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The Banni Grasslands of Kutch.

After a complete SWOT analysis, we selected to visit The Rann of Kutch (greater as well as little) as our holiday destination and I must say it was a decision well made. The place is a must see not just for its avi-fauna but also for its cultural and geological importance.

Featureless plains of Banni

The Featureless plains of Banni Grassland

Gujarat is a colorful state, and perhaps Kutch still retains most color. People here are simple, helpful and very courteous, their attire enticing, their language sweet despite the hardships they face.

Our first destination was the Greater Rann of Kutch. We stayed at CEDO, Moti Virani Village. CEDO, the Center for Desert and Ocean is a trust run by one of the most knowledgeable persons about the region, Mr. Jugal Kishore Tiwari.  Nearest to CEDO is the Banni Grassland where we spent a lot of time.

A Shepherd at Banni

A Shepherd at Banni

The place Banni (meaning bani hui, or ready made) gets its name from its geological past, the land was formed from the sediments deposited by several rivers that flowed through the region over several thousand years. People say that prior to the earthquake of 1816, the river Indus flowed right through Banni and the local farmers reaped rich harvests. After the earthquake, the rivers changed course and the place now is almost featureless, arid grassland fed only by the seasonal monsoons with very few farms seen. Due to the high salt content of the soil the vegetation is sparse and plants we came across most were salt tolerant shrubs like Mesvak – Salvadora persica, Lana – Suaeda fruticosa, Ooeyen – Cressa cretica, Lai – Tamrix aphylla and Sedge – Cyperus rotundus. Ahem… my Botany prof would be pleased ;-)

Grazing Common Crane (Grus grus)

Common Cranes Grazing

We were wondering what the common cranes were eating from the ground when our guide on the first day, Mohammad dug out the tuber of Sedge and asked us to eat it.  For something coming out of an absolutely dry, salty earth, the miniscule tuber was indeed tasty, and perhaps nutritious for birds and rodents if eaten in large quantities.

We learnt that the place has a population of several thousand (an estimate is over 60,000) migrant Common cranes. Where do these cranes go at night was the question nagging our minds. There are several water bodies that fill up during the monsoons. The nomenclature of water bodies is interesting. The smallest of water bodies is called as Kar, Chhachh is bigger than Kar, Thathh is bigger than Chhach and Dhand would be the biggest of the wetland. While the smaller water bodies dry up the bigger ones like Chhach and Dhands survive the harsh summers of Kutch.

Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica)

A Bar-tailed Godwit

Chaari Dhand is situated in Banni grasslands and has lot of bird activity. It is here that we saw Marsh Harrier hunting, Bar tailed Godwits fighting, several species of ducks, innumerous waders, and best of all, one evening we witnessed the thousands and thousands Common Cranes coming towards the lake to spend the night. They were calling to each other, flying in formations and landing smoothly, one group after another. We watched the show, awestruck for over an hour. The evening light carried with it the silhouettes of cranes and sun setting beyond Keero hill was a sight to behold. Totally magical.

A conical hill,  Keero is an important landmark of Banni. It overlooks the great Rann of Kutch, west of Chaari Dhand. It is also an extinct volcanic site and has several layers of fossil treasure hidden underneath.  Kutch was undersea two million years ago and the area has is a rich resource for Marine fossils from the upper and middle Jurassic era (135 to 150 million year old).  We were lucky to find some ammonites and belemnites from the dry riverbed. Our host, Mr. Jugal Kishore Tiwari showed us his excellent collection of over 200 fossil specimens from the region.

Aasim with fossils with Keero hill in the Background

Aasim examining fossils, The conical Keero hill.

After a hard day of fossil collection and bird watching, while we were heading back one day, we encountered a strange phenomenon. I had read about it, was curious too but had no expectations of witnessing the Chir Batti of Banni Grasslands. Four distinct pear shaped lights, one yellow, three blue, were twinkling at a distance of about 100 feet. They seem to vanish for some time, and then reappeared. Tarique said they could be night mirages, Aasim had his own theory of the gases trapped getting ignited by static electricity – but none of us was sure of what it was. The villagers simply call them Chir batti or Ghost lights. “These have not caused any harm so far and are a common sight in the Banni grasslands” Mohammad said.

Sykes’s Nightjar (Caprimulgus mahrattensis)

Completely camoflouged Sykes's Nightjar

Mohammad, our guide on the first day, who belongs to Mutva community of Kutch, has spent many a years with BNHS doing fieldwork in Banni and ringing birds. A local, he has quiet a lot of knowledge about the region, birds and bird behavior.

Few locals do farming here, as it is completely monsoon dependent. A few centuries ago they grew red rice and a several more crops through out the year at Banni, but now very few crops like til (seasame) and Castor are farmed and that too only during the monsoons.

Golden Jackal (Canis aureus)

Golden Jackal in evening light

The locals essentially herd goats and camels and are friendly souls. Greeting one another whether you know them or not is very common.  Honest, simple souls, these are the people of our country – they are rich in etiquette and wisdom which many of us,  city dwellers, lack.

The unfortunate earthquake of January 26, 2001 had its worst effect on this area, most families lost their children, and the pain is extremely evident when you talk about earthquake, any earthquake.

More pictures of the trip can be seen on my flickr account.

Many more pictures taken by Tarique are here.

Posted in Chronicles, Travelogues.

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