RANN UTSAV- A desert festival like no other

For miles and miles as far as the horizon, all you see is an expansive white desert with the salt crystals dazzling under the blazing sun. This is the Great Rann of Kutch, a salt marsh located in the Thar Desert in Gujarat. During the monsoon, the salt marsh is flooded due to rainfall. As winter sets in the rain waters evaporate transforming it into an arid salt desert. For 100 days each year from November to February, the White Rann comes alive. Throngs of tourists partake in the festivities of the Rann Utsav with much fervour and flamboyance.

Tent City, Rann Utsav
Tent City, Rann Utsav @Rafiq Somani

As a part of these celebrations The Tent City, with more than 350 tents, comes up in Dhordo village 80 km from Bhuj. It is an epitome of lavish hospitality, showcasing a kaleidoscope of the local tradition, culture and art. Spread across 5,00,000 sq. mt it offers numerous attractions like adventure sports, a performance area for concerts. A colourful haat showcasing the best of handicrafts, conference facilities, art gallery, indoor play area and not to forget the best of local cuisine.

Entrance to Rann Utsav
Entrance to Rann Utsav @Rafiq Somani

The Rann Utsav and a visit to Kutch have been on the family wish list, as the children were keen to visit their grandfather’s birthplace of which they had heard stories of its rich culture and history. End of December seemed perfect as the schools would be taking a Christmas break, but it is also the peak tourist season.

We were in a chicken and egg kind of situation. Should we book the air tickets first or the tents? With great difficulty, we managed to make flight bookings. We soon realized that getting accommodation at the Tent City was now an even bigger challenge. More so because we were visiting during the full moon nights. Despite contacting several hotels and camps near the Rann, we were always given the same response “We are sold out.”

We consoled ourselves by deciding to stay at a hotel in Bhuj and visiting the White Rann desert. This would mean we would miss out on the cultural events and activities that take place inside the Tent City. But as luck was on our side my friend Pooja from Gujarat Trails came to our rescue. We were getting accommodation for just one night at the Tent City. I was almost dancing like Daya ben from the T.V. serial ‘Tarak Mehta Ka Ulta Chashma’ who at the drop of a hat does the Garba and sings praises of Goddess Amba. Elated we booked tents for one night at the Tent City and decided to make Bhuj our base for the rest of the trip.

Against the serene white desert of Kutch what stands out is a riot of colours that is evident in the artwork, handicrafts, clothes and accessories typical to this region of Gujarat. From the time you land at the small Bhuj airport till you reach the Tent City signages across the roads will welcome you to the Rann Utsav. On arriving at the Tent City, at around ten in the morning, we were requested to handover our bags at the parking bay and to head to reservations. We were assured that our bags would be delivered to our tents.

Reservations, Rann Utsav
Reservations, Rann Utsav @Rafiq Somani

A multihued installation with the words “RANN UTSAV” stood at the entrance signalling the beginning of a unique desert experience. A façade resembling the entrance to a palace had been erected giving one the feeling that a royal experience was about to begin. Folk artists played the drums and the shehnai. A kacchi ghodi dancer in a vibrant horse costume welcomed the guests. A village scene complete with conical bhungas or huts was created.

Folk Artists, Rann Utsav
Folk Artists, Rann Utsav @Rafiq Somani
Bhungas at Rann Utsav
Bhungas at Rann Utsav @Rafiq Somani

The process of registration was quick, and we boarded a golf cart that ferried us to our cluster of tents. There were art installations and exhibits all around the Tent City which provided a glimpse of the culture, art and topography of Kutch. A towering artistic installation of a traditional couple dressed in the costume of kedia and ghagra choli. A larger than life display of the Rajasthani katputlis or puppets. A marine scene from Mandvi port. Murals of elephants, camels and horses in traditional lipan kaam or mud work with pieces of mirror stuck. These were just some of the eye-catching attractions.

Art Installation of Traditional Couple, Rann Utsav
Art Installation of Traditional Couple, Rann Utsav @Rafiq Somani
Art Installation of Puppets, Rann Utsav
Art Installation of Puppets, Rann Utsav @Rafiq Somani
Mandvi Port Art Installation, Rann Ustav
Mandvi Port Art Installation, Rann Ustav @Rafiq Somani
Elephant Mural, Rann Utsav
Elephant Mural, Rann Utsav @Rafiq Somani

An enclosure with flashily painted vehicles in bright colours and vivid patterns were screaming for attention. These provided a great photo opportunity for visitors to hop on to a vibrantly decorated three-wheeler or a cycle rickshaw. Or get into a flashy vintage car or pose from the windscreen of a lorry with ‘Horn OK Please’ written.

Colourful Rickshaws, Rann Utsav
Colourful Rickshaws, Rann Utsav @Rafiq Somani

As indicated, our luggage arrived at the tents, which were functional and straightforward, including an attached bathroom. But who wanted to be inside the tents when there was so much to see and do. Visitors could hire cycles or a three-wheeler Trikke or a Segway and explore the vast Tent city. Whether you want to take a stroll and admire the paintings at the art gallery or play some indoor games like chess, pool or carom, there were a plethora of options. There were various stations for those eager to try their hands at pottery or lipan kaam or the local arts and crafts. We were keen to try our hands at these, but the artist was nowhere in sight.  

Pottery Making, Rann Utsav
Pottery Making, Rann Utsav @Rafiq Somani

Soon it was time for lunch, and the buffet spread was a mix of Gujarati, Rajasthani and some Continental dishes. The food was sumptuous with soups, assorted salads, starters like dhokla. A main course of the usual paneer, veggies, dals accompanied with freshly made theplas and bajra rotlas or rice and not to forget the deserts.

Dinning Hall Rann Utsav
Dinning Hall Rann Utsav @Rafiq Somani

Post lunch, my daughter and I decided to explore the handicraft haat located inside the Tent City. Colourfully decorated upturned umbrellas hung from ropes in the haat or market place. To add to the shopping fiesta, we were informed of an even bigger market just outside the Tent City. An array of handicrafts and textiles and home furnishings were on display and up for grabs. 

Colourful Haat Rann Utsav
Colourful Haat, Rann Utsav @Rafiq Somani

Whether it is the bandhani or tie and dye fabric or the Ajrak block prints or the woollen shawls or embroidered knick-knacks all were vying for our attention. The varieties and options were so interminable that we were stunned and confused as to what to pick and what to skip. We didn’t run short of shopping ideas, but our wallets were drying up of cash.

Handicraft Stall, Rann Utsav
Handicraft Stall, Rann Utsav @Rafiq Somani
Stall at Haat, Rann Utsav
Stall at Haat, Rann Utsav @Rafiq Somani

After a tea break, it was now time to visit the White desert and witness the sunset. Buses from the Tent City took us to the white desert, which was about 10 minutes away. After alighting from the buses, we hopped on to camel carts which would take us to the salt mudflats. The camels decorated with bells and colourful saddles and what looked like black tattoo marks raced each other as the gentle breeze caressed us. Since it was a drought year, the salt desert was not pristine white as we had expected but a little muddy and dirty.

Camel Cart, Rann Utsav
Camel Cart, Rann Utsav @Rafiq Somani

There was a sea of people all excited at clicking selfies, hiring colourful traditional costumes to wear as they took pics against the white desert. We decided to walk away from the crowds so that we could get some unobstructed views of the desert and have some family fun moments.

Soon it was time for the sunset and the sky changed to several shades of flaming red, yellow and ochre. This sunset in the Rann where for vast expanses, one only sees white salt deposits, with no sign of vegetation or even a water body like the sea or ocean, was unique and special. Whether visitors took a camel ride or broke into an impromptu Garba or couples in love stole a kiss or families hugged and clicked pics what they all shared was a moment of exhilaration, as exaltations of the white desert were spelt.

Sunset at White Rann
Sunset at White Rann, @Rafiq Somani

No sooner had the sun bid farewell that the moon rose in the opposite direction. A full moon night in the Rann is a dream, and in a short while, we were to experience it. After the sunset, it was back to the Tent City. We ate a buffet dinner with Indipop songs being sung by the vocalist in the background. Soon it was time for the cultural show.

The stage was set for a live performance that provided a glimpse to the traditional dance and music that set our feet tapping and fingers snapping. The band played some popular Bollywood songs which were followed by devotional songs in Gujarati. And before we knew it, the vocalists invited the audience to join in for the Gujarati folk dance of Garba. We were told that a tribal dance performance by the Afro-Indian Siddis, where they would be breaking coconuts with their heads, was a must-watch. But it was time for us to leave for seeing the Rann in the spectacular moonlight.

Cultural Show, Rann Utsav
Cultural Show, Rann Utsav @Rafiq Somani

It is a once in a lifetime experience to be able to see the white desert on a full moonlight. This time the buses took us straight to the watchtower from which visitors can get a spectacular aerial view. As we climbed the watchtower, we were brimming with a childlike enthusiasm eager to see the vast desert expanse.

The white desert’s aura and elegance were magnified in full moon night. The moon cast a spellbinding white glow to the desert-scape. For as far as our eyes could see we saw a carpet of glistening white which resembled snow or some alien planet’s surface. Something we had never seen before lay in front of us which in a moment seemed bewitching, at other times eerie. Whatever it was it left a lasting impression on us.

We returned to our tents and reflected on the day that had gone. At six in the morning, the tea was served at our tents signalling it was time to wake up. After breakfast, we were all set for the checkout. But there was one thing remaining to be done. Adventure sports like ATV rides, parasailing, paramotoring were on offer, and the kids wanted to give it a shot. We were taken to the site from where paramotoring could be done. The kids found this adrenaline gushing sport a highlight as they soared into the sky on a 10- minute ride. It provided a breathtaking aerial view of the desert and the Tent city.

Para Motoring, Rann Utsav
Para Motoring, Rann Utsav @Rafiq Somani

It was time for us to bid adieu to the Rann Utsav. If you are looking for a fun-filled holiday extravaganza that has a mosaic of gaiety and fanfare, picturesque desert-scapes seeped in culture and tradition, with some pulsating adventure and shopping thrown in and not to forget the delectable local cuisine then a rendezvous with Rann is a must-do. It is a sensory delight and don’t be surprised if you come back feeling awestruck and overwhelmed, wondering if it all was one big fantasy.

Puppet Show, Rann Utsav
Puppet Show, Rann Utsav @Rafiq Somani
GETTING THERE-
Nearest Airport: Bhuj has a small functional airport with limited flights. The other alternative is Ahmedabad from where you can take the road to Bhuj. From Bhuj, you can hire a car for the Rann. If you are staying at The Tent City, a pickup will be arranged from Bhuj station or the airport. Gujarat Trails helped us with our travel and accommodation.
Where to Stay: The Tent City in Dhordo is where we stayed. The other option is The White Rann Resort which is the official operator for Rann Utsav by Gujarat Tourism. Or check out for camps or bhungas in an around Dhordo or Hodka. If not, then settle for a hotel in Bhuj and drive down to the white desert and visit the market/haat near it. You will have to arrange for the entry permit on your own in that case.
Travel Trip: Book your flight tickets in advance. Getting accommodation especially can be challenging if you want to visit on a full moon night during the vacations, so please book at least six months in advance! This holiday may cost you more than an international trip to a nearby location, so my suggestion would be to spend one or two nights at the Tent City so that you can avail of the Tent city festivities. Later, make Bhuj your base and explore the other Kutch attractions.
Colourful Chakkada, Rann Utsav
Colourful Chakkada, Rann Utsav, @Rafiq Somani

This travelogue was first published in Corporate Tycoons magazine, May 2019

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