficient to illuminate the station yard!
On arrival at Gandhidham, we drive to the Holiday Village Resort, located just outside of town. Tired as we are, sleep doesn’t come easy, courtesy of a Congress-sponsored Ghazal evening, where the out-of-tune singers persist into the wee hours!
Our host fetches us in the morning and after a sumptuous breakfast at his place, we hit the road. He gives us a quick tour of Gandhidham, starting with the town’s lumber market. Gandhidham is one of the largest trading posts for lumber in the country but that is only one of many big industries here! The neighbouring ports of Kandla and Mundra have ensured rapid industrialization of this town, the largest population centre in the area.
But despite all the new infrastructure, factories and warehouses, several oddities remain, like this colourful contraption – a home grown hybrid, the motorcycle-pickup 🙂
In the heart of the Greater Rann of Kutch lies the island of Khadir Bet, some 115 km to Gandhidham’s north. State Highway 51 is the most direct route there – a road that is very well maintained, yet completely desolate!
After about 2 hours of near non-stop driving, as we begin to traverse a causeway, we get a first look of the infinite expanse that is the Rann! It has us scampering out of the car in no time, and yet, its beauty is hard to grasp all at once. A sense of adventure and elation overcomes us and we get the feeling that we’re the first ones here! Regardless of the false notion, the moment warrants more than just a casual photograph!
As we soak it all in, a distant flutter reminds us why we’re here. The Rann is home to one of the largest populations of migratory and native water birds in the country, amongst them, the Greater Flamingo! Not far from us lies ‘Flamingo City’, named so because a great number of that species breeds there! The causeway we’re on happens to be on one of their well charted flight paths, and seconds later a huge flock soars past us..
Spanning an area of over 45000 km², Kutch is the largest district in India, and the Rann constitutes a good majority of it! Akin to the more storied ones in Bolivia and Utah, the Rann is essentially a salt desert. It comprises 3 essential ingredients – salt, water and marsh. And as one of us discovers the hard way, it comprises daldal, or quicksand, as well!!
The word Kutch itself implies something that intermittently becomes wet and dry. So in the monsoons, for instance, water will inundate either side of the causeway, whereas in the peak of summer, there would be nothing but salt flats all around. It’s these very dramatic changes in scape that make this region of India so bewildering, yet spectacular!
The causeway we’re on was built to connect the mainland, so to speak, with Khadir Bet. Bet means island in Gujarati. Since the monsoon does not encroach upon these islands, the limited population there is in these parts, resides on them.
The earliest settlers who had to contend with these seasonal changes were the Indus Valley people, and the centrepiece of Khadir Bet today is the site of their archeological ruins at Dholavira! To sustain themselves amidst their arid surroundings, the Indus Valley people built a series of reservoirs, of which 3 are now exposed.
13 more await excavation, but with funding in short supply from the Central Government, it’s anyone’s guess as to when they’ll see the light of day! A real pity given that India only has about 4 such sites to boast off – the rest having gone Pakistan’s way after partition.
No less impressive is the quality of workmanship back then, which a pillar base along the east entrance to the citadel shows off well. And ‘back then’ would be over 5000 years ago! Indeed, for someone having read about their civilization only in school history books previously, it is a real privilege to be here!
As the sun begins to move into the western sky, we slowly make our way out of Dholavira. In search of more birds we go, off-roading along a cattle trail at first, through patches of sand, and finally onto a salt flat. We park at a safe distance from the water – vehicles before us have tried and not gotten very far!
A Nilgai or Antelope is our first spotting in the wild, and as we tread closer to the water, a huge flock of waders take flight! Countless more water birds are nestled on a spit of land stretching out from the island of Khadir Bet. A closer inspection, via a heavy duty telephoto lens, reveals a mixed dwelling of birds – Herons, Storks and a few Flamingos. A hillock, known as Dungar in these parts, provides the backdrop to it all. Some 20 km ahead lies the international border with Pakistan.
Pulling back on the telephoto, a wide angle view of the same lacks those details, but nevertheless, the sheer flatness and extent of the Rann is a sight to behold!
We stroll around some more but the birds don’t seem to be getting any closer than a speck on the viewfinder, so we head to where we think there’s a good chance of finding them – the causeway!
As with our journey in this morning, we are, for most part, the sole occupants of this incredibly smooth highway. Occasionally, on this road less traveled, we pass a group of village belles, looking resplendent in their colourful garb. Closer to the causeway, we slow to a crawl to let a herdsman pass and lead the stock home! It is an endearing sight and one that will always have the right of passage in rural India 🙂
The causeway is completely devoid of traffic, as one would have expected, and looking rather different than it did this morning – now bathed in warm evening light – as are half a dozen Juvenile Flamingos, who wade in the shallow waters around us, scouting out their next meal. It’s a perfect setting so far, except for the fact that we’re missing the ever elusive Greater Flamingos!
Cameras on the ready, we train our sights on the skies, looking for any sign of movement. To our north, nothing! East, nothing! South, nothing! Reluctantly, we turn into the sun, and there they are, at least two dozen of them, flying in from the west…
The flock takes a southern trajectory at first, and moments later – much to our relief – makes a sharp turn east, headed right over us!
The shutter burst is followed by a moment of silence, goose bumps, and then a collective sigh. This is the closest we have gotten to these gorgeous birds, and we have just been treated to a master class in poise!
We set out ridiculously early on the morning of day 3, in order to catch a 6:30 AM train headed west to Bhuj! From there, we plan to catch another train – headed back east – that will take us to our final destination for the day, Ahmedabad! A train that we could very well board from Gandhidham itself, some 3 hours later!
There is a method to this madness however. Although Bhuj never even staked claim to being the westernmost point of India’s rail network, it remains symbolic to us rail enthusiasts. As recently as a couple of years ago, the route extended further west from Bhuj to a place called Naliya, which was, and if the connection is ever made again, will continue to be the western extreme of the vast Indian Railway system!
However, judging by our late departure from Gandhidham and some sloppy running thereafter, Bhuj, it seems, will have to wait for another day! At Anjar, approximately half way there, we bail out! It is a chilly morning in Anjar, and we go off in search of some tea, grumbling all along about our delayed train and the opportunity lost! But the scene that greets us right outside the tea stall is a sobering one – men and little canine alike, huddle around an open fire, trying hard to keep themselves warm.
Our route to Ahmedabad lies on a very different alignment to the one we came in on from Palanpur. The routes split at Samakhiali, from where our train heads south initially, passing several large wind farms along the way. Wind mills are common to the area, and Kutch district has some of the largest installations in the country!
Closer to the town of Maliya Miyana, the alignment turns east, skirting the southern periphery of the Little Rann of Kutch. A narrow gap in the Rann is crossed by means of a causeway, where to our right can be seen a little fishing hamlet, several towers bearing high tension wires, and a bridge carrying National Highway 8A. To our left, not a semblance of civilization, just one humongous salt marsh, blending into the distant horizon..
It is, sadly, our last sighting of the Rann, and yet, considerably different from anything we’ve seen these past few days! A gentle reminder that there’s no single expression to describe the magnificence of this region – a region little known to its own parent state, let alone the rest of this country!
A full set of pictures from this trip can be seen here.