Every year, travellers from around the world gather in Kutch, Gujarat, to celebrate the magnificence of its white desert sands at the Rann Utsav. Spread over a vast 7,505sqkm, the Great Rann of Kutch lies in the heart of the Thar Desert, touching Pakistan’s Sind Province on one side, and making it the largest salt marsh in the world. The festival is held in the village of Dhordo, known as the gateway to the white sands, and located 81km/1hr20min from Bhuj. Rann Utsav extends over three months, bringing together local artisans, performers, musicians and folk artists in an attempt to recreate the state’s rich culture. This year, the festival will run from Tue November 1, 2016-Mon February 20, 2017. Here’s what you need to know about visiting the utsav this year.
The Rann Utsav allows you to sample local Kutchi culture, which includes but is not restricted to, handicrafts, embroidered fabrics, traditional attire and musical performances. While travellers choose to stay for longer periods of time at the festival, most people visit over a weekend and spend the rest of their time exploring the desert and a bit more of the state. Even a weekend at the tented city of Dhordo, organised by the Gujarat Tourism Board, is a pretty good use of tour time. To narrow down your itinerary, here’s how you can tailor your tour based on your interests.
If you’re just looking to spend some quality time with your family and indulge in some much-needed relaxation, book a luxury tent. Sit back and enjoy the serene beauty of the desert and enjoy the activities that the Tent City offers. If you choose to spend two days at the festival, aim to reach Dhordo around lunch, after which you can have a lazy afternoon lounging in your tent, or spend quality time at the spa and meditation centre. Visit the Club House, which hosts an entertainment centre in the form of indoor games for children. In the evening, head out to explore the area on the ATV bikes, golf carts or on the Trikke – a delightful scooter that takes you around the Tent City, all available for hire. Hang back, browse through the shops and walk around. If you feel inclined to participate in activities, there are performances as well as rifle shooting and archery on the hour at the site. After dinner, sign up for the mesmerising star-gazing sessions.
The Kala Dungar, or black hill, of Kutch provides a breathtaking view of the desert. Called so because of its appearance, the Kala Dungar is located only 25km away from the festival (95km from Bhuj), and is famous for two things: the great panoramic view of the Great Rann of Kutch and a 400-year-old temple dedicated to Dattratreya, a three-headed amalgamation of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. For those looking for an adrenaline rush, a trek up to the sunset point; civilians aren’t allowed beyond the military check-post. The best time to visit the Kala Dungar is either at the crack of dawn for a brilliant view of the sunrise over the Great Rann, or just in time for the sunset (leave for the hill immediately after lunch). Linger as the sun makes its way out, to gaze at the starry sky and experience the feeling of being dwarfed by a vast expanse above and the barren land below. Tours for visiting the Kala Dungar from the Rann Utsav operate regularly; book a ride back in advance, to reach in time for dinner. If you’re up for it, try and catch the sunrise the next morning at the Dungar yet again.
Apart from the Wild Ass Sanctuary, spread over an area of 5,000 sq km in the Great Rann of Kutch and home to chinkaras, foxes, jackals and blue bulls, this magnificent area sees over 100 species of migratory birds such as flamingos and cranes. You could leave for Kala Dungar right after lunch the day you arrive, and visit the areas around the hill.
It doesn’t get more romantic than lying on the pristine white sands under a star-lit sky with your significant other, bathed in moonlight. You can opt to book your stay during one of the full moon nights; the package costs for full moon nights are higher, and usually fill up fast. The full moon nights during this year’s festival fall on November 14, December 13, January 12 and February 11. Take a ride up the Kala Dungar, just in time to witness the silvery moonlight lighting up the infinite white sands – a view that will remain engraved in your memory forever. You could also pack dinner and find a quiet spot for a moonlit dinner for two under the stars. The next morning, take an early ride to Mandvi beach (2.5 hours one-way), enjoy the sand and surf, and follow it up with breakfast on the beach.
Avoid shopping at the utsav unless you’re a master at negotiation. While the offerings at the venue may seem unique, you could save your money if you’re willing to travel a little for a cheaper bargain. Bhuj (an hour away) has hole-in-the-wall shops with different kinds of Kutchi knick-knacks on offer: look for Bhoomi handicrafts, Kutch Bandhej and stalls around Khatri chowk. Waniyawad, an area behind the bus station, is also known to sell exquisite shawls and apparel. For leather goods and other souvenirs, pay a visit to Gandhi Nu Gaam, a village of artisans near the Rann Utsav that was restored after the devastating earthquake. An ideal itinerary would look like this: Arrive at the Tent City, relax and explore the area for a bit after lunch, and then visit Gandhi Nu Gaam later in the afternoon. The next day, head back to Bhuj.
If you are interested in old heritage buildings and palaces, try and extend your trip by a day. Spend the first day touring the Tent City and leave for Mandvi the next day after breakfast to visit the magnificent Vijay Vilas palace. This sea-facing palace has been the star of many Bollywood films and has accommodated film stories and stars within its opulent walls. The architecture of the palace reveals influences from Kutchi, Rajasthani and Bengali styles with Rajput-styled interiors. It boasts a lush green expanse of land and a private beach. Leave the next day after breakfast for the Aina Mahal (Palace of Mirrors) in Bhuj with its impressive Victorian-era architecture and glassy splendor.
Kutch’s most successful export to fast food has been the lip-smacking dabeli, a desi sandwich with a sweet and savoury potato, pomegranate and peanut filling sandwiched between two soft ladi pavs. If you’re taking a road trip from Bhuj to Dhordo, you’re sure to find vendors selling this delicacy at every stop. Also keep a lookout for karak or kadak, where the dabeli filling is mashed with toast rusk for that distinctive crunch. A staple Kutchi thali – which you will find at the fest – will have bajri no rotlo (millet roti), green chilli pickle, chhas (buttermilk), kadhi and a generous helping of semi-liquid khichri, oozing with ghee (each meal is accompanied with jaggery and ghee). Sample everything from the vendors at the festival for local tastes. In the unlikely event that you don’t find dabelis around, head to Mandvi for beachside fun and check out the great street food there. Fish lovers will be disappointed here, as despite it being a coastal town, the food served at Mandvi is mostly vegetarian.
Check in at the delightful luxurious tents put up at the festival or at hotels in the surrounding area. The nearest hotel is Hotel Toran (9km from the festival area in Dhordo). Another option is the Rann Kandhi Resort (also 9km away). However, it is advisable to stay at the Tent City only for convenience and the experience.
You can also get a room in Bhuj, which has the nearest airport and railway station, and travel to and from Dhordo for the festival; it also costs much lesser (approx ₹3,000 a night).
A basic two-day package from Bhuj, inclusive of meals, non-AC couples tent accommodation and sightseeing starts from ₹6,500, and goes up to an AC couples premium tent for ₹9,100 in December and January; November and February rates are a little lower. The package includes a pick-up from, and drop to, Bhuj.