India — The Rann of Kutch
The haunted and mysterious wasteland between India and Pakistan
by David Yeadon
Close your eyes and imagine the utter emptiness. A white nothingness — a brilliant, frost-colored land — fat
as an ice lake, burning the eyes with its whiteness. Not a bump, not a shrub, not a bird, not a breeze.
Nothing but white I every direction, horizon after horizon, on and on for over two hundred miles east to
west, and almost one hundred miles north to south.
This is the Rann of Kutch (or Kachchh), the largest area of nothingness on
the planet; uninhabited, the ultimate physical barrier, separating India
from Pakistan along its far western border. Only camels can cross these
wastes, and at terrible cost. During the monsoon season it's a shallow
salt marsh, carrying the seasonal rivers of Rajasthan slowly out to the
Arabian Sea, just south of the great Idus Delta of Pakistan. Then for
months it's a treacherous quagmire of molasses mud under a brittle salt
skin. Periods of safe crossing are minimal. Occasional piles of bleached
bones attest to the terrors of this place. Tales of survivors, reluctantly
told, are unrelieved litanies of human (and animal) distress. There is
life out here — herds of wild asses the size of large dogs and vast
flocks of flamingoes encamped mud-nest "cities" — but very hard
"It is a strange place." An old man in one of the baked-mud villages on the southern edge of the Rann had
finally agreed to talk about the place through a local interpreter.
"I crossed the Rann many times when I was a young man. Now the only
people you will find on it are people carrying drugs or guns. The army
tries to stop this trade" — he flung out his small, cracked hands
— "but what can they do? The Rann is so vast, the army cannot always
use their trucks or their jeeps. They get stuck in the mud, even in the
dry season. You can never . . .the Rann. Every year it is different. It
is very hard to now which way is safe for a crossing. One year . . . ." —
he paused and studied the endless horizon. "Many years ago, I lost my
brother and his camels. He was not so experienced as I was and we had
a disagreement. I told him we had to go the long way because the monsoon
had been late and the mud was not dry. But he was in a hurry. His family
was very poor . . . . " The old man smiled sadly, "We are all poor but
he wanted to buy land and build his own house . . .he was in a hurry."
He paused again and we all sat staring at the shimmering whiteness.
Even the sky was white in the incredible heat. "He was a good man. I was
his older brother. He should have listened to what I told him." Another
"What happened?" A stupid question. I knew the answer.
The old man shaded his eyes. "He has his eldest son with him, twelve years old. A fine boy . . . ."
There was a wedding in the village. We could hear the music over the mud-walled
compound. Later there would be a procession and a feast of goat, spiced
rice, and sweet sticky cakes.
"He went a different way?"
The old man looked even older. His face was full of long gashed shadows.
"You must go the wedding," he said. "They will be proud if you go. Not many
people like you come to this place."
"I've been already. But I think it made people a bit uncomfortable.
I seemed to attract more attention than the bride and groom. One man looked
quite offended, a man in a bright blue suit."
He laughed. "Ah! Yes. I forgot he was coming. He is with the government — very important. He liked to take
charge of things . . .just like my brother."
"So what happened to your brother?"
The old man shrugged. "He took the wrong path. We found two of his camels on our way back. They were
almost dead but we brought them back home to our village.
The music of the wedding faded. It was hard to find shade from the sun.
I looked across the Rann again. Almost one hundred miles to the other
side, with no oasis, no water, no shade, just this endless salt-whiteness.
"He could have reached the other side. Maybe he decided to stay for a while?"
"His family is here. His wife and his children."
"Maybe the army arrested him?"
"No, this was nine years ago. The army was not here so much at that time."
"So you think he died."
The old man drew a slow circle with his finger in the sandy dust.
"He became a 'white,' like so many others."
"We call that name for men who do not return from the Rann. Part of their
spirit remains in the Rann There are many, many of them. Who can tell.
Maybe hundreds of men. Hundreds of whites."
"Back home we call them ghosts. Here it is a different thing. We are not afraid of the whites. When we
cross the Rann we remember them. They protect us. Something they guide us."
"But you never see them?"
The old man smiled and spoke quietly. "As I told you, the Rann is a
very strange place and you can see many strange things . . .it is difficult
to explain. The Rann is not like other things on earth — not even
like other deserts. It has its own nature and if you listen and look and
think clearly, you will be safe . . . ."
"Your brother didn't listen?"
"He was a good man but much younger than I. And he had many worries. His mind was full of many
things. He could not hear clearly."
"Do you think about him a lot?"
"He was my only brother. We had five sisters. But he was my only brother."
"So in a way, he's still here."
"Of course. He is a white. He will always be here."
On a long bus journey south from Jaisalmer to Bhug, across miles of deserty wastes, I did some homework
about the Rann of Kutch. The owner of the hotel had very generously lent me a few books on Gujarat, and I
scribbled away, delighted by one descriptive passage from a booklet by a Lt. Burns in 1828:
. . .Rann comes from the Sanskrit word "ririna" meaning "a waste" .
. .a space without a counterpart on the globe, devoid of all vegetation
and habitation . . .its surface shines with a deadly whiteness; the air,
demand quivering mocks all distance by an almost ceaseless mirage. No
sign of life breaks the weary loneliness. Stones and bones of dead animals
mark infrequent tracks . . .passage at all times is dangerous, travelers
being lost even in the dry season. Because of the heat and blinding salt
layers, passage is made at night, guided by the stars from dawn to dusk
. . . .
Just my kind of place for a dry-season ramble!
Gujarat has also been a "land apart" on the Indian subcontinent. Ruled
for centuries by powerful and fierce Maharaos, the "Lkutchis" have long
had an outward-looking attitude to the world. Their fame as seafarers,
merchants, traders, and even pirates has made them a major presence in
East Africa, Arabia, and the Persian Gulf. Recent development here by
the Indian government of the new port of Kandla is beginning to increase
Gujarat's links with the rest of the country, but the Kutchis still value
their own history, traditions and independence.
The ruined castles of feudal chieftains, set high on the crags of Gujarat's
Black Hills, are still revered places. So too are the remote shrines of
local saints, whose pious meditations and fierce penances (tapsia) were
said to give them power over gods and the local warrior-kings.
You can see that power here in the bleakness and broken ridges of the
hills. Fragments of ancient fiefdoms still dot the sun-bleached desert
and, as Bhuj suddenly appears — a gray, solemn bastion of towers
and high tone defense walls — I wondered how much had really changed
in this remote region since the wild rampages of a ferocious duo known
as Mod and Manai in the ninth century A.D., and the cruel vengeances of
the warrior Ful in the next century.
Tales of cunning, intrigue, murder and massacre are the very stuff of Gujarat legend. Our contemporary
scandals and seem like schoolboy pranks when set beside the tangled complexity of regal power plays in
and around Bhuj.
Take one of Ful's little escaped. When he was a child, his grandfather, the
powerful king Dharan Vaghela, decided to slaughter most of his power-hungry
relatives. Ful only escaped the massacre when his maidservant dressed
her own son in the royal infant's robes and sacrificed his life to save
the baby prince.
Revenge later became Ful's main aim in life, and when he reached fighting
age he challenged Dharan Vaghela to combat and neatly lopped off his head
in the first blow. That may have been enough for most warriors, but Ful's
vengeance was not satiated. He had the skin stripped off the corpse, flayed,
stretched across an enormous chair, and then invited one of Dharan's pregnant
daughters, an aunt, to join him for supper. When she realized she'd been
tricked into sitting on the skin of her murdered father, she committed
suicide. Her unborn infant was cut living from her body and became known
as Ghao, "he that born of the wound." And not surprisingly, the vendetta
continued into the next generation and the next.
The "memorized history" of Gujarat is full of such legends, piled up oke rockstata, hard and thick. "Ages
shall wear away," the Kutchi bards sing, "but our stories shall remain."
And what wonderful stories: a princess turning herself into a mosquito to drive a king mad; the tumbling of
mighty fortresses by magic catapults; the mysterious "cursed city" of Padhargadh whose ruins can still be
seen today; the brilliant Troylike invasion of the poor city of Guntri by soldiers hidden in hay carts. All
What surprised me was that in all the tumult and vengeance wreaking
and city annihilation of Gujarat history, Bhug still stands intact, surrounded
by its high walls and impregnable gates. Until only a few decades ago,
the city's ruler, Maharao Khengarji III, had the keys to the five gates
of Bhug delivered to him personally every night, and every morning he
would have them returned to the guards so that the citizens could conduct
business beyond the walls, and the long lines of bullock carts and camels
camped outside could enter with their products from the desert villages.
Known as the "Jaisalmer of Gujarat," Bhuj is a medieval maze of tight,
winding streets, flurried marketplaces, ancient palaces (now museums),
and Hindu temples decorated with gaily painted gods, abandoning themselves
to the joys and terrors of all their incarnations. Someone described it
as "stepping into a Salman Rushdie world of mystery and intrigue." I didn't
sense much of the intrigue except in the intense secretiveness of the
Gujarat shopkeepers and merchants, whose agile abilities with the abacus
and whispery deal making confirmed their reputation as India's most skillful
But mystery — definitely. Everyone seemed to have a mission. There
were few beggars or loiterers. You sense constant purposeful movement
here with little time to notice foreign travelers. People were friendly
but in a kind of indifferent way. It was as though this remote city, rarely
visited by outsiders, responded to a higher agenda of purpose, reflecting
centuries of accumulated tradition and independence from the rest of the
For once, I enjoyed the anonymity. I felt like a floating camera lens,
recording scenes, capturing the flavor of the place, but almost invisible.
No lines of chattering children followed me around; no hands grasped at
my elbows demanding handouts; no merchants leaped from their tiny trinket,
tailoring, and "traditional art" shops to snare me inside.
The Indian government has one of the largest military bases in the country
just outside the city; purportedly to keep a wary eye on the Pakistanis
and their always imminent invasion across the Rann of Kutch. But somehow
you wonder if they're also watching the mysterious Bhujis and Kutchis
"Ah yes, Bhuj is rather different from other Indian cities." I'd been
lucky enough to meet one of the descendants of the royal family here who
lived in a few simply furnished rooms with an English country house feel
to them, deep in the recesses of the Rao Pragmaljis palace. He was a tall,
thin-featured man, who spoke with quiet English public school eloquence:
"We have always possessed a certain reticence about our role in the Indian
nation as a whole. Gujarat for centuries has been an outward-looking region
— we were seafarers and world traders while the rest of the country
was a conglomeration of introverted, subsistence agricultural states.
Gujurati merchants and entrepreneurs are all over the world, little colonies
everywhere — India is just one of our many homelands, so to speak.
Our outlook is somewhat broader."
We were walking in stocking feet along the dusty passages and halls of the "new palace," built early this
century in mock-Gothic, town-hall style. The palace had obviously been unused for years. Pigeon
droppings encrusted the ornate tilework and carved stone traceries. The main audience room, rich in
baroque trimmings, possessed a cobwebby melancholy. An ornate (but very mildewed) throne stood on a
raised platform at the far end. Stuffed tiger and antelope heads on the walls dribbled sawdust from cracks in
their hides as we shuffled across the dusty floors. It was very quiet. The sounds of an always hectic city
were shut out by windows crusted with grime.
My royal companion was obviously a well-traveled and well-read individual, and somehow our conversation
had switched to a comparison of Western and Eastern attitudes toward life (as it so often does in India).
"Western man is a crisis-torn, self-divided, cosmic misfit. Excuse my saying so, and a terrible
generalization I admit, but I have found it to be often true. Western men tends to be bound up, imprisoned,
by his materialism and the limits of his conscious mind. Unless one has the urge and the means to find out
what is beyond mind — the conditioned brain, so to speak — to discover what is beyond the experience and
the act of experiencing; beyond the act of observation and the observer; the thought and the thinker; what is
beyond space and time, in fact — what is beyond all these symbols. Unless one has an innate passion to find
out, to discover for oneself, one will never be equipped to live in a full way — a full life."
He paused to point out a collection of music boxes and clockwork toys cocooned in dusty spider webs and
scattered randomly over an enormous Rococo table, a gift from the French royal family prior to the
revolution that rocked Europe.
"You see, you must have understood this from all your travels in Nepal
and India. Meditation, detachment, and self-control are the steps by which
human beings remake themselves closer to their origin. Unless outside
the mind and in touch with the timelessness of being — what is man?
What is the point?"
We were now at the top of the palace tower (after climbing a hundred
or more steps whitened by decades of droppings). Bhuj lay below us, a
tight winding warren of streets and alleys bound by those gray walls.
One of the main gates ended by a broad man-made lake in which the towers
and turrets were reflected. The water was gold in the late afternoon sun.
Women were pounding clothes on the stones at its edge. There were tree-lined
walks and little temples and oxcarts, and bell-ringing pedicabs. And beyond
stretched the bare land, rising to the fort-encrusted ridges of the Black
Hills, and then fading into the silver haze, out across the edges of the
"But I'm not a pessimist. Honestly, I don't think I am." The prince (in name only) added, "The world is
becoming a small, better place, I think. I believe we are on the threshold of a new time when man — particularly Western man — will come face to face with the boundless energy in himself. We are all moving
toward the inward and the beyond. At least" — he smiled shrugged his shoulders — "that is what I would like
We stood quietly watching the timeless scenes in this strange little city on the edge of the world's greatest
"Now come on. Let me show you the real palace. Come and see how the Raos once lived when all this was
The contrast with the dusty hollowness of the new palace was immediate.
We walked past the "Ladies Palace" with its finely carved wooden-lattice
windows (" so the ladies could see everything but not be seen") and stepped
through thick, studded doors into an Aladdin's cave of regal splendors.
Enormous silver-encrusted thrones; ornately carved carriages for state
occasions; doors of the most intricate inlaid teak and ivory designs;
displays of jeweled swords and fans; more hunting trophies and lions'
heads from the Gir Forest. We ended up in a magic place, the Pleasure
Hall, deep inside the palace where fountains once played and a miniature
moat of cool water ran around a central dais covered in gold-and-silver-threaded
cushions. Here the Maharao would recline, reflected in mirrors all around
the walls. "There was so much fun," the prince told me, "singing, throwing
water, games — and other things — all in lots of candlelight
reflecting off these golden decorations. Can you imagine how it was?"
I could indeed. What a life these Maharaos must have lived in this Pleasure
Hall, conveniently close to the Ladies' Palace, enjoying all the perks
of seemingly boundless power, plotting new glorious battles, parading
around in those elephant-drawn carriages. I wondered if the titular prince
was perhaps a little envious. But he was far too self-controlled to let
And I had other things to think about anyway. I wanted to get to the Rann.
On the way back to the hotel, a little event occurred that made Bhuj a warmer place for me, a touch more
accessible than I'd first thought.
I was passing the barbershop. The smell of hot flat bread was enticing,
and I paused to buy a small chapati-like round, toasty hot and bubble
crusted. And then I noticed a street vendor nearby cooking up all kids
of vegetarian delights in black iron cauldrons, over charcoal fires —
kormas, palaks, bhaturas, and masalas, brimming with chunks of eggplant,
peas, lentils, and curry and asked him to place it carefully on one half
of my chapati. I folded the other half over, pinched the edges and made
a sort of Indian version of an Italian calzone. It was delicious! All
those rich spices locked inside a patty of hot bread.
The baker was watching me and smiled as I filled my mouth with my improvised snack. Then I had an idea.
Why couldn't the baker make some more of these by layering the thin raw dough with any kind of curried
filling and then baking them for the normal ten minutes or so I his oven.
He seemed a friendly type so I stepped back into his store and explained
my idea. At first, and quite understandably, he seemed reluctant. I mean
after all, who the hell was this crackpot foreigner to suggest changes
to his centuries-old, father-to-son-to-son traditions? But when I explained
that I'd buy half a dozen of these custom-designed calzones for double
the selling price, he laughed and agreed to perform the experiment.
The street vendor joined in the fun, suggesting the various fillings, and we watched as the baker pushed the
little dough creations deep into his oven. Ten minutes later they were done creations — and they were
magnificent! The flavors of the bread and the curry melded together in a hot, fist-sized snack. No mess, no
fuss. A perfect Indian fast-food concept.
I shared my six "Bhujizoes" with the curry vendor, a nearby tailor, two wide-eyed children, and a man a
mule who had stopped to enjoy the fun. I only got to sample one of them. The others were gobbled up in a
few minutes. Then the tailor ordered two more; another man in log brown robes, who seemed very
self-important, ordered three; more kids clustered around, and pretty soon the baker had a street-blocking
audience as he stoked the fires and set about baking fresh batches. Everyone was laughing and chewing and
ordering more. Suddenly the city seemed like a fun place to be.
Later on in the evening I passed again and the baker was still churning
out his new creations. I waved and he came running over carrying two of
them wrapped in little squares of newsprint. He gabbled something very
fast (complimentary I think), shook my hand vigorously, and vanished again
to tend his baking Bhujizones. I have often wondered since if, together,
we'd added another variant to India's wonderful street-food offerings.
The following day brought another unexpected series of incidents.
"Please, sir, do not forget, if you wish to visit the Rann, you will be required to carry a permit," the hotel
manager advised me.
Getting a permit. Okay — no problem. I was more familiar with Indian
behavior now and foresaw no difficulties . . . .
"It is best, sir, if you will get to the office early," he advised.
It was not even two o'clock I the afternoon. Plenty of time.
But I should have known better.
The process required visits to three separate government offices; endless
filling out of forms (and filling them out twice due to a clerk's inability
to spell my name correctly); languorous pauses for betel nut chewing and
tea; returning to previous offices to "clarify" form entries; minute inspection
of every detail of my passport (including the binding!); an impressive
display of seal-making using a stick of red wax and a candle (only to
have the seal snapped into half a dozen pieces a few minutes later by
the next official on my list — in the next room); constant confusion
over the forms themselves, which were all in English, only one point carried
fourteen different sheets of paper from one department to another held
together by sewing pins; a warning from the next to the last official
that if the forms were not all completed by closing time at 6:00 p.m.
I would have to start the whole process over again the following morning;
and finally, at five minutes to six, waiting for the last signature from
a man who looked very imperious and sat on a tall chair raised on a carpet-covered
dais and seemed to be far more interested in the condition of his fingernails
than in my pile of wilting, ink-stained forms.
But I was proud. Throughout the whole four-hour ordeal I had never once
raised my voice or played the arrogant colonial (whom I'd discovered deep
in my psyche while traveling in India.) I smiled. They smiled. They shared
tea with me. They offered me betel "pan" and I accepted it (it took hours
to get all the little pieces of nuts and spices and whatever else goes
into its elaborate preparation out of my teeth). I offered them bidi cigarettes,
which they accepted (but on one occasion politely mentioned they would
have preferred Marlboros). And then — clutching my precious papers
like winning lottery tickets — I returned to the hotel for a traditional
vegetarian thali dinner (usually the only food available in Bhuj hotels).
Tomorrow I'll finally be off to the Rann, I told myself. I celebrated
by ordering a second enormous metal tray of thali and was just finishing
off my rice, dhal, vegetables, and paratha when someone started beating
on my door with the urgency of a fireman in the midst of a blazing inferno.
Now what? I opened the door.
Two neatly dressed policemen stepped promptly into my room with the worried manager trailing behind,
Keep calm, I told myself, don't blow a fuse. Be like you were earlier on at the government offices. So I was.
I answered all their questions, let one of them search my luggage, smiled as they meticulously inspected all
my permits, and smiled again as they saluted smartly and left. The manager was very apologetic.
"They very nervous, sir, of people going to Rann. Much trouble with drugs and weapons."
He couldn't seem to stop shrugging his shoulders.
"That's okay. I'm just a tourist."
"Yes — I am knowing that, sir. But they . . . ." His twitching shrugs completed the sentence.
"Honestly. It's okay. And thank you for looking after me."
He left, bowing and shrugging simultaneously.
Five minutes later, another knock on the door. This was becoming an Inspector Clouseau nightmare. I
opened it. And behold — another enormous tray of thali with two bottles of Thums Up Cola.
"Complimentary manager," the young boy said.
What a nice way to end the day. Three dinners!
This had been a long journey, one of the longest of my world-wanderings. All
the way from Kathmandu to the fair western limit of India to the vast
nothingness of the Rann of Kutch.
And was it worth it?
The drive north from Bhuj began as sensations of diminishing stimuli,
leaving the city and then the Black Hills behind, easing further and further
out into a flattening desert plain. I paused in one of the few villages
on the edge of the Rann and was entertained by the headman while his wives
and daughters paraded past me in brightly embroidered jackets decorated
with hundreds of tiny mirrors. I watched them sewing and sifting rice
in the shade of their mud huts and among the circular granaries topped
with conical roofs of reed thatch. Out under the thorn-bushes beyond the
village, herds of white cud-chewing cattle sat in statuesque groups, guarded
by naked, gold-skinned boys.
Nearby were two camels commencing the rituals of courtship. At first
it seemed gentle enough — a bit of nudging and polite nipping of
the flanks — but then the screaming and spitting began. Either the
females was in desperate heat or she was merely trying to discourage the
gallant male who was not attempting to mount her. The more he tried to
climb on her back, the more she spat and screeched. The boys lay on their
stomachs, laughing. Finally the male forced his seemingly reluctant mate
to the ground where she quieted down and just sat on her haunches with
a kind of " Well — c'mon then, get on with it" look. But the poor
male was obviously past his prime and for all his mounting and bellowing,
just couldn't seem to make it. So they ended up together, side by side,
eyes closed, like a couple of old pensioners ruminating about prior conquests
in the virile days of youth.
Further on, way out across the salty flats, a herd of over three hundred
camels were being led by a group of raiskas to a market near the coast.
Raiskas have a notorious reputation as fly-by-night seducers of village
women as well as their more traditional roles as balladeer-historians,
news carriers, and nomadic traders. I wondered what the decibel reading
would be for a herd this size enmeshed in mating rituals.
Later on, at another village close to the edge of the Rann where this story began, I joined in a wedding until
I felt that my presence was taking the limelight away from a visiting dignitary. He was being lauded to the
skies by a "walking historian" (a charan or bhaat) whose job it was to act as the official greeter and sing
long — very long — ballads in praise of the achievements and successes of each important visitor to this
desolate region. A role similar to that of a wandering bard in medieval England.
The elders of the village sat around the dignitary, nodding agreement, as the historian sang his
homage-filled rhymes. I always love to watch these old men of rural India. They seem to live such gentle,
quiet lives, respected by their families, cared for by their children, sleeping the hot days away in the shade of
their homes, or huddled in whispery bunches seemingly involved in the slow resolution of weighty matters.
I sat a distance from the wedding party so as not to interrupt their celebrations and chatted with a young
man who had just returned from Bombay to his village to attend the festivities. We sipped tiny glasses of
"dust" tea made from finely ground tea leaves mixed with cardamom, sugar, and milk. Very sweet but
refreshing, particularly on hot days like this. He seemed a little bored by the endless (and to him)
sycophantic, antics of the singing historian.
He spoke an English I could understand so I asked him about the daily routine
of the old men in the village.
"Oh this is very much our tradition, this taking care of our grandfathers
and great-grandfathers. A young man of the family will always be looking
after him. The old man knows how things should be, and he sees that everything
in his house and in his farm is in good order. When he is at home —
the women have cleaned up and all those things — and he sits down.
People come to call on him and take advice. If there is any calling to
be done then he goes out and calls on them. Ladies of the houses, they
are doing household work, grinding millet and corn, giving children their
bath, making the bread, and seeing for all things for a rainy day. They
clean up. If there are any rats here then they will see that a cat is
there who finalizes everything. Then, if it is very hot, the old man may
sleep — whenever the body requires it — and before sunset
he eats his food and usually goes to sleep after sunset because there
is no electricity here, you see . . . ."
I asked about the younger men too.
"Oh, a young man is very strong. He will go to the fields every day. He will take the animals out for grazing — or he may not. He may have a little porridge in the day to keep his reserves, then he will pay social calls,
and the rest of the time they are sitting, discussing, talking. It is not a very hard life. But when it is time for
cultivation, then you will find everyone out in the fields. Then it is very hard. But it does not last for long."
In an adjoining courtyard I could see four men in the shade of a line of round-walled granaries, furiously
weaving blankets, which were stretched out on wooden trestles and using bright red purple, and yellow
threads of wool. They had obviously not been invited to the wedding and seem to be ignored by everyone.
"Oh, they are not of this village. They walk around, all over, and make blankets when they are asked."
"They seem to be working very hard."
"Well, yes. They work whatever time they wish but they must complete
each blanket in three days or they will starve. Gold will not give them
food. But the talent is there, isn't it, and as long as the talent is
there, they do not have to bother about anything. No red flags of communism
here y'see!" He laughed at his own wit. "And that is why we in India are
safe from all that because it is embedded into us that we are satisfied
with what God has given us. The cycle of karma plays a very important
role in our day-to-day life and we say, if I don't have it, it is because
God did not will it. I must do something good in this life for my rewards
in the next one, d'y'see."
The singing historian was coming to the end of his ballad. His voice
rose, the nodding of the old men increased, and the dignitary sat very
straight and stern as the last refrains rang out. My companion translated
(with a sly grin):
"And you have been just, with authority, with kindness and with love for our village. Here you sit in these
four walls and we feel proud when we see you here, a descendent of the old house of our rulers that
began here in the year 1212 A.D., in this place. But do not forget your duty. You are a political power and
you are also a social power of great importance and we are all standing here and respecting you and
remembering all the great deeds of your revered family."
The nodding reached a crescendo; the dignitary nodded gravely too, waved his hand limply at the wedding
party, indicating that the celebration could now continue, with his blessing.
I wandered on around the village of tight-packed mud houses surrounded by high mud walls, trailed by a
snake of children who giggled as I walked and then scampered and ran when I turned to talk to them.
A group of old men, in huge grubby turbans, sheltered in the shade of a goat-nibbled tree, the only tree I'd
seen for miles, drinking something black in finger-long glasses. My English- speaking companion was still
"That tea looks odd," I said.
He laughed, "It's not tea. It's a kind of opium. Only the old men drink it. It strengthens the weaknesses of
His city cynicism flashed again. "Well — that's what they say. I think it just makes them sleepy."
The men invited us to join them in the shade of the tree. One of them pulled a heavy mortar of black rock
from under his gray robes and placed a thimble-sized piece of something that looked like broken obsidian
in the bowl.
"That's opium?" It wasn't at all like the little greasy balls I was to see later among the hill tribes in
Thailand's Golden Triangle.
"Yes. Watch him now."
The old man, whose sulphur-colored turban seemed to be unraveling as he moved, pounded the hard black
substance with a brass pestle into a fine powder. Then he added water, mixed it thoroughly, and strained it
through a piece of white cloth into a clay bowl, which he offered to me."
"I'm not sure I really want any," I whispered to my companion.
"Oh, that's not a problem. Just pretend to drink," he whispered back.
So I accepted the bowl, lifted it to my lips but kept them closed. I handed
the bowl back. The men nodded, smiled, and extended cupped hands toward
the man with the unraveling turban. He proceeded to pour a little of the
muddy fluid into each set of hands. There was a murmur of ritual acknowledgments
before they leaned forward and drank with eager sucking noises and licked
the gravely remains from their fingers.
"Now they all go asleep," said my urbane companion.
And that's just what they did.
A little later I met the old man whose brother had been lost in the
Rann many years ago. After his sad tale of the terrors of the place and
the spirits of "the whites" that haunted its barren wastes, I was anxious
to drive on deeper into the blazing nothingness, past the sun-cracked
skins of stone mountains, peeled off like onion layers. I wanted to see
the herds of wild asses said to roam the eastern portion, the Little Rann,
and the vast gatherings of flamingoes living and laying their eggs in
"cities" of conical mud nests way out in the whiteness. So I drove on,
leaving the village far behind.
Now there was not a tree or a shrub or even a single blade of grass
anywhere. Nothing but an endless eye-searing blankness in every direction.
The track as a vague incision in the salt, but beyond that was what I'd
come all this way to see — nothing at all. Twenty thousand square
miles of perfect flatness. No clouds, no movement, no life. Nothing.
It was like vanishing into some vast realm beyond the mind, way beyond
thoughts, beyond feelings and sensations and all the convoluted tangles
of consciousness. Even beyond awareness itself. A space so colorless,
so silent, and so infinite that it seemed to be its own universe. And
I just simply vanished into it . . . .
The sun was so hot in the dry air that I almost felt cold. I noticed this odd sensation at one point, about
twenty-five miles into the whiteness, when I got out of the car and walked out across the cracked surface of
the salt. After a couple of hundred yards or so the heat shimmers were so violent that I could no longer see
the vehicle. I couldn't even see my own footprints due to the hardness of the salt and intense shine radiating
from it. Then I noticed the shivering, similar to the sensation of a burning fever when the hotter your body
becomes the colder you feel. It may also have been a flicker or two of fear. I realized that I had done
something rather stupid. Two hundred yards away from my landmark was the same as a hundred miles. I
didn't know where the hell I was. I was lost!
I remembered the tales of arctic explorers caught in sudden blizzards
and dying in frozen confusion a few blinding yards from their tents. A
few yards in a blizzard is infinity. This was infinity.
In retrospect the whole incident seems ridiculous, but at the time I
sensed panic and the horrible reality that if I didn't retrace my steps
within the next half hour or so I'd become a raving sun-sacrificed lunatic
lost in this utter nothingness. Given shade I could have waited for the
sun to drop and the shimmers to dwindle. But shade was as possible as
alchemist's gold here. There was no shade for two hundred miles.
And then, as suddenly as they had come, the shivers ceased and I felt
an unearthly calm. I was neither hot nor cold now. The purity of the silence
rang like a Buddhist bell, clear and endless. Here I was in the loneliest,
emptiest place on earth, smiling inwardly and outwardly, utterly at peace,
as if in some sensationless limbo state between life and death.
I burst out laughing at the zaniness of the whole predicament and my feet, without any prompting and
guidance from the conscious part of me, walked me surely and certainly right back through the shimmers
and the vast white silence to the car.
The Rann is still with me now. In times of silence I return to its silence;
in a strange way I find it comforting and reassuring. We should all carry
a Rann somewhere in our minds. A place of refuge and utter peace. A place
of the mind but far beyond the mind.
I never did see the asses or the flamingoes or anything else out there. If I'd taken a camel rather than a car I
could have continued further and deeper but, as it was, I was hampered by thick mud below the salty crust
about thirty miles in. The monsoon had been late that year and the Rann had not yet been thoroughly baked
by the sun to make it safe for my way of traveling. But that was fine. I'd found what I'd come looking for.
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