Where xerophytic plants adapt to high saline soil, erratic availability of water, low soil nutrients…

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By Hemang Desai*

The Kachchh region of India is a living museum of ecological splendours. On the map, Kachchh resembles a tortoise lying upside down. Kachchh geologically formed 18 million years ago. Then, the sea covered the landmass that we know today as Kachchh. Geological changes triggered by volcanic and tectonic movements brought the landmass lying below the ocean to rise above it. That landmass, edged by the Arabian Sea today, is a canvas turned by nature into a gigantic painting, using all colours at her disposal.

The Geological Survey of India describes Kachchh geology thus:

“The landmass is a central high plateau, which stands dissected in the north, west and east. The physiographic features can broadly be divided into four characteristic units; Rann, Banni plains, hilly tracts and coastal plains. The physiographic entity, without any parallel, is the vast expanse of the Rann, a marshy and salt encrusted wasteland, occupying an area of 20000 square kilometers. It is the remnant of a very late marine transgression of Miocene Epoch, which is undergoing rapid siltation. The unique landmass occurs in two patches. The northern one, having its northern border with Pakistan and the Thar Desert, is referred to as the Great Rann. The southeast patch, occurring between the Kandla Port in the west and Santalpur in the east, is named as Little Rann.”

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Kachchh is composed of dry lands that grow diverse flora. There are about 700 distinct plant species, including the 20 endangered and one, Helichrysum Cutchicum, endemic to Kachchh. Botanists have also discovered in Kachchh more than 130 medicinal plants. These plants are mostly xerophytic. A xerophytic plant is a species of plant that has adapted to survive with a little water in a desert or snow-covered regions. In Kachchh they adapt to the high saline soil, erratic availability of water and low soil nutrients.

The thorn grows profusely in Kachchh. The Kachchh forests  are full of mainly five thorny plants: Acacia Senegal (gorad), Aacacia Nilotica (deshi bavar), Acacia. Leucophloea (harmo bavar), Zizyphus Mauritiana (bor) and Prosopis Cineraria (kandho). Some of these plants figure greatly in the traditional  knowledge-system of water among the people of the region. For example, wherever the native Prosopis Cinerarium (khijdo) grows, the community is certain that ground water of good quality is present.

On the edge of the Rann is the grassland of Banni. The grasslands and wetlands of the Banni region offer a unique dual ecosystem that is rarely found elsewhere. The winter here, overflowing with water from November to May, becomes the home to hundreds of thousands of migrating birds. In the summer, this region dries out quickly, turning into savannah, both palatable and non-palatable.

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The flat saline terrain of the Rann also provides a home for the Wild Ass, the only place they are found in. It feeds on shrubs and grasses sprouting from the sandy islands of the two Ranns; this mammal can gallop and cover long distances, surviving without much shade or water. The Great Indian Bustard, the Lesser Florican and the Hubara Bustard — all globally threatened bird species — also inhabit these grasslands.

Filling the sky every winter, thousands of waterfowl arrive in Kachchh to feed, breed and nest in the multitude of wetlands throughout the district, before heading on south into the Indian subcontinent. More than 50,000 cranes, flamingoes, and other water birds converge on the Banni grassland. These 100 odd species of migratory birds also use the documented 300 traditional water harvesting structures like ponds, wells, check dams and shallow lakes called locally dhand.

Banni is also the place that supports a wildlife population of Blue Bull, Chinkara, Blackbuck, Indian Hare, Wild Boar, Jackal, Grey Wolf, Caracal, Hyena and Fox. The Chinkara, a gazelle species, depends on the thorny plants. It can live for many days off the dew found on rocks and leaves. Two ecologically important lizard species, the spiny tailed and monitor, are also found here.

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The Rann forms the backdrop of many legends and folklore. One legend is about the Saint Mekad Dada, who rescued people dying of thirst in the terrible wastes of the Rann. Mekad Dada’s dog, Moria, would find the sufferers and his donkey Lalia, would lead the travelers to the shelter where Mekad Dada would look after them. Mekad Dada is the patron saint whose blessing assures a safe journey.

Banni, known as ‘khir ji nadi’, meaning the river of milk, encompasses 52 villages. The low population density of Banni is in keeping with other arid regions of the world. Animal husbandry and tending livestock are the primary livelihoods in Kachchh. It is the only district of India where the animal population is more than the human population. Kachchh receives rainfall of 200-400 millimeters; water has always been a limiting factor of the region. The Maldharis — the pastoralists of Kachchh — have evolved an extensive system of livestock production by adapting their livestock breeds to scarce resources. They depend on the fertile region just south of the Rann where dozens of grass species grow, making them among the best pastoralists in the world.

kutch1Their dwellings, called bhungas, are masterpieces of vernacular architecture. A bhunga is a pleasant, circular form; there is an element of timelessness in its design. This climate sensitive architecture uses Adobe technique of a grass-reeds structure plastered with clay, mud and cow dung.  A bhunga is thatched by Cyprus, a grass that is abundant in Banni. Its interior space is a stunning beauty created by utensils, textiles, and mirror-work that celebrates the quotidian. The materials used in a bhunga provide insulation from the extreme climate and protects it from the frequent seismic activity in the region.

A variety of views prevail on the origins of the Banni Maldharis. Most of them have a migratory history. The Jaths are pastoral nomads who originated outside the subcontinent. The Mutvas claim that they are from ‘Arbistan’. Lohanas claim to have come from Sindh. A colourful collage of communities lives in Banni: Jat, Raysipotra, Saids, Mutava, Node, Hingoria, Bambha, Kurar, Sumra, Jumeja, Bhatti, Halepotra, Khatri, Lohana and Meghwal.

These people have managed to live with the harshness of nature around; however, their way of life expresses joy. Their houses, their festivals and their clothes display that joy. Their world-renowned embroideries — kharek, paako, haramji — pulsate vibrantly to life. They teach many things to the twenty-first century about sustainability.

A Kachchhi song goes:

“ Shiyade sorath bhalo
Unade Guajrat
Chaumase vagad bhalo
Mujo Kuchdo Bare Maass!”

Meaning:

“In winter Sorath (Saurashtra) is better
In summer it is Gujarat
In monsoon it is Vagad
[But] My Kachchh is all of twelve months!”

Pix:  Vivek Desai

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