The Rann Utsav or White Rann Festival is an annual cultural extravaganza that is held at the Great Rann of Kutch, a vast tract of salt desert in the western state of Gujarat in India.
This initiative of Gujarat Tourism is organized during the winter months of November to February when the weather is conducive to tourism. The event is a transient window that opens up to display to us the magnificence and the scintillating features and culture of this distinctive land.
Temporary resorts are established so that tourists from the world over can experience the surreal allure of this region which is unique in its geography, landscape and natural manifestations.
There are multiple operators who provide resort and tour facilities for the duration of the season but the biggest of them all is The Tent City which is run by Lallooji and Sons.
This is the story of my stay at The Tent City, where I had the pleasure of experiencing the gorgeousness of this enormous expanse of Gujarat, which is like none other in this entire world !!!
‘Banayiye apni Rann ki kahaniyan’ goes the tag line of the Tent City … ‘Create your stories out of the Rann’.
So stay with me and listen to the story of my Rann’devous, as I Rann you through all the multi hued details.
Part 1 of the Rann Utsav featuring The Tent City – An Overview.
Also continue to Part 2 – Rann Utsav, Excursions from The Tent City
‘Kutch nahin dekha tho Kuch nahin dekha’, goes the tag line of Gujarat tourism, popularized in the commercial by none other than Amitabh Bachan, India’s world famous Bollywood star.
‘If you have not seen Kutch you have not seen anything’ … or as some would say – If you ain’t seen Kutch, you ain’t seen nothin yet 😀
Well the King sized K deserves no one less than the Big B, to promote the astounding phenomenon of its seasonal salt marsh and white expanse of salt desert that suddenly becomes accessible to tourists for 4 months of winter, after hibernating in extreme heat and (literally) lying low in marshy conditions for the rest of the year.
About the Rann of Kutch –
Kutch is India’s largest district, even larger in size than some of India’s states and some countries in the world and is said to have got its name from Kachchua meaning tortoise, due to its geographical resemblance to the humped shell of the animal. Kutch is also said to define that which is intermittently wet and dry.
The district is bordered by the Arabian sea to the West and the gulf of Kutch to the South. It is made up of the Rann of Kutch to the North and East. A part of the Rann extends in the North into the Sindh province of Pakistan.
Rann translates to Salt desert and this one is a part of the Thar desert bio geographic area. Centuries ago this was said to be a part of the Arabian sea and rose up as land after a series of geological upheavals.
It is divided into the Great Rann (GRK) in the West and Little Rann (LRK) to its South East, which are 7500 sq km and 5000 sq km in size, respectively
(The salt desert of the GRK is second in size only to the Salar de Uyuni which is a 10,500 sq km salt flat in Bolivia that has formed in the closed basins of briny lake beds)
Kaleidoscopic Kutch is how I would describe this gigantic region of Gujarat, where the monochromatic barrenness of its landscape is in stark contrast to the multi hued features of its people with their colorful costumes, their brilliant handicrafts and their vibrant culture that remains unfazed in the face of harshest of climatic conditions and terrain.
GRK – is a flat region that seasonally behaves as land for some months and sea during the rest of the year. The tides and winds of the monsoons from June onwards, force the Arabian sea to encroach nearly 150 km into the land which is at quite a similar level to the sea. The rain water further mingles with the brine and once the short lived monsoon is done, the water evaporates leaving behind the salt. In the months from November to February, the black clay of GRK is swathed in a white sheet of encrusted salt that turns whiter and whiter towards the sea.
From March to May the extreme temperatures cause the salt to dissolve and the land becomes marshy. In June the cycle repeats again and thus the saga of the Rann goes on.
LRK – is located to the South East at a distance of around 330 km from Bhuj. Apart from Kutch, this rann is also shared between the Gujarat districts of Surendra Nagar, Banaskantha, Patan and Rajkot.
Like the GRK, this region also alternates as dry land and wet land. The inflow of marine water here is from the Gulf of Kutch and the rainy season causes the land to become one with the sea.
While GRK is encrusted with a visible layer of salt, LRK has the appearance of broken chunks of cracked land made up of mineral enriched soil. More about LRK in another post.
About the Rann Utsav –
The Rann Utsav was a concept that came into being in 2005, a few years after the earthquake of 2001 that devastated parts of Gujarat. Bhuj taluk in Kutch district bore the brunt of the quake and lost thousands of its inhabitants in the horrific incident.
The festival was conceived to bring back hope to a land filled with despair and defeat and it went on to become such a success that it put this unlikely place on the world map, where today thousands of tourists visit from the world over.
It is a carnival that showcases the traditional music, dance, folklore, handicrafts, colors and distinctive culture of the Kutch region of Gujarat, ably supported by the surreal natural formation of its seasonal salt desert, which is the star of the entire show.
This festival has transformed the lives of the people of the region and created unimaginable revenue out of nothingness.
It began with a duration of 10 days in 2005 and went on to 15 days in 2008.
The concept of creating a Tent city for tourists in 2009, gave the festival a boost and from 200 tents it has surged on over the years to now house 400 tents.
The period has also expanded to 110 days which span the months of November to February. The dates for 2018-19 were Nov 1st, 2018 to Feb 20th, 2019. The dates for the next festival will be announced on their website.
About The Tent City –
The Tent city as I said, is the largest operator that functions during the Rann Utsav and provides resort facilities like food, accommodation and relevant Rann related experiences for the tourist. Currently being executed by Lallooji and sons on behalf of Gujarat tourism, this resort now occupies a area of 1.5 sq km that encompasses an impressive range of amenities apart from its tents.
The resort is established at the village of Dhordo in Bhuj taluk, which is on the fringe of the Rann and hence acts as a convenient gateway to the salt flats. The Tent city is a mere 6 km from the margin of the Rann.
Features of The Tent City –
The resort boasts of 400 tents that are spread across 13, C shaped alphabetically named clusters ranging from 30 to 60 units per cluster. There are various categories of tents to choose from.
The entrance to the resort is through an ornate gateway and the main drive is flanked by model Bhungas and the Reception building to the right and the baggage handling area, medical assistance clinic and shopping arcade (haat) to the left.
Bhungas are traditional cylindrical mud houses designed to cause minimum damage during earthquakes. The decorated ones at the Tent City are used as backdrops for photo shoots.
Further inside, the driveway branches out in different directions and leads to the tent clusters, dining halls, VIP hall, conference hall, handicraft stalls, spa, yoga and mediation center, kids zone, indoor games, gaming zone, art gallery, bike station, adventure sports and performance stage were cultural programs take place.
The entire ground lies under cover of swathes of green carpet that acts as a barrier that prevents the desert sand from rising, thus maintaining a clean dust free atmosphere.
The construction of the Tent City begins 2 months prior to the Rann Utsav and also takes equally long to dismantle and transport away after the end of the festival. Hence 6 months in a year are dedicated only to this annually repetitive activity.
The tents are of various categories that consist of non-AC Swiss tents, Deluxe AC Swiss tents and Premium Tents.
In addition there are the superior tents called the Darbari Suite and the Rajwadi Suite which are usually reserved for VIPs.
All the tents are housed in circular clusters with a cluster manager’s room at the entrance, a bonfire pit, a couple of swings and a central area to get together. The manager takes care of the cluster and attends to all its relevant issues.
For those who do not want to walk to the various amenities, there are electric golf carts that frequently whizz past the tents, picking up and transporting guests across the resort. The buggies can also be called for, using the Walkie Talkie communication between the staff.
The non AC tents are the smallest in size and are equipped with all the basic amenities like 2 single beds, desk and camping chairs, pedestal fan, attached washroom with 24 hour hot water, towels and basic toiletries of soap and shampoo (bring your own shower caps, moisturizer, dental kits etc). There is a little porch outside with a folding easy chair.
This tent can comfortably withstand the weather of November and February both in the heat of the day time and chill of the night, Kutch being a region of contrasting temperatures.
The deluxe AC tents are identical to their non AC counterparts but with the addition of air conditioning and electric heater, the latter being sorely needed during December and January to counter the chill of the desert nights that the fabric of the tents cannot effectively insulate from. Winter temperatures go as low as 5 deg c.
The premium tents are found across clusters A, B, C and D and are closest to the dining areas and other amenities. Apart from having the features of the regular tents, they have a king sized bed, a larger space with an extended sitting area, wooden flooring, tea and coffee maker, double bed and larger porch.
The F cluster and PM cluster contain 12 tent suites each, which are of the the highest category. Both clusters contain Darbari and Rajwadi suite tents and they have their own separate dining halls too.
The Darbari suite in the PM cluster is bullet proof and is used by VVIPs like the heads of state and has seen the likes of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi and President Shri Ram Nath Kovind.
These are 2 bedroom tents with a foyer, living room area, a dressing area and luxury washroom.
These tents are also equipped with 4 poster beds, flat screen TV, non alcoholic mini bar, wall to wall carpeting and high quality furnishings.
The Rajwadi tents are similar but smaller with only one bedroom.
There are a total of 3 Darbari and 21 Rajwadi tents all of which are mostly open only for VIPs.
My Tent –
No it was not the Darbari 😀
I stayed at the non ac tent and while it was reasonably comfortable, it could have done with a bit of refurbishing.
The facilities in the tents are more rustic than luxurious, though quite functional. Basic toiletries like soap and shampoo are provided and the plumbing is makeshift. Though water is available at all times, the pressure is not quite sufficient but again it is not unmanageable either. The hot water I assumed was solar heated, hence allowing it in a thin stream gave better results than opening the tap fully.
The fabric and zips of the tent were not in the best of condition and the inability to lock the tent was not comforting, especially as the resort does not officially take responsibility for guest belongings. However, the cluster manager is present at all times and assures the safety of the tents. Of course Gujarat is also said to be one of the safest places to be in and it is highly commendable that there were no untoward incidents of any kind during my stay anywhere in the state.
It would be nice however, to have the facility of a Do not Disturb sign on the tents and locks on the front flap as well as the washroom for privacy.
Handicraft stalls –
Nearly every cluster has a stall near its entrance where well known artisans display, demonstrate and sell their crafts. Kutch embroidery, pottery, woodwork, mudwork etc are some of the skills that are showcased.
I had the great pleasure of interacting with some of these artisans who were more than happy to talk about their work and demonstrate their craft which they keep alive with passion and dedication, despite the competition from machine made products that are considerably cheaper.
Working long hours to create intricate and exquisite patterns while battling weakening eyesight and posture related health issues, are some of the challenges that they face in a world that is increasingly paying less attention to hand crafted ware. However they take great pride in their handiwork and continue undeterred despite all setbacks.
Haat (crafts bazaar) –
The crafts bazaar has stalls selling Kutch handicrafts that include clothes, fabrics, shawls, bells, artefacts and other local items.
Prices may be higher than outside but are still quite reasonable considering that most of the items are handmade.
Apart from VIP dining halls, there are 2 AC dining halls that are allotted to the regular guests according to the proximity of their tent clusters.
Aesthetically put together with a traditional facade on the exterior, the dining hall also has a spacious interior furnished with comfortable tables and chairs.
The meals are all served buffet style and there is a daily menu published at the entrance that indicates what will be served at breakfast, lunch, high tea and dinner.
The early morning tea and coffee are served at the tents itself much like the luxury of bed tea 😀
Breakfast is a combination of a bit of Western with breads, pastries and juices, some South Indian, some generic North Indian and thankfully some local Gujarati items that I totally focused on 😀
While lunch is a rather multi cuisine mix of ‘North Indian’ (read Punjabi), a smattering of Chinese and Continental and some Gujarati, dinner is fortunately more Gujarati oriented and serves local delicacies that a foodie like me would want to indulge in.
A live singing performance accompanies dinner and the singer kept the diners enthralled with his melodious voice and choice of Bollywood numbers.
The food is catered by Sayaji Hotels and while I cannot call it a 5 star presentation or quality, I was pleased nevertheless at the homeliness of the preparations and the warm and friendly service.
The dishes are served off the buffet counters and the helpful staff are ever ready to explain how some of the combinations work.
There is also a separate Jain food counter that serves the appropriate cuisine.
I was excited to hang around the live counters that rolled out multiple local breads like phulkas, bajra rotis, theplas etc but I stayed away from the pasta and noodle stations that seemed to attract the local Gujarati guests more 😀
During my 2 days at the Tent City, I sampled some of the regional fare that included typical Gujarati farsan (snacks) like khandvis, khamans, handwos, fafdas, khakras and what not … all of them making an indelible impression in my tummy and on my mind 😀
My favorites were the rotis from the live counter, the rice kichu (a snack made from steamed rice flour) and sprinkled with the lip smacking gujarati pickle masala powder which I still dream of along with the Wadhwani marcha (green chilli) pickle that I ate like there was going to be a chilli famine in the land.
Tea time treats also included crisp pani puris and succulent vada pavs which I loved, side by side with cookies and other such non local items that I did not care to acknowledge 😀
Activities at The Tent City –
There are various activities offered at the Tent city, some of which are a part of the package and some of which are charged.
Entertainment is provided by way of an activity area that houses indoor games like snooker, chess, carrom, table tennis etc. There is a trampoline for children to work off their excess energy 😀 and also a mini library. One can hire cycles free of cost and explore the premises. Tandem bikes and segways are also an option for investigating the place.
The ReMedi Spa offers rejuvenating packages and if you are lucky you will be also be able to avail of discounts.
Specialized private operators appointed within the venue, offer adventure sports at a charge, like the 60 ft high Skyzilla where you can get your adrenaline to work overtime while being suspended in the air or flying through it, if you are game for free fall or pendulum swing or zip lining 😀
Get an idea of what the Tent city looks like from above, as you go para motoring. Keep in mind however, that aerial photography is not permitted due to the sensitive border security area.
Go for a thrilling ride on an ATV (all terrain vehicles), shoot and get shot with paintball, try your hand (and legs) at rappelling and rock climbing.
You can indulge in the therapy of shopping 😀 at their Haat (market place) that showcases a wide range of clothing and handicrafts of the region.
Gaze at works of art and buy a piece or two at the art gallery or make an artwork out of yourself by posing at the Bhungas and bullock carts near the entrance and getting your selfies or request some of the helpful staff to shoot you.
Every night after dinner, there are live performances at the stage area where local artistes sing, dance and play various traditonal musical instruments.
Excursions from The Tent City –
All the stays at Tent City come in the form of 3 packages that range from 1 – 3 night stays. The website lists the prices and activities that come with each combination.
Apart from some of the activities within the resort, the packages also include some excursions to a few of the surrounding attractions, depending on the duration of the stay.
The complete range of inclusions involve a sunset and sunrise trip to the white rann, a trip to the handicraft village of Gandhi nu dham followed by sunset at Kala Dungar and a ride to the beach at Mandvi with the Shyamji Krishna Varma Memorial and Vijay Vilas palace en route.
Full moon nights include an additional night trip to the rann.
The packages also include transfers to and from Bhuj at fixed times, with complimentary sightseeing on the return which includes the Sri Swaminarayan temple, Kutch museum (closed on Wednesdays) and the handicraft village of Bhujodi.
Click here for more information about the excursions.
Tent city app –
Guests are given the facility of a highly useful app ‘Rann Utsav – The Tent City’ which they can download and use after logging in with their Booking ID.
This app provides several features like the entire itinerary, event information, reminders 10 minutes prior to events, map to track live locations of guests, map of the venue, daily menu and even a space to share feedback and memories.
Phone and internet connectivity –
Phone signals work reasonably well throughout the resort and free wi fi is provided that is dependable for the most part.
Best time to visit –
November and February are the fringe months and the rates are lower. The weather is also not as cold and one can avoid the crowds that throng during the peak winter.
December and January are the high season and are considered the ideal time to visit the Rann. Though temperatures go as low as 5 deg the white cover of salt will be at its optimal.
Further, during these 4 months, there are special dates with enhanced rates on weekends, festivals and full moon nights.
The full moon nights are a great draw and are highly recommended because the Rann glistening in the moonlight is an experience that is said to be very special.
What you need to carry –
Warm wear is a must during the rann utsav since early mornings and nights are quite cold. Day time is pleasantly warm and can also get quite hot in the fringe months.
Carry mosquito repellent creams, though vaporizer machines are provided in the tents.
A good pair of walking shoes will be helpful to traverse distances within the resort as well as on the excursions.
Permit – Being a border security notified area, all Indian civilians need a permit to enter certain areas like the White Rann and Kala Dungar.
The Tent City performs the necessary formalities for its guests but in any case, getting a permit is said to be a simple process conducted at Bhirandiyara checkpost, costing Rs 100 and merely needing proof of being an Indian national. Online permits can be obtained here (I have not checked the validity of this link)
Visitor Profile –
The Tent city and Rann of Kutch are destinations that will suit all categories of travellers right from families with little children to corporates. Ramps and golf carts facilitate easy movement even for elderly and physically challenged guests.
Getting there –
Tent city at Dhordo is 85 km from the city of Bhuj. Bhuj is well connected by road, rail and air to many major cities across India.
Bhuj railway station is neat and well maintained and has frequent trains running to Ahmedabad which is a major city 330 km away and has an international airport.
Bhuj has a domestic airport which operates direct flights to Mumbai and stopover flights via Mumbai to all major cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad etc.
Guests of the Tent city are offered the entire package that includes pick up and drop from and to Bhuj, at pre determined times in a day. All the information is available on their comprehensive website and one can plan to be at Bhuj accordingly.
My Journey from Bangalore –
Bangalore to Bhuj can be accomplished via air with flights via Mumbai. However a much more economical option that takes nearly the same time (considering airport layovers), would be to fly from Bangalore to Ahmedabad and then take a train or bus to Bhuj.
There are several low cost flights from Bangalore to Ahmedabad as well as frequent trains and buses between Ahmedabad and Bhuj.
I flew on the 7 pm Spice Jet reaching Ahmedabad at 9.10 pm. The airport is barely 30 min away from the railway station.
My train was at 11.59 pm and it reached Bhuj at 7 am, well in time for the first pick up at 8.15 am.
The Tent City has set up its waiting room at the railway station where its guests can await the fixed time transfers to Dhordo which is 85 km away. Reasonably decent washroom facilities are provided and there is also an option of using the facilities at the adjoining Click Hotel if one chooses to dine there.
Please note that Tent City does not provide any meals at their waiting room. Only tea and coffee are offered. Food can be had at the station or at the Click hotel. However, light snacks are given on board the bus.
The bus took us on the 1.5 hour journey to the Tent City at Dhordo (85 km from the station), with one 10 min washroom stop en route.
Little children can be found at these stops, selling packets of Ber (Indian jujube) which seems to be the fruit of the region. A little girl followed me with a softly repetitive ‘Ber le lo … meeta hai’ and I paid her the Rs 10 and asked her to keep the ber 😀
Roads are excellent though the scenery is stark and the landscape arid, covered with only thorny scrub and short trees.
On the return journey, we boarded the bus at 9 am and we were deposited back at Bhuj by 2.30 pm with complimentary sightseeing along the way.
With very helpful inputs from the Tent city guides, I continued my exploration of Bhuj, before eventually boarding the 6.30 pm train (that runs only on Thursdays) to reach Ahmedabad at 4 am. I spent a few days at Ahmedabad before leaving for Bangalore again (more on that coming soon).
Why you should visit the White Rann and stay at the Tent City –
Go there to marvel at the sheer glory of the salt desert, of its blazing sunrises and sunsets, of its shimmering moonlit nights, at the resilience of the local people, at their mild manners that contrast with their tough lifestyle, at the skills of their handiwork, at the crafts that they fabricate, at the land that is arid and yet hospitable, at the ingenuity of a people who generate wealth from nothing, at the love that they shower you and at the deep emotions you feel in return.
Go there to be impressed by the intricately implemented logistics of the great Tent City, at the permutations and combinations of their packages, at the sheer numbers of guests that they cater to from start to finish, at the perfect clockwork timings that they maintain and ensure that their guests will maintain (IST the way it was meant to be), at the friendliness and extreme helpfulness of their staff, at the meals they smilingly serve 4 times a day for a non stop 110 days from makeshift kitchens and at the faultless execution of everything that they achieve without missing a step.
But most of all, go there for the stories they tell. Their guides who are mostly interns of hospitality management colleges, barely in their twenties, turn into story tellers par excellence as they accompany you on the various excursions.
Articulate and fluent, they grip your attention as they flawlessly and vividly describe the geographic upheavals of the land and tales of wars past, from eras when they were not even born … to stories of calamities when they were little, some of them having survived to narrate before you because of having missed Republic Day celebrations at school where all the rest of their classmates were killed in the fateful earthquake of Jan 26th, 2001.
Factual and with a quiet dignity devoid of attempts at raising sympathy, they keep you enrapt as you stand there transfixed, longing for more information and not wanting their words to stop!!!
‘Banayiye apni Rann ki kahaniyan’ goes the tag line of the Tent City. Create your own stories out of the Rann. But as their words flow over me, they inundate me and their stories seamlessly become my stories as I lose myself in their land and step back with them into their history. And as I leave, I carry the burden of my newfound information back in my memory and the goosebumps under my skin stay alert, ready to erupt at the faintest whiff of the Rann.
But days later as I gradually pour out my thoughts and lighten my mind like the evaporating waters of the sea, I realize that without my knowledge, I have in fact written my own version and the Rann and I have crystallized our relationship and become a part of each other forever.
Watch out for the next dates of the Tent City and make your plans to indulge in this outstanding celebration this year.
Booking and Contact –
A2, Shivalik Business Center,
Opp. Kensville Golf Academy,
Behind Rajpath Club, Off SG Highway,
Ahmedabad – 380054, Gujarat, India
Phone – Ahmedabad reservation office +91 97234 33208
Bhuj Pick Up +91 94299 14208
Dhordo Tent City Reception +91 94299 24208
They have 3 fixed packages to choose from. All details on their website.
For more pictures see My Facebook – The Tent City – Great Rann of Kutch – An Overview. Also catch me on My Facebook, My Facebook page, My Twitter and My Instagram
Please Note – This is a collaboration, based on the invitation of The Tent City and I thank them for hosting me with their warm hospitality.
The narrative is based on the inputs that I received from various sources as well as my own experiences.
Feb 5th – 7th, 2019