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India — The Rann of Kutch
The haunted and mysterious wasteland between India and Pakistan
by David Yeadon

Close your eyes and imagine the utter emptiness. A white nothingness — a brilliant, frost-colored land — fat as an ice lake, burning the eyes with its whiteness. Not a bump, not a shrub, not a bird, not a breeze. Nothing but white I every direction, horizon after horizon, on and on for over two hundred miles east to west, and almost one hundred miles north to south.

This is the Rann of Kutch (or Kachchh), the largest area of nothingness on the planet; uninhabited, the ultimate physical barrier, separating India from Pakistan along its far western border. Only camels can cross these wastes, and at terrible cost. During the monsoon season it's a shallow salt marsh, carrying the seasonal rivers of Rajasthan slowly out to the Arabian Sea, just south of the great Idus Delta of Pakistan. Then for months it's a treacherous quagmire of molasses mud under a brittle salt skin. Periods of safe crossing are minimal. Occasional piles of bleached bones attest to the terrors of this place. Tales of survivors, reluctantly told, are unrelieved litanies of human (and animal) distress. There is life out here — herds of wild asses the size of large dogs and vast flocks of flamingoes encamped mud-nest "cities" — but very hard to find.

"It is a strange place." An old man in one of the baked-mud villages on the southern edge of the Rann had finally agreed to talk about the place through a local interpreter.

"I crossed the Rann many times when I was a young man. Now the only people you will find on it are people carrying drugs or guns. The army tries to stop this trade" — he flung out his small, cracked hands — "but what can they do? The Rann is so vast, the army cannot always use their trucks or their jeeps. They get stuck in the mud, even in the dry season. You can never . . .the Rann. Every year it is different. It is very hard to now which way is safe for a crossing. One year . . . ." — he paused and studied the endless horizon. "Many years ago, I lost my brother and his camels. He was not so experienced as I was and we had a disagreement. I told him we had to go the long way because the monsoon had been late and the mud was not dry. But he was in a hurry. His family was very poor . . . . " The old man smiled sadly, "We are all poor but he wanted to buy land and build his own house . . .he was in a hurry."

He paused again and we all sat staring at the shimmering whiteness. Even the sky was white in the incredible heat. "He was a good man. I was his older brother. He should have listened to what I told him." Another long pause.

"What happened?" A stupid question. I knew the answer.

The old man shaded his eyes. "He has his eldest son with him, twelve years old. A fine boy . . . ."

There was a wedding in the village. We could hear the music over the mud-walled compound. Later there would be a procession and a feast of goat, spiced rice, and sweet sticky cakes.

"He went a different way?"

The old man looked even older. His face was full of long gashed shadows.

"You must go the wedding," he said. "They will be proud if you go. Not many people like you come to this place."

"I've been already. But I think it made people a bit uncomfortable. I seemed to attract more attention than the bride and groom. One man looked quite offended, a man in a bright blue suit."

He laughed. "Ah! Yes. I forgot he was coming. He is with the government — very important. He liked to take charge of things . . .just like my brother."

"So what happened to your brother?"

The old man shrugged. "He took the wrong path. We found two of his camels on our way back. They were almost dead but we brought them back home to our village.

The music of the wedding faded. It was hard to find shade from the sun. I looked across the Rann again. Almost one hundred miles to the other side, with no oasis, no water, no shade, just this endless salt-whiteness.

"He could have reached the other side. Maybe he decided to stay for a while?"

"His family is here. His wife and his children."

"Maybe the army arrested him?"

"No, this was nine years ago. The army was not here so much at that time."

"So you think he died."

The old man drew a slow circle with his finger in the sandy dust.

"He became a 'white,' like so many others."

"A 'white'?"

"We call that name for men who do not return from the Rann. Part of their spirit remains in the Rann There are many, many of them. Who can tell. Maybe hundreds of men. Hundreds of whites."

"Back home we call them ghosts. Here it is a different thing. We are not afraid of the whites. When we cross the Rann we remember them. They protect us. Something they guide us."

"But you never see them?"

The old man smiled and spoke quietly. "As I told you, the Rann is a very strange place and you can see many strange things . . .it is difficult to explain. The Rann is not like other things on earth — not even like other deserts. It has its own nature and if you listen and look and think clearly, you will be safe . . . ."

"Your brother didn't listen?"

"He was a good man but much younger than I. And he had many worries. His mind was full of many things. He could not hear clearly."

"Do you think about him a lot?"

"He was my only brother. We had five sisters. But he was my only brother."

"So in a way, he's still here."

"Of course. He is a white. He will always be here."

~

On a long bus journey south from Jaisalmer to Bhug, across miles of deserty wastes, I did some homework about the Rann of Kutch. The owner of the hotel had very generously lent me a few books on Gujarat, and I scribbled away, delighted by one descriptive passage from a booklet by a Lt. Burns in 1828:

. . .Rann comes from the Sanskrit word "ririna" meaning "a waste" . . .a space without a counterpart on the globe, devoid of all vegetation and habitation . . .its surface shines with a deadly whiteness; the air, demand quivering mocks all distance by an almost ceaseless mirage. No sign of life breaks the weary loneliness. Stones and bones of dead animals mark infrequent tracks . . .passage at all times is dangerous, travelers being lost even in the dry season. Because of the heat and blinding salt layers, passage is made at night, guided by the stars from dawn to dusk . . . .

Just my kind of place for a dry-season ramble!

Gujarat has also been a "land apart" on the Indian subcontinent. Ruled for centuries by powerful and fierce Maharaos, the "Lkutchis" have long had an outward-looking attitude to the world. Their fame as seafarers, merchants, traders, and even pirates has made them a major presence in East Africa, Arabia, and the Persian Gulf. Recent development here by the Indian government of the new port of Kandla is beginning to increase Gujarat's links with the rest of the country, but the Kutchis still value their own history, traditions and independence.

The ruined castles of feudal chieftains, set high on the crags of Gujarat's Black Hills, are still revered places. So too are the remote shrines of local saints, whose pious meditations and fierce penances (tapsia) were said to give them power over gods and the local warrior-kings.

You can see that power here in the bleakness and broken ridges of the hills. Fragments of ancient fiefdoms still dot the sun-bleached desert and, as Bhuj suddenly appears — a gray, solemn bastion of towers and high tone defense walls — I wondered how much had really changed in this remote region since the wild rampages of a ferocious duo known as Mod and Manai in the ninth century A.D., and the cruel vengeances of the warrior Ful in the next century.

Tales of cunning, intrigue, murder and massacre are the very stuff of Gujarat legend. Our contemporary scandals and seem like schoolboy pranks when set beside the tangled complexity of regal power plays in and around Bhuj.

Take one of Ful's little escaped. When he was a child, his grandfather, the powerful king Dharan Vaghela, decided to slaughter most of his power-hungry relatives. Ful only escaped the massacre when his maidservant dressed her own son in the royal infant's robes and sacrificed his life to save the baby prince.

Revenge later became Ful's main aim in life, and when he reached fighting age he challenged Dharan Vaghela to combat and neatly lopped off his head in the first blow. That may have been enough for most warriors, but Ful's vengeance was not satiated. He had the skin stripped off the corpse, flayed, stretched across an enormous chair, and then invited one of Dharan's pregnant daughters, an aunt, to join him for supper. When she realized she'd been tricked into sitting on the skin of her murdered father, she committed suicide. Her unborn infant was cut living from her body and became known as Ghao, "he that born of the wound." And not surprisingly, the vendetta continued into the next generation and the next.

The "memorized history" of Gujarat is full of such legends, piled up oke rockstata, hard and thick. "Ages shall wear away," the Kutchi bards sing, "but our stories shall remain."

And what wonderful stories: a princess turning herself into a mosquito to drive a king mad; the tumbling of mighty fortresses by magic catapults; the mysterious "cursed city" of Padhargadh whose ruins can still be seen today; the brilliant Troylike invasion of the poor city of Guntri by soldiers hidden in hay carts. All great stuff!

What surprised me was that in all the tumult and vengeance wreaking and city annihilation of Gujarat history, Bhug still stands intact, surrounded by its high walls and impregnable gates. Until only a few decades ago, the city's ruler, Maharao Khengarji III, had the keys to the five gates of Bhug delivered to him personally every night, and every morning he would have them returned to the guards so that the citizens could conduct business beyond the walls, and the long lines of bullock carts and camels camped outside could enter with their products from the desert villages.

Known as the "Jaisalmer of Gujarat," Bhuj is a medieval maze of tight, winding streets, flurried marketplaces, ancient palaces (now museums), and Hindu temples decorated with gaily painted gods, abandoning themselves to the joys and terrors of all their incarnations. Someone described it as "stepping into a Salman Rushdie world of mystery and intrigue." I didn't sense much of the intrigue except in the intense secretiveness of the Gujarat shopkeepers and merchants, whose agile abilities with the abacus and whispery deal making confirmed their reputation as India's most skillful traders.

But mystery — definitely. Everyone seemed to have a mission. There were few beggars or loiterers. You sense constant purposeful movement here with little time to notice foreign travelers. People were friendly but in a kind of indifferent way. It was as though this remote city, rarely visited by outsiders, responded to a higher agenda of purpose, reflecting centuries of accumulated tradition and independence from the rest of the country.

For once, I enjoyed the anonymity. I felt like a floating camera lens, recording scenes, capturing the flavor of the place, but almost invisible. No lines of chattering children followed me around; no hands grasped at my elbows demanding handouts; no merchants leaped from their tiny trinket, tailoring, and "traditional art" shops to snare me inside.

The Indian government has one of the largest military bases in the country just outside the city; purportedly to keep a wary eye on the Pakistanis and their always imminent invasion across the Rann of Kutch. But somehow you wonder if they're also watching the mysterious Bhujis and Kutchis too.

"Ah yes, Bhuj is rather different from other Indian cities." I'd been lucky enough to meet one of the descendants of the royal family here who lived in a few simply furnished rooms with an English country house feel to them, deep in the recesses of the Rao Pragmaljis palace. He was a tall, thin-featured man, who spoke with quiet English public school eloquence: "We have always possessed a certain reticence about our role in the Indian nation as a whole. Gujarat for centuries has been an outward-looking region — we were seafarers and world traders while the rest of the country was a conglomeration of introverted, subsistence agricultural states. Gujurati merchants and entrepreneurs are all over the world, little colonies everywhere — India is just one of our many homelands, so to speak. Our outlook is somewhat broader."

We were walking in stocking feet along the dusty passages and halls of the "new palace," built early this century in mock-Gothic, town-hall style. The palace had obviously been unused for years. Pigeon droppings encrusted the ornate tilework and carved stone traceries. The main audience room, rich in baroque trimmings, possessed a cobwebby melancholy. An ornate (but very mildewed) throne stood on a raised platform at the far end. Stuffed tiger and antelope heads on the walls dribbled sawdust from cracks in their hides as we shuffled across the dusty floors. It was very quiet. The sounds of an always hectic city were shut out by windows crusted with grime.

My royal companion was obviously a well-traveled and well-read individual, and somehow our conversation had switched to a comparison of Western and Eastern attitudes toward life (as it so often does in India).

"Western man is a crisis-torn, self-divided, cosmic misfit. Excuse my saying so, and a terrible generalization I admit, but I have found it to be often true. Western men tends to be bound up, imprisoned, by his materialism and the limits of his conscious mind. Unless one has the urge and the means to find out what is beyond mind — the conditioned brain, so to speak — to discover what is beyond the experience and the act of experiencing; beyond the act of observation and the observer; the thought and the thinker; what is beyond space and time, in fact — what is beyond all these symbols. Unless one has an innate passion to find out, to discover for oneself, one will never be equipped to live in a full way — a full life."

He paused to point out a collection of music boxes and clockwork toys cocooned in dusty spider webs and scattered randomly over an enormous Rococo table, a gift from the French royal family prior to the revolution that rocked Europe.

"You see, you must have understood this from all your travels in Nepal and India. Meditation, detachment, and self-control are the steps by which human beings remake themselves closer to their origin. Unless outside the mind and in touch with the timelessness of being — what is man? What is the point?"

We were now at the top of the palace tower (after climbing a hundred or more steps whitened by decades of droppings). Bhuj lay below us, a tight winding warren of streets and alleys bound by those gray walls. One of the main gates ended by a broad man-made lake in which the towers and turrets were reflected. The water was gold in the late afternoon sun. Women were pounding clothes on the stones at its edge. There were tree-lined walks and little temples and oxcarts, and bell-ringing pedicabs. And beyond stretched the bare land, rising to the fort-encrusted ridges of the Black Hills, and then fading into the silver haze, out across the edges of the great Rann.

"But I'm not a pessimist. Honestly, I don't think I am." The prince (in name only) added, "The world is becoming a small, better place, I think. I believe we are on the threshold of a new time when man — particularly Western man — will come face to face with the boundless energy in himself. We are all moving toward the inward and the beyond. At least" — he smiled shrugged his shoulders — "that is what I would like to hope."

We stood quietly watching the timeless scenes in this strange little city on the edge of the world's greatest nowhereness.

"Now come on. Let me show you the real palace. Come and see how the Raos once lived when all this was ours."

The contrast with the dusty hollowness of the new palace was immediate. We walked past the "Ladies Palace" with its finely carved wooden-lattice windows (" so the ladies could see everything but not be seen") and stepped through thick, studded doors into an Aladdin's cave of regal splendors. Enormous silver-encrusted thrones; ornately carved carriages for state occasions; doors of the most intricate inlaid teak and ivory designs; displays of jeweled swords and fans; more hunting trophies and lions' heads from the Gir Forest. We ended up in a magic place, the Pleasure Hall, deep inside the palace where fountains once played and a miniature moat of cool water ran around a central dais covered in gold-and-silver-threaded cushions. Here the Maharao would recline, reflected in mirrors all around the walls. "There was so much fun," the prince told me, "singing, throwing water, games — and other things — all in lots of candlelight reflecting off these golden decorations. Can you imagine how it was?"

I could indeed. What a life these Maharaos must have lived in this Pleasure Hall, conveniently close to the Ladies' Palace, enjoying all the perks of seemingly boundless power, plotting new glorious battles, parading around in those elephant-drawn carriages. I wondered if the titular prince was perhaps a little envious. But he was far too self-controlled to let on.

And I had other things to think about anyway. I wanted to get to the Rann.

On the way back to the hotel, a little event occurred that made Bhuj a warmer place for me, a touch more accessible than I'd first thought.

I was passing the barbershop. The smell of hot flat bread was enticing, and I paused to buy a small chapati-like round, toasty hot and bubble crusted. And then I noticed a street vendor nearby cooking up all kids of vegetarian delights in black iron cauldrons, over charcoal fires — kormas, palaks, bhaturas, and masalas, brimming with chunks of eggplant, peas, lentils, and curry and asked him to place it carefully on one half of my chapati. I folded the other half over, pinched the edges and made a sort of Indian version of an Italian calzone. It was delicious! All those rich spices locked inside a patty of hot bread.

The baker was watching me and smiled as I filled my mouth with my improvised snack. Then I had an idea. Why couldn't the baker make some more of these by layering the thin raw dough with any kind of curried filling and then baking them for the normal ten minutes or so I his oven.

He seemed a friendly type so I stepped back into his store and explained my idea. At first, and quite understandably, he seemed reluctant. I mean after all, who the hell was this crackpot foreigner to suggest changes to his centuries-old, father-to-son-to-son traditions? But when I explained that I'd buy half a dozen of these custom-designed calzones for double the selling price, he laughed and agreed to perform the experiment.

The street vendor joined in the fun, suggesting the various fillings, and we watched as the baker pushed the little dough creations deep into his oven. Ten minutes later they were done creations — and they were magnificent! The flavors of the bread and the curry melded together in a hot, fist-sized snack. No mess, no fuss. A perfect Indian fast-food concept.

I shared my six "Bhujizoes" with the curry vendor, a nearby tailor, two wide-eyed children, and a man a mule who had stopped to enjoy the fun. I only got to sample one of them. The others were gobbled up in a few minutes. Then the tailor ordered two more; another man in log brown robes, who seemed very self-important, ordered three; more kids clustered around, and pretty soon the baker had a street-blocking audience as he stoked the fires and set about baking fresh batches. Everyone was laughing and chewing and ordering more. Suddenly the city seemed like a fun place to be.

Later on in the evening I passed again and the baker was still churning out his new creations. I waved and he came running over carrying two of them wrapped in little squares of newsprint. He gabbled something very fast (complimentary I think), shook my hand vigorously, and vanished again to tend his baking Bhujizones. I have often wondered since if, together, we'd added another variant to India's wonderful street-food offerings.

The following day brought another unexpected series of incidents.

"Please, sir, do not forget, if you wish to visit the Rann, you will be required to carry a permit," the hotel manager advised me.

Getting a permit. Okay — no problem. I was more familiar with Indian behavior now and foresaw no difficulties . . . .

"It is best, sir, if you will get to the office early," he advised.

It was not even two o'clock I the afternoon. Plenty of time.

But I should have known better.

The process required visits to three separate government offices; endless filling out of forms (and filling them out twice due to a clerk's inability to spell my name correctly); languorous pauses for betel nut chewing and tea; returning to previous offices to "clarify" form entries; minute inspection of every detail of my passport (including the binding!); an impressive display of seal-making using a stick of red wax and a candle (only to have the seal snapped into half a dozen pieces a few minutes later by the next official on my list — in the next room); constant confusion over the forms themselves, which were all in English, only one point carried fourteen different sheets of paper from one department to another held together by sewing pins; a warning from the next to the last official that if the forms were not all completed by closing time at 6:00 p.m. I would have to start the whole process over again the following morning; and finally, at five minutes to six, waiting for the last signature from a man who looked very imperious and sat on a tall chair raised on a carpet-covered dais and seemed to be far more interested in the condition of his fingernails than in my pile of wilting, ink-stained forms.

But I was proud. Throughout the whole four-hour ordeal I had never once raised my voice or played the arrogant colonial (whom I'd discovered deep in my psyche while traveling in India.) I smiled. They smiled. They shared tea with me. They offered me betel "pan" and I accepted it (it took hours to get all the little pieces of nuts and spices and whatever else goes into its elaborate preparation out of my teeth). I offered them bidi cigarettes, which they accepted (but on one occasion politely mentioned they would have preferred Marlboros). And then — clutching my precious papers like winning lottery tickets — I returned to the hotel for a traditional vegetarian thali dinner (usually the only food available in Bhuj hotels).

Tomorrow I'll finally be off to the Rann, I told myself. I celebrated by ordering a second enormous metal tray of thali and was just finishing off my rice, dhal, vegetables, and paratha when someone started beating on my door with the urgency of a fireman in the midst of a blazing inferno.

"Police. Open."

Now what? I opened the door.

Two neatly dressed policemen stepped promptly into my room with the worried manager trailing behind, shrugging hopelessly.

"Passport."

Keep calm, I told myself, don't blow a fuse. Be like you were earlier on at the government offices. So I was.

I answered all their questions, let one of them search my luggage, smiled as they meticulously inspected all my permits, and smiled again as they saluted smartly and left. The manager was very apologetic.

"They very nervous, sir, of people going to Rann. Much trouble with drugs and weapons."

He couldn't seem to stop shrugging his shoulders.

"That's okay. I'm just a tourist."

"Yes — I am knowing that, sir. But they . . . ." His twitching shrugs completed the sentence.

"Honestly. It's okay. And thank you for looking after me."

He left, bowing and shrugging simultaneously.

Five minutes later, another knock on the door. This was becoming an Inspector Clouseau nightmare. I opened it. And behold — another enormous tray of thali with two bottles of Thums Up Cola.

"Complimentary manager," the young boy said.

What a nice way to end the day. Three dinners!

This had been a long journey, one of the longest of my world-wanderings. All the way from Kathmandu to the fair western limit of India to the vast nothingness of the Rann of Kutch.

And was it worth it?

Definitely.

The drive north from Bhuj began as sensations of diminishing stimuli, leaving the city and then the Black Hills behind, easing further and further out into a flattening desert plain. I paused in one of the few villages on the edge of the Rann and was entertained by the headman while his wives and daughters paraded past me in brightly embroidered jackets decorated with hundreds of tiny mirrors. I watched them sewing and sifting rice in the shade of their mud huts and among the circular granaries topped with conical roofs of reed thatch. Out under the thorn-bushes beyond the village, herds of white cud-chewing cattle sat in statuesque groups, guarded by naked, gold-skinned boys.

Nearby were two camels commencing the rituals of courtship. At first it seemed gentle enough — a bit of nudging and polite nipping of the flanks — but then the screaming and spitting began. Either the females was in desperate heat or she was merely trying to discourage the gallant male who was not attempting to mount her. The more he tried to climb on her back, the more she spat and screeched. The boys lay on their stomachs, laughing. Finally the male forced his seemingly reluctant mate to the ground where she quieted down and just sat on her haunches with a kind of " Well — c'mon then, get on with it" look. But the poor male was obviously past his prime and for all his mounting and bellowing, just couldn't seem to make it. So they ended up together, side by side, eyes closed, like a couple of old pensioners ruminating about prior conquests in the virile days of youth.

Further on, way out across the salty flats, a herd of over three hundred camels were being led by a group of raiskas to a market near the coast. Raiskas have a notorious reputation as fly-by-night seducers of village women as well as their more traditional roles as balladeer-historians, news carriers, and nomadic traders. I wondered what the decibel reading would be for a herd this size enmeshed in mating rituals.

Later on, at another village close to the edge of the Rann where this story began, I joined in a wedding until I felt that my presence was taking the limelight away from a visiting dignitary. He was being lauded to the skies by a "walking historian" (a charan or bhaat) whose job it was to act as the official greeter and sing long — very long — ballads in praise of the achievements and successes of each important visitor to this desolate region. A role similar to that of a wandering bard in medieval England.

The elders of the village sat around the dignitary, nodding agreement, as the historian sang his homage-filled rhymes. I always love to watch these old men of rural India. They seem to live such gentle, quiet lives, respected by their families, cared for by their children, sleeping the hot days away in the shade of their homes, or huddled in whispery bunches seemingly involved in the slow resolution of weighty matters.

I sat a distance from the wedding party so as not to interrupt their celebrations and chatted with a young man who had just returned from Bombay to his village to attend the festivities. We sipped tiny glasses of "dust" tea made from finely ground tea leaves mixed with cardamom, sugar, and milk. Very sweet but refreshing, particularly on hot days like this. He seemed a little bored by the endless (and to him) sycophantic, antics of the singing historian.

He spoke an English I could understand so I asked him about the daily routine of the old men in the village.

"Oh this is very much our tradition, this taking care of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers. A young man of the family will always be looking after him. The old man knows how things should be, and he sees that everything in his house and in his farm is in good order. When he is at home — the women have cleaned up and all those things — and he sits down. People come to call on him and take advice. If there is any calling to be done then he goes out and calls on them. Ladies of the houses, they are doing household work, grinding millet and corn, giving children their bath, making the bread, and seeing for all things for a rainy day. They clean up. If there are any rats here then they will see that a cat is there who finalizes everything. Then, if it is very hot, the old man may sleep — whenever the body requires it — and before sunset he eats his food and usually goes to sleep after sunset because there is no electricity here, you see . . . ."

I asked about the younger men too.

"Oh, a young man is very strong. He will go to the fields every day. He will take the animals out for grazing — or he may not. He may have a little porridge in the day to keep his reserves, then he will pay social calls, and the rest of the time they are sitting, discussing, talking. It is not a very hard life. But when it is time for cultivation, then you will find everyone out in the fields. Then it is very hard. But it does not last for long."

In an adjoining courtyard I could see four men in the shade of a line of round-walled granaries, furiously weaving blankets, which were stretched out on wooden trestles and using bright red purple, and yellow threads of wool. They had obviously not been invited to the wedding and seem to be ignored by everyone.

"Oh, they are not of this village. They walk around, all over, and make blankets when they are asked."

"They seem to be working very hard."

"Well, yes. They work whatever time they wish but they must complete each blanket in three days or they will starve. Gold will not give them food. But the talent is there, isn't it, and as long as the talent is there, they do not have to bother about anything. No red flags of communism here y'see!" He laughed at his own wit. "And that is why we in India are safe from all that because it is embedded into us that we are satisfied with what God has given us. The cycle of karma plays a very important role in our day-to-day life and we say, if I don't have it, it is because God did not will it. I must do something good in this life for my rewards in the next one, d'y'see."

The singing historian was coming to the end of his ballad. His voice rose, the nodding of the old men increased, and the dignitary sat very straight and stern as the last refrains rang out. My companion translated (with a sly grin):

"And you have been just, with authority, with kindness and with love for our village. Here you sit in these four walls and we feel proud when we see you here, a descendent of the old house of our rulers that began here in the year 1212 A.D., in this place. But do not forget your duty. You are a political power and you are also a social power of great importance and we are all standing here and respecting you and remembering all the great deeds of your revered family."

The nodding reached a crescendo; the dignitary nodded gravely too, waved his hand limply at the wedding party, indicating that the celebration could now continue, with his blessing.

I wandered on around the village of tight-packed mud houses surrounded by high mud walls, trailed by a snake of children who giggled as I walked and then scampered and ran when I turned to talk to them.

A group of old men, in huge grubby turbans, sheltered in the shade of a goat-nibbled tree, the only tree I'd seen for miles, drinking something black in finger-long glasses. My English- speaking companion was still with me.

"That tea looks odd," I said.

He laughed, "It's not tea. It's a kind of opium. Only the old men drink it. It strengthens the weaknesses of the body."

"Really?"

His city cynicism flashed again. "Well — that's what they say. I think it just makes them sleepy."

The men invited us to join them in the shade of the tree. One of them pulled a heavy mortar of black rock from under his gray robes and placed a thimble-sized piece of something that looked like broken obsidian in the bowl.

"That's opium?" It wasn't at all like the little greasy balls I was to see later among the hill tribes in Thailand's Golden Triangle.

"Yes. Watch him now."

The old man, whose sulphur-colored turban seemed to be unraveling as he moved, pounded the hard black substance with a brass pestle into a fine powder. Then he added water, mixed it thoroughly, and strained it through a piece of white cloth into a clay bowl, which he offered to me."

"I'm not sure I really want any," I whispered to my companion.

"Oh, that's not a problem. Just pretend to drink," he whispered back. So I accepted the bowl, lifted it to my lips but kept them closed. I handed the bowl back. The men nodded, smiled, and extended cupped hands toward the man with the unraveling turban. He proceeded to pour a little of the muddy fluid into each set of hands. There was a murmur of ritual acknowledgments before they leaned forward and drank with eager sucking noises and licked the gravely remains from their fingers.

"Now they all go asleep," said my urbane companion.

And that's just what they did.

A little later I met the old man whose brother had been lost in the Rann many years ago. After his sad tale of the terrors of the place and the spirits of "the whites" that haunted its barren wastes, I was anxious to drive on deeper into the blazing nothingness, past the sun-cracked skins of stone mountains, peeled off like onion layers. I wanted to see the herds of wild asses said to roam the eastern portion, the Little Rann, and the vast gatherings of flamingoes living and laying their eggs in "cities" of conical mud nests way out in the whiteness. So I drove on, leaving the village far behind.

Now there was not a tree or a shrub or even a single blade of grass anywhere. Nothing but an endless eye-searing blankness in every direction. The track as a vague incision in the salt, but beyond that was what I'd come all this way to see — nothing at all. Twenty thousand square miles of perfect flatness. No clouds, no movement, no life. Nothing.

It was like vanishing into some vast realm beyond the mind, way beyond thoughts, beyond feelings and sensations and all the convoluted tangles of consciousness. Even beyond awareness itself. A space so colorless, so silent, and so infinite that it seemed to be its own universe. And I just simply vanished into it . . . .

The sun was so hot in the dry air that I almost felt cold. I noticed this odd sensation at one point, about twenty-five miles into the whiteness, when I got out of the car and walked out across the cracked surface of the salt. After a couple of hundred yards or so the heat shimmers were so violent that I could no longer see the vehicle. I couldn't even see my own footprints due to the hardness of the salt and intense shine radiating from it. Then I noticed the shivering, similar to the sensation of a burning fever when the hotter your body becomes the colder you feel. It may also have been a flicker or two of fear. I realized that I had done something rather stupid. Two hundred yards away from my landmark was the same as a hundred miles. I didn't know where the hell I was. I was lost!

I remembered the tales of arctic explorers caught in sudden blizzards and dying in frozen confusion a few blinding yards from their tents. A few yards in a blizzard is infinity. This was infinity.

In retrospect the whole incident seems ridiculous, but at the time I sensed panic and the horrible reality that if I didn't retrace my steps within the next half hour or so I'd become a raving sun-sacrificed lunatic lost in this utter nothingness. Given shade I could have waited for the sun to drop and the shimmers to dwindle. But shade was as possible as alchemist's gold here. There was no shade for two hundred miles.

And then, as suddenly as they had come, the shivers ceased and I felt an unearthly calm. I was neither hot nor cold now. The purity of the silence rang like a Buddhist bell, clear and endless. Here I was in the loneliest, emptiest place on earth, smiling inwardly and outwardly, utterly at peace, as if in some sensationless limbo state between life and death.

I burst out laughing at the zaniness of the whole predicament and my feet, without any prompting and guidance from the conscious part of me, walked me surely and certainly right back through the shimmers and the vast white silence to the car.

The Rann is still with me now. In times of silence I return to its silence; in a strange way I find it comforting and reassuring. We should all carry a Rann somewhere in our minds. A place of refuge and utter peace. A place of the mind but far beyond the mind.

I never did see the asses or the flamingoes or anything else out there. If I'd taken a camel rather than a car I could have continued further and deeper but, as it was, I was hampered by thick mud below the salty crust about thirty miles in. The monsoon had been late that year and the Rann had not yet been thoroughly baked by the sun to make it safe for my way of traveling. But that was fine. I'd found what I'd come looking for.

Absolute nothingness.

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