Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Days 3, 4 & 5: The last outpost of human construction at the westernmost limit of India

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.

Day 4

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.

Day 5

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.

To view high-resolution image, click on the image above

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Days 1 & 2: Captivating Kutch - Rann Utsav 2012

To view the high-resolution image, click on the image above
After a hiatus of more than a year, I finally have another adventure. This time I decided to head for the Rann Utsav (means festival of the desert) that takes place in the Kutch region of Gujarat once every year. What is the Rann Utsav? Imagine staying in a tent deep in a desert (Great Rann of Kutch) with the India-Pakistan border at one end and the sun setting over a white desert at the other end. Imagine a three day festive extravaganza in the desert during the moon lit night of the winter amid the awe-inspiring and contrasting landscape of Kutch. That friends is the Rann Utsav.

For the uninitiated, Kutch is my native land. As I landed at Bhuj airport and saw the dummy Indian Air Force aircraft at the air force base (the real aircraft are hidden underground), I tried to remember everything since my last visit in 1999 (after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, my grandparents moved in with us). As I viewed Madhapar village from the air, a tiny hamlet whose existence is unknown to most Indians, its historical significance in modern Indian history came to mind (mentioned in the end so as not to detract from the day's adventures). I began to recollect how once during one of my visits to Kutch, at a time when India-Pakistan tensions were at a high, the air raid siren went off and a blackout was ordered of the entire region. As we landed, the quaint little Bhuj terminal was a welcome sight and I headed to my native village called Mandvi.

My native village Mandvi is the original place for a famous dish known as Dabeli. The main ingredient of the dish is called Dabeli Masala, which is a dry-paste made from dried red-chillies, black-pepper powder, dried coconut, salt, clove, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, turmeric, elachi, badiyan, black-salt and tej-patta and one can taste the original mixture only in Mandvi and a few other places in Kutch. Also, Mandvi is one of the few places where they make a 'Dabeli Plate' which is a dish made only with the masala as the main ingredient. So needless to say, after visiting Mandvi beach (famous for it's windmills which were built with Swedish help and the fact that they withstood the earthquake), I headed for dinner for a dabeli plate (pic attached) and picked up half a kilogram of the masala for home. It was nice to be back staying in our home in Mandvi. Now the traditional houses in Mandvi have a peculiar feature. The houses were not entirely under one roof. The rooms of the house were separated by plenty of open air space and courtyards. Therefore, for added security, each door of the rooms open in a different pattern. For example, while in one room there is a hidden lock under the middle of the door that needs to be released to open the door, in another room a particular slab needs to be pushed to unlock the door. If you don't know the combination, you just cannot open the door (from either side). This helps ensure that even if an unwelcome guest breaks into one room, he is going to have a tough time breaking into another. It was fun to be back and retry the house combinations.

I am a Kutchi Bhatia and it was sad to hear that in our native place, there are only 300 Kutchi Bhatia people now in existence. I visited all our community structures (temples, festival halls, schools) during the course of the day.

The next day, I headed over to Bhuj to catch the bus to the Rann Utsav. The system set up the Gujarat Tourism department was immaculate. Well before I had left for Gujarat, my security pass had arrived in the mail with my tent number assigned and mentioned. Back at Bhuj, our bus left on time and when we reached the venue, check in was done in ten minutes flat which included my luggage being transported for me and ready at my tent before I entered it. For 600 people coming down to the venue at one time, this is an achievement which even the world's finest hotels will face a tough time beating.

The venue is in the middle of nowhere (just south of the white desert). There is a nice video of the white desert on YouTube here. We step out of the tent ad stare right into the desert. I have attached a picture of our camp and our view from our tents. The tent itself is very simple and basic but no complaints. Breakfast was excellent which included the traditional 'Bhavnagar na Marcha' (a chilly from the Bhavnagar area which is huge in size but not at all spicy and can be eaten raw). You will be hard pressed to find this outside Gujarat. Pic attached. We then proceeded to see some traditional Kutch villages. The best sight here was seeing a small hut with a satellite dish outside (pic attached). We then headed to venture into the white desert. As I mentioned earlier, our camp is located a short walk from the entrance to the white desert. We passed through the Border Security Force check post (as soon as the desert ends, you come across the Indo-Pakistan border) and entered the desert to watch the sun set. The reason the Great Rann of Kutch is called the white desert is because in India's summer monsoon, the flat desert of salty clay and mudflats, which average 15 meters above sea level, fill with standing waters. This soon solidifies and the entire desert looks like a flat marble patch. It's completely white and solid. And hence as the moon shines, the entire place lights up as if diamonds are radiating from the ground. You can see a video of the same on YouTube hereIn winter (as in now), the Great Rann of Kutch is a breeding ground for flamingos and pelicans. It is the only place in India where flamingos come to breed and is home to 13 species of lark. Needless to say, as the sun set, it was a beautiful sight as you could watch the entire sun slowly setting in the horizon while the desert slowly started to gleam.

As we headed back, we noticed the convoy of the Chief Election Commissioner of the Republic of India headed towards the white desert. The 2012 Gujarat legislative assembly election is currently underway and Kutch is due for polling on December 17. Even the Election Commissioner of India could not stay away from the captivating beauty of the white desert.


Historical significance of Madhapar

Pakistan's military operation of carrying out pre-emptive strikes on Indian airbases in December 1971 war was code-named 'Chengiz Khan'. But it was thanks to "200 Jhansi ki Ranian" in Madhapar that the Indian armed forces in this sector could measure up to this 'Chengiz Khan'. Bhuj was then a forward area air base on the western border meant only to be used during active war. The attacks began on December 3 and by 9, a total of 136 bombs had been dropped on to the airfield, out of which nearly 64 bombs landed on a single night, i.e., the intervening night of December 8 and 9, reducing the runway to a rubble.

Unnerved by the constant bombing, while the town people, including the entire manual workforce fled Bhuj, about 200 women folk from the village of Madhapar came to Indian Air Force's aid (the village is known for its exceptional masonry skills and hence all the men of the village migrate out of the state to other parts of India, Asia and the middle east while the children, women and elderly stay in the village). "When the people were fleeing, the then district collector N Gopalaswami, who later headed the Election Commission, hopped on to a motorcycle, announcing on a megaphone that people should not panic, but the exodus wouldn't stop," recalls then commanding officer of Bhuj Airbase Wing Commander (retired) Vijay Karnik. 

Karnik was a squadron leader then. A day before the bombing, he had been asked to keep the runway ready to receive a squadron of fighter planes from Punjab. Since Jamnagar had started bombing Karachi port and fuel dumps, Indian military was expecting retaliation on the western borders and wanted to use Bhuj actively. But with this airfield gone, and the labour force abandoning town, the task looked impossible, until his friend, the sarpanch from the affluent Madhapur village called up. "Behnon ko le ke aaun?" (do I get the sisters?) he asked.
Soon 200 women arrived at the airfield. "They brought their own food while we had the construction material ready. After a short briefing on how to protect themselves during an air raid, they started work," Karnik recalled, adding he had managed a combat air patrol to keep the skies safe during the repair work. Karnik's wife, Usha remembers how the brightly attired women sang while they passed on 'taslas' (metal containers) full of stones and concrete. They finished repairs in two days and after another two days of sweeping the airstrip clean, the runway was declared operational which became a turning point in the war.
Three days later, the ceasefire was declared. In December-end, the then prime minister Indira Gandhi arrived in town. Indira made sure she met the women at the Circuit House. She then declared at a public meeting in Jubilee Baug, "Pehle hamare paas ek Jhansi ki Rani thi, aaj hamare paas yeh 200 Jhansi ki ranian hain" (earlier we had one Rani of Jhansi, we have now have 200).
Madhapar village, which was recently in the limelight for the distinction of having Rs 2,000 crore worth of deposits in its local banks, was very affluent even in 1971. Every household had at least one NRI member to send remittances back home.
"The village boasted of a fridge in every house and you could even see Mercedes and other cars in the houses. But, despite the affluence, they had an unusual tradition of making the women do manual labour, often on the roadside, even though they were educated. Sarpanch's own wife and daughter would work on construction sites for at least two hours a day, while the former worked in the farm," recalls Wg Cdr Vijay Karnik.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

150 Years of the Comptroller & Auditor General of India (1860-2010) Commemorative Coin

To view high resolution images, click on the images above.
To commemorate 150 years of the Comptroller & Auditor General of India, a special set of commemorative coins was minted by the Government of India (under the Coinage Act, 1906).

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India (भारत के नियंत्रक-महालेखापरीक्षक) is an authority established by the Constitution of India who audits all receipts and expenditure of the Government of India and the state governments, including those of bodies and authorities substantially financed by the government. The CAG is also the external auditor of government-owned companies. The reports of the CAG are taken into consideration by the Public Accounts Committees, which are special committees in the Parliament of India and the state legislatures. The CAG is also the head of the Indian Audit and Accounts Department, which has over 58,000 employees across the country.

The Comptroller and Auditor General is ranked 9th in the Order of Precedence of the Republic of India and enjoys the same status as a judge of the honorable Supreme Court of India.

The office of CAG has been given utmost importance by the Constitution makers. As per the Constitution of India, a retired Comptroller and Auditor General cannot take up any position or post under the Government of India or any other private body. The removal procedure for the Comptroller and Auditor General is similar to that of removal of a Judge of the honorable Supreme Court of India.