flora: Photo of a baby penguin chick (Default)
2009-11-01 12:00 pm

Indus Valley ruins and 500 Miles of Salt - Dholavira and the Rann of Kuch

The ancient Indus Valley "cradle of civilization" is today an island in a dry sea of salt. Hundreds of miles of salt flats stretch across to Pakistan. It's a barren wasteland that looks eerily similar to snow. We saw it, and tasted it too.

We left very late. Kutch is a five hour drive from our home in north Gujarat. We planned to leave at 8 in the morning. Our driver came by 9. However, his jeep was out of town; it didn't arrive until after 10:30. We ended up leaving at 11. We submitted a ShmooCon abstract to fill the time.

The Great Rann of Kuch looks exactly like a frozen Great Lake in the midwestern USA. But it's *salt*, not snow. This was a great, shallow sea as recently as the time of Alexander the Great. Even now, when it rains in monsoon season, the sea briefly returns and fills with shrimp. Flamingos flock here by the thousands for the shrimp feast, turning pink from the shells. But in the dry winter months, when we visited, the Great Rann is a silent, barren landscape of solid white. Neither plants nor animals nor people live there. We saw only a handful of vehicles - mostly construction equipment. And mostly heading the other way. There aren't any gas stations out there; people mostly use camels or the rare, precious tractor.

If you've ever walked on a snow-covered lake, you have an idea of what Kutch is like. When Lake Michigan freezes over, it's a vast expanse of flat, sparkling white stretching beyond the horizon. Not completely flat; the wind sculpts the snowdrifts into long, horizontal white dunes. With sun or freezing rain, the formations develop a hard, brittle crust that crunches underfoot. Walking on the crust makes footprint craters that break through to the soft snow below. Now imagine that same landscape, but with a 90-degree temperature and absolute still silence. Add a briny ocean smell, and substitute salt for snow. That's Kutch.
View of the Great Rann of Kutch salt flats

We stopped the car and walked on the salt plains. The surface cracked under our feet exactly like frozen snow. We broke off a little bit of the crust and tasted it; natural sea salt. I stayed near the relative stability of the road.
Michael on the Great Rann of Kutch - before he fell in
My husband wandered over to a pretty, open pool of water, with Yellowstone-like colors from the minerals. The salt crust was thin at the water's edge, and Michael fell in!  He didn't go far, but he sank past his ankles in brine. When he extracted himself, his feet and sandals were completely covered in salt.

We needed the jeep. The sturdy, national highway ended 40 kilometers before Dholavira. The Indian Government was actively doing construction on the lengths on over the salt flats, with a strangely solid, single raised bed. On land, it was another story. We took two hours to travel the last 40 kilometers. After an hour of barely-road travel, our driver suddenly realized he'd passed the last gas station for 200 kilometers and we wouldn't have enough to get back. So he stopped at one of the villages and they poured a can of diesel fuel into the jeep. Whew!

We finally pulled into the Harrapan ruins at about 4:30, the only car in the parking lot. A handful of workers were still sifting through the archeological site with drum-shaped screens.  Other workers were coating the ancient bricks with a slurry of cow manure and mud.  There are huge, elaborate systems of reservoirs created to capture the monsoon rains for use in the dry seasons. Photography was prohibited, since it's an active archeological site.

There's a tiny, year-old museum there too. The workers followed around us, switching on and off the displays of the millenia-old artifacts.  They have found many toys, including carved marble chessmen-like figures and toy carts; pottery; stone and shell beads; and beautifully detailed seals for stamping designs into wax. The seals included several intricate, recognizable designs startling in their lifelike quality. Several seals showed a multi-headed water buffalo--like a bovine Cerberus. Their mundane, single-headed buffalo are today outnumbered by camels and goats in this part of India. The climate changed, and the area became deserted.