Friday, February 10, 2012

CHATTISGARH: What and where to see, stay, shop, savour

1 Sirpur: Once upon a time, dating back to the 5th century, this was a flourishing capital city of central India. The reason it was originally christened Sripura or the ‘city of wealth’. Just an hour away from Raipur (83 km), on the banks of River Mahanadi, today its archaeological wealth draws the intrepid traveller. Its legacy includes Lakshman Mandir, apparently the country’s only brick temple in a well-preserved condition and Buddhist viharas. 

2 Chattis Rang: Step in here for apparel adorned with marwahi embroidery (resembling kantha), block-printed/hand-painted tribal motifs on kosa silk and a collection of select handicraft, including bhitti chitrkari. Tucked away in Raghvendra Nagar, Bilaspur.

3 Bastar Arts: Located in City Centre Mall, Raipur, this is a retail gallery for fine dhokra (bell metal) products. The exclusivity of design found at the store will tempt you to disregard your purchasing budget.     

4 Makadi dhaba: On NH 43, the state’s spinal highway, not too many dhabas are spotted. But just short of Kanker there’s thriving Makadi in the eponymous village. Set up by a dependable Sikh who arrived here over 50 years ago, it offers quality fare. With overseas visitors stopping by here don’t be surprised if you spot leading foreign brands on its food shelves. 

5 Purchase custard-apple baskets: Bastar falls in the country’s sharifa or custard-apple belt and typically brightly-attired village women line the highway selling baskets full of the luscious fruit. Depending on bargaining skills you’ll get about 15 kg between Rs 50-100. Whatever you pay you’ll always have a steal deal and more than that a memorable local experience. 

6 Local brews: At a haat take your pick between liquor distilled from the flowers of the Mahua tree or Landa (rice wine) served in a leaf cup and fittingly accompanied with a spicy mix of salt-red chilly powder. 

7 Sulfi toddy: On a road trip, look out for the sulfi tree (fish-tail palm), considered a symbol of social standing among the tribes and almost-revered for its toddy. If you spot a toddy-tapper, persuade him to let you taste the fresh sticky-sweet stuff. For a potent version drink it once fermented. 

8 Manipat: About 45 km from Ambikapur in Surguja sistrict, Manipat is the state’s ‘Shimla’. Among the top weekend getaways, its lush hills, plunging valleys, cascading waterfalls and picturesque drives draws the crowd.  Another attraction is the Dhakpo Monastery, set up by Tibetan refugees. And for sure, the ubiquitous thupka, momos stalls do quick business. 

9 Barsur: About 30 km from Dantewada, it’s acknowledged as Bastar’s finest archaeology site dating back to the 9th century. Once the fountainhead of Hindu civilization, it’s said to have had around 150 temples. In present times, Battisha Mandir and Mama Bhanja ka Mandir are well-preserved reflections of the past. Its prime attractions, though, are the ‘twin ganesha’ stone idols, about 7-8 ft in height and 17 ft wide.    
10 Turturiya: Legend says this is where Valmiki composed the Ramayana. It adds the claim of Sita giving birth to the twins here. And, quite sweetly, legend also says the name Turturiya is derived from the tur-tur sound of water from a nearby stream. What makes a visit here compelling for archaeology buffs is the rich harvest of 7th century Shaivite sculptures. Around 40 km from Sirpur.  

11 Tala-Malhar: These are twin cities close to Raipur, boasting of a rich historical past. Tala is famous for the Jethani-Devrani Temples and among its many attributes Malhar is known for the Gomukhi shivling at the Pataleswar Kedar temple. 

12 Maria menhirs (memorial pillars): Erected for the dead by the Maria tribe, you can spot these along the highways in Bastar. Basically vertical slabs of stone, their size signifies the standing of the deceased. In typical tribal tradition, menhirs are filled with drawings connected with the life of the loved one. When visiting a menhir, Marias drop a pinch of tobacco at its foot in remembrance. Tobacco, incidentally, is considered a means of friendship and a mark of respect. 

13 Hotel Babylon International ( The finest non-heritage address in the state, it’s about 10 minutes from the airport. The staff is courteous and the cuisine served delectable. The power lunch buffet is absolute value for money. Don’t miss the chulbuli corn starter.  

14 The Kanker Palace ( A delightful heritage hotel in Kanker, the gateway to Bastar, here you come across tenderly preserved facets of the past as the pankha or hand-pulled ceiling fan or a shiny brass lota in the otherwise modern bathrooms. The accommodation consists of five palace rooms and an additional four in two cottages at the rear. It’s one of the few places where a traditional Chattisgarhi spread can be served, albeit on prior notice. 

15 The Palace Kawardha ( This 1930 AD grandiose palace of the Kawardha dynasty is the state’s first heritage hotel. This is the region of the Baiga tribe and the hotel organises enthralling interactions with tribespersons, visit to village haats, and dance performances. When here, classical music buffs would value a visit to the Khairagarh music university which has a rich collection of gramophone records. Kawardha is 120 km north-west of Raipur.

16 Chhuikhadan Palace: This 18th century palace, about 120 km north-west of Raipur, recently entered the hospitality fray and completes the trio of accommodation in the state with the ‘royal heritage’ tag. Tranquil, small and similar to a homestay in character, it’s perfect for the off-the-beaten-track traveller. At present it offers three rooms with impressively hand-painted walls dating back to almost a century. 

17 Bastar Jungle Resort ( It’s modest luxury in the green heart of Bastar. Set in a sprawling estate fringing the jungle it has king-sized cottages with personal verandas and gardens, walls decorated with stick figures and quite pleasingly fully-equipped bathrooms. And if you’ve always yearned for a hot shower under the open sky this is the place for you to check into. Located in Kurandi village, 12 km beyond Jagdalpur town. 

18 Bhoramdeo Jungle Retreat: At the foot of the Maikal Hills, close to Kawardha its an elegant option for an outdoorsy experience. What makes it a sought-after address is its tasteful ethno-chic cottages, great food, campfire and engrossing conversation with Sunny, the proprietor, an expert on the area, who enthrals with anecdotes. Spend time exploring Gond and Baiga tribal villages or visiting historical temples. 

19. Sal Valley Resort ( In a expansive location, surrounded by lush sal forests, the resort is attractively built in village style. Thoughtfully, there’s room for all budgets among its two AC and five non-AC and 6-8 bedded air-cooled dormitory. Meals here are packed with wholesome, home-cooked flavours. It’s about 4/5 hrs by road from Raipur in Kheochi village adjacent to Achanakmar Tiger Reserve. Just 20 km from here is Amarkantak, where originates the revered River Narmada or Ma Rewa (recall the eponymous haunting Indian Ocean number), as it’s called.  

20 Muria combs: Intricately carved wooden combs — spotted at handicraft fairs these days — is an engaging feature of Muria tribe courtship.  According to custom, the comb is a suitor’s proposal and the woman wears it in her hair. The count of suitor combs in the hair indicates a woman’s popularity.  Interestingly, after marriage she is supposed to return the combs retaining only those given by her husband. These combs can be found at the haats, despite plastic fast replacing beautiful wood ones.    

21 Sulur or Wind Flute: You’ve spotted this whistling bamboo at handicraft fairs. In Bastar see it being crafted. An intriguing musical instrument, it’s made with a hollow bamboo staff. When swung around rhythmically a whistling sound is produced.  Visit the 'Narayanpur Bamboo Project' at  Narayanpur. This is the place this musical bamboo was created by Pandi Ram Mandavi. 

22 Kondagaon: This village and its neighbours form central Bastar’s craft hub. Most visible around here is emblematic ‘ghadwa-kaam’ or metal-casting, including dhokra (bell-metal) and wrought-iron, besides woodcarving and straight-off-the-kiln terracotta at Kumharpara. Don’t skip visiting national award-winning dhokra artiste Jaidev Baghel’s residence-workshop that over the decades has produced quite a range.  

23 Narayanpur: Bastar’s bordering district is refining primeval techniques of bamboo craft and basketry. But what’s not to be missed here is ‘tumba’, which essentially is the art of turning hollow gourd shells into decorative containers for water and sulfi toddy. These days utilitarian essentials as pitchers, lampshades, boxes and a lot else is being crafted from the modest gourd.  

24 Nagarnar: About 20 km from Jagdalpur, this has been developed as a craft village. Huts of award-winning artistes, some internationally acclaimed, are effectively storehouses of terracotta products, wood carving besides typical dhokra and wrought-iron work. The flow of tourists has smartened marketing skills of the artistes and diluted creativity. Yet amongst the mass produced a sparkling gem can always be found.      

25 Puhputra village, Ambikapur, Surguja district: The legend of Sonabai Rajawar (for more on this unassuming, internationally-feted artiste read Sonabai: Another Way of Seeing, by Stephen Huyler) rings in the air at this remote village. She had drawn acclaim for her individual expression in bhitti chitrakari or painted clay sculpturing. The craft has many variations in central India, where conventionally idols, soldiers, elephants, horses, parrots or peacocks are made for celebrations/ sacred occasions. Get acquainted with her journey at Puhputra. Her legacy is being carried forward by her talented grandson Atma Das Manikpuri. 

26 Parchanpal: Around 10 km from Jagdalpur this is where you should head to see sisal (grass) craft. It’s riveting to observe deft hands work their way around the grass to produce a range of vibrant items as boxes, frames, mats etc.  

27 Haats of Bastar district: Think of a rural setting in Hindi cinema late 60s, early 70s. That’s what you’ll observe at the haats or weekly markets. These day markets have something for everyone—from pots-pans to dried fish to jewellery and more. It’s a social occasion for the tribals and they come dressed in their best. Colourful, festive and an unadulterated display of tribal life, it’s certainly not to be skipped. Some popular haats are: Barsur (Friday), Bastar village (Thursday), Mardum (Saturday), Narainpur (Sunday). 

28 Bastar Palace on Sunday: Located in Jagdalpur city, it’s the residence of the Kakatiya dynasty. The erstwhile royals continue to reside in a section of the palace, a part having been converted into a medical college.  Behind the palace’s imposing gateway is a temple dedicated to Danteshwari Devi. On Sunday a lively weekly haat is held in the ground opposite the palace.

29 Handwoven silk:  Though weaving is not part of traditional tribal culture here, the Halba tribe has perfected the art of making hand-woven tussar silk. The Kosa Silk Centre of Jagdalpur is a pioneer in production and kosa can also be found in shops off Chandini Chowk, in the city centre. Besides Kosa, Bastar’s Railley silk is widely acclaimed, for being produced from naturally-growing silk worms on sal and saja trees. Uniquely, it feels cool in summer and warm in winters. 

30 Sanjay Bazaar, Jagdalpur: Before the showrooms open, a bustling daily market comes on at Sanjay Bazaar for a few early hours everyday. From vegetable to baskets to live chicken everything is sold. Traditionally attired tribeswomen add colour to the proceedings. It’s a lively sliver of haat life in dusty city lanes. 

31 Anthropological museum, Jagdalpur: Within its premises there’s valuable documentation of the regions tribes. Note: Don’t get dissuaded by the neglected outdoors.  

32 Chakradhar Samaroh, Raigarh: Erstwhile royal Raigarh is considered the state’s cultural capital and this is the most distinguished national-level classical arts festival it hosts. Though given a formal sarkari shape a few decades back, the festival history goes back nearly a century, having been established by Maharaja Bhupdev Singh and taken to soaring heights by Maharaja Chakradhar Singh, a celebrated musician and dancer who developed a form of kathak and established the Rajgarh Gharana. The 10-day fest is held in August-September and sees participation of leading artistes.  

33 Godna (tattoo): This is no fashion statement but a status symbol among the tribes and also considered spiritual. In Bastar you’ll notice women inked across the body, face included, with designs of bangles, necklaces, waistbands, earrings, nose-pins, anklets etc. There’s reason for that. According to tribal belief, precious metal jewellery was mortal. During search for a permanent ornament — an essential for the other world — tattoo became the solution, and over centuries that custom has stayed. Contemporary designers are successfully using godna motifs on silk/cotton apparel, accessories and linen.  

34 Irpu or Gadi padum: In the season of Magh (Jan-Feb) this festival is held to mark the flowering of the sacred Mahua tree. It’s prohibited to pick Mahua flowers before the fest. On Irpu day a fowl is sacrificed to a mahua tree in the village headman’s fields followed by song-dance.  

35 Bali madai: During Baisakh (April-May) Bastar villages erect Bhima Khuta, a pole representing rain god Bhima Deo, and pray for a good monsoon. Women prepare bhojilis or few seeds sown in a leaf cup. If the sprouts are healthy abundant rain is expected. 

36 Chitrakoot Waterfall: The world descends at these absolutely magnificent falls by noon. But you should be there early morning for an ethereal experience of an inky blue sky being the stunning backdrop to roaring white cascading water. Don’t forget to take a country boat ride in the lovely pool that forms at its base. And yes, put down Chitrakoot in the top-10 Indian spots to experience in your lifetime. 

37 Bastar Dusshera: No ten-headed Ravan goes up in flame here and neither is victory of good over evil hailed. Bastar Dusshera is a 75-day celebration dedicated to the worship of Ma Danteshwari Devi, a tradition established by Bastar’s fourth Kakatiya raja, Purushottam Deo in the 15th century. The festival is dominated by tribal customs and culminates with a rath yatra.    

38 Fagun madai: Celebrated to welcome the season of Fagun (Feb-March) it’s organised at Danteshwari Temple in Dantewada where more than 200 deities are invited. The ten-day festival presents a rich slice of tribal culture. The concluding day coincides with country-wide Holi, and curiously along with spraying gulal, revellers pelt amla (Indian gooseberry) on each other, the custom being believed to keep the body healthy for the next one year.    

39 Shivani Temple, Kanker: Legend says this temple has one of just two statues in the country that is half Goddess Kali and half Goddess Durga. During the Navaratri festival the temple draws its biggest crowd.  

40 Danteshwari Devi Temple: Dedicated to the region’s presiding goddess Danteshwari, it’s one of the 52 Shakti Peeths across India. Built in the 14th century by the Chalukyas of Southern India, it’s in Dantewada, 80 km from Jagdalpur. This is the spot where the daant or tooth of Sati fell during the episode when all Shakti shrines were created in the Satyayug.  

41 Bhoramdeo Temple: Known as ‘Khajuraho of Chhattisgarh’ it’s at Bhoramdev, 21 km from Kawardha. Lying on the banks of River Sakri, the 11th century Lord Shiva temple complex is its calling card. 

42 Dongargarh ropeway:  Dongargarh in Rajnandgaon district is famous for the Bamleshwari Temple, picturesquely located atop a hill.  More adventurously, there’s an ‘open-air’ ropeway —the only one in the state—that connects the temple making the outing a lot of fun.  

43 Rajiv Lochan Temple: In Rajim city, 35 km from Raipur, this is a  prominent temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Best time to visit it is in spring between mid and end February when a temple fair is held. 

44 Cult of Ang Deva: A set of villages or a large village has its own deity or Ang Deva. Made of wood hewn from a special tree the Ang Deva’s shape is two well-rounded logs (considered the limbs) joined together by a plank (considered the body). It is usually shouldered by four men, though the belief is its takes on a life of its own and direct those carrying it. A regular sight during fairs and festive occasions, the primary role of the deva is to indicate a direction to a problem.  

45 Kanger Valley National Park: A green treasure of Chattisgarh, 38 km from Jagdalpur, the park offers a challenging trip down a cubby hole to view limestone formations at the 40-feet-deep Kutamsar Cave. The other attraction here is the pretty Tiratgarh Waterfall. Kanger also has a sizeable butterfly population which draws its share of global enthusiasts. 

46 Indravati National Park, Dantewada: The park derives its name from River Indravati, which forms its northern boundary. It’s the state’s only tiger reserve and also offers leisurely trekking and hiking trails. The main entry is at Kutrue village, 22 km north of Jagdalpur.

47 Sanjay National Park: Also known as the Guru Ghasidas National Park it’s located in Sarguja and Koriya districts and has one of the richest flora and avi-fauna habitats in India. Apart from the big paws who stealthily move around its jungles that park boasts of attracting more than 300 species of birds, so there’s no way you can forget to pack in that pair of binoculars. 

48 Udanti wildlife sanctuary: The state is abundant with wildlife zones and if you’re travelling in its southern parts stop by at Udanti, 160 km south-east from Raipur. Not to be missed here is the Devdhara waterfall. 

49 Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary: This easily accessible sanctuary, 85 km from Raipur, has a sizeable count of gaurs and sighting of sloth bear/leopard is not rare. Do keep eyes peeled for the big cats but don’t forget to observe the rich micro-life here. The tourism property Eco Resort, Mohda, in the buffer zone, wonderfully overlooks a small lake and many a time avifauna spotting is possible from the comfortable confines of your room. 

50 Birding at Sitanadi sanctuary: Legend says Sita chose to stay here when she was expecting twins Luv-Kush. This is a haven popular with birders. It’s close to Kanker and there’s a stay option at the quaint Raj-style forest rest house within the sanctuary, which serves basic needs, so stock up well.  

Edited version appears in ITTP, Jan-Feb 2012

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