Wild Asses in the Salt Desert


And now for something completely different – village life and a great salt desert, the Little Rann. We left Ahmedabad on highway, and progressed on to country roads past simple farms and through dusty villages. Eventually the driver began asking people for directions, at which point I realized we can use maps.me without internet, hauled it out and directed him through the twists and turns to the Rann Riders camp we had booked for a four day stay.

The camp is comprised of lovely, simple mud huts built in the traditional style of the area, the walls decorated with leaf appliqués and mirrors. Our front porch has two traditional Gujarati swings, ubiquitous here, and inside is a modern bathroom, simple bamboo furnishings and two of the hardest beds ever, great for my back. All meals are provided in a cavernous outdoor dining hall and the food is stupendous. It’s also great to have a chance to try various Gujarati dishes and ask questions about them. We are taken on a “safari” in a jeep for a couple of hours each day, and so far we have visited the wild ass herds on the Rann desert, a couple of nearby villages, and spent a morning bird watching in a wetlands area. Very low key but fun, freezing cold in the open jeeps in the morning and evening, though mid day is warm.

img_4276The wild asses are an interesting breed. They are quite large and very powerful, reminding me of the body type of the zebra with their muscular, stuffed looking haunches and barrel like sides. They can run indefinitely at 65 kilometres per hour, and run they do, in small herds just for the heck of it. They eat tufts of small plants that survive in the salt desert conditions, it is hard to believe there is any nutrition in them. When the rainy season comes, the salt flats are inundated and the wild ass take refuge on small “islands” just areas of higher ground which the rains replenish with grass. They cannot be tamed, and seem to have a happy life galloping over the flats, perfectly adapted to their surroundings and with no predators to harass them.

On the way back we stopped to watch the sun set over the salt flats at the home of a family of salt collectors. This is a tough life but their home of plastic sheeting lashed over a wooden frame with a hard earth floor was well equipped and as neat as a pin. The woman immediately poured out tea in the sort of paper cups that we put ketchup in at fast food restaurants and the husband took us over to one of the pools to show us how he could dip in and collect a double handful of salt crystals, huge ones, some of which he insisted we take with us. The process involves digging a 25 foot deep hole — and it would be like digging up asphalt, the salt desert is thick and the earth heavy — into which they put a pipe. They attach a pump run by a solar powered engine and the resulting briny water is pumped into holding tanks shaped into the earth the way rice paddies are. All this is done post monsoon during the cold season which is now when the temperature drops to 10 degrees overnight , then the hot sun of the hot season (48 degrees out there) evaporates the water, they harvest the salt and beat a hasty retreat to their village for the 4 months of the monsoon. So they are either boiling or freezing on the desert or hunkered down in the village with no income during the rains! Some jobs are harder than others, but they seemed to be making the best of it.

We spent one day with a driver supplied by the camp visiting the Sun Temple at Modhera, the beautiful Rani-ki Vav step well, and a work shop of Potala double ikat silk weaving which I had particularly wanted to see. The trip took 5 hours and the drive through the surrounding countryside with its subdued palette of taupe, gold, and tawny brown, negotiating multiple speed bumps at the entrance to each tiny dusty, plastic infested village. We passed many camel carts laden with goods driven by Rabari men in their distinctive cropped white jackets, voluminous dhotis, and elaborate white turbans. An exotic looking group, the women wear beautifully embroidered garments topped by flowing chiffon headscarves. They are reputed to have come originally from Afghanistan.


Our village tour was low key and interesting, a young guide from the camp came with us and we visited a number of his friends in nearby villages. I was afraid it was going to go badly, as our first stop was at an encampment of Mir people midway between the camp and Dasada village. The Mir are nomads and travel back and forth between Rajasthan and Gujarat, making this area their winter home. Their homes are very rough — plastic sheeting over a framework of wood but nothing like the salt makers’ house. These houses are filthy and disorganized, as are the people themselves. They herd goats which live with them in the shelters, and the women bead bracelets which they vied to sell. Their dress and jewellery are most exotic, but they are also as sharp and persistent as nomadic traders anywhere. I really felt uncomfortable as we did not want to buy — for one thing we have no small money, what with the money shortage here and the usual difficulty getting change in Asia, it is an impossible situation. I felt like we were staring, and was trying to beat a hasty retreat when up pulled four SUV’s with Indian tourists from our camp, a tour group studying photography and this was their first field day. Out came the long lenses and 18 people focussed on the inhabitants and started snapping away. We quickly got into the jeep, it was much better in the two small villages we went to where the guide knew people who were glad to show us their cows, and even their embroidery, and where we felt we were just wandering without causing a kerfuffle.

IMG_4391.JPGThe Modhera Sun Temple is one of the finest in India, built around 1100 years ago, though we think the one we saw in Orissa was more spectacular. The rulers at the time were supposedly descendants of the sun, all the motifs and indeed the design of the temple is engineered to show the cycles of the weeks, days and years. Originally a huge diamond in the forehead of the deity in the innermost temple reflected the light in a line across the temple at the exact moment of the solstice. Interesting parallel to all the Mayan temples we have visited in Latin America. Of course I fell for the offer of a guide for only $2, my travel companion despises guides so was most displeased, and the man was truly annoying, chanting on and on about 52 this, weeks of the year, 365 of that, days of the year, cycle of life make love, pregnant, home birth, death….Doug wandered away as he always does and took pictures but his huffing indignation was quite audible. Fun anyway, and I got rid of him (the guide, not Doug) quite promptly and we had a nice wander.

On to Patan, a dirty congested city with the most gorgeous step well we’ve seen yet, the Ran-ki Vav, also 1100 years old. Step wells were not just wells, they were also way stations for those travelling the silk route, with a well for drinking and a separate one for washing bodies and clothes, on another level was a pavilion for travellers to lay out their bed rolls and spend the night. Despite this mundane purpose, they are all fabulously carved and decorated with religious and secular motifs. Many many stairs descend into the wells at the bottom. Built of sand stone as all these buildings of that era were, they are amazingly ornate but also subject to erosion. The saving grace for this one was that it had filled up with debris and garbage 3/4 of the way up and was not “discovered” until late in the 20th century when it was excavated. Consequently the carvings up to that level are very well preserved and distinct. We saw many of these lovely wells when we were in Rajasthan on our last trip, filled with noxious garbage and goats eating away. It is good to know their historical interest has lately been recognized and their beauty revealed.
Also in Patan, the Patola weavers make double ikat saris which take a year to complete and cost in the thousands of dollars. Only one family continues this style of weaving which is a ridiculously complex technique. In single ikat, complex enough, the threads which will be the lengthwise ones on the loom are wrapped with little lengths of cloth to form the desired pattern. Dying takes place in at least four stages, each time a colour is applied that area is then bound with the cotton to retain the colour and another area unwrapped to take the next colour. All this tying and dying takes a very long time. The ikat I have on the wall from Sumba is one of these, it is a most complex pattern depicting the funeral traditions of the area. Single ikat of that quality is also a dying art. In the Patola weaving a further complication is that the widthwise threads are also tied and dyed. Imagine the complexity of lining up the pattern on the widthwise thread so that the pattern will agree with that on the lengthwise threads, while maintaining a tight selvage edge which a sari must have. Keep in mind that this is all being done in the finest of silk, and you can understand why a few thousand dollars in not much to pay for the finest quality pattern.

Only one family of these weavers is still working in this craft/art form. We were so fortunate that the senior member of the family was present when we arrived and for some reason decided to give us the most comprehensive and fascinating tour. He has been all over the world to museums and exhibitions, taking looms and workers with him to display the process. Anyone going to Basel (Linda?) should check out the museum’s comprehensive exhibit which this man set up. Examples of their work are displayed in many famous museums, apparently the Museum of Art in Toronto is considering buying a large original piece from them currently. I love weaving (viewing it that is) and was so pleased to see this workshop.

IMG_4711.JPGSo that was a great day, the other three have been much more relaxing, going out for a few hours on our “safari”, eating like pigs, lying on our swings going at the Kobos and strolling to the nearby village of Dasada. The last day of our stay corresponds with a state wide holiday for the Kite Festival and our camp is filling up fast with Indian families. The well to do here all speak English it seems, and mix it with Gujarati which sounds very cool. Such friendly people, we will be sorry to pull out of here tomorrow. On to the historic city of Bujh.