Saturday, December 10, 2011

Bastar, Chattisgarh

  Rich times in Bastar
Monarchy may have been abolished years ago, but in Bastar it's unshaken. That, and other unexpected experiences, make a trip to this part quite memorable.

The streets have turned into ribbons of dazzle. The glowing October evening sun pales in comparison as a multitude of tan-taut figures attired in vibrant hues... shocking magenta, vermilion red, blazing orange to scorching saffron hurriedly march on. It’s the concluding day of the region’s biggest annual event and the celebratory mood is clearly palpable. Sewak, the cab driver, is manoeuvring his way through the milling crowd and at one point announces he can go no further, in the same breath adding, “I need to exit quickly. The Raja’s convoy is approaching and no vehicle dare come in his way. The public will not tolerate it.” I make insipid noises about law and order and query him on it. He politely informs, “Minister ho ya police, es waqt Raja ke samne koi matlab nahin rakhte.”

What a stunner! 
I don't attach weight to that declaration. A few minutes later, though, the cabbie’s statement rings true. A maroon hatchback blocking the convoy’s path is lifted and flung aside with matchbox disdain. The procession of the king’s men — tribespersons as Gonds, Parajas, Bison-horn Marias, Murias, Halbaas, Dhurwas — nonchalantly carries on. And none, not even uniformed men on duty, challenge them. This is an affair of a Raja and his praja (subjects), the world outside their kingdom may please step aside.  

The episode is of India, circa 2011, and no, it didn’t take place in a back-of-beyond jungle where, purportedly, men dressed in feathers pirouette around fire and their king sits on a throne decked with skeleton heads. I witness it in contemporary Jagdalpur, district headquarter of Bastar, southern Chattisgarh. The region’s crowd had gathered for the Bastar Dusshera finale, and the king they hailed — not overbearingly Rajasthanesque but almost-devotional — was the boyish Kamal Chandra Bhanj Deo, the 22nd Raja of Bastar from the Kakatiya dynasty. Deo, incidentally, holds a foreign degree and when not in royal robes for better part of the year is just another regular 27-year-old guy in jeans and tees who enjoys doing what anyone his age likes to.

Monarchy may have been abolished decades ago but in this part of the country dominated by tribes, despite winds of change (dish antennas atop humble huts, cell phones in most hands), core beliefs have remained intriguingly unshaken. One of these being customs linked to the 75-day Dusshera, which distinctively, is not about Rama or Ravan but a fusion of Hindu-Tribal rituals associated with the worship of Ma Danteshwari Devi and concludes with a rath yatra. It’s  then that the clock is rewound, and just the once when doors of the modest white-blue lime-washed Bastar Palace in Jagdalpur thrown open to let the constant stream of tribespersons pay heartfelt obeisance to their chief and invite him to participate in festivities.

Raipur, Chattisgarh’s capital, has negligible brand recall; ‘exotic’ Bastar having always been the magnet. The city displays precious little that’s inviting. But move out a bit and the state’s hidden gems shyly shine.

Relatively-unknown Sirpur, 83 km northeast from Raipur, off NH 6, is an archaeological treasure-trove. Way back in 639 AD the intrepid Hiuen Tsiang on visiting its impressive temples and Buddhist viharas had felt euphoric! My stopover at the verdant village evokes similar feeling. Untouched by tourism, it is a canvas of quietude, letting me appreciate the effortless beauty of its 7th century Lakshman Mandir, evidently the country’s only brick temple in a well-preserved state, or making me soak in the calm radiating from Lord Buddha’s sculpture in bhumisparsha position at the Tivaradeva Mahavihara, considered most stunning amongst vicinity viharas. The quirkily steep-stepped Surang Tila proudly displays its share of splendour. Around Sirpur lies much more and deserves at least a day’s attention. These are tributes to the song of the chisel and I feel the legacy needs tender, loving care. As a start, can the muggy on-site museums be given a makeover, please?

At the haat in Munda village
With poor railway connectivity, the NH 43 is the state’s lifeline, linking Raipur with Bastar. The highway is considerably smooth except for the potholed 12-hairpin loops of Keshkal ghati that re-jig inner vitals. This spot is a little ahead of Kanker, the gateway to Bastar and the subtle change in terrain from plains to plateau begins appearing during the onward drive. The eyes scan dense green hills of the distant Dandakaranya range, miles of soothing-green paddy interspersed by the revered mahua tree or slate-stone huts flank the tarmac, a trail of erect women in conventional knee-high sarees unflappably carrying aluminium handis swiftly walks past, a sulfi (fish-tail palm) tree waves its leaves and though I’m familiar with the tree’s ornamental value in cities it’s near-reverential status among tribespersons for its toddy, comes as a pleasant surprise. In fact a family’s status is indicated by the number of trees it owns. This is a prelude to discoveries ahead.

Kanker Palace: Period cloth ceiling fan 
The stately 1937 AD Kanker Palace, initially built for the kingdom’s British agent, is a welcoming throwback to the days of the Raj, its lived-in Diwan Hall filled with characteristic bric-a-brac, sepia photographs and mounted animal heads. The Deos were the first royals to convert their property into an elegant heritage hotel, the resurrection breathing life into the walls and acquainting travellers with lovingly-preserved original features as hand-pulled ceiling fans. I lunch with amiable Jolly Deo, the younger royal, a chef by profession, who’s got prepared a scrumptious North-Indian spread. I snoop around for local taste and the tangy bamboo-shoot pickle plays saviour for Deo, who promises to lay out a typical Chattisgarhi spread if I come by again. Now, that’s a tempting reason to return.         

Chitrakote Falls 
Jagdalpur is a base for Bastar’s myriad attractions: dhokra (bell-metal) craft villages as Kondagaon, wildlife parks, trekking trails, fascinating village haats etc. The most popular seems the Chitrakote Waterfall, and rightly so. They are spectacular! Fortunately I reach early morning, far before the tourist rush, and enjoy the powerful display of nature. I feel it’s needlessly compared with the Niagara. The raw beauty around it is more compelling than manicured perfection.

Dusshera Haat, Jagdalpur
A haat experience has been missing from the itinerary and tour guide Hiren enterprisingly locates one in Munda village, close to Chitrakote. I’ve always felt a local market is an expression of the place. Munda turns out to be an absorbing sliver of Bastar’s spirit. Under the shade of a few peepal trees, majority ware is spread out by brightly-clad Muira tribe women, picturesquely-conspicuous with side hair-buns, kilos of silver adorning hands and feet, gigantic gold nose-pins and a ready smile for the camera. I spot a young girl wearing a comb in her hair... customarily presented by a suitor. Deals are struck over gourds, tamarinds, red chillies, cane baskets and custard-apples; dried mahua flower heaps vanish fast with kilos being purchased for brew; earthen pitchers regularly undergo the sound-quality test; and despite being in a corner the landa (rice wine) ladies always have a gaggle of customers around them. It’s a quintessential atmospheric Indian village down to its caste hierarchies and yet another stimulating frame of a land full of legends, colour and staunch customs. The state tourism catchline is: full of surprises. I wasn’t surprised, just overwhelmed by the wealth of India once again. I’d say, visit Chattisgarh, it’s still original.

Muria tribe girl wearing comb presented by suitor
The Maoists have made sure Chattisgarh stays in news for not very encouraging reasons. However, gun-totting Maoists are not lurking behind every tree waiting to make instant fodder out of you. Insurgency-related incidents do happen, as it did when I was there, when unfortunately three jawans were killed but “fear did not sweep through all of Bastar”, as a leading English daily reported. Bastar was in the heights of festivity and life carried on. 


Chattisgarh has a rich green cover. Over a dozen wildlife sanctuaries and national parks dot the terrain. There are two splendid options on this circuit: Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary, 85 km from Raipur (Stay: Eco Resort, Mohda, a tourism property in the buffer zone, wonderfully overlooks a small lake and at times avifauna spotting is possible from the confines of the room. Tariff Rs 2,500). The engrossingly-verdant Kanger Valley National Park, 38 km from Jagdalpur, has added attractions in the Tiratgarh Waterfall and limestone formations at the 40-feet-deep Kutamsar Cave. Be prepared to cautiously tackle the cubby hole which leads down under. Tip: Carry a powerful torch to make certain the experience of viewing the stalactites and stalagmites doesn’t turn out to be a darkness-at-noon affair, courtesy sarkari bandobast. 

Getting there
Landa in leaf cup
Air: Direct flights to Raipur from all metros, Hyderabad, Indore, Bhubaneshwar, Vishakapatnam and Bhopal
Railway: From New Delhi: Bilaspur Rajdhani (12442, Tue, Sat), From Kolkata/Mumbai: Howrah-Mumbai Mail (12810, daily), Azad Hind Express (12130, daily); From Bhopal: Amarkantak Express (12854, daily)
Road: The NH 43 connects Raipur with Bastar/Jagdalpur via Kanker: 300km appx/6 hours. No state transport buses; private carriers easily available, one-way ticket to Bastar Rs 125-250. Cabs charge up to Rs 1,500 for a day trip. 
When to go: September to March 

Raipur: Hotel Babylon International ( Quite simply the best address in the state. Significantly, serves delectable cuisine. Tariff: Rs 5,000 onwards.
Kanker: The Kanker Palace ( Delightfully-old-world heritage hotel. Tariff: Rs 6,000 onwards.
Jagdalpur: Bastar Jungle Resort ( Kurandi village (12 km). King-sized cottages set in a sprawling estate fringing the jungle. Squeaky-clean washrooms with mod-cons. Also offers the luxury of a hot shower under an open sky. Tariff: On request

Kondagoan (en route Jagdalpur) and its surrounding villages are recognised for trademark ‘ghadwa-kaam’ or metal-casting, including dhokra (bell-metal) and wrought-iron figurines, besides straight-off-the-kiln terracotta. Don’t skip visiting national award-winning dhokra artiste Jaidev Baghel’s modest residence-workshop that has over the decades produced outstanding masterpieces.

At a local haat take your pick between freshly-brewed Mahua (seasonal) or Landa (rice wine) served in a leaf cup and temptingly accompanied with a masala mix of salt-red chilly powder 

Edited version appears in India Today Travel Plus, December 2011


Jasneet Bindra said...

Hi Brinda,
Incredible piece! What an insight into a place that is off the beaten track. The world knows so little about Bastar, and you have done justice to it. Great job.

Rekha said...

Ma'am very descriptive article. Covers very wide spectrum about Bastar, I had been wanting too know right from Raja's convoy during the Dusherra Festival, presence of Monarchy in Circa 2011, archaeological, rituals, places of interest, maoist movement, haat, rail and air connectivity, hotels etc. Para one is a very compelling read - it creates a feeling of curiosity wanting to know what lies ahead as one has really not heard or seen of the Raja's convoy and such elaborate spirit of festivity. But some portions had to re-read as these were wordy.
Rekha, Calcutta