Dreaming of Chhattisgarh travel in the distant, post-lockdown future? In my first Chhattisgarh travel blog post, a glimpse of my solo adventures and why I *almost* fell in love.
I bade goodbye to Chhattisgarh with bittersweet feelings. Over nearly two weeks in the state (well before the lockdown), I rode pillion through eerily quiet sal forests late at night, with barren white ghost trees shimmering under the moonlit sky. Took a poop under a jackfruit tree with a cobra in the vicinity! And crossed flowing rivers to reach remote tribal settlements, as both my adrenaline and curiosity surged.
While travelling through Bastar and Kawardha, I lived in an off-grid village of the Gond tribe deep in the forest. In this demarcated Naxal territory, I joined my host family around a fire, trying to decipher the complexities and misconceptions of tribal life.
With hastily shut eyes and an aching heart, I witnessed a goat sacrifice in the traditional festival of the Dhurwa tribe. Rumor has it that back in the day, humans were sacrificed at their forest altars. Apparently clueless outsiders who overstayed their welcome!
In a traditional healer’s hut, alongside medicinal herbs, I was shocked to discover worn-out bird feet and pangolin shells (gathered years ago), still used to heal people. In obscure villages, I met artists and craftsmen, working with bell metal and bamboo crafts – their extraordinary lives and rare skills mocked by the tag of “other backward classes”.
With no toilets in remote tribal villages, I relieved myself under a jackfruit tree. On the short walk back to my host family’s house, I was shocked to spot an Indian cobra, lying lifeless on the path. Possibly the fallen prey of an eagle.
In a local haat (tribal market), I drank landa – homemade fermented rice brew with a nutty texture – in a tendu leaf cup. Under a grand old mahua tree, I met a sweet Baiga family fermenting mahua liquor in a boiling pot. They wouldn’t let me leave without tasting some delicious hot potent brew in a leaf cup, even though it was just after breakfast.
I met women of the Baiga tribe who still tattoo their foreheads, arms and legs. In semi-permanent mud houses they live, sharing the land with bears, leopards, tigers and other creatures of the forest.
And perhaps I’ll never forget that evening, when in the twilight hours, the sudden rush of freedom gripped me as I stood under the torrential spray of the gushing Teerathgarh waterfall! If someone had told me that I’d be 50+ days into an indefinite lockdown as I type this, I would’ve savored that rush just a little longer.
And yet, I felt a deep sadness as I spent time with the tribes of Chhattisgarh.
The old rituals, the traditional way of wearing clothes and hair, social interactions in the forest and the tribal haats have fallen prey to the influences of “modernity” and religion. The once nutritional diet of millets and superfoods – like kodo, moringa and mahua – has been replaced by rice and daal, leading to malnutrition. An abundance of indigenous knowledge about the forest and the sustainable, zero-waste use of its resources is on the brink of extinction.
The shift towards ‘modern’ habitat conservation techniques has alienated the very communities that have protected this land for centuries. Many tribal communities have had their connection with the forest severed.
As I lived with tribal families, broke bread with a shaman under the stars and heard stories of socially progressive customs, I had one lingering thought. That the current generation of tribal elders is our last chance to retain India’s ancient indigenous knowledge to live sustainably with nature. Their children, who still have the forest in their blood, could easily be trained as naturalists, guides and conservationists, instead of just being a source of menial labor.
Instead of labeling them as ‘backward’ people, we need to acknowledge the centuries of wisdom they’ve gathered from living in harmony with the land.
As we move “forward” in a world wrought with materialistic greed and environmental degradation – especially in the midst of a pandemic linked to biodiversity loss – travelling in Chhattisgarh was a reminder of what we stand to lose along the way.
Chhattisgarh travel info
I explored Bastar with Bastar Tribal Homestay and Unexplored Bastar, and Kawardha with Bhoramdeo Jungle Retreat. They’re all committed to responsible travel in Chhattisgarh. I’ll be sharing more about them in other Chhattisgarh travel blog posts, coming soon.
Have you travelled to Chhattisgarh or is it on your wishlist for the distant future? What would you like to read in my next Chhattisgarh travel blog?