Murmeli goes India

An AIESEC traineeship in Hyderabad, India


Fishing boat in the desert, Kutch, GujaratI spent four days in the Little Rann wild ass sanctuary in Gujarat, Western India. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my trip so far. Staying in the desert inspired me to write about many things, including the salt workers (the agaria).

The resort where I stayed in the sanctuary is right on the edge of the desert. I lived in a mud hut, which resembles a lot the huts in which the local village people live. I had romantic oil lamps I could bring to the stone porch of the hut to be able to write and read there. On my first day in the resort I had already visited the salt fields with the owner of the resort in his jeep. The second day I felt too sick (= flu) to go walking in the desert. I just ate a late breakfast and did a cost-estimation for a friend for a two-week trip to Hampi, Goa and Kerala. After this I finished a book and started reading a new one. I was supposed to go exploring the area in a jeep again at 4.30 so I thought it would be better to rest before that. Besides, it was terribly hot outside and the clay hut was comfortably cool.

I was woken up from my sleep by the resort’s general do-it-all help-in-any-way-I-can boy who came to ask if I want some tea. I felt I needed to re-freshen and re-energize myself so I asked for chai. I drank it up and soon after that the driver came to get me. He asked if I’m ready and I said yes. After this I spent five minutes collecting the stuff and packing my day-trip-bag. We left and I soon found out that I would have to resort to speaking either Hindi or Gujarati, both of which I do not speak at all. These people start learning Hindi at school before English and once again I regretted not having learned Hindi. Then again, for the first three months in India I was thinking more about going back home than learning the language 🙂

The first stop was the water tank. I saw a few birds and a big herd of cows, maybe a hundred animals in total. Two men were guiding the herd. The other man was dressed in white. I assumed him to be maldari, who own maybe 50-200 cows and move around with the herd during the day. Maldari are dressed in white, beautifully ornamented clothing. They also wear silver jewellery, both men and women. Next we started heading towards the area where I had already been yesterday. I knew what I would see and there was no point in trying to tell the driver I had already been there. I sat and tried to make the best of it. Anyways, I was sure I would see something new, because India is like that: just one visit does not give you all that the place has to offer. We saw some wild asses and then we went to see an agaria, a salt worker. He was working on his field of salt as we came and when we stopped he came to greet us, feeling most likely happy about getting a reason to have a break.

Nowadays I expect to see something miraculous everyday. At least one thing every day has to make an ever-lasting impression on me. This time this experience came in the form of a young girl, maybe 6-7 years old, who walked to us around the salt field from the other Salt workers’ children, Little Rann Sanctuary, Gujaratside where there was a simple hut. The girl was holding an iron mug in her hand. She was wearing a bright red dress and light colored pants. She had no shoes. Her black scrubby hair reached her shoulders. She came towards us. I started getting my camera ready. She approached the salt worker and handed him the mug. I could not help thinking that I had just seen something utterly sweet. I asked the men if I can take a picture of the girl and they said OK. I also mimicked in my usual way to the girl saying “photo, photo” and she did not seem to object. The men even went as far as to seat the girl on the pile of salt by which our jeep was parked. I did not have that in my mind but I settled for it.

Later, looking at the pictures of the girl, I felt a little ashamed for seating her on that pile of salt, which obviously is the livelihood of her family and working on it definitely shortens the lives of her relatives, family and someday maybe even her own. Their vision suffers a lot from the UV rays that are reflected off the surface of the salt pool. Their feet do not burn properly when they are cremated because of years of walking in the salty water!

On the way back I felt like walking instead of riding in the jeep. I tried to tell the driver that he can go home and I can walk. The resort was no more than about 1km away. The driver did not understand and he stopped every 200m to check if I want to get on. Maybe these people don’t understand the thrill of walking in the dark. They don’t realize that I am not walking in just any kind of darkness but in the Little Rann of Kutch desert, Gujarat, Western India. That is what tourists want to do here. Walk in the dark in the desert, on a beach in Goa in the moonlight, on top of a hill-station or down a dimly lit street somewhere in Mumbai, looking at the glow of the billboards high above.

I walked for a bit, looking at the wild asses rolling around in the sand, walking in pairs to the water hole. They have no enemies here. All 3800 of them can live happily here, in a sanctuary dedicated to preserve the last of their kind. The salt industry is seen as a threat to them. The state government issued licenses for salt industry in the area even after it was made a sanctuary. Seems that the battle between nature and men will never end.

In the evening I went to see a Catholic priest in the village next to the resort. The village was built by NGO’s after the big 2001 earthquake. The priest is in the village with three Sisters trying to improve the living conditions of the salt workers and also provide them Salt worker and his water pump, Little Rann Sanctuary, Gujaratwith health services and educate their children. The Father told me that the agaria are an extremely exploited group and of a low caste. When they enter the house of a higher caste person they sit on the floor just to show their inferiority. They are given water from a mug reserved especially only for them. Their children usually drop out of school before 7. or 8. grade and have usually not learned to read before that. The Father hopes that out of 100 kids just five would prove out to be bright and motivated enough to be sent to the town in a boarding school. They would get a good education and employment and hopefully also return to the village and contribute to the well-being of others. This would also most likely help improve the status of the agaria. The Father told me that in Kerala, where he and the Sisters are from, high education has helped eradicate the caste system to a great extent. Literacy rate in Kerala is the best in the country, whereas in the village where Father is now working they could not find a single literate person when they first came there.

The next morning I woke up to the cheerful chatter of the agaria people, the happy voice of the owner of the resort, once an agaria himself, the delightful chirping of birds and the thought of a cup of chai, delivered to my mud hut together with a bucket of hot water for showering. Today, on the second day of the Holi festival, the road close to the resort was quiet as even the salt truck drivers were on holiday. The jeeps were being prepared for the full-day safari across the desert. A doctor from Dhrangadra and his three doctor friends with their kids were getting ready for their holiday out of the city. They had brought their kids here to relax after school’s exam period. The sun was not yet warm enough and I had to wear woolen socks on the stone porch of my hut to keep warm. The night had been chilly and the porch was still cold. At night I had woken up for 40 minutes at 4.12am to look at the full eclipse of the moon. In addition I saw a few satellites, two planes and one shooting star.

I was very curious to see how these people would interact with the salt workers we would be seeing soon. I was delighted to see that there was no problem. The salt workers we saw talked with the doctors but they were not photographed by them, whereas I took many pictures of them and their families and they were always happy, if a little shy, to pose.

We continued then to the highest point in the desert (55m above sea level). Out there,Desert view, Little Rann Sanctuary, Gujarat where you could no longer see the salt fields, people or cars anywhere, you really felt like being in the desert. As far as the eye could see there was just nothing but grey dry mud, cracked in the sun. The mirages in the horizon created an effect of floating cars, people, trees and bushes. If you have seen any of the Star Wars movies with the hover crafts you can imagine what I saw.

Maybe you are wondering why there is dry mud in this desert. That is because during the monsoon a great part of Little Rann becomes a shallow lake, overflown with river water. At that time fish and prawn comes from the sea to spawn here. That is why in many pictures you actually see some fishing boats. The same trips I did now with the jeep, would be done on a boat during and right after the monsoon. The salt workers abandon their temporary huts after the salt is collected and the fisher men move into their own huts built on the areas that are slightly higher so that the water does not reach them.

And why is there salt in the desert? The sea used to be here once but due to earthquakes the landscape has changed enormously. The salty water was left trapped under the ground and now pumps are used to get that salty water to surface. The water is kept in shallow pools for five months, between the monsoon and the summer, during which the salt in the water slowly crystallizes and can be collected.

We came back to the resort for lunch. Two Israeli tourists joined us so now we were four adults and six children in one jeep! We went to see flamingos on the east side of the sanctuary. I had never seen them before so it was cool, although we could only see them from a far, because we scared them and got them fly away from us the minute we arrived. We also saw pelicans.

All in all, the Little Rann was a great experience. I saw practically everything there is to see, and the resort was a wonderful place to stay. Also the discussion I had with the priest was really great, as I got to know more about the people who inhabit this place that to us seems completely inhabitable and do work that takes so much from them and gives so little.

Pictures can be found, as usual, in the gallery.


March 5, 2007 - Posted by | Indian life, Pictures from India, Traveling in India


  1. Did you see anyone fishing? Where are they fishing? in the underground water?

    Comment by Sunduvan | April 11, 2008 | Reply

  2. No, the fishermen come here during the rainy season when the desert fills with water.

    Comment by murmeli | April 18, 2008 | Reply

  3. I read your article about your experience between “salt workers”

    Actually we are researching for those people lifestyle,their traditions.

    I will surely shared your article with mine other project mates.

    Thank You Very Much!!

    Comment by Health Fitness Care Tips | June 1, 2009 | Reply

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