Secret lives of Zat tribals in Kutch

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kutch000In Kutch, India’s second largest district in Gujarat State, the pace of life remains much as it had in days gone by. A coastline dotted with boats, rustic villages, mud houses and a horizon that twinkles with the brilliance of a thousand stars at dusk. Nowhere is more apparent than in a cape in the northernmost tip, Dhordo – a scenic and untouched enclave nestled inside a silver desert. Here lies the Zat tribal village of Dhordo in Kutch district – a quaint little village fringing the long, magnificent silver crusted desert straddling the Indo-Pak border. The silvery desert of Kutch is spread over thousands of acres and landscaped by nature, Dhordo offers one the unique combination of the most eco-friendly comforts encased in an oyster of peace and surrounded by silvery sands and verdant hills. One wakes up each morning listening to the sweet songs emanating from the beaks of innumerable mynahs who have sought sanctuary under the cacti that surround this picturesque village.
One is writing this from one’s mud house (called bhunga in local parlance) inside the Zat village in Kutch. Dhordo is 140 km. away from Bhuj which is the district headquarter. Several species of vultures inhabit Dhordo and which is a two hour drive from Bhuj.
It is advisable to stay overnight at the mud houses of these Zat tribals for at least for one night if not more to explore the wonders of nature which abound this beautiful silver desert. Dhordo consists of isolated caves, dry cactus forests, scattered millet fields, silvery sands and unexplored terrain. Kutch is a large white sand desert on the western coast of Gujarat. With a geological history stretching back to 5000 years, Kutch also boasts of silvery deserts, emerald waters, prehistoric caves, rock formations and idyllic beaches.
One of the must see attractions after the novelty of the silver desert and snowy beaches have worn off is an early morning trek through the desert to have a closer look at the traditional life of the Zat tribals who have lived in this inhospitable terrain over centuries. Dhordo is located near Bhuj, and can be reached by a road in a matter of a few hours. The wild-life Home to innumerable varieties of animals and birds, Kutch is a nature lover’s delight.
After reaching Dhordo, it is advisable to avoid the model mud houses and expensive hotels which are nothing but air-conditioned mud houses constructed by vested interests to fleece modern tourists. If you want to enjoy your trip and get a closer peek into the secret lives of these Zat tribals, it is advisable to stay at the homes of the real tribals who live inside the desert. These houses are a short trek away from the nearest motorable point. Only if you stay with these tribals like I did, will you get an insight into how difficult life is inside the silver crusted desert. Zat tribals are untouched by the so called development and live off the land. This means, long treks to fetch water, subsisting on fruits of cacti, millet and vegetables. The real vibrant Gujarat can be seen when one treks through the desert in search of water! Travelling is learning, specially travelling to an unknown destination for the first time. In 2014, I undertook a journey to the Zat villages inside the core area of the “Great Rann of Kutch”in Gujarat. My objectives were to study the lives of themost primitive tribes, namely the Zats and the Bhils who continue to live inside the deep interiors of the silver desert on the border with Pakistan. I stayed at the mud huts of these tribals called bhungas in local parlance, while studying their dances, songs,sculpture, embroidery and paintings. It was during this trip, that I was introduced to Neela Zat. She invited me home to stay with him and watch the wildlife inside the desert at close quarters. I decided to accept her invitation and landed in her mud house with my rucksack. They quickly made a comfortable bed for me and arranged for some wild fruits including cactus fruits and mangoes. I discovered that the Zats were vegans who gathered the fruits of the desert and lived on sweet potatoes, potatoes and edible tubers, which grow on the sparse grasslands on the edges of the Great Rann of Kutch.They roasted the vegetables on a slow fire and consumed the fruits raw.
Every morning at sunrise, I was accompanied by Neela’s two daughters, to the lake, for taking my bath. I was escorted at all times I stepped out of my house. They ensured that I was comfortable in every way during my stay with them. I had a memorable stay with the Zat tribals. Every evening, all the village children gatheredunder a tree and one of the elders started singing a song and the children followed in chorus. I later came to know that theses tribes did not have a written scriptand all teachings were through the medium of stories, songs and dances! As these tribes could not read or write and outsiders could not understand their tribaldialect, there was no distortion in their history, as the foreign invaders could not alter tribal history as theycould do in languages which had a written script.
So, I learnt about how the universe was created andhow millions of date trees grew on the hills that surroundKutch. I learnt the names of the flowers,fruits and medicinal herbs found in the desert. Even their dances symbolise the triumph of good over evil.These Zat tribals were nature worshippers and stronglybelieved that a divine force protected the desert. Theyworshipped the primordial elements namely fire, waterand earth. I learnt all these concepts through theirfolksongs and during their story telling sessions everyevening. Many a times my hosts would go to bed on anempty stomach but ensured that I did not stay hungryas they kept bananas for me outside my hut. They livedin harmony with nature and did not indulge in treefelling or hunting of animals. Here was a tribalcommunity who were illiterate as they did not follow awritten script but every tribal child could remember themedicinal properties of all herbs found in the forest,thanks to the lessons learnt through the language ofstories!
The harmony between the Zats and the wildlifewhich lived in the forest adjacent to their leaf-huts wasunbelievable. Chinkaras would calmly wanderaround their leaf-huts. Women folk would feed the birds by holding sunflower seeds in their hands.Jackals, foxes and caracals would keep away from thetribal children who continue to play around their mud hutsunmindful of the wildlife around them. Wild camelsused to pay a regular visit to the tribal hamlets andwere rewarded with fresh grass and cacti.The Zats were extremely hospitableto guests. They lived an extremely simple life and respected the laws of nature. Their diet comprised ofwild fruits and vegetables collected from the forests.

 

The folk tales of the Zats speak about the creationof the universe by God and his two sons. God created the oceans first and in the oceans, a small patch of landappeared which grew in size and spread through theoceans. Then, God’s first son created the trees andpopulated the forests with animals, while his other son,created birds which flew in the sky and turtles andfishes which swam in the oceans. The tribal song whichelucidates the creation of the earth is exactly worded inthe same words that the ancestors of the present daytribals, saw them. According to their folk songs theearth and all its beings were created simultaneously,exactly 5000 years ago. Every evening the tribal eldersstarted singing their ancient folk songs to the youngergeneration, so that they remembered their divineorigins and knew that they were connected to nature.

 

How to get there?
By road:
Visitors traveling by road have to drive from Ahmedabad to Bhuj which is approximately 330 km.
The drive from Bhuj to Dhordo is 140 km.

By air:
The nearest airport to reach Bhuj0020is at Bhuj. Bhuj is connected by direct flights from New Delhi and Mumbai.

By train:
Bhuj is connected by trains from all over India.

Where to stay:?
Narayan Sarovar Forest Guest House inside the Narayan Sarovar Chinkara sanctuary is a value for money proposition. The simple yet comfortable accommodation costs Rs. 500/- to Rs. 700/- per night on a twin sharing basis. Homestays with Zat tribals inside their mud houses or bhungas with comfortable beds spread on the floor, outdoor bathing and squat toilets cost Rs. 500/- per night. Approach the tribals directly for getting the most economical rates. Avoid travel agents and other middlemen. If you know palmistry like I did, the Zat tribals will let you stay for free like I did!

Where to eat:?
Lots of small restaurants serving Gujarati, Kutchi and Kathiyawadi vegetarian cuisine dot Bhuj. Freshly steamed vegetables with spices, pumpkin cooked in mustard paste, boiled spinach with pulses are served with millet (bajra) rotis cooked in an earthen oven at most roadside dhabas. The food at the high profile hotels is only for the gastronomically adventurous who like greasy food. Fresh tropical fruits including water-melons, papayas, tender coconuts, pineapples and are available at the local market. The Zat tribals serve hot millet rotis baked in a clay oven alongwith garlic flavoured, roasted baby brinjals, cooked on a open hearth. The one word that describes this meal aptly is “heavenly”.