Bastar, India’s Adivasi Heartland (2003, 2004)

Bastar, India’s Adivasi Heartland (2003, 2004)

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Maadum Haat is a feast for the senses, with its mosaic of colours, sights, sounds and smells, as only Indian bazaars can be. Yet this is not your typical Indian bazaar – it does not have trappings like Ferris wheel or candy floss. It is a barefoot bazaar, entirely ethnic and without any frills. There are no stalls, – even makeshift ones, only rows and rows of pots, some earthen, many aluminium, containing mahua, sulfi and suram, all local brew. And then there are a few vegetable vendors – humungous bottlegourds with an inviting sheen nesting in handwoven baskets and heaps of unfertilized, unpolished, wholesome rice. Not a single item in the entire market costs more than ten whole rupees a unit and most are priced at a single rupee or less. Selling seems much less important than communing and enjoying oneself. In a delightful paradox, the ambience of this market is clearly pre-market, unscarred by the ugliness of globalisation or the vanity of brands. No non-biodegradable containers like glass bottles, styrofoam, plastic, polyurethanes sacs or even tetra packs, which are ubiquitous elsewhere in the country. Only leaf cups, sewn up with needle-thin sticks and miraculously leak-proof. Men and women just lounge around drinking out of the cups and chatting. There is a distinct air of camaraderie and levity even though many have walked more than 30 kilometres to reach a haat. A few started out the previous day and walked barefoot all the way from far-flung villages to reach the weekly haat. The scene could have easily been a portrait in history books – except that it is not sepia-tinted, but alive in vibrant real-life colours.

We are deep in Gondwana land – in Bastar district in Chhattisgarh. Snuggling in a clearing in an absolutely enchanting green jungle, Maadum is a favourite haunt of the tribal population of this district. It has the reputation of being a `drinking haat‘ – a veritable vast open-air bar in the middle of nowhere. It lies en route to the famous Chitrakote waterfalls when you drive from Jagdalpur, 300 km south of Raipur. Bastar is truly the last frontier, a tantalising glimpse into a fast-disappearing way of life. But is also one of the poorest districts in the country where a bewildered tribal population appears paralysed by the unrelenting onslaught of ‘civilisation’ and finds itself pitchforked between its cherished ethnic way of life and the trappings of what the world deems `development?’

Heart of Adivasi Life

The haat is at the heart of Adivasi life. Gonds form the main tribe in Bastar and their subdivisions include Marhias, Murias, Dorla, Abujmarhias and Dhurwa. Each village has its own weekly haat. In fact, the tourist brochure claims there are 300 haats in Bastar. Villagers come to buy salt and tobacco and to meet friends and relatives and catch up with news and gossip, but mainly to watch cockfights, the star attraction. The haat is truly an institution that binds Adivasi communities together. It gives them a sense of continuity and purpose in a fast-changing world that seems to have left them behind. Many Adivasi women dress up in their finery to go to the haat. Some are in traditional off-white cotton saris that come up to their knees, while there are others sporting colourful nylon saris, which seem to be quite popular. The more fashionable ones wear a blouse too. Adorning their raven tresses are exquisitely carved wooden combs, which, you learn, are gifts from their husbands during their courtship. In fact, these combs play a vital role in the courtship customs of the Adivasis of this region. The more combs a woman receives from her potential suitors, the more desirable she is deemed to be.

For the present we leave Maadum behind to proceed towards Chitrakote, Bastar’s showpiece. It is a horseshoe-shaped waterfall on the Indravati river, which, during the rainy season flows so thick that the local people proudly claim it is a mini Niagara. Even now it is impressive, with several thick strands of foamy waters coursing down the steep hillside with a deafening roar. Chitrakote is not to be confused with the legendary Chitrakoot. The name derives from the tribal word Chital Kot, the spot where deer can be hunted. The surrounding countryside still houses a fair amount of game.  As you approach the falls form above, you hear it long before you see it. There is no sign of it until the very precipice, and then the white sheet of spray, unfolds in all its overwhelming glory. There are many rock faces that jut into the river, which give you access to the precarious verge from where you get dress-circle views. You saunter across the rock-studded river to the ledge where the cool spray caresses your face. And you descend 150 jagged steps to reach the bottom, hoping to catch a glimpse of Bastar’s very own `Maid of the Mist’. Chitrakote is illuminated at night, giving it a dreamy ambience.

Kutumsar Caves

Our next stop is Kutumsar caves. The entrance to this million-year-old underground cavern is so narrow and treacherous that it discourages all but the hardiest from foraying inside. Bastar Tourism arranges special guides with solar lamps to lead you into the grotto, which seems to meander endlessly. As you enter, you are greeted by a clutch of bats doing a choreographed sortie entirely for your benefit. You dodge puddles of water only to be hit on the head by a low overhang. Blind fish swim around in a pool while stalactite chandeliers provide the drama. You are told eerie – and no doubt exaggerated – stories of how, many years ago, a group of tourists had to spend a couple of days in the cave when the torch they were carrying gave out suddenly. However, in the same breath, your guide assures you that you can always find your way about with the glow of your mobile phone. I could not see his face, but I am pretty sure he had an impish grin.

For a place that is not yet on tourist itineraries, Bastar has excellent roads that slice through the dappled green jungles. The road from Raipur to Jagdalpur is sheer delight, especially after Kanker where the ghat section begins. Bastar district lies on a plateau and the road is straight like an arrow in most parts. Traffic on the road is rather thin. Sal, teak, tendu and mahua adorn the sides. The soil, where it is visible at all, is a rich red. The sun hardly filters through the thick canopy and the ground is thickly carpeted with leaves. No true-blue Adivasi will ever cut down a mahua tree, which is revered and worshipped. It is a sentinel that guards the Adivasis from cradle to the grave. No Adivasi ritual is complete without the ubiquitous mahua – much like plantain trees elsewhere.

Bison-horn Marhias

It is our luck that on one of these roads we encounter a group of bison-born Marhia – a prominent Adivasi tribe – laden with bows, arrows and pickaxes. Their name comes from the elaborate headgear made of bison horn that they wear on ceremonial occasions. Today, they come from a village across the hills that is not accessible by road. Rajneesh, our guide who could speak their language, chats them up and translates for us from time to time. When we inquire about the absence of women in the group, we are told that only men go hunting. They had walked all the way from their village 30 km away and still had not found any game worth the name, but with the hollowed-out gourds brimming with mahua, they do not seem to mind.

By now it is evening and the slanting rays of the sun begin to cast a magic spell on the surrounding countryside. Every once in a while, we encounter herds of cows and sheep returning from pasture. Silhouetted against sesame fields bursting with golden yellow flowers, it is a calendar scene come alive. To our surprise, we learn that the Adivasis do not milk their cows. The herd is raised only for the bulls that draw their carts, plough their fields and even help them raise water from wells. Similarly, eggs are not eaten, but allowed to hatch. No wonder almost every hen we see has a whole brood of chicks in tow.

On one of our journeys through the jungles of Bastar we are struck by a strange sight – of garlands of lemon-sized greyish shells slung about from bamboo rods in a clearing. We stop to investigate only to learn that these are Kosa silk cocoons, which are collected from the jungle and hung out to dry. The place is swarming with Kosa silkworm moths – huge and stunningly patterned – some even remind you of Kutch mirrorwork. Kosa is not cultivated, but is collected from the wild by the Adivasis who sell the cocoons to traders. Later we visit Sindu Das, a national award-winning weaver in Tokapal village. He proudly displays saris and shawls that he has lovingly woven in the ancient loom handed down by his ancestors. The silk is exquisitely soft and supple. Kosa is woven in the tribal districts of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa and a connoisseur can tell the subtle difference between the varieties.

Land of Waterfalls

Bastar is a land of waterfalls. The next day we visit Tirathgarh falls on the Kanger river. Spectacular cascades stream down steep ravines. This time, the access is at the foot of the falls and there is a crystal clear puddle where one can wade, bathe and swim. A tiny temple perched on a rock face opposite the falls is a perfect spot to sit and reflect. The Chhattisgarh Forest Department has a guest house here which offers views that seem second only to what one might witness in paradise itself. You curse yourself for not having booked your stay there. Not far away from the falls is a trekking trail through thick jungle – the virgin forests of the Kanger National Park. It is strewn with giant anthills, some reaching as high as eight feet (2.4 metres). The Adivasis make a tasty chutney out of red ants, you are told. It is past noon by now and there is no movement or sound in the jungle. You tiptoe and whisper in hushed tones so as not to disturb animals that might be in the vicinity. And suddenly you almost jump out of your skin as a barn owl swoops down with a screech to its hole in the tree.

At Mauli Padar village, where we are offered a traditional tribal meal – of gruel made of hand-pounded rice – we meet a women’s cooperative enterprise engaged in basket weaving. Through our interpreter and guide they tell us how many women in the villages have organised themselves into cooperatives to practise traditional crafts and earn a little extra. Almost all villagers have access to schools within walking distance, but the dropout rates are quite high. “My son will go to school as long as they serve gruel there,” laughs one woman. Their houses are mud and thatch and they have some very quaint wooden pounders for milling paddy.

Bastar is also home to some ancient temples – you are told there are 52 in all, but only four have been excavated. In Basrur, 31 km from Dantewada, is the Mama-Bhanja temple which is in reasonably good shape. The Bathisa temple – so named for the 32 pillars that hold it up – has two garbagrihas (inner sanctum) each with a Nandi and a Shivlinga. The South Indian influence on the architecture is unmistakeable. The 10th century Chandraditya temple is adorned with erotic sculpture and is said to be the precursor to Khajuraho. And then there is the twin Ganesa temples.

Stunning Ironcraft

En route to Raipur are the crafts villages. Unselfconscious, stylised and stark, Bastar’s iron craft is stunning. The essence of this craft is its purity and sincerity, the refusal to embellish or enhance, but portray objects at their starkest. Geometric symbolism and ritualistic motifs are the dominant themes. The style has some commonalities with the art of the Indus Valley. The best thing about Bastar’s iron craft is that it blends with the environment and is entirely affordable. The Adivasis are used to handling iron for centuries. After all, their State produces almost a quarter of all the iron in the country. The Bailadila iron ore mines are not far away. We visit a craft workshop where a young couple is engrossed in beating red-hot iron into a horse. The workshop itself is as stark and unpretentious as the craft. It is just a thatched shed and a bellow hearth. We pick up some small knick-knacks like door handles and hooks – all very elegant and stylised.

Kondagaon specialises in bell-metal craft. Also called `dokra’, the artefacts are made of four parts brass and one part tin (pancha datu). Dokra uses the lost-wax process. The metal sculptures are intricately carved and so breathtakingly beautiful that one is grateful to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and others for introducing the world to these exquisite objects, for reviving and nurturing this craft. Master craftsman Jaidev Baghel counts Sonia Gandhi and N.R. Narayana Murthy, Infosys chairman and chief mentor, among his customers. But the sculptures are priced a bit too steep for our slender wallets, but we could feast our eyes on them as long as we wished.

As we wrap up our Bastar trip, I could not help feeling that this was perhaps one of the very last frontiers in the country that has managed to maintain its distinct and proud identity in the face of the satellite-enabled cultural onslaught. Mercifully, Bastar has not yet been gift-wrapped in cellophane by an over-eager tourism department determined to reduce the region’s unique ethnicity to a mere exhibit.

(Published in Frontline dated Feb 12, 2005)

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