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Monday, Dec 30, 2002

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It's a different world altogether

Sumitra Senapaty

Curiosity takes Sumitra Senapaty to Bastar, where she comes face to face with some of the oldest tribal communities and their customs.

The USPs were irresistible — from the densest forests after the Amazon and India's biggest waterfall in Chitrakote to the oldest tribal community of Bastar to the deepest cave with the oldest stalactite and stalagmite formations in Kutumsar. The world's oldest amphitheatre is located in a place called Ambikapur and Chattisgarh has the distinction of being the only power-surplus State.

Bastar, located about 300 km from Raipur, is also a nature-lover's paradise and one of the finest bio-diverse eco-travel holiday options with trackless vistas of deep forests, a truly dazzling range of flora and fauna, rivers, waterfalls and ancient caves.

In addition to its `lost world' ambience, there is something different in the way Dussehra is celebrated over here. And curiosity urged me to celebrate Dussehra in Bastar; and find out how the celebrations are different from the rest of the country. I found out that here the festival had nothing to do with Ram and his return to Ayodhya.

It is, as I discovered, a celebration of Sri Danteshwari Mai, the tutelary deity of the Bastar royals, who is said to have led the fleeing king to safety from invaders, into these densely forested hills.

The Dussehra festival is reflective of the local religious beliefs and tribal customs. The ceremonies begin with worship at the Kacchhingudi temple, followed by the pulling of the `rath' carrying the deity. A young girl from the weaver community is placed upon a swing of thorns. It is believed that the goddess descends upon her, thus preserving her from injury, which is considered highly auspicious and an indication of her divine approval of the festivities.

The chariot is made by the Saoras of Orissa, under the supervision of the Dhakada tribe. The Khaki tribe worship the chariot before it is used and traditionally the Parja tribes provide the ropes that pull the `rath', while the Maria and Dhurwa tribes actually pull the rath. As one leaves the plains of Chhatisgarh in the southward direction, there is a gentle yet definite ascent into the hills. The forest gradually thickens all round as the winding road finds its way through the ghats. The hills in the distance appear to blend into each other in a seemingly effortless way.

Somewhere along the way, men with poles slung over their shoulders and women with baskets on their heads, make their way through a forest path in a single file, unmindful of the world going by. Unlike urban dwellers, they do have the time to stop and stare. Jungle dogs dart across the road, as the piercing cry of a peacock interrupts the sound of silence. The air is invigoratingly fresh and alive with the fragrance of the forests.

Lending a spirit of adventure to Bastar is the Royal Camp, consisting of luxury tents set up by Lakshmi Singh Tikari Sinclair of the legendary Kumbh camps. Pitched opposite the gushing, horseshoe-shaped Chitrakote falls on Indravati River, the campsite has been picked carefully, and the thoughtfulness of the facilities take you by surprise. The snug and spacious well-furnished Swiss Cottage tents even have an uninterrupted power supply and roll-up meshed windows to let in light.

Meals are always served outdoors, with a generous helping of sunlight, or by the side of a roaring bonfire. Every detail has been meticulously planned to ensure maximum living comfort. And if you want to relax, there is always an easy chair to laze around in.

But this can also be a place for action. In fact, there is plenty to do here! Climbing the hills to get to the limestone caves at the Kanger Valley National Park is the best way to melt stress and enjoy taking in the stalagmite and stalactite formations at the Kailash Gufa, discovered as recently as 1993.

Long walks are perfect for discovering vast tracts of paddy fields and trackless vistas of rainforest. High quality trees such as teak, sal, sirsa, tamarind, amla and mahua distinguish the canopy of primordial forestlands.

(Mahua and Zulfi are the locally produced liquor, which are pretty refreshing drinks, but may not continue to be as great, if allowed to ferment for more than one or two hours. Zulfi is drunk with a pinch of garlic flavoured chilly powder and rock salt.)

Deep in the woods, the turbulent cascades of the Tirathgarh waterfalls from a height of 100 ft are a great draw with visiting tourists. After a dip in the swirling waters, it is customary for devotees to seek the blessings of the deity at the nearby Shiv Mandir.

In some distant parts of the forest, you would be extremely lucky to spot or hear the endangered Bastar Hill Myna, breaking the quiet and silence of the valley. The Kanger Valley National Park, the last surviving tropical rainforest in this part of the world, is also a botanist's delight.

Now one feels heartened to learn that there is a proposal to protect the unique eco-system of this forest as a Biosphere Reserve. For the adventurous, there is an array of walking and hiking trails, caving and great outdoors, for that on top of the world feeling.

The largest concentration of tribal people in our country can be found in Chhattisgarh, sometimes referred to as `secret India'. They call themselves Koitor, which in Gondi means "The People".

The Gonds comprise the largest group, though outside the forests, many are no longer in touch with their language and their traditional customs. Today, many Gonds speak Chattisgarhi Hindi and follow the Hindu religion and practices.

The Abhujmarias, an important sub-caste of the Gonds, are the shyest of the tribal people. They live in splendid isolation, hunting and gathering produce in the deep interiors of the forests. Some of Bastar's most talented craftsmen have been acclaimed for their participation in the Festival of India series. Their handicrafts have a definite Harappan and Indus Valley flavour. Famous are the bell metal and wrought iron work from Kondagaon and Jagdalpur; wood and bamboo craft of Narayanpur and Jagdalpur and terracotta and Kosa silk of this region is an added attraction. Memorial stones, often painted, are one of Bastar's oldest crafts.

While traveling through Bastar, you would notice typically clad tribals making their way to the `haat' — there are about 300 `haat' or weekly markets across Bastar, where tribal people gather to buy salt, tobacco, vegetables, cloth and other essentials in exchange for produce collected from the forest.

There are even occasions when the local silversmiths gather to sell handmade silver bracelets and necklaces. It is a heart-warming sight to see sure footed, balancing their huge loads, the women of Bastar walk in a single file, baskets on their heads, a child on the hip, heavily tattooed ladies, brightly dressed young girls.

Bastar is truly a soul lifting experience, where Nature holds her own with sensitivity and feeling — not just an escape, a discovery for the future.

Fact file

How to get there

By road: Jagdalpur, the district headquarters is 250 km from Bhadrachalam in the south; it is 300 km from Visakhapatnam in the east and 300 km from Raipur in the north. There are excellent roads to Bastar that pass through verdant forestland.

By rail: Jagdalpur is linked to Visakhapatnam by a broad-gauge electrified railway. A passenger train operates, often with a chair car coach. The train passes through breathtaking ghats and tunnels.

By air: The nearest airports are Raipur and Visakhapatnam. Raipur has daily connectivity with the major cities.

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