Considering that it sprawls out over 5,000sqkm, the Little Rann of Kutch seems inaccurately named. Its name makes sense only in comparison with the salt desert next door: the Greater Rann of Kutch, which stretches out across 7,500sqkm. The word rann means “salty desert” and while driving through the Little Rann of Kutch, a salty desert is all you see. The first drive into the terrain feels a little surreal. The ground is cracked, the air is dry, mirages abound, and the parched earth unfolds endlessly in all directions. The Little Rann contains one of the country’s largest wildlife reserves, the Wild Ass Sanctuary, where the topography varies from large marshlands to brown-grey patches of soil with a few small thorny shrubs.
But this seemingly dead piece of land supports extremely rare wildlife. The Wild Ass Sanctuary is one of the few places to spot the ghudkar, or Indian wild ass. Other species here include the desert fox, jungle cat, jackal and several birds. Since there are no bushes or trees for animals to hide behind, they are easy to spot while driving around.
Desert Safaris A jeep safari is the best way to explore this enormous salty desert. It usually lasts three hours and the sections of the sanctuary visited depends on the interests of patrons. Birdwatchers opt for the marshlands but those who want to see mammals opt for the dry desert. To meet locals, the safaris head to the salt pans. The marshlands and Nava Talao (lake) are crowded with water birds. Flamingos and demoiselle cranes can usually be spotted in hundreds at some water bodies. The Indian wild ass andwhite-footed fox can be sighted on vast areas of golden ground. Look out for the rare hoopoe lark, which has brown plumage that allows it to camouflage itself perfectly in the ground. Since there are no trees or shrubs to act as a buffer between the vehicles and the wildlife, it is not possible to get too close to the animals. Though visitors are allowed to drive their own vehicles into the sanctuary, this is not recommended. There are no roads or landmarks in this vast and desolate area so it is easy to get lost (jeep safaris are organised by most hotels).
Salt Pans And Bullock Carts Speckled across the desert are white patches that look like piles of snow. Come closer, and a group of salt pan workers, known as Agarias, will be drying out or transporting huge piles of salt. The crystals are not for sale here but can be bought at most provision stores around Kutch. Salt panning is the main source of livelihood for many locals for a large part of the year.
Most hotels can organise bullock cart rides through the villages around the area. These are not joy rides for tourists but actual carts that the villagers use for their daily commute. They bring them to the hotels and are happy to share a part of their life with visitors. For visitors not used to this form of transport, the ride can feel slightly uncomfortable and slow in the beginning. But after a few minutes, passengers get accustomed to the movement and pace and start to enjoy the ride.
Modhera Sun Temple The sun temple at Modhera is a grand sandstone monument built by the Solanki dynasty in the year 1027 A.D. and is dedicated to Surya, the sun god. The complex is filled with elaborate carvings and the resident priest enjoys explaining the legends they depict. A step tank in front of the temple has 108 shrines that lead down to the water. Though the garbhagriha, or main shrine, was demolished in the 13th century by Allauddin Khilji, most other sculptures are intact (55 km/1 hour from the Rann).
Bahuchara Mata Temple This temple in Becharaji town is dedicated to Bahuchara Mata, a goddess who sits on a rooster, which is believed to be the symbol of innocence. She is also a patron of the eunuch community. Worshippers come here to seek the blessings of the hijras who live near the shrine (30 km/30 minutes from the Rann).
Rani Ki Vav This extravagant stepwell is one of the biggest in Gujarat. It consists of a multi-storey pavilion, a well and a large tank for surplus water. A walk down the stairs takes you past hundreds of delicate carvings and statues. It is quite evident that this well was constructed not just to store water but also to provide a site for worship and socialising. The walls are covered with carvings of Parvati, Shiva, Vishnu, and other gods. Though it is believed to have been built between 1022 and 1063 A.D., the structure was excavated only in 1958 and is now very well preserved. Right next to the well is a big lawn, a great spot for a picnic lunch. A small museum stands outside the entrance and has a nice display on the history of the area’s architecture (70 km/1.5 hours from the Rann).
Patola Saris Saris that cost two lakh rupees may not be on everyone’s shopping list, but are certainly fun to window shop for. The Patola saris of Patan have a history that goes back a thousand years. Only two families are known to still produce this double ikat style of handwoven saris. The Salvi family in Patan have a workshop, part of which has been converted to a mini museum. Someone from the family is usually on hand to explain the process to visitors. Each sari takes an average of six months to weave (80 km/2 hours from the Rann).
Dhrangadhra is the closest train station to the Little Rann (18km). It is possible to stay in this small town and take a day trip to the Wild Ass Sanctuary. Devjibhai Dhamecha offers homestays with small, clean rooms. They serve authentic Gujarati food and organise trips to the sanctuary (www.littlerann.com; 98255 48090; doubles ₹2,000 including all meals). There is an eco-camp near the village of Kidi, on the fringe of the sanctuary. The huts are not air-conditioned but well decorated and comfortable (www.littlerann.com; 98255 48090; doubles ₹2,000 including all meals).
Rann Riders, a resort in Dasada, on the outskirts of the Wild Ass Sanctuary, aims to recreate a village experience while providing amenities like air-conditioning, modern bathrooms, and even a swimming pool. The rooms are spacious and decorated with mirrors and local artwork. The safari guides here are well informed and friendly (www.rannriders.com; 99252 36014; doubles ₹7,920 including meals).
Desert Coursers is a camp at Zainabad, next to the sanctuary, with ethnic huts around a lake. The owner Dhanraj malik takes guests on safaris whenever he’s around. He is a great guide and knows the mammals and birds of the sanctuary well (www.desertcoursers.net; 027572 41333; doubles ₹5,600).
Horse riding is an interesting way to explore the area. Muzahid Malik, the owner of Rann Riders, has several horses on his property, including local breeds like Marwari and Kathiawadi. These breeds are known to have great stamina to withstand the hot weather and the shortage of water in the area. While short rides and day trips can be organised, Muzahid recommends a two- or three-day trip filled with long rides through the rann, bird watching near the lake, galloping to nearby villages and camping at night. Muzahid is open to training new riders and doing an easy route but says that visitors should ideally have a little riding experience to take full advantage of all the activities on the trip.
Appeared in the December 2012 issue as “Salt and Stone”. This story has been updated on January 14, 2016.
The Little Rann of Kutch is located in the north of Gujarat, around 130 kilometres northwest of Ahmedabad.
Air Ahmedabad is the closest airport (130km/3hours). Direct flights are available from most major Indian cities.
Rail Dhrangadhra is the nearest railway station, with daily trains to Mumbai. Rickshaws and taxis to Dhrangadhra town are available at the railway station. Taxis also go to Dasada and Zainabad.
Road Dhrangadhra is one of the access points to the sanctuary. It is located on the Ahmedabad highway and all buses from Ahmedabad to Kutch stop here. Dasada and Zainabad are other access points. The road from Ahmedabad is smooth and well-maintained for the entire three-hour drive.
The Little Rann gets flooded and inaccessible during the monsoon (June to August). The period from September to February is cool and is the best time to visit and spot migratory birds. The sanctuary is open during the summer months of April and may but the weather is hot and it may be quite difficult to step out during the day.