They say a pen is mightier than a sword. A good writer can win a great battle. I guess it has been all the more true in the Gen-Z era. Although the pen has been replaced with keypads, the social media warriors have continuously upped the war of words 😛 But for a few old-school goers like me, nothing can replace the joy of holding a pen between the fingers and scribbling on paper. The thought instantly takes me back to the earliest days of life when I graduated from a chalk and slate to a pencil and paper. When we reached middle-school, I was a proud owner of my first pen. Writing with a pen was a symbol of growing up; we flaunted it around with those younger than us in school. “Don’t use a ball-point pen, it will spoil your handwriting”, was an instruction given by a teacher to all of us. Filling ink into the fountain pens was a mandatory part of our daily chores. On days that we either wrote more or forgot to fill inks, we would barter drops of ink with our classmates. Although ball-point pens made their way and stayed in the comp-boxes of my pals by the time we reached high-school, I somehow carried the instructions of my teacher with myself for a little longer. I switched over to a ball-point pen only after I graduated from college. But my love for fountain pens and writing on paper still lives on. This is the long story in short, about my connection with fountain pens.
Rajahmundry is a big city in Andhra Pradesh. It is one of the largest exporters of textiles, rice and horticultural products in India. But ignoring all that, my need for exploring the congested bustling streets of the city was to find a fountain pen. With the help of Google maps, I walked through the narrow lanes of the busy shopping area to locate an old graceful house dating back to pre-independence era and surrounded by tall modern buildings. The house was an elegant traditional structure built and maintained in its original form with clay tiled roof and a large open central courtyard. That morning, I had come there to buy an art piece – ‘The Ratnam Pen’.
‘Ratnam pen works’ is a heritage fountain pen maker who has been one of the earliest in this business when Mahatma Gandhi largely promoted ‘Make in India’ concept through his ‘Swadeshi’ movement. These pens have been used by some of the famous personalities from across the country and the world. Ratnam pens are a delight for every pen collector. A framed paper on the wall is a prized possession of this craftsman. It is the original copy of a handwritten letter by Gandhiji to the owner of this place in appreciation of his contribution towards the swadeshi movement.
Apart from being the shelter to the owner’s family, this house of ‘Ratnam pens’ is a workshop where the mightier pens take form. These famous fountain pens are made and sold only here to which people come down from across the globe. Although these pens are unavailable for online purchases, “Anyone interested to buy them or want spares and service for existing products can do so by calling me directly on my phone”, the owner says. I was more than excited to lay my hands on this new addition to my collection of pens. A happy me was then set on continuing my travel towards another noteworthy village nearby- Details on my next post
This is my humble attempt at promoting domestic tourism and local artisans. I urge my readers to support small businesses by buying locally produced substitutes for imported goods.
What is that one favourite souvenir you have bought from your travels? What are your memories from school? Please do share your thoughts on this post with me. I would love to hear them.
I have discussed with you all why I volunteered to become a ‘Trek leader on weekends’ and how much I enjoy doing it with ‘Plan the Unplanned’ (PTU). With Covid19 lockdowns and safety precautions that followed, break from my weekends with PTU has been longer than I had thought. Although I have been travelling with a closed group of friends and family since few months now, the fear of socializing with a bunch of unknown people had kept me away from PTU. Finally, this January, I decided to get out and lead a group of trekkers. The destination assigned for this weekend was Sultan Bathery in Wayanad district of Kerala. And the task was to find a hidden gem in the Aranamala hills. We were going to hike along a stream to see a waterfall.
Itinerary: Friday: Leave Bangalore by night Saturday: Day hike to Aranamala waterfall, Visit sunset-point and night camping at Ambukutti hills Sunday: Watch sunrise, visit Edakkal caves and explore Wayanad. Return to Bangalore by night.
The Details: It is a very hazy memory from the cold dark January morning of sitting inside our bus at the Wayanad wildlife sanctuary’s Sultan Bathery check post. We had arrived much before 06.00.a.m., when the forest gates would open for public entry. Since we were not allowed to make any noise or get out of the bus in the forest area, we all decided to get some sleep until the gates opened. At first, I was woken up by the cries of peacocks that seemed to be somewhere very near to the bus and some distant elephant trumpet. But then, the darkness around and the exhaustion from the previous workday got me back to fall asleep. I was woken up again in a while, by a sound that was very contrasting and disturbing as compared to what I had heard before falling asleep the last time. This time, the loud deafening sounds were of honking buses and trucks that had congregated at the check post. I opened my eyes to see the dawn of the day with a red sun rising over a mist laden green paddy field from my window. The fresh dung just outside the bus gave me a momentary fright at the thought of having had an elephant walk right past us, in the dark. All said and done, the entry formalities at the inter-state border was sorted and we were at a hotel in a bit. We freshened up, had a nice Kerala breakfast and got ready for the long day ahead.
After arriving at Meppadi town, we met our local guide and shifted from our minibus to 4WD Jeeps. The initial stretch deceived me in thinking why a 4WD was needed to drive on a properly laid concrete road. Just then, the roads disappeared, and the real ride started… Although I was sitting in the rear end of the vehicle, I preferred not to sit on the seat and chose to hang on to the roof lest have all my joints and bones displaced. The long drive through the thick canopied forest trail culminated at the start point of our hike. We descended through the path that deviated from the main road towards a river. That’s the ‘Thollayiram Kandi’, our guide pointed out at a peak topped by the rolling clouds. “Kandi is a local unit of measurement”, he elaborated as we continued to walk. We walked through cardamom plantations and jumped over a few fallen tree trunks and creeping roots until we reached a stream.
From there onwards, the hike was mainly upstream. While enjoying the absolute music of the gurgling waters of the stream, the croaking frogs and the shrilling cicadas, we slipped down a few large rocks and fell into the shallow waters a couple of times. In spite of trying hard not to get our shoes wet, we ended up soaking them up and picking out occasional leeches from our feet. We realized that given our pace of hiking up, we would not be able to return on time with sufficient daylight. Hence from there onwards, our guide made his own path, through the thick forest. He walked ahead by cutting the thick bushes that came across, all by keeping the stream in sight. We did slip and tumble down the steep a couple of times though. But the hanging vines and lianas came to our rescue. And suddenly, our first view of the waterfall emerged. It was beautiful and the water pool looked crystal clear, tempting to step inside. Apart from our group, there was no one else.
As we got ready to step into the pool, “This is not the main waterfall. We need to walk further ahead”, said our guide. If this waterfall was so calm and beautiful, we wondered how the main waterfall would be like. We were excited! But our excitement sought energy 😛 We had to climb up the same rock, on one end of which the water plunged down. Quite a tricky climb but worth every inch of it! A short walk further from there waaaaasssss the hidden gem that we had come in search of. Now, don’t ask me the name of the waterfall, it is completely off the map and mobile network. So, there is NO way you will find it on google. To make it simple, you can call it the Aranamala waterfall, the waterfall in the Aranamala hills.
That’s all folks, we’re off into the pool to enjoy our dip! But hey, it was not so easy…. The water was bloody cold, and I had cramps in my feet for the first few minutes. I meanwhile enjoyed my free fish-pedicure too, it sort of eased the cramps for me. And then with a dip, I was all set! A waterfall so secluded, a pool so clear and a feeling so divine, I couldn’t have asked for any better to make up for all the travels missed in nearly a year now. After spending some good time under the waterfall and with our soaking wet clothes on, we decided to return. It was already 03.30.p.m and hence decided to take an easy path instead of walking back through the same terrain of forest and the rocks. So, we were taken through a shorter but a beautiful path through cardamom plantation for our descent.
After a nice filling lunch at a campsite enroute, we boarded the jeeps back towards Meppadi. The original itinerary did include a short sunset ride, but the clouds didn’t seem to part for the entire day. From Meppadi, we reached the base of Ambukutti hills for the night. It took us yet another jeep ride to a homestay where we had our chai and conversations. And a fun time around the bonfire until dinner was served.
Post dinner, we carried our tents and sleeping bags up the hill and managed to pitch them atop. The winds were strong, and the rocky ground was tough. With the thick mist blinding all around and the instructions from our guide to not venture away from the tents, all that we could envisage was a deep valley below. The bonus of holding up in the cold until morning, u ask? ‘The view from the tent, of the sun rising above the clouds at 06.00a.m.’ But come morning, we had a surprise awaiting. There was so many clouds until 09.00.a.m that we got a glimpse of the sun for barely a few seconds. We walked up the hill a little further from our campsite, took in some clean air and good views of the range around. We then returned to pack our tents and freshen up for the day. Our breakfast and our ride back to Meppadi was awaiting us at the homestay.
That was my story about offbeat Wayanad with ‘Plan the Unplanned’, of leading a group of weekenders and enjoying my weekend, both at the same time.
Other Travel recommendations: Edakkal caves are located at a walkable distance from the campsite at Ambukutti hills You can visit Tirunelli temple and Irupu waterfalls by driving through Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (Tholpetta) and Nagarhole National park. Alternately, you can explore Sultan Bathery, visit the ancient Jain temple and Banasura sagar dam that offers a good view of the surrounding hills.
My interest in pursuing a career related to the oceans goes a long way back into history. I intended to study oceanography while in school. Then, in spite of studying at an elite college in Bengaluru that offered the army wing of NCC (National Cadet Corps), I wanted to move out to get a ‘B & C’ certification in the Naval wing. After completing my graduation in mechanical engineering, I thought I could do well with a career in a refinery or a shipping harbor or something. A career in ‘Merchant navy’ never had an approval from my family! I did try to get into the ‘Indian Navy’ through the SSB as well. Anyways, all have been futile attempts as life always had other plans for me. But all the above interests have a deep connection with the port city of Visakhapatnam.
I had heard a lot of my acquaintances tell me how beautiful this city is. Also, blame it on me for being spoilt by what my home state has offered me in my upbringing. The beaches of karavali, the hills of western Ghats, the coffee plantations of my native district and the sumptuous spread of regional cuisines, similar things were spoken about at Vizag as well. But all the people who had suggested Vizag on my bucket list were the urban tourists who visited this place to either chill by the beachside or relax and rejuvenate at a resort. For those who know me well, I have always enjoyed the exploratory kind of travel. So, I did manage to find such places and things at Vizag to satiate the explorer in me. Here are my favorites:
The INS Kursura submarine museum: This is like “THE” thing that brought me to Vizag at the first place. The experience of the guided tour inside of this de-commissioned submarine is something that is priceless and cannot be quantified with a price of an entry ticket.
The TupoLev142M aircraft museum: This is one of its kind of what I have been before. The experience of walking through a real aircraft that once served in the ‘Indian Navy’ is a million-dollar worth if you are someone who has deep interest in the uniforms, technology, and scientific history.
The cable car ride: Kailasagiri hill is a favorite hangout among the locals. They choose to drive up there, walk around the park and hangout at the eateries there. But for me, this was an interesting place because I reached the top of this hill through a cable-car. For all the people drooling over the Singapore tourism’s photos, Vizag is your nearest bet. Once you reach the peak, another recommendation from me is to take a ride on the toy train that goes around the hill. The 360deg view of the city and its enchanting coastline is indeed worth a visit, while you are in Vizag.
Borra caves: Situated amidst lush greenery, these caves are known to be the widest cave complex in the Indian sub-continent. If possible, time your visit into the caves when a train passes over the land above, you can experience the tremors inside. It is located on the outskirts of Vizag and can be combined as a day trip to Araku valley.
Araku valley: For someone hailing from a place that is called as the ‘Coffee land’ of India (Kodagu district in Karnataka), I found the small patches of the famed ‘Araku valley’ coffee estates overhyped. But still, a meal of ‘bamboo-chicken’ with the valley in the backdrop, a hundred small dotting waterfalls and the beautiful scenery all along the way that made me want to stop for a photo at every turn of the road, all score a definite recommendation from me for a day trip to this valley.
Sip some kallu by the beach: With its buzzing coastline and palm trees growing in abundance, it is highly likely that you will spot some toddy or Kallu tappers (palm sap collectors) walking past you near the beaches. You can buy the fresh Kallu and enjoy while you are chilling by the beach.
Beach hopping & Ship spotting: Being a major port city on the east coast, it is very likely that you can see some mad-ass big ships that dock at the Tennessee park Beach from across the world. However, there’s ‘MV Maa’, a Bangladeshi cargo ship that’s abandoned after it got beached during the covid-19 lockdown. If you’ve never been so close to a ship before, this is your opportunity to literally walk over, touch and feel a ship. Bonus: News is that if everything goes well, the ship will be converted to a floating restaurant soon 😍
Have you been to Vishakhapatnam before? What did you like the most?
If you are someone who has been following my blogs for some time now, you would know that most of our family trips are on weekends and to random destinations located around the Bangalore outskirts. We leave home with random reasons to drive out and then pick up equally random roads and follow-it till the road reaches a dead-end. We have thus far explored several villages like this. This weekend too was a similar one. And the reason to drive out, you may be curious to know, right?
My dad had long heard of a pig farm located somewhere around Kanakapura road. We had first stopped for lunch at a hotel on Kanakapura road. There, my dad enquired with the hotelier if they knew of any pig-farm around. They informed us that the kitchen waste from their hotel too was collected by someone who runs a pig farm but was unsure of its location. He gave us the possible location of the place with rough directions. After lunch, we headed out in that direction, a deviation before Kaggalipura.
With just the deviation, there was a sudden and a contrasting change in the scenery to drive through as compared to the super congested Kanakapura highway. For a moment I felt as if I were driving through some remote lanes of Coastal Karnataka or the Malnad region. There were stretches of areca and banana plantations on either side creating abundant greenery and change in the ambience. Since there were barely any people on the road, we continued to drive till we found some village ahead. By this time, we had covered a good distance and passed through several types of fruit and vegetable farms.
After reaching the village, we stopped by to enquire a villager on the roadside about the farm, he guided us to a pig-farm located next to his farm. But after reaching there, we realized that it was a different one that my dad had heard of and we had no entry into the place where we had now reached. So, we continued our drive further and reached a junction where we had to pick a direction to turn, the left or the right. Instead, we chose to stop the car in a side and walk up a large wall in front of us that looked like a high-rise wall of a reservoir or something. Indeed, it was a lake up there and surrounded by farms and distant hills of Bannerghatta on the other side. A flock of migratory birds too seemed to be resting in a small islet in the middle of the lake. I checked the location on google maps and I learnt that the place was called as ‘Gulakamale lake’.
The water looked so good and we sat there for some time, enjoying the cool breeze even on a hot and humid afternoon. It was just my family in the entire place until we noticed some local kids who arrived there. They removed their clothes and jumped into the lake one after the other, enjoying their fair share of fun time. They took all of us back to our childhood days and it was a pleasure to watch them enjoy it that way.
After a while, we decided to move further on the road. This time, we chose to take the road to our left and continued at it. We passed through millet farms, taking a round about of the same lake, papaya farms and other vegetable farms before arriving at a village called ‘Nallakkanadoddi’. It was a small settlement with nothing noteworthy to see or do. Hence, we went ahead as we saw that the road was newly laid and in good condition.
The road reached a dead-end and that was the parking lot of ‘Tottikallu falls’ commonly known as TK falls among the urban crowd of Bangalore. This was the second time for me that I had reached the entrance of TK falls, both times an unplanned drive had taken me there. Again, I decided not to go there on both occassions given the large crowd that had come down over the weekend. More so, given the Covid-19 situation and the crazy crowd this time, we didn’t even dare to step out of our car. So, TK falls has to wait until next time. From here, we decided to head back home and not stop anywhere on the way. Thanks to the weekend rush on Kanakapura road, we would need good number of hours to make our way back through the traffic.
Bastar is an area soaked in rich culture. And art is an integral and unique part of this indigenous culture. It is safe to say that Kondagaon district is the art hub where there are entire villages dedicated to each of these handicrafts, with households registered with the ministry of culture & art. Several of these artisans are National award winners and visiting faculty at universities across the world. During my week long stay at Bastar, I managed to find time to visit some of these villages and interact with the artisans.
Blame it on me being an experienced professional in materials, manufacturing and heat-treatment processes, I have this weird fancy for everything that involves these aspects. One would not want to seize a travel opportunity from me when there is an element of art and engineering in it…. On similar lines, is the first part of this post.
The major and famous handicrafts of Bastar can be listed as below:
Wrought iron artefacts: Chhattisgarh is a state blessed with a mineral rich geography. Until a few decades ago, the tribes inhabiting the region used to collect raw iron ore from the naturally available soil or portions of earth, heat it in a furnace and separate the molten iron to make wrought iron. Today, wrought iron is directly purchased from the market. This is then melted and beaten into sheets. The sheets are then formed into various patterns and welded into beautiful artefacts. Although the traditional designs are based on the local tribal culture and represent aspects of daily life in Bastar like animals, hunting, the tribal folk, tribal deities, etc., modern adaptations have been inspired by the Indian epics among many other things. But still, each piece is handmade and unique with no two pieces being exactly the same.
Dokra art: Bell-metal is an alloy prepared locally and cast into various patterns through a technique called as ‘lost-wax technique’ of metal casting. Although this technique was primarily used by the indigenous tribes to mold their traditional jewelry back in the time, it has slowly evolved into making idols and other home décor items. These indigenous metal cast items are collectively called as Dokra art.
Terracotta pottery: A special type of clay is dug from the vast paddy farms and is then crafted into various artefacts. The specialty of the art here in Bastar is that very large and real-life sized objects are crafted completely with clay. After the potter assembles the product piece by piece, he then burns it as a whole unit to give it the required strength and rigidity. Well, there’s an entire village of potters / Terracotta artisans in Kondagaon.
Wooden carvings & Carpentry: With the abundance of forest cover and timber availability, wood craft is a major part of the handicraft culture here. Large tree trunks and roots are given the form of beautiful figurines, animals, etc. by very skilled artisans. This can also be seen in the rich carvings on doors and friezes of various old and traditional structures across the region.
Stone sculpture: With the mineral rich earth of the region, various types of soil and stone are available. Several of these earthy materials are used to make beautiful sculptures.
Mural Paintings: With a somewhat influence of the Patachitra art from the neighboring state of Odisha, the local Gondi artform and several other influences, the indigenous wall and fabric painting has evolved. Beautiful pictures of tribal deities, everyday life etc. can be seen being depicted through these paintings.
Handloom: A small portion of the local tribes are involved in collection of the naturally available cotton and Kosa silk from the forests and weaving them into traditional textiles.
Jewelry: Each of the tribes who inhabit the remote jungles of Chhattisgarh have their own unique pieces of jewelry. Anything that ranges from silver, fabric, plant fiber, shells or animal bones, the locally available materials from the wild are adapted into their culture in the form of traditional jewelry.
River Godavari is the longest river in South India that travels over 1000 kilometers. My first glimpse of this beauty was at Rajahmundry, where the ritualistic ‘Godavari Arati’ is offered to this mighty river every evening. The sunset and a boat ride from the Godavari ghat are experiences in themselves. Among the umpteen dams, reservoirs, bridges that are a built across her, the most noteworthy bridges are located in Rajahmundry. Here is a quick look at these heritage structures.
Old Godavari bridge – This is the oldest of the three major bridges built across Godavari here. It was originally called as ‘Havelock bridge’ since it was named after Sir Arthur Elibank Havelock, the then governor of Madras. This is a Stone masonry & Steel girder bridge whose construction started in 1897 and commissioned in 1900. After completing 100 years, this railway bridge was decommissioned in 1997.
Godavari bridge – Also called as the ‘Kovvur-Rajahmundry bridge’, was commissioned in 1974. This truss bridge has a two-way road deck over a single-track rail deck making it Asia’s second longest railroad bridge with a length of 4.1kms.
Godavari Arch bridge – Commissioned in 1997, this single line railway bridge is the latest of the three major bridges in Rajahmundry and was constructed as a replacement for the Havelock bridge. This concrete- Bowstring-girder bridge is built parallel to the Havelock bridge with a distance of 200mts.
Apart from the above bridges, there is another road bridge that connects Rajahmundry city with the islands of Konaseema. But what makes this bridge special is that it runs parallel to another heritage structure built across the mighty river. Dowleshwaran Barrage is an irrigation structure built in 1850 by a British engineer, Sir Arthur Thomas Cotton. Earlier to the construction of the barrage, the place used to be constantly flooded and unworthy of anything. This 3.5kms long barrage then allowed the floods to pass through and enriched the place making the unused land worthy of cultivation. It was rebuilt in 1970 and renamed as Sir Arthur Cotton Barrage or Godavari Barrage.
For someone visiting Chhattisgarh, experiencing the tribal culture and enjoying the rawness of the natural landscape in Bastar would undeniably be the priority. If you are lucky, then you might get the opportunity to visit a tribal Ghotul. A Ghotul is a structure that accommodates people. It is either an open arena with earthen floors, without walls and with roofs laid with wood and hay or it is a completely closed structure built with earthen walls decorated with various murals. ‘But what is so ho about it?’, one may ask.
The primary purpose of a Ghotul is what makes it important in the regional culture of Bastar in Chhattisgarh. It is a socializing club for the unmarried youth of the Muriya and the Gond tribes which also in some parts, serve as a dormitory for the registered members. Young boys and girls register themselves with a Ghotul of a particular village or area when they hit adolescence and the functioning of this traditional club is presided over by a head boy and a head girl from the respective tribe. Here, every evening, the members gather and learn the essentials of taking up a new life ahead of them. Reaching adolescence means that they are become eligible to get married and take upon the responsibilities of running a family. So, they are taught all the required life skills like managing a house and a family, folk traditions, music, cooking, religion, cleanliness, discipline, sympathy and everything else. The whole idea is to pass on and contain the traditions within the tribe.
This also promotes inter-tribe or inter-Ghotul weddings so that a member of a particular tribe doesn’t leave the community and the strength of the community is sustained. While pre-marital sex is considered as a taboo elsewhere in India, this culture encourages the youth to indulge in sexual activities to find the most compatible life partner. It is said that if a member of a Ghotul gets pregnant and doesn’t know who the father of the baby is, the village will adopt the baby and nurtures it as everyone’s own child.
Due to the rich ideology of conservation of the culture, people from across the globe come to study and understand the functioning of these Ghotuls. The Muriyas indulge in celebration of the little things from their daily lives. For example, after a successful hunt in the wild, a birth in the community, a betrothal, etc. They have about 12-15 different types of dances that they perform to celebrate these everyday joys. There are rituals and a sequential procedure on how the members need to conduct themselves in the course of visiting a Ghotul like getting ready, dressing up, assembly and starting the evening at the Ghotul.
I got an opportunity to visit one such Ghotul and here is a video of a dance they performed for us.
As a small introduction to the video above: In this dance, you can see two hunters dancing around and in between the other members, while musicians are standing in the middle and playing the traditional instruments. There are also a couple of men wearing head gears that look like chital / spotted-deer which indicates that this celebration is after a game was shot-down by the hunters and brought to the Ghotul for a feast.
What are your thoughts and views about the Ghotul system? Share them with me through the comments below.
If you have your own vehicle and planning to do a bit of rural and tribal tourism in Bastar, then you might come across several structures that are endemic to the region. Some are integral to the local culture and a few are modern additions but unique to Bastar. Here are a few such structures that may spike the curiosity of any new person noticing them around.
Mata Mandir: One might be surprised to see random wooden structures lying around by the roadsides or in the middle of some farmlands. No two are similar in appearance. Some maybe fixed structures and some may have wheels like pushcarts. These are temples or places of worship are usually dedicated to Bheema Dev & Godandi Dev, deities of the Muriya Tribes. A godman from the tribe is believed to possess the spirits of the deities and walks with these wooden tools or push carts. If you have a closer look at one of these structures, you will notice that it has been designed to place his legs and walk with it. You will however, come across concrete structures that are influenced by modern construction materials.
Gudi: These are the lesser known wonders of India, also called as the ‘deceased pillars or column of the dead’ in modern terminologies. The dead persons from the Maria and Muriya tribes believe on sending a person happily after his death. Hence, the tradition is that they bury the body in a vertical/ standing position and erect a flat stone slab or a wide pillar at the grave site. These stones are then painted with artistic patterns and nice verses are written about the deceased on these slabs (This is something similar to the of placing a headstone in the burial of some mainstream religious culture).
Gotul: These are traditional centers of socializing and learning for the youth of the Madiya and Muriya tribes. These are spaces either with mud walls or open wooden floored spaces with wood and hay roofs. Unmarried girls and boys congregate every evening at a Gotul where they socialize, indulge in various celebrations and merry making, learn the basic skills of leading a life and managing a family. This is also where they indulge in choosing their own life partners. The basic ideology of a Gotul system is teaching the youth of life and cultural lessons and building and containing the traditions within the community.
Termite hill: If you ever take a drive around the villages of Bastar, you will notice that their houses are unique. They have mud walls, hay roofs and floor and a large front yard neatly smeared with cow dung. I got an opportunity to go inside and take a look at the interiors. That’s when I realized that these tribal houses may even have large termite-hills inside their houses or perhaps in their bedrooms. These tribes are nature worshippers and believe that these termites are gods that have chosen their homes to take shelter. Hence, termite hills are auspicious and cannot be destroyed. Further, after worshipping this anthill all year, there is a specific day in a year when the family prays the almighty, seeks his permission and then removes these dwellings and releases the mud/ clay into a nearby water source. Same is the case before any tree is cut in a Bastar village. The tribes invoke their deities to get permission before axing them.
Gau-Mata chowk: This is a modern addition with a cultural significance that can be found at the entrance of every village in Bastar. ‘Kamdhenu’ the holy cow feeding a calf is a popular representation in Indian culture. Similarly, this image has been a large part of the Bastar culture. You can see it even in their art and crafts. Coming to the Gau-Mata chowk, these are concrete structures around which the cattle of the entire village is assembled together, twice a day. From here, one person or one household from the village takes the responsibility each day to take the assembly of cattle out for grazing and return to the Gau-Mata chowk. From here, the cattle assembly disperses every evening and are then taken back to their respective sheds.
Atal chowk: This is another modern structure named after the former prime-Minister of India, Sri.Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This is just a concrete pillar erected at the entrance of every village in the Kondagaon / Bastar region.
Do you know any other unique structures from Bastar that you think that I have missed out? Do drop in your comments and share the information with me.
Ever since I chose to do ‘Slow travel, it has given me ample opportunities to understand newer cultures and traditions. Since slow travel allows me to interact with more local people, I also get exposed to a lot of local music and art. One such knowledge gained during my interactions with the various tribes of Bastar is the various musical instruments made and used by them for various purposes.
Khut/ Khoot: This percussion instrument is a hollow trapezoidal shaped wooden block. It is hung around the neck of the person playing it and is struck with two wooden sticks to create a unique sound.
Maandaar: This is a small size drum that resembles a dholak. It has a hollow wooden body and wound with leather strips from end to end. The two sides used to create the sound are made using specially chose animal hide. It is tied around the waist and struck either with bare hands or using very thin wooden sticks to create the sound.
Gadha Baja: This is another percussion instrument with a resemblance to the (Bayan) Tabla. It has a hollow wooden body with a wide playing surface firmed with leather. It is used either individually by hanging on to the neck of the player during a celebration or used in pairs at temples and religious gatherings. Sticks are used for generating the sound here as well.
Taal: This instrument is a pair of metallic hand cymbals that are common to the rest of India’s folk music scenes as well.
I got an opportunity to witness the indigenous music of the Muriya Gonds during my visit to a Gotul. All the above-mentioned instruments can be seen in their performance. Click below to watch the Muriya tribal performance with all these instruments.
The other musical instruments used by the tribes of Bastar are as below:
5. Sulur: This is a wind flute handcrafted out of a specific bamboo. The sound is generated by swinging the flute in the air (unlike the normal flutes that needs air to be blown into it). The bamboo tube is decorated with very fine and artistic designs engraved on to it. This flute is used for two purposes. Firstly, it is sounded while grazing their cattle and secondly, it is used in festivals and similar ceremonies. Click on the below video to watch how a wind flute is played.
6. Mohiri: This is a wind instrument made using bell metal. There are two types. The ‘Bada mohiri’ is used in festive occasions and the ‘Chota Mohiri’ is used during all other ceremonial and social gatherings. Watch the below video for more details.
7. Tribal trumpet: Another common feature of the popular ‘Dokra bell metal craft’ in the region is the tribal trumpet. I couldn’t certainly tell which tribe uses this in particular, but this wind instrument is a popular souvenir picked by the tourists and art enthusiasts who flock the region in large numbers.
There were many iterations in the initial plan and the destination was changed multiple times, but my family and I finally decided to visit and explore Bastar. Holistically, Bastar is a region spread across multiple states and was primarily ruled by the Kakatiya dynasty. But with changing administrations and new state formations, the Bastar region is now split into seven districts in the state of Chhattisgarh with Bastar itself being the name of a district. The region is one of the richest in India in terms of tribal culture and reserves of natural resources. Taking Covid safety precautions into consideration, we decided to drive our own vehicle instead of taking a flight or public transportation to avoid coming in touch with random people.
When people in our immediate acquaintance got to know about our choice of destination, a few thought that we were crazy. And then, a few concluded that we had lost it when we told them that we were doing a road trip right through the red-corridor area. But it was a combination of inquisitiveness, curiosity, adventure and assurance of safety from a local friend that finally got my family and myself on a road trip to what is infamously called the Naxal heartland- Bastar. To add a little bit of spark to this wild road trip, was our new ‘Flame-red’ colored car that was delivered to us just a couple of days ago. We did not have a number plate on it and were going to cross five state borders with a ‘Temporary Registration’ sticker.
With all that background, let us discuss the crux of every traveler’s doubt- Is Bastar safe for travelers?
First things first, about Bastar-
The public transportation or connectivity in the Bastar region is almost non-existent. So, if you are a budget traveler or a backpacker, then this trip will not work out for you. Hire a self-drive vehicle either from Raipur or Vishakhapatnam (The nearest major cities with airports) or get one from home.
For stay at this point in time, there are ‘zero’ places listed on Airbnb. Limited hotels are available only at Jagadalpur which you can make your center point of travel. Alternatively, there are some resorts run by the Chhattisgarh Tourism Board (CTB) scattered in good locations across the region that you can manage to find online or through local contacts.
The Details of our visit to Bastar.
We started this trip from Hyderabad on the morning of Christmas-2020. As our journey proceeded from the plains towards the forests, the changing terrain was an indication that the red-color (of the red-corridor map) was getting more significant. We strictly adhered to two conditions laid by our friend/ local guide who was based out of Bastar. One, to stay connected from the time we started from Hyderabad and update him frequently (based on the mobile network). Two, do not drive after sunset. We had planned the entire route and our halts in consultation with him. With Kothagudem, we had officially entered the ancient ‘Dandakaranya forest’ region, the modern ‘Naxal heartland’. Only difference is Ravana had kidnapped Sita from the region back then, one could possibly be kidnapped or shot at by a Maoist in modern day. The day’s drive was mostly un-exciting with a good wide National highway passing through Sal tree forests alternating with cotton fields till Badrachalam, where we stayed for that night.
The following day, when we took a deviation towards Konta at Chatti junction is when we started to notice the actual change in terrain and demography. Civilizations suddenly disappeared and the roads became emptier. For most stretch it was just us, driving either through thick forested areas or large open grasslands. No man-made concrete structures, whatsoever. Even if it felt like we reached a tribal settlement after driving for a few kilometers, the settlement was limited to just one or two huts with their set of cattle and poultry. It was a little eerie to think of, but that did not stop us from halting our car and taking a few photographs.
After reaching Konta (The Andhra-Chhattisgarh state border) is when we started to sense the heavy air around us. Every village that came thereafter was spread across 1 to 2 kilometers along the highway. And every village had a CRPF camp with an armored MPV (Mine Protected Vehicle) at their gates, ready to be driven out at any given point. All camps had hero stones erected near the gates with names of the martyrs from the respective camps who had died during service. We were heading towards Sukma, possibly the brightest red spot one would find on the map. With extremely unreliable mobile connectivity to reach out to our guide, we had started to reconsider if we had made the right decision to take the road less travelled! Anyway, there was no way we could undo our plans since we were already there now. Instead, we decided to go ahead by thinking about the adventure and excitement that may come ahead to us.
Meanwhile, I got a message delivered on my phone from our guide. It had the contact name and number of a volunteer (Person X) based out of Sukma. We were told to meet Person X and have a cup of tea with him at Sukma before continuing our journey towards Jagadalpur. After reaching the Sukma bus stand, we called Person X and waited for him to arrive. In a bit, a young boy came to us on a bike and asked us to follow him. Even before we could complete our words of enquiring his name, he said: “Haan, haan, follow my bike” and we trailed him through narrow residential lanes to a big mansion. Another man (Person Y) welcomed us warmly and we were kind of overwhelmed and at the same time, wondering whom and why we had to meet someone in Sukma.
Person Y asked us, “Weren’t you supposed to be a big group of people?”
“No, it was just our family travelling”, we clarified.
“But Person Z told me that five of you will be arriving here for the meeting”, he said.
“Person Z? But we were supposed to meet Person X!”, we told him with a perplexed look on our faces.
We realized that there was some confusion. We were at a wrong place… in Sukma! I immediately called up Person X and told him about the situation. I then handed over my phone to Person Y and we were fortunate that both X & Y knew each other. Both of them were local leaders and represented the same political party. X came to Y’s house and it followed with some chai served to us. Our basic introduction and conversation were limited to local politics, our journey so far and our trip to Chhattisgarh. About half an hour later and as discussed with our guide from Bastar, we decided to continue our journey further.
A short while later, when we were ascending the Ghats, a bunch of CRPF men who were on their random patrol stopped us and enquired the details of our trip. Without much drama, they let us go after knowing that we were random tourists, heading to Jagadalpur from Bangalore.
Our guide arrived at Dorba with his family and escorted our car for the rest of the day. We reached Jagadalpur for the night’s stay. Over the next few days of our stay in Chhattisgarh, we explored several settlements and hamlets located in areas where no roads exist. Through our extensive drive through vast expanses of paddy fields and coal, iron and other mineral rich mountainous and forest terrain, we got a better sense of geography and geo-politics of the area.
So, come to the point! Was it safe?
I would like to explain this with multiple incidents and my viewpoints. PLEASE NOTE that these opinions are purely based on my personal experience. This may differ for each person visiting there.
As per our guide, our visit to the local’s house in Sukma was to acquaint us with a localite in that region so that, if we were being tracked by someone, they would know that we were harmless tourists and not associated with any other intention. But my viewpoint is that, apart from Sukma, we explored the districts of Dantewada, Bastar, Kondagaon, Kanker, Narayanpur, Gariaband and Dhamtari during the course of our stay in this region. All considered to be core areas of Naxalism/ LWE in the state. We drove our number less car with a ‘KA-TR’ sticker all around –> Not a single day did anyone stop us, ask us or threaten us. It felt like we were travelling in any other Hindi speaking place in India.
When we entered the villages, we had a local person accompanying us almost always. We were told that a lot of villagers worked as informants to the Naxals. (starting from children as young as 8-10 years to grown adults, across gender). So, if a localite familiar in a particular village that we were visiting accompanied us, we would be safe –> My viewpoint on this is, when we moved to the interior parts, the villagers could speak only the local dialects of either Halbi or Gondi. Why that, when we visited the Gotul on one of the days, I even understood a portion of a conversation between two villagers standing next to me. They were discussing that I was a foreigner, who had come there to see their dance. Like really? I look so INDIAN in color, features, dress and in every other sense. Even then, the exposure of these tribals to the world outside their villages is so limited that any visitor would look alien. In such a scenario, communication would’ve been a task for us if we wanted to understand their culture better. A translator helped us to bridge the gap in communication.
We were told that the Naxalites come out after sunset and bother the villagers for rice and other needs. We had heard of stories of how people/visitors/ guests were kidnapped from houses at night. We met so many villagers from various tribes, visited their houses and ate their food. They were excited to host us and shy to talk to urbanites. Never at any point did I feel like we were going to be harmed. We even stayed for a night at Dantewada and most other nights at Kondagaon. The villagers didn’t seem to talk about anything to me like kidnap or murder.
There are several tribal communities that are still primitive in their culture and do not come out in contact of normal civilization. Barter still exists in this part of the world. Permits are required for entry of many villages, especially for those visiting the Abujmadh area. To think of, it is unfortunate that inspite of conscious efforts by governments to empower the tribes, it is still falling short.
Somewhere near Kanker, we were by ourselves on a night journey towards Raipur. While we were told that the highways were safe, there is one point where we were asked to stop and wait for about 2 hours. With us, there were hundreds of other vehicles also who had stopped and spent the hours getting a nap during the waiting time. Daily, the ITBP policemen do combing in this area. Inspite of several positive experiences like those above, things like these present the intensity of the underlying danger and threat.
By having all these presumptions, it cannot be ruled out that naxalism is REAL. And it is in abundance in these areas. The underlying thought cannot be ignored that I must have gotten lucky!
My verdict on safety for travelers:
I went to Chhattisgarh and returned safe. Every place across the WORLD has its own threat, but in different ways. When you are in Rome, be a Roman. So, whichever place you choose to travel, keep the local customs and sentiments in mind. If possible, get in touch with a localite and take them into confidence. Travel to build connections and build connections to travel.