Dhordo, home of nomadic desert tribes in Kutch

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The only home of the Zat tribals in the “Great Rann of Kutch” is located in Bhuj District in the western Indian state of Gujarat State. The village of Dhordo is 100 km away from Bhuj town and approximately 40 km away from Khavada, which is the entry point into the Banni grasslands. The terrain is barren and covered with cacti. Wildlife including jackals, blue bulls and chinkras can be found on the fringe areas of the desert. I undertook a travel to this region in September 2010.

During the winter, several species of migratory birds visit Dhordo which is in the heart of the Banni grasslands on the edge of the silvery, salt-crusted desert. The most unbelievable fact about Dhordo is the existence of several unnamed Zat villages inside the desert. The Zat tribals who once lived deep in the Thar Desert migrated to Kutch after partition. The India-Pakistan border is very near Dhordo.

These tribes are known as Zats by the locals and trace their ancestry to Baluchistan as they speak remnants of Baluchi, to this date. The base camp for entering the white sanded desert of Dhordo is Bhuj, which is located at a distance of 100 km. The Zat settlements around Dhordo are a 12 km trek through a dirt road which winds its way through the desert.

Blue Bulls and chinkaras abound in the Banni grasslands. More often than not, one could also come face to face with several species of birds, which migrate to the Banni grasslands every winter from Siberia.

The Zats respect the law of the desert and do not indulge in hunting. They trek through the desert on foot and do not use camel-carts. They live on fresh vegetables millets, dates and wild fruits. They do not rear cattle or camels and live on an extremely frugal diet.

The women-folk wear a large nose-ring passed on to them by their grand-mothers. Zat women are very good at embroidery and mud sculptures and their art and sculptures are extremely attractive.

They live in eco-friendly mud-huts known as “bhungas” in local parlance. Addiction to alcohol is rare as Gujarat is a prohibited state and brewing or sale of alcohol is illegal. Zats are forced to live off the land in extremely inhospitable conditions. Wild fruits, grass and berries are available in plenty. There are several watering holes across the desert. The Zat women-folk trek long distances to collect water from these watering holes.

The Zats continue to exist inside the desert facing the harsh realities of life with cheer. Music and dance are a way of life for the Zats. They continue to sing their ancient tribal songs in their own tribal dialect and sway to the beat of their ancestral music. The Zat tribal songs are a constant feature during their community gatherings.

Zats have also preserved their ancestral costumes, and every family has preserved one set of tribal costumes which they don during ceremonial occasions, marriage or other festivities. The tribal flute and other musical instruments played during the singing have also been maintained in working condition.

The beat of the drums and the swaying steps of the dance transport the viewer into a bygone era. The dancers move in synchronicity, men, women and children dance together in reverie and camaraderie in a community gathering.

One of the important aspects of Zat culture is their existence in the present moment. They think only about the here and now. They do not dwell on the past or contemplate the future. They are always aware of the present. If they get a meal they are happy, but they continue to remain cheerful, even if forced to go hungry to bed.

During monsoon, most of the Zat tribal houses are swept away by the rains. However, the Zats remain extremely stress free and rebuild their huts after every monsoon. They continue to live inside the desert during the rains and do not migrate to higher ground. It would be an understatement to say that the Zats are free from mental stress or worries. Smiling children, laughter, music, boisterous chatter, trance dancing and cheerful faces are the highlights of a visit to this inaccessible Zat village in the heart of chinkara country. Almost all Zats have married amongst themselves and maintained their ethnic purity over the years.

One of the most important lessons one can learn from the Zats is to shut out the past and forget about the future and continue to exist in the present. The learning experience from the Zat tribal’s is aptly conveyed by this ancient Zat proverb:

“Do not pursue the past,
Do not lose yourself in the future;
The past no longer is,
The future has not yet come;
Looking deeply at life,
As it is;
In the very here and now,
The Zat lives in stability and freedom”

How to get there?
The nearest international Airport is at Ahmedabad. Bhuj is a 330 km drive from Ahmedabad. Dhordo is located 100 km. away from Bhuj and nearly 40 km off the Bhuj-Khavada Highway. Non-stop driving from Ahmedabad to Bhuj should not exceed eight hours.

Where to stay?
The Forest Guest house at Kala Dungar is an affordable and comfortable place to stay. Bookings need to be made in advance and costs Rs 500 (20 AUD) per night. The accommodation is comfortable and the food is basic.

Where to eat?
Lots of small restaurants serving North Indian and Gujarati cuisine dot Khavada. All restaurants offer simple but delicious vegetarian fare.