Meenakshi Shedde: Diwali in Bastar
I spent Diwali week in Bastar, travelling across Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, mostly with various Indian tribes. Development is rapidly erasing tribal lifestyles and traditions
I spent Diwali week in Bastar, travelling across Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, mostly with various Indian tribes. Development is rapidly erasing tribal lifestyles and traditions. So, my sister Sarayu Kamat, who has a knack for ‘curating’ intoxicating holidays, got Vana Safaris to work out an outstanding tribal circuit. It was election time in Chhattisgarh, of which Bastar is a district, with headquarters in Jagdalpur. Our vehicle was checked now and then, but otherwise, we only read of Maoists threatening to chop off locals’ fingers if they voted, from the occasional newspaper bits in which the steamed sweet potatoes came wrapped. Otherwise, this was a real holiday — no newspapers, and very little Wi-Fi, email or WhatsApp — very heavenly.
We met various tribals across the states, including Gonds, Bison-horn Marias (who danced for us wearing their bison-horn headdress), Murias and Dorlas (whose bare torsos were covered with beaded jewellery, rather than clothes). In the weekly haats (bazaars), we met more tribals, including Parajas, Gadabas, Bhumias and Dongria Kondhs. In Bastar, a Bhatra woman offered us, early morning, a welcome drink of mahua, a colourless alcohol distilled from mahua flowers, with the effect of a very angry donkey’s kick. Later, we had dinner at the home of Guruwari, a Muria, under the stars. We were offered sulphi, an alcohol made from the sap of the fish-tail palm (“very good for the tummy,” yes, yes). A simple, delicious meal followed, on sal-leaf plates. Sadly, we were not offered chapra, a chutney made of red ants.
We visited several tribal haats or weekly bazaars: at Tokapal (Bastar, Chhattisgarh); Chatikona in Bissam Cuttack, Rayagada district, Odisha; Onukudelli at Lamtaput, Odisha (some haats were patrolled by the Border Security Force, watching out for Naxalite trouble). We made thrilling discoveries — spectacular tribal jewellery made with silver, or beads; exotic vegetables and tubers; peacock-quill fishing rods, and more. The haats were crawling with foreigners: foreign tribes study Indian tribes, and vice versa. Bargaining is a squealy adventure: when you ask the price, they will raise, say, four fingers. Four hundred? Four thousand? You raise three. They will grab both your hands, grunt and swear. Help! Somebody please provide English subtitles. Others, unable to count beyond their fingers, ask you how much change they should return. Yet other sharpies demand money for taking their photos.
Some of these tribes are more sophisticated than we are. The Murias, for instance, have the ghotul system, an opportunity for teenagers to learn key life lessons. They live together, clean, cook, dance, choose their own partners, and have sex with them. In some ghotuls, couples are expected to change partners, to teach sharing, reduce heartburn and jealousy. Some Gonds are advanced: the men even offer dowry to the women. A number of the tribals we met lived modestly, but seemed far more content than we are. Yet, thousands of other tribals, who have been displaced due to massive mining for iron, coal, bauxite and more, live precariously.
Thanks to my sister, philanthropy has become a rewarding part of tourism for us. On the advice of local NGOs whom she contacted in advance, we distributed bedsheets in tribal hamlets. From Pratham Books’ StoryWeaver Creative Commons website, she also downloaded 40 beautiful storybooks in Gondi, which we distributed in tribal schools, along with drawing books, crayons and chocolates. At the Surukhani Primary School in Lamtaput Block, Koraput, tribal children recited a prayer, with their eyes tightly shut, feeling every word with such innocence and earnestness that I felt the sting of salt in my eyes.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at email@example.com
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