Still lives

A naturalist's trip into the heart of Kutch
A godwit in the waters at dawn
A godwit in the waters at dawn

I heard them before I saw them. I stood on a vast expanse of cracked earth, the air crisp with a hint of salt, as a distant trumpet chorus rolled towards me. The shrill bursts tore at the pre-dawn gloom, melancholy even in unison. Louder now, a tottering &lsquoV&rsquo of specks against the pale pink sky. Then a blur of grey and black and the slap and whoosh of a thousand wings as the common cranes washed over me in waves. From their night roost in the wetlands of Chari Dhand out into the chapped earth of the Banni grasslands for a day of foraging.

Just south of the Great Rann, Banni is at the heart of Kutch. The new sun revealed its boundless silt flats from which rises the iconic cone of Kiro Hill, a dead volcano with Jurassic-era marine fossils in its foothill folds. This land has witnessed more than its share of volcanoes, earthquakes, receding seas and moody rivers. In the wet season it is a verdant flood-plain. But on this January morning Banni was a bleak vision of parched earth with a smattering of dry scrub. Or was it Why had the cranes travelled here from Scandinavia in droves I could see their large huddles, heads down, busy. Banni yields its treasures to the persistent.

Digging in I found that the dry scrub were shoots of nut sedge that have tiny bead-like tubers deep in their roots. The beads come with a papery skin that I could shell but the cranes naturally don&rsquot. I popped one in and it tasted like a jot of jicama &mdash subtly sweet juice and crunch. This is what the cranes were rooting for and in their wake left behind tilled patches where smaller birds, like the desert wheatear, rummaged for seeds. On the migratory route of European and West Asian birds, Banni supports countless migrants from over 200 species that winter here annually.

And birds there were aplenty. The raptors wheeled above &mdash Montagu&rsquos harriers, spotted eagles, long-legged buzzards, kestrels &mdash and in the utter absence of trees landed on the ground, a sight uncommon in peninsular India. A couple of chestnut-bellied sandgrouses, the male less decorated for a change than the female, explored a crane-tilled patch. A grey francolin rummaged for grain in desiccated dung, its finely barred dun body nearly blending with the dirt. There was no shade except under the occasional Salvadora persica &mdash desert banyan &mdash whose spindly branches droop to form a squat canopy. And scattered around were bushes of salt-resistant Suaeda fruticosa whose fleshy leaves the camels survive on.

In such a suaeda cluster, I saw a Stoliczka&rsquos bushchat &mdash a threatened semi-arid specialist a tad larger than a sparrow that now remains mainly in Kutch and in the Thar. This lone male was on the ground and had launched into its endearing &lsquopuff and roll&rsquo display puff up the chest, swagger like Salman Khan, then skitter a few steps and repeat. Experts are unsure if this display is territorial, but if it is then I found pathos in this tiny bird&rsquos wish to impose its mark on such an intractable space. As if on cue, a dagger wind kicked up dust devils and cut through my down jacket even at noon, with menacing hints of what April brings.

I was driving to birding spots in Kutch from my base at the village of Moti Virani, two hours northwest of Bhuj. My driver Jayaram was a native Kutchhi and knew the land like the back of his hand. He could spot a barn owl dozing in a rock niche 300 feet away from the road while driving. But this was clearly not his kind of travel. &ldquoWe don&rsquot travel just like that,&rdquo he told me. &ldquoThis is the land of Pirs and Auliyas. We go on pilgrimages.&rdquo Something about his easy and meaningful ownership over the land left me bereft. To hide it, I redoubled my focus on a chameleon slowly rocking across the road, a strikingly vulnerable electric green against the black-top. Chameleons are expert climbers who cannot sprint. We had stopped, but the road does kill. A little later, we saw a grey mongoose getting ready to feed on the crushed body of a small Indian civet. Interrupted, he looked up and held my eye with his crystalline rubies.

Heading south to the Gulf of Kutch one morning, we drove through the ancient port of Mandvi. At the dhow-building yard, wiry men with rudimentary hammers and saws worked towering sal logs floated in from Malaysia into 400-feet dhows. Each one takes three years to build and then sails to the Arab sheikh client in Dubai. The ties between coastal Kutch and the Middle East are very old. And the birds know it too. At the beach near the fishing village at Modhva I saw crab plovers &mdash rare monotypic shorebirds that fly all the way from Iraq to winter specifically at the Kutch coast.

We were winter visitors, birds and birders all, crowding the brief window that Kutch allows before the blinding heat. But there are pastoral nomads who call Banni home, such as the camel-herding Fakiranis who used to move smoothly between Sindh and Kutch before an international border got in the way. On a late afternoon, I sat in a Fakirani camp within a cluster of thorny babools, once introduced here as easy firewood and now an aggressive weed. Lounging around me were a couple dozen she-camels fat with milk &mdash unfussy transport and drink dispenser rolled into one.

Sakina&rsquos was a truly open kitchen gleaming pots and pans around a babool-fire stove under the sky. Her daughter Noorbanu, already luminous at four, played in the dirt. I was eyeing Sakina&rsquos vat of camel milk with a thick head of froth, so she gave me a bowlful. The milk was delectably rich with a distinctive animal bouquet. I sipped and ogled the Fakirani women their richly embroidered red tunics, their exquisite bejewelled noses, their stylised braids from each temple that brushed past the cheeks in great arcs before meeting at the nape. It occurred to me that my gaze had been much the same earlier in the day with some painted sandgrouses. Sakina&rsquos gaze was quite different. She laughed at my socks as she caressed Noorbanu&rsquos bare feet, as cracked as the earth around us.

For sunset, Jayaram was taking me to Chari Dhand &mdash the largest waterbody within Banni whose surrounding wetlands are rich in avi-fauna. En route, we ran into two golden jackals bathed in golden light amidst the suaeda. In stark contrast to the rest of Banni, Chari Dhand was a profusion of colours in the ageing light the steel-blue waters the iridescent green of the tall grass near the water-line that grew paler with height the pink of the lesser flamingoes and the yellow-orange beaks of the Dalmatian pelicans. On a babool branch, a rare red-necked falcon ate its feathered prey with great relish, occasionally pausing to clean its beak. The cranes were coming in for the night, their slim frames silhouetted against the flaming orb of the setting sun.

In the morning we drove to Naliya, near the western edge of Kutch. Unlike Banni, which has sparse and salt-resistant vegetation due to its proximity to the Rann, Naliya is a true grassland vast stretches of golden savannah studded with the occasional acacia. The quality of light remained surprisingly angular even at noon. Nearly blended with the tawny backdrop, I saw a jungle cat posing in the sun, its pointy ears erect, eyes level. In contrast, a black francolin completely stood out, a stylish ensemble in greenish-black, chestnut and red. But the sightings here were few and far between. Naliya has been heavily encroached by neighbouring villages, both for grazing and farming. It is a breeding habitat of the critically endangered great Indian bustard, less than 250 of which are thought to remain. It is also where the Adani Group is building a 100MW solar power plant across 600 acres.

That afternoon we were in the Jathaveera thorn forest, an ideal habitat for the elusive white-naped tit, an India-endemic that is currently under threat. A tiny bird, with a charming pattern in black with a white &lsquoS&rsquo painted down each side starting at the beak, it is exceedingly frisky. I was delighted to eventually see one, but it was the thorn forest that got under my skin. The gnarly white acacia limbs and the smooth yellow-green euphorbia columns, set against a flawless blue sky. Walking back, I thought I saw movement in a patch of lumpy dirt. Jayaram signalled me to sit and be quiet. They emerged within minutes desert jirds, irrepressibly cute gerbils with button eyes and a paintbrush tail. I was a few feet from a warren of dens teeming with activity adults cleaning house, babies horsing around. In crystalline silence.

En route to the nearby rock formations in Layari, Jayaram spotted a spiny-tailed lizard in an open field, basking next to its den. This was a sighting I had been in the hunt for. We had tried our luck in Naliya and had come upon a clutch of dens, every one of them dug up. &ldquoThe Padhari Kolis harvest them for meat and fat,&rdquo Jayaram had said. The beauteous specimen now in front of us was about three feet long, a squareish head and a speckled buff body tapering into a spectacular whorl of spines. It was easy to believe that when that heavy tail is swung, some serious grief can ensue. I wasn&rsquot careful enough and the lizard slithered into its den before I had my fill. So we visited an established den in a nearby village whose grizzled occupant was much darker, nearly an olive-brown, likely because it lived in a shady glade.

Sunset at the dry riverbed in Layari was a revelation. The backdrop was primarily white a salt-encrusted uneven canvas of volcanic rock. From this rose smooth domes of eroded lava, painted with swirled bands of yellow, pink, grey and white &mdash the colours aglow in the dying light. Sculpted by swift currents, this was a colour-coded topo-map in stone. Where the waters couldn&rsquot reach, the domes bore less eroded ochre crests. The place brimmed with suggestive formations, a studio for 3D Rorschach tests. As for me, I was seeing shoe soles everywhere &mdash vertical and horizontal, gargantuan and humanoid. I found a spaceship complete with a port-hole and a shoe sole, and sat next to it at twilight. A jackal chorus rose in the distance. This frieze of past motion, I realised, was really a place to learn about stillness.

On my last night in Kutch I was back in Banni at the camp of Musa Fakirani and his family. His eldest daughter Hanifa, an iridescent sixteen, sat making chapatis for the large brood. We were sitting by the fire under a dense canopy of stars that cradled a crescent moon. The boys smelled like camels. Musa began to sing and the women joined in as an a-capella chorus while getting dinner together. An ethereal music, grainy and polyphonic like a snake charmer&rsquos flute, rose into the still night. They were singing of Savla Fakir, the patron saint of the Fakiranis. Inspired, I sang of my Lalon Fakir. With Jayaram&rsquos help Musa and I agreed that Kutch or Bengal, we were singing the same song. The camels harrumphed in the dark. The fire fell into embers. And in that congealing darkness I thought I caught a fleeting glimpse of the idea of India.

 The information

Getting there

The village of Moti Virani, 55km northwest of Bhuj, is a good base for exploring the naturalist's Kutch. Bhuj is well-connected by rail with Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Delhi. Several airlines, including JetLite and Kingfisher Red, have non-stop service to Bhuj from Mumbai (fares begin from about Rs 3,500 one-way).

The birder's tour

I stayed in Moti Virani with Jugal Tiwari, ecologist and birder extraordinaire, who runs his Center for Desert and Ocean from his home. His pleasant garden compound also houses a small handful of spacious doubles for visitors. My trip was arranged by Ficus Wildlife and Natural History Tours for Rs 20,000 per person for a four-day visit that included all transfers and transport ex-Ahmedabad, accommodation, food, a 4WD SUV for all field trips and an expert naturalist for every field session. Meals were local vegetarian fare. To join such a tour, contact Ravi Kailas of Ficus (9941918519,

What to see & do

Over my four-day stay, I did two field visits per day, each lasting five to seven hours. Banni is less than 20km north of Moti Virani and most of my forays were into its various parts the wetlands of Chari Dhand and Baghera That, the marine fossil bed at the foot of Kiro Hill, the Fakirani camps and 360-degree vistas of saline silt and suaeda. I did one session at Naliya (62km west of Moti Virani) and another at the Gulf of Kutch coast at Modhva, near Mandvi (110km south of Moti Virani). In addition, there were a few sessions at the Jathaveera thorn forest and the dried riverbeds at Layari and Sarannath, which are less than 15km from Moti Virani. I did not step into the Rann at all, Great or Little, but you might want to. Little Rann is the place to go for wild asses or clouds of pink flamingoes, and is quite a bit east of where we were.

When to go

November through February is the ideal time to visit. But then there is the promise of Banni's verdant avatar in the monsoon, and the lure of Layari's coloured rocks mirrored in water.

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