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Sunday, March 2, 2003
Travel

Bewitched by breathtaking Bastar
Partha S. Banerjee

FOR a moment, I thought it was all over! Here I go, swept by the torrent, sliding down the precipitous slope, falling a 100 ft to inevitable death at the foot of the thunderous Chitrakote waterfall. Luckily for me, there was a rocky protrusion that I clutched in reflex action; though drenched from head to toe (and my Nikon disabled by seeping water), I managed to hold on for dear life.

The accident happened because I had misjudged how slippery the rocky bed of a fast flowing stream could be. I had stepped on it, a side channel, to hop on to a cliff (that overhung the main channel at the head of the falls) in order to photograph Chitrakote from above. Well, some risks are best not taken!

But what a spectacular picture it would have been. The Indravati, a tributary of the Godavari, plunging dramatically in a great arc, great swathes of itís frothy waters crashing headlong amidst sprays worked up by the winds, and down below, a foamy, misty, roaring chaos, like a sequence of uninterrupted never-ending watery explosions. Billed as Indiaís Ďmini Niagaraí, what with its vast horseshoe configuration and great height, the Chitrakote falls differs from the American landmark in one very big way: it is still relatively obscure, little known to the outside world.

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But not inaccessible. Located deep in the tribal heartland of Bastar, in what is now the Chhattisgarh state, Chitrakote is just 40 km from Jagdalpur, the district headquarters town that has fast luxury buses linking it to Raipur, the state capital. And thereís more to Bastar, of course, than Chitrakote. My wife and I spent a whole week there last autumn, venturing into primeval forests, delving into the netherworld of dark yet beautiful caves, exploring ancient dilapidated temples, visiting tribal markets and witnessing the unique Dasehra festival of Jagdalpur.

But it is the Chitrakote falls that surely took the cake. In the afternoon, as the slanting rays of the sun fell on the cascading waters, a rainbow formed across the falls. It was a fantastic sight. We took a boat ride on the Indravati at the base of the falls. The river was broad here, and ringed by the fallsí horseshoe, it almost seemed like a lake. As the boatmen rowed towards the falls, the vessel lurched dangerously in the heaving waves and we were scared. On the opposite shore, where we alighted, a lone tribal priest lived in a shelter, presiding over deities carved out of stone. A gaily-dressed young woman and her husband, who were co-passengers in the boat, sought the priestís blessings. They were praying for children.

A view of the idyllic Kanger Valley National Park
A view of the idyllic Kanger Valley National Park

The next morning we set out for the Kanger Valley National Park, some 30 km south-east of Jagdalpur. This is one of the densest forests in India and wildlife here includes tigers and leopard. We werenít lucky to spot any but the experience of walking through such thick forests was by itself exciting. We climbed a tall watchtower and from that height, the jungle seemed an endless stretch of foliage spreading across rolling hills.


TRAVEL TIPS

Access: Two daily trains run between Jagdalpur and Visakhapatnam (Waltair), which is on the Calcutta-Madras trunk route. Regular luxury buses ply to Jagdalpur from Raipur (300 km, 6 hrs). Raipur is on the Bombay-Calcutta trunk railway line and is also linked to Delhi by fast trains. It also has regular flights to Delhi, Bombay, Nagpur and Bhubaneswar. Taxis (Sumo/Qualis) can be hired at Jagdalpur at around Rs 7 per km.

Accommodation: Jagdalpur has a few decent hotels of which the best probably is Rainbow. During Dasehra, most hotels remain full so book in advance. For help and information, send an e-mail to tourism@cg.nic.in or call 0771-666415.

Tribal culture: A visit to the Jagdalpur Museum could be a good introduction to tribal culture. W.V. Grigsonís The Maria Gonds of Bastar and Verrier Elwinís The Maria and their Ghotul are two famous books on the subject but they are not readily available; try your local library.

Close by the watchtower is the low, narrow entrance to the Kailash cave. The cave is one of several in the park (the most famous being Kotamsar which we couldnít visit because of waterlogging), and all visitors are accompanied by a guide with a solar-powered light. A flight of iron steps brought us into what seemed like a vast underground hall full of amazing stalactites and stalagmites: conical formations of minerals that have evolved over the aeons as water dripped from the roof of the cave. With artificial lights casting eerie shadows of the strange formations here in the dark bowels of the earth, it all seemed a little surreal.

The cave is a quarter of a kilometre long and some 100 ft deep but we didnít venture too far in. Kotamsar, we were told, reaches a depth of 215 ft and is some 1.5 km long. The stalactites and stalagmites there are more stunning and in little pools on the floor, blind fishes swim about. The cave was discovered in 1900; Kailash cave was chanced upon by park rangers just a decade ago, in 1993.

On our way back to Jagdalpur, we stopped at the spectacular Tirathgar falls where the Kanger river drops down a steep incline, collects in a pool and then cascades down into a deep gorge. The falls are nowhere near the size of Chitrakote but is a great view nevertheless, with the waters radiating into many channels as they pour down, like fingers of the hand.

A brightly painted memorial to a prominent Bastar tribesman
A brightly painted memorial to a prominent Bastar tribesman

Taken in though we were at Bastarís scenic splendour, it was the districtís tribal culture that had drawn us to the region in the first place, and we spent the next few days sampling it. We took the road going west from Jagdalpur and presently chanced upon a weekly market where tribal men and women from neighbouring villages had gathered to buy and sell. Weekly markets, held all over tribal country, arenít only about trade; they serve also as venues for socialising where tribesmen and women from far-off villages exchange news and gossip and spend a hearty day swilling their local brew. Some of the men were dressed in their traditional head-dress of feathers and bison-horn. Indeed, the tribesmen inhabiting these parts, south of the river Indravati, are called Bison-horn Marias, thanks to the head-dress.

Further up the road, at a village called Kilepal, we came across strange brightly painted upright stone slabs, raised, we learnt, in memory of prominent villagers. The elaborate paintings covered a wide range of objects and activities: there were animals, cars and buses, dancers, the deceased riding an elephant or horse, even men kicking each other or indulging in some other activity. The painted stone slabs, we learnt, have come into vogue only recently; the tradition earlier was to raise carved wooden memorials. Indeed, each tribe has its own different form of memorial (some just erect stones) with associated rituals: at Gammawada, south of Dantewada, is a vast memorial field (more like a cemetery) with some of the stones having bullockís tail or pieces of cloth tied to them.

The Chitrakote Falls are an awe-inspiring sight
The Chitrakote Falls are an awe-inspiring sight

Dantewada, 86 km from Jagdalpur, is more famous for its Danteswari Mai temple, Bastarís most venerated shrine. Built by King Annam Deo, who established the Bastar kingdom in the 14th century after fleeing Warangal in Andhra Pradesh following a Muslim invasion. The temple, at first glance, looks more like a tiled rectangular building; the black stone image of Durga, ornamented with silver, stands in the sanctum sanctorum that may be entered by men only after they wrap themselves in a dhoti. The tile-roofed antechamber is lined with black-stone images of gods and goddesses, mostly brought from Barsur.

Maria tribesman in a traditional bison-horn headdress
Maria tribesman in a traditional bison-horn headdress

Located not far from Dantewada, Barsur is a village dotted with ancient temples. One that particularly fascinated us was a ruined Siva temple with a Nandi bull. With its columns leaning at various angles, it seemed about to collapse. The much better preserved Mama Bhanja ka Mandir had a superbly carved dome but it is the Market Temple, itís outer walls lined with sculptures, that is the villageís most prominent. The sculptures, some erotic, are like in any ancient Hindu temple but with a distinctive "rustic, robust" style.

We rounded off our tour of Bastar with a stopover at Kondagaon, 50 km from Jagdalpur on way to Raipur, which is famous for artisans who specialise in the districtís well-known Dokra (bell-metal) handicrafts. One place that, thanks to lack of time, we missed out on was Narainpur, 70 km west of Kondagaon, where tourists can visit ghotuls, the traditional adolescent dormitories where young boys and girls of the Muria tribe come of age. Though perceived by many as "a dreamland of adolescent sexual bliss," ghotuls, anthropologists today say, are more in the nature of preparatory schools for responsible adulthood.

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