Date: 26 January, 2001, Friday, 8 AM. Place- Rann of Kutch. It was a beautiful and fresh morning. Morning sky was clear and sun shine was bright. We were 17 students from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi on a trekking expedition of Rann of Kutch. We had camped in a village Jatawada, in Rapar taluka of Kutch district of Gujarat. Kutch incidentally was India’s largest district, in terms of geographical area.
The mood of the entire group was very happy, cool and pleasant. The previous night we had actually spent under a school building as it was too cold outside and we were tired. We didn’t make our tents that night and had slept under the concrete roof cozily lying inside our sleeping bags. We were dead asleep over our trekking mats, without realizing the fate next day.
It was chilling winter in the Rann. Early morning 5:30 we used to get up. Everyday two persons of our group were tasked with preparing the breakfast. Others were required to fold the tents, pack it up with all the belongings and get ready for march. But last night we had slept inside a concrete room, so we had good time and no need of packing tents. Those were already packed up. Moreover, what a fantastic bonfire we had last night- singing of songs and music of dafli, guitar, my evergreen Kishore Kumar songs… villagers clapping with us and sharing of khichdi with them over dinner.
It was 5th day of our trek. We had started from New Delhi on previous Sunday evening by train and reached Ahmedabad next morning. Then we went to Rapar by bus. We had arranged a local guide, one young guy named Naveen. We had a hearty welcome by Naveen in Rapar. His family had a small business of running a travelling shelter with food facility. We tasted authentic Gujarati food there with cool Chhash. Naveen had arranged one porter to carry our food and utensils. In the afternoon we set out on our journey into the heart of Rann of Kutch, slowly strolling on our feet.
Kutch was unbelievably beautiful… a vacant, flat and widely spread out land…where earth and sky merged as one, echoing in the mysterious sounds of earthliness and cosmic vacuum. The emptiness of the Rann was precariously attractive. It takes you totally into its fold and stealthily mesmerizes you without giving a second chance of getting out of its clutch. Earth beneath our feet was soft, soil was loose and loamy, cushioning out tiring feet as if. After three days we came across the blue sea water…deep blue sea coast, visible from a distance on a mid-day. We walked on towards it and it was moving away and away from us. There was no sea coast and no water! Then suddenly we realized it was a Mirage! Wow! For the first in my life I had seen a mirage… and yes, I realized why it is called Mrigtrishna! We went on walking…on and on..into the heart of emptiness and vacuum of the Rann.
26 January, 2001, 8:15 AM, India’s 52nd Republic Day. We unfurled the Tiranga, paid our salute amidst rendition of the National Anthem- Jan Gan Man, and merrily dispersed into the Rann again. We were walking over the pitch road, with 30-40 kg loads in our rucksacks and had not yet entered into the wilderness. All 19 members of us (17 students, one guide and one porter) had spread out over a 200 meters stretch- some speedy walkers were ahead, some sluggish ones were behind and some medium pacers were in the middle of the stretch. I was in the middle with Mustaq- a very soft hearted fellow from the Kashmir valley. His tone was also lady-like, soothingly thin, but he was very fond of singing songs. We had sang many songs in last three four days and we had become friendly. That day we had found one song where our soul got connected- Ka karoon sajni, Aaye na baalam haay!
26 January, 2001, 8:46 AM. What a mesmerizing ambience! Mustaq was tapping a steel glass to render beats to the song. My hand was on his shoulders- Ka karoon sajni, Aae na baalam haay… Dhadam! We heard a loud sound some distance away. There were dusts in the horizon. Intensity of the sound was so loud that immediately we thought Pakistan had bombarded us with a missile! But before we could think anything, there were terribly jittering sounds rushing onto us from the frontal left side. And suddenly, our feet were heavily shaking…continually. The earth was trembling severely with a peculiar zee..zeee sound. Suddenly we ‘saw’ shock waves travelling across the earth’s crust- they were moving in every direction. The black pitch road then started waving in front of us in serpentine manner! It was an unbelievable sight! We were shivering tremendously, unable to stand even on the ground. I felt as if a giant ball was there below the ground which was shaking violently. Mustaq and I were holding each other’s hand just to stay balanced. Everything around us was terribly trembling…trees, poles everything. Shock waves were bombarding us from around and one wave passed away swiftly striking through my chest! Suddenly I felt immense vacuum…thoughtless..totally blank! It’s intensity was so swift that, in a flash of second I felt the crust beneath my feet is going to crack wide open and I am going to fall into the deep pit! It was terrifying, beyond the grasp of my mind. About two minutes…and abruptly everything stopped. We had no clue what had happened!
Something had shaken us terribly. My heart felt arrhythmic under the impact of the shock wave. We started discussing among ourselves about a possibility of missile bombardment. We started moving slowly. Lo and behold! There were cracks on the road, on the fields. Ground was split wide open in many places and in some, water was oozing out. The entire pitched road was damaged and was full of cracks. For the first time in my life, the ground seemed unsafe vis-à-vis the trees. We saw a lorry coming towards us carrying some people.. “Dharti kamp, dharti kamp!”- they were shouting. We talked to them. “Dharti kamp, dharti kamp! Ghaṇaa gharo najikma naash paame chhe!” Naveen explained us, it was a terrible earthquake and many houses were destroyed nearby! People were panicked, they left us hurriedly.
We rushed ahead. About one kilometer after, came Balasar village. On the outskirts of the village, there was one small stone-built house with a couple with their goat and a dog. The house was partly damaged. The lady said her dog barked fiercely just a minute prior to the earthquake and she came out of the house. Then earthquake struck with big stone pieces falling from the house. No one was injured. We were relieved. We went towards the center of the village. Balasar village had many stone houses. Stones had fallen onto people’s head and feet. Some were injured. We had first aid box with us. We bandaged them, applied anti-septic liquid and cream, distributed dry foods like dates and chocolates among the children. Some of us had contacted BSF nearby, who came within 15-20 minutes and took some injured patients in their trucks. People were terrified, all were outside their homes. They were discussing they had heard this kind of a terrible Dharti-kamp from their ancestors which happened about a century back. In the centre of the village there was a temple with an overhead dome. Pigeons and other birds were flying terrifyingly, without peacefully sitting at one place. They sat over the dome, then were abruptly flying either and thither. The sky was blackish and the horizon was dusty with heavy uncertainty and insanity in the air… as if smell of terrible fear and death was flowing unto us from everywhere around.
We marched ahead. We met many people on the way. They were heavily fearful. After some hours we reached Lodrani village. It was also heavily damaged. People were collecting their belongings whatever they can get and moving away from the village to that of their relatives without realizing that they had also the same fate. Stone and concrete structures were heavily damaged, some were totally demolished. We distributed medicines and some more dry foods, and grains which quickly got exhausted. Jacob, Kamla who were team leaders, tried to get some news from radio. Finally, we got to know that we were struck with a 7.7 magnitude X category (extreme) earthquake. The epicenter was 20 kilometer north-east of Bhuj, that was about 9 kilometer south-west of Chobari village in Bhachau taluka of Kutch. We were just 20-25 km away from the epicenter when the quake struck us, hence we experienced that powerful shock. Naveen was worried, hence he took leave from us to check about his family at Rapar. We also freed the porter.
We were afraid. The mood was devastating. We were watching a terrible quake unfolding in front of us. We wanted to contact Delhi, but we had no way out. Electric and telephone poles were uprooted or wires were in tatters. We went on walking. On the way we saw a village totally destroyed; not a single structure was standing except one small thatched hut made of twigs still standing in the centre. I can never forget this scene in my life. It was already afternoon, and we realized we can’t reach anywhere by walking. So we had to abandon the trekking. Venkat, a strong and tall guy, had full of blisters on his feet. He was unable to walk. We had not taken our lunch, not thinking either. Jacob, Mohanty searched for some lorry so that we can reach straight to our final destination by evening- that was Dholavira. We got a tractor going towards Dholavira. Immediately we jumped onto it.
Nature was very brutal. People had lost their houses, belongings and there was mass fleeing from the area out of confusion, chaos and fear. The real news about the quake, however, was yet to be known. We moved on with the tractor towards the Khadir Bet– it’s an island surrounded by sea water swamp which gets filled up with salty water from sea in the rainy months. This salty water gets dried up in winter leaving a hard thick salt pan. We came across this salt pan spread across a vast area. It was a beautiful white salt desert. We stopped for some time to watch its beauty… walked on it and tasted the thick salt cakes. I collected some pieces of salt cakes- bright milky white, purely made by nature. The evening was falling onto us and the empty salt desert seemed ingenuously mysterious. Its beauty was changing and looking dreamlike with the sky and white ground both merging as one, with the sun’s last rays leaving their aura in the distant horizon. Nonetheless, we had no time to wait.
After half an hour, we were at Dholavira village. It was already evening. Villagers were preparing their last meal outside their damaged homes. We quickly made our tents on an open ground in the centre of the village. Some of us started preparing a small Khichdi meal out of the last amount of rice and grains we had. Few of us went to some village head men who were listening news on radio. They explained us it was a terrible earthquake which had struck entire Gujarat. Its intensity was so powerful that its shocks were felt in nearby states and in Delhi as well as in Pakistan. Preliminary news of devastations was aired on the radio. Many cities in Gujarat were devastated leaving many people dead. The deadly impact of the demonic earthquake was slowly percolating into our head. People of Dholavira were highly terrified. They assembled in the centre ground near us to spend the night under the naked sky under the chilling winter of the Rann. This we had not expected. Children were crying, ladies were pacifying them… no one seemed prepared to sleep. It was quarter to nine. We sat down for our last dinner. Suddenly earth beneath us shivered terribly again… our steel plates made trembling sounds. Suddenly there was chaos outside. We pacified the people, told them not to enter house and remain in the open. It was a powerful after-shock. Its intensity must have been close to six. In the next few days I had counted more than twenty aftershocks! As per the IMD Report now we know, there were 338 after-shocks of 3 and above intensity till 16 February 2001, 9:36 AM!
We saw Dholavira’s Harappan site next day. Dholavira was part of India’s Indus valley civilization- a largest city in the area some 4000 years ago having continually inhabited by people for about 1200 years as per historians. Its excavation had started by ASI in 1990 though it was discovered in 1967. The Grate Bath, Citadel site, granary, ancient well, graveyard, advanced water management system- their remnants were intact in all the glory of the past. Some minor damages had occurred to the structures. The news of more devastation was coming on the radio. Because of that we couldn’t enjoy Dholavira much. Thousands were injured and so many were killed. News was coming that in Rapar one school building had collapsed and many children were killed who had been to celebrate the Republic day. Bhuj’s multi-storied civil hospital was totally demolished. We heard about a nurse who had finished her night duty and left the hospital in the morning. And then the building had collapsed. She was miraculously saved. Many patients were not that lucky and had perished in the rubble. Once we were out of Dholavira we witnessed the devastations of that historic earthquake.
We came back to Rapar on a lorry. We saw the city was damaged heavily. Innumerable houses were destroyed. People were on road and open spaces. People were searching for their near and dear ones and their belongings amidst the debris. We met Naveen again. His house was totally destroyed. His elder brother’s wife (Naveen’s Bhabhi) was in the bathroom taking bath when quake struck. The house collapsed on her. She managed to incline into the corner of the bathroom and somehow she was saved. After one-two hours she was pulled out of the debris wearing a petticoat. Someone gave her a Saree. We met her alive and safe. Naveen’s younger sister studying in Class 6th, had skipped going to school that day, and was saved. Her school building had collapsed killing many children and people. Naveen’s family was very happy. They were all gathered in the Rapar’s open bus-stand below the naked sky- one vending thela, some clothes, one stove, some utensils- that’s all they had recovered from their house’s rubble.
It was late afternoon. Some traders had donated some wheat flour to the people, which was received by Naveen’s family also. Naveen’s Bhabhi made some small Rotis out of it. There was total uncertainty about the next meal. Yet Naveen’s mother gave half a Roti to each of us! We were 17 people, so 8 and ½ Rotis were distributed to us even in that time of utmost crisis! That large-hearted gesture I cannot forget. It moved me deeply and tears literally flowed down my eyes. After we had left Dholavira, we had not eaten anything. And that was possibly most precious meal of my life- Half a Roti! We were reluctant to accept those 8 and ½ Rotis. Naveen’s Mother tried to convince us, “Look Beta, entire area is devastated. You won’t get anything to eat. Just take these Rotis and by any means you all go back to Ahmedabad.” We could not refuse her. We had our last meal in Kutch made from the hands of Naveen’s Bhabhi.
I had some 700 rupees of pocket money with me. I called Naveen’s elder brother to the backside of a bus and offered him 400 rupees as my small donation for them. He totally refused and overwhelmingly hugged me saying, “Money is not a problem yaar. We have lakh rupees in bank. We are saved by God’s grace and all are alive, that’s enough. In a few days when everything will be OK we will have money with us. Now only worry is to tide over this crisis.” He thanked me a lot. We didn’t find a bus from Rapar to Ahmedabad. Entire transport had halted under the crisis. One minibus was going from Rapar to Bhachau, so we took it and started leaving Rapar. Naveen’s sister had got little curd from somewhere. She wanted to give that also to me. I refuse vehemently. But she didn’t listen to me. With tearful eyes I saw she put the little curd pack in my hand. She was running behind the bus and waving us and we all were waving too. We left Rapar with a heavy heart overburdened with emotions and painful thoughts.
On the way, we saw everything standing in the way of the quake, was destroyed and was flattened onto the ground. Thousands of houses had just turned into rubbles and debris. People were crying and searching for their relatives. Houses were tilted, cracked.. some badly inclined onto another. Bhachau, Anjar, Bhuj major cities were devastated. Hundreds of villages were flattened. Entire area through which we passed was devastated, demolished and destroyed. There were only devastation and destruction! Only painful and indescribable scenes of misery and hopelessness! The colossal devastating impact of the quake can be reminded again in that, it killed about 20 thousand people along with injuring more than 1 lakh 66 thousand! Moreover, about 4 lakh homes were destroyed and about a million man-made structures were devastated! Out of Gujarat’s 3.78 crore population, 1.59 crore were affected from its 21 districts, 182 talukas and 7,904 villages. More than 20 thousand cattle also perished. Economic cost of the Earthquake was estimated at USD 7.5 billion at 2001 price, which will be more than Rs. 34,000 crore at the then annual average exchange rate of 45.68 rupees to a US dollar.
We moved on. We could see mass cremation of dead bodies, with large flames visible from a distance. People were burning many bodies together using broken wood pieces from the rubble of the houses. There was fear of mass outbreak of epidemics. Volunteers had swiftly started working. We couldn’t get a bus to Ahmedabad at Bhachau, so we had to go to Bhuj. We reached Bhuj in the evening. Bhuj was totally devastated. It’s civil hospital was totally destroyed killing many patients and people. But fortunately, we saw makeshift hospitals had already started working under large tents. Military persons, volunteers had started working day and night. Injured people were being brought swiftly and were operated. We wanted to help the injured. But we were not allowed, as trained volunteers were only allowed inside the hospital to check spread of diseases. We provided only odd helps outside the hospital. The voluntary agencies had swiftly started working. Many help were pouring in from numerous people and organizations. Tens of thousands of government employees, military personnel, thousands of volunteers were getting prepared to work day and night in the many weeks to come. The organizational integrity of Gujarat and dedication of the voluntary organizations were highly impressive and an eye-opener for us. Food donations were immediately started to come. We saw a crisis ridden devastated Gujarat, but within a day or two we saw the state’s organizational strength and its people’s determination to tide over the crisis! I came to know this was Gujarat!
The entire night we spent around the Bhuj bus-stand. Hundreds of people were sitting or lying congregated together to spend the night under the open sky, shivering in the chilling cold. Children were crying. Many people were awake. All were terrified due to numerous after-shocks. This scene was unforgettable. People had no homes, left with with no or little belongings. Present was painful. Future was scary. Many had lost their near and dear ones. That vacuum was never to be filled up again.
Next morning, fortunately we got a bus to Ahmedabad. We had to go. After reaching Ahmedabad we called Delhi and informed about our safety. Ahmedabad had also its share of devastations and life losses. We took a meal after two days at Ahmedabad. We had collapsed mentally. Gujarat was bearing a very deep scar in its heart…not to be filled up for a long time. We had our own scars too. Gujarat remained special to me. It created a special bondage, born out of an emotional connect… taken place accidentally and extraordinarily. The arrhythmic feel of my heart was surfacing occasionally which lasted for many months afterwards, which reminded me of a dreadful quake and a special spiritual connect with Gujarat and its people. When I came to Gujarat after 13 years, it was like a home coming I ever wanted to come. I was relieved to see Gujarat had successfully come out of that crisis with extraordinary reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts. Nonetheless, I could never gather some courage to rewrite that story. It took me really a long time to go through that emotional drain again.
The Authour: Shir Manoj Kumar Sahoo teaches in Faculty of Economics, School of Liberal Studies, Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, Gandhinagar, Gujarat, India. He can be contacted at: email: email@example.com and Mobile:+91-9687575805.