We now come to the final three days of the trip. Day 3 was all about visiting the India-Pakistan border. While the Wagah border in Amritsar, Punjab is easily accessible to all (even to non-nationals), the India-Pakistan border between Kutch and Pakistan is an extremely sensitive area and the entire area is closed for civilians throughout the year, the only exception being during the Rann Utsav when special permission is granted for the guests for the Rann Utsav to visit the border (and that too after a background check is done for each visitor as soon as they book a tent for the utsav). Even then, only Indian citizens are given permission which meant the foreign tourists had to stay behind for other activities. The bus ride to the border was extremely long with numerous Border Security Force checkpoints along the way. It took us a good four hours to reach the border. As no civilians are allowed within the prohibited area (which is huge), all we saw was miles and miles of desert with not a civilian in sight. The lack of human intrusion has been a boon to the local wildlife. I spotted half a dozen peacocks, two wild camels, one jackal and a fewIndian wild asses. Throughout the journey numerous bunkers, checkpoints etc were seen. Border Security Forces patrolling the area on camels was a common sight. Our mobiles and cameras were confiscated at the first check post itself (at the beginning of India Bridge). I have attached a file photo of the bridge as we were not allowed to take any pictures due to its strategic importance.
We finally reached the frontier. We were taken to a watch tower and shown from where the Pakistani forces invaded India and tried to occupy the Kutch peninsula in 1965. We were shown the area where Indian forces laid mines during the Kargil conflict. These mines have now been removed. We were then taken along the India-Pakistan border road that lies exactly parallel and a few feet away from the border fencing. This really took a long time as only one bus is allowed at a time to prevent spooking the Pakistani forces watching from their watch towers at the other end and hence a lot of time was lost till all the buses undertook this journey but a worthwhile journey nevertheless. Using our binoculars, we could see the Pakistani forces using their binoculars staring at our bus as we moved along.
We finally headed back and it was late evening when we reached camp. The evening had a cultural program which had one particular fantastic musical number and you can see a file recording of the same on YouTube here.
The first stop on Day 4 was Narayan Sarovar which is one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites for Hindus. It is one of the five sacred ponds for the Hindus. At almost the westernmost point of land in India, it can only be reached by traveling over 150kms from Bhuj across the barren scrubland of Kutch. A journey after which the appearance of a vast lake will surprise you. Another salient feature is that the water is sweet in taste where as throughout Kutch all fresh water bodies are extremely salty in taste (its fresh water but high saline content). The lake is associated with a time of drought in the Puranic area, when Narayan (a form of Lord Vishnu) appeared in response to the fervent prayers of sages and touched the land with his toe, creating the lake.
Also, one of the ancient gurus for Kutchi Bhatias and other Gujaratis by the name Vallabha Acharya had given discourses here and the spot where he had given the discourses is considered a holy place to visit by his followers.
We then proceeded to visit Koteshwar which is an ancient Shiva temple. After traveling over the expanse of desert in western Kutch, you find the Koteshwar Temple, at a place where the immensity of dry land meets the incomprehensible vastness of the sea. The only point that breaks the skyline from the flat brown horizon to the east and the wide blue horizon to the west is the point of the Koteshwar Temple, the last outpost of human construction at the westernmost limit of India. The temple is famous for the fact that the handprints of Ravana can be seen on the Shiva Linga here. To know the full story behind the temple, please visit the Wikipedia link here. The Koteshwar naval checkpost is also located here as just beyond is Sir Creek (visibile by the naked eye from Koteshwar) which has been in the news recently and is a bone of contention between India and Pakistan. When I was behind the temple, to my west I was clearly able to see an Air Traffic Control tower but am unable to find any information about it online. I am pretty sure there is an air strip pretty close to the temple. On a clear night, one can even see the glow of light from Karachi, Pakistan, on the northwestern horizon.
We finally visited the Ashapura Mata temple. The goddess is particular prominent in the Kutch region as it was once upon a time one of the patron goddesses of the kings when Kutch was a princely state.
Now everything is extremely far apart in Kutch due to the vastness of the desert. For example, Narayan Sarovar is 151kms west from Bhuj while Mandvi is 71kms south of Bhuj. However, throughout our journey, every place was connected with each other by well tarred 2 lane roads. There was not a single pothole or speed breaker on the way. We literally travelled 50-60kms at a stretch without coming across a single speed breaker or pot hole. The travel time from Bhuj to Mandvi has been cut by more than half thanks to the infrastructure. In the days of it being a princely state, Kutch was an extremely prosperous region thanks to the Mandvi port. Post independence the region became a neglected area but that has drastically changed in the past ten years. Throughout the journey you could now see the desert region brimming with agricultural fields for cotton, mustard and castor. Due credit for the agricultural boom must also be given to help and expertise extended by Israel. In fact Gujarat is the only state/region in the world that has had a constant 10% increase in agricultural output year over year in the past 10 years (though there was limited agriculture to begin with so a % can be deceiving). The downside is the amount of trash has increased. Plastic and garbage is strewn everywhere and these are not even highly populated areas. Its as if the sanitation department does not exist in Kutch. Also, though the distances are huge, as it is December, the weather is extremely pleasant throughout the day and you don't sweat at all even though you are in a desert. At night it gets pretty windy and as you sit in your tent, you feel your tent is going to get blown away any minute.
Once back in camp, we had a star gazing night and this was the highlight of the day. In cities, due to light pollution, one cannot see with the clarity that you can otherwise see in an uninhabited area. Contrary to popular belief, according to the astronomer Narendra Gor, air pollution has little impact on visibility when using a telescope. It is light pollution that is the main culprit. From the desert once can see hundreds of stars in the sky. The entire sky is lit up. The sky gazing was a 2 1/2 hour session and the highlights were that using the telescope we were able to see Jupiter very clearly along with its distinct ring like surface along with four moons of Jupiter (it has 67 moons). We were also able to see the moon with the craters on the moon. The star Rohini was also clearly visible. The astronomer also told great stories about the stars and planets combining them with western and Indian beliefs.
December 17 also happened to be election day in Kutch for the 2012 Gujarat Legislative Assembly and polling was happening everywhere. I have attached a pic of a polling station I came across near the Ashapura Mata temple. People exercising their right of Universal Adult Franchise. The finest hour of the world's largest democracy. It was great to hear that despite being India's largest district, there was a more than 70% voter turnout in Kutch which is a record for the region.
This is the last day of the trip. We headed in the morning to a place called Kalo Dungar which is the highest point in Kutch. The panoramic view from here was magnificent. Looking out from the Black Hills, you can understand the tremendous effort that those who undertake the crossing of the Great Rann have to make. The Kalo Dungar is also famous for a 400 year old Dattatreya temple. Legend says that when Dattatreya walked on the earth, he stopped at the Black Hills and found a band of starving jackals. Being a god, he offered them his hand to eat. Because of this, for the last four centuries, even today, the priest at the temple prepares a batch of vegetarian prasad that is fed to the jackals after the afternoon and evening aarti. Everyday, wild jackals come to the temple for this meal (even though it is now vegetarian, something that wild jackals don't really go after).. At other times, though you are at the highest point in Kutch with a 360 degree view of the entire area (this also makes it of strategic importace and hence an army outpost is located at the top), the jackals just cannot be seen. And suddenly and the time of the prasad, they seem to appear from nowhere.
This concludes my trip to captivating Kutch. However, I need to come back one day as there are so many other things to do in Kutch such as visiting the Indus Valley site of Dholavira, Narayan Sarovar Wildlife Sanctuary, the 1st century AD Siyot Caves, the Vijay Vilas Palace, the Kutch Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary and so much more.
Till we meet again.
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