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.
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.
This place happened as part of my family’s road trip through Bengaluru– Telangana – Chhattisgarh – Odisha – Andhra Pradesh – Bengaluru.
Not in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I would be waking up for a new year in a place so new! Never had I imagined that I would be waking in Odisha for a new year. I did not have an idea even until the evening of 31-Dec-2020. It was a spontaneous decision to proceed with our journey from Bastar, Chhattisgarh that late evening. We decided to cut the driving time to reach Vishakhapatnam, by covering the distance by night. We chose to stop at any good hotel that we would come across along the highway for the night’s halt. It being the New Year’s Eve, we were okay to catch some sleep in the car itself in any eventuality of not being able to find a good hotel.
Anyway, the National highway was patchy for most of the way and the night driving kind of got annoying with several trucks and enormous amounts of dust in the atmosphere. Hence, we decided to halt and settle down after finding accommodation at a highway side hotel in Jeypore. With the Covid-19 related curfews around, there was no pomp, no party or toast for the night of the new year and we all surrendered to the sleep gods for the night! However, before falling asleep, my brother and I did a bit of google search for things to do for the next morning at Jeypore before proceeding on our journey ahead.
After waking up on the next morning, we realized that the inhouse restaurant at the hotel was going to open late that day. Even at 08.00.a.m., the rest of the city too seemed to be still sleeping. We couldn’t find any place to have our breakfast and the most important meal for us to keep us going for the whole day. While we were randomly driving around the city in search of food, we could not spot a single shop that was open for anything else apart from farm fresh vegetables and fish being sold by the tribal folk from the surrounding villages on the roadside. Someone suggested us to visit the Jagannath Mandir to serve dual purpose. One, it would be good to visit a temple on the first day of the year and secondly the ‘Bhog’ could be bought at the temple and complement as our breakfast.
The suggestion seemed good to us and so we parked our car around some space and walked the streets towards the temple. It was quite surprising and interesting to see that almost all households had their front yards or doorsteps cleaned with water and decorated with rangoli designs drawn in front of their houses. And all rangolis had the wishes for a ‘happy new year-2021’ written in them. To think of, it was a traditional but a modern approach to conveying new year wishes without meeting people in times of Covid-19. But to our dismay, even the temple was shut. I’m not sure if this was closed only now to avoid people from gathering due to Covid or it was normally shut on all new years’ days. But it did seem a little weird from what I have been used to seeing- people thronging to religious places on the first day of a new year. Also, that meant we had to wait to find food or satiate our hunger with the raw veggies and fish from the streets. Anyway, that was unthinkable for us and we decided to head out of Jeypore. Although the Jeypore palace was just around, that too was closed due to some renovation work. With nothing much in particular to do in the city, we decided to proceed on the highway towards our next destination.
We stopped at least two dozen times to take photos of our car set in the empty highway and in the middle of the panoramic green scenery around. We reached Araku, our next major stop by noon for lunch. Having said that, though there is nothing much to do here, Koraput district as a whole is huge and has great potential for nature tourism in future. My first and small stint in Odisha has been a pleasant one. This trip has been an enriching one in-terms of the knowledge, experience, perspectives I have gained with respect to geo-political scenario in central India, culture and demography. Indeed, a happy new year to me!
However, I found it challenging to find good food. Firstly, the towns wake up late. Secondly, large population is comfortable with street food. I found it a little uncomfortable and unhygienic. Idly and Dosa are the most common breakfast items. But for being someone who hails from the heartland of these dishes, the flavors of the Sambar and chutney was unfathomable. So, unlike all my other travel where I look out to try new and local culinary specialties, I mostly survived on fruits and biscuits for my meals during this trip.
When we reached Koraput town, we ate some fruits for our breakfast. I found a small shop selling milk and some local sweets. I bought a small portion of ‘Chenna poda’ and ‘Rasbara’, that were quite heavy for the small quantity that we ate.
For those of you who might be interested to know what landmarks are there to explore in Jeypore: * The Jagannath temple & the Jeypore palace are the two things in the heart of the city. * There are several waterfalls as you move towards the periphery of the town. * Gupteshwar is a cave temple and an important pilgrimage site at a short drive towards the Chhattisgarh border. * We stopped by at the ‘Subai group pf Jain temples’, a lesser known place with rich heritage. * We also happened to get a little intrigued with large throttling sounds of aircrafts while we were driving on the highway, only to realize that they were the sounds of aircrafts being tested at the distant hills. HAL has its engine assembly plant around there and you can see it on your way.
Apart from these places, it is mostly the drive and the scenery that pleases you all along your way. * There are several tribal communities inhabiting the hamlets around Jeypore, whole of Koraput and the surrounding places that may be of one’s interest in tribal culture. * As we drove towards Araku valley, we stopped multiple times to just stand and enjoy the views, the mountain range and innumerous large lakes all along our way.
* There is also the upper and lower Kolab dams for a short getaway or a picnic.
If you are travelling with the right company, then drive slowly and enjoy the journey.
One of the earliest science lessons we learnt in school is that friction causes fire. We all have grown past reading how the early cavemen generated fire by rubbing two stones together and eventually how this accidental discovery lead to a massive turnaround in the evolution of mankind.
Leaving the past behind, the modern man uses a matchstick or a lighter to create fire, all based on the same science of friction. But, there in Nagaland, the culture still exits where albeit the formal education and access to matchboxes and lighters, the tribes continue to use their indigenous methods of lighting a fire. In order to keep this tradition alive, there are competitions conducted among the various tribes of the state to see who ignites the fire faster. I witnessed one such event during the hornbill festival-2019 in Nagaland.
The traditional method of fire making is done by using wooden log and fiber. Wooden saw dust is placed between small crevices made in the log around which the long fiber is then rapidly pulled along, to create friction. The log and the fiber are the two surfaces creating friction and the saw dust is the fuel/ catalyst. It was a very distinct way of lighting fire to watch. The person who first lights a candle using the fire ignited by him in this traditional method gets to take home the trophy.
Here is a video to see how this fire is made in the indigenous Naga way.
It is that traveling exposes one to a multitude of cultures and people. The diverse geography of India is home to some of the most unheard traditions and untold folklores. During my 10 day stint of backpacking in Nagaland, I was introduced to so many of it all, as this little Indian state, tucked in the far North-east is home to more than 17 tribal sects and sub-tribes; each having their own culture, language, traditions and cuisine. Here, is a small list of indigenous musical instruments used in the folk culture of the Nagas.
Mrabung: Mrabung is an indigenous musical instrument of the Zeliang Nagas. It is a single stringed instrument that is crafted with a hollow/ cured bottle gourd and a fretless wooden neck of about 12 inches long. It is played with hair string bow (Usually a cluster of horse tail tightly tied together to two ends of a thin wooden stick). This bow is used to strike the chords (like a violin) with one hand and the string along the neck is pressed down with the other hand at appropriate places to get the required tune and legato of the song. It is played during merry making in social gatherings and festivals where men and women congregate. I was narrated with a popular folklore of the Nagas wherein, a singer called Arum played the Mrabung. His music captivated the farmers so much that everyone working on the field left their work undone and sat around Arum listening to his songs. Arum had to be barred from playing any songs further just so the people went back to work on their farms. Click below to see an artisan playing the Mrabung.
Atutu: The Atutu is a handcrafted bamboo trumpet used by the Pochury tribes of Meluri. A particular variety of bamboo is used in making the varied components that are fitted together to make this crafted trumpet. It is played to mark special occasions. For example, blowing of this trumpet towards the end of February means to herald and announce the advent of the Nazhu festival. Also, the male members of the tribe play it in their morungs in the evenings throughout the festival. Apart from this, the trumpet sound is used to ward off birds and animals from the rice fields and prevent from crop damage. In earlier days, trumpeting was a way to alert the collective habitat or a village of a possible enemy attack or as a signal of declaration of a war.
Dholak: This common musical instrument has its own version and avatar in every region of India. Be it weddings or festivals, it is the most common and almost an essential part of any merry making in Indian celebrations. Similarly, each tribe in Nagaland has its own version of the dholaks or the Indian hand drums. Made with an outer casing of wood, laced tightly with cotton strings and the drumming surfaces made with the locally available materials, more often animal hide. Here are samples of the dholaks used by the Garos (Long slender shaped, narrowing at the ends), the Mech Kacharis (fatter and shorter than the Garos) and the Aao tribes (Shorter and fatter than the previous two types and Uniform sized throughout its length) of Nagaland. (Click the below link to watch the ceremonial dances of the Naga tribes with their dholaks)
More often than always, the stories we carry back from our travel are about the people we meet and less about the places we see. Our definition of whether our trip is good or bad is defined by the way we are made to feel by the people we come across. My experience in Pfutsero too has been one of those, where the warmth of the people made me fall in love with Nagaland. All I knew about Pfutsero was that it is the largest town in Phek district, and it is the highest inhabited place in the state of Nagaland. High altitude also means that it is the coldest place in the entire state. Having very little information available on the internet only meant that the place is still off the radar of mainstream tourism. This is what got me inquisitive and itched me to visit Pfutsero which would give ample scope to explore and experience something so raw and unknown to the outside world.
From the day I arrived at Nagaland, I had started to talk to a lot of people to get information about getting from Kohima to Pfutseru. With lack of clear information and high cost of travel, I had almost dropped the plan until the end of my 10-day trip in the state. One last try at finding a cheaper travel to Pfutsero, landed me in a small grocery store at Kezekie taxi stand in Kohima. My friend and I realised that we were at the right place. The courteous owner of the store guided us with all the required information and got our seats booked in the shared taxi that plied from Kohima to Pfutsero the next morning.
As instructed, we had reached Kezekie by 07.00.am. the following morning to be assured of a seat. But thanks to the traffic, it was 10.30.a.m. by the time we left Kohima. However, there was one ambiguity before leaving for Pfutsero- We hadn’t booked a hotel at Pfutsero for our stay yet. Despite several failed attempts of calling the mini-tourist lodge at Pfutsero, their phone continued to remain switched off. But my friend and I were up for some adventure and decided to travel without a confirmed stay, go there and find one.
Watch the video of my roadtrip to Pfutsero:
Phek district is inhabited by the members of the Chakesang tribes in majority. With the friendliness of the grocery store owner, we had already started to feel the positive vibes of the place we were going to. She had given the contact information of her family who lives in Kezakeno, another village in Phek. She had not just shared the contact info, in fact forced us to stay with her family. We were feeling grateful and partially sorted in the eventuality of not finding a hotel at Pfutsero.
There were both good roads and no roads, all adding up to a patchy drive to Pfutsero. Apart from the mountainous roads that seemed charming outside, the people with whom we shared our drive made our trip indeed a memorable one. One of them helped us to contact the tourist lodge and confirmed our stay at Pfutsero even before we reached. I had clearly started to feel overwhelmed with the hospitality of the people in this part of the country where the locals wanted to make all visitors feel at home. Almost everyone whom we got talking to, was excited to invite us over for a meal with them. Finally, it was 02.00.p.m. when we reached Pfutsero and a cup of hot tea was what we relished at our co-passenger’s house before checking-in at the tourist lodge. A colourful garden welcomed us into her wooden house that was perched on the slope of the hill. Its windows opened out into a majestic view of the entire town and overlooked a lake surrounded by green lawn. The dreamy house seemed to be no less than out of a Bollywood flick. We soon bid her a warm goodbye and headed to the tourist lodge, freshened up and proceeded to the target destination, before the sun called it a day!
Glory peak is the highest point in Pfutsero. A short taxi ride of 3kms through an under-construction road, jaw-dropping view of the surrounding valleys and a climb on a watch tower got us to the top of the town. Mt. Saramati is the highest peak in Nagaland and Mt. Everest needs no introduction. On a clear, bright afternoon, both the mountains can be seen from Glory peak. Since, we had reached there before sunset, the distant mountains were partially hidden by the haze and hence we could get a clear view of only Mt. Saramati. Nevertheless, the 360deg view of verdant hills from the glory peak was something to die for.
For those who have an additional day at hand, a day hike to the frozen lake from the glory peak is highly recommended by the locals. We decided to explore the town a little bit, before it was dark. A hike down the peak was fun as the staircase leading to the town passed through thick forests, strange creepers and colourful butterflies. We spent time exploring the town until sunset. It seemed dusty with poor roads. Apart from a few local snacks, we couldn’t find anything interesting. However, there is one souvenir shop run by an NGO that supports local artisans. One can buy some traditional Chakesang tribal jewellery, textile and food products as souvenirs from here.
The dropping Pfutsero temperature had started to numb our fingers and we decided to head back to the lodge. The lodge is situated on top of a hill and the setting sun looked glorious from the corridor. After wearing my thermals and gloves, I decided to take a stroll around the lodge. It is located adjacent to defence property and that gave me a sense of confidence to venture alone after dark. All the people from the neighbourhood were busy in decorating a nearby church for Christmas. They got me talking to them and eventually I joined them in their chore of setting up the wreaths and light bulbs. It was a fun evening until I decided to head back for the warmth of my room. The lodge was a HUGE property, but we were only two girls staying there that night. Although it was a little scary at the first thought to be the only guests, we were soon occupied in long conversation with the caretaker family of the property living in the same building, later to be joined by the owners. The conversation covered a range of topics and ran into the night. Given the lesser crowd of the cliched tourists, company of comforting hosts and warm conversations, we couldn’t have asked for a safer and a better place to be!
The comfort of the heater, cosy blankets and carpeted floors let us sleep like logs, unaware of the freaded freezing sub-zero Pfutsero temperature outside. We were woken up by the alarm next morning, only to be mind-blown by the view of the rising sun over the clouds from our balcony. We packed up and prepared to leave as that was our last day in Nagaland and we had to make it to Dimapur for the night’s train. Meanwhile, we had booked a personal taxi for our return, since we wanted to explore Kezakeno on our way back.
The first stop was at- Chida lake. Locally called as Lowho, this off-road destination is a favourite hangout among the locals who come here for games like fishing and boating. Some enjoy a trekking trail from glory peak to Chida along the Kapamedzu range as well. There is a Border Security Force camp at Chida and hence, it is also referred as Chida Post at times. Since we had reached very early, we were the only tourists there and the place looked absolutely calm and serene.
From there, we headed to Lazami village. This tiny village is of very high historical importance as it is the site from where the various Naga tribes are believed to have migrated to different parts of the state. A veteran from the village was excited to narrate the legend of Tsotawo, the spirited stone in the village. We were warmly invited by almost every person in this village into their house. We finally settled down at a little traditional house for breakfast and a large cup of tea. We carried back love in the form of guavas and local walnuts given by our hosts from this village. Seeing so much affection in these hills was a wonderful feeling that cannot be expressed, for which a city soul in me would want to come back again.
While continuing our journey from there, we did have a stop at Kami village view point to admire the terraced paddy fields of Lekhromi village, the view looked magnificent under the oblique rays of the early sun.
Making our way through the maddening traffic jam of Kohima is for another story to be written about, some other day! Thus, ended our 2 days of amazement and overwhelming hospitality in the Land of the Chakesang Nagas- Phek district.
* Pfutsero is famous for its organic farming and terrace cultivation. We bought fruits (some known and some new) from the local shops that we could eat once we were back in our room.
* One would find a lot of bakeries in the town selling local cookies and muffins. Sticky rice cake, banana cake and banana chips are few of the things I recommend.
* Daily shared taxis ply between Kohima and Pfutsero. There are limited seats and the taxis leave immediately when filled. The taxi leaves Pfutsero around 6.00.a.m to Kohima and the same returns to Pfutsero on the same day on a first-cum-first serve basis. So, if one is not early enough to get a seat, he will have to hire a full taxi for him/herself or stay back until the next morning to share it. A one-way shared taxi seat costs 300Rs. Per head and a personal taxi would cost 5-6000rs. irrespective of whether it is a 1 or a 2-way journey.
* Within Pfutsero, most places are at walkable distances. But internal taxis are available for local commute. Talk to one of the shopkeepers in the town and they must be able to help in finding one.
* A very well-maintained tourist lodge and a government run mini lodge are available at a very affordable price.
* There are a few homestays available for a more local experience.
Before planning my visit to Nagaland, I had followed a few bloggers who had posted encaptivating photos of what they called the ‘Greenest village in India’. My friend and I had our stay booked at a homestay in this little-known village and were supposed to head there on the first day of our arrival in Nagaland. It was past noon by the time our shared taxi from Dimapur reached Kohima and the temperature had started to drop. Khonoma village, our destination was 20kms away and we stood on the highway, clueless about how we were supposed to get there. The connectivity through public transportation across Nagaland is something that needs the attention of the authorities. Meanwhile, without being able to find an honest taxi driver among all those who were quoting higher than what I had read about, we had started to feel stranded.
We finally managed to get a taxi and the courteous driver ensured our ride on the roadless path was comfortable and entertaining. On our request, the best Nagamese songs from his playlist were streamed and he made humble efforts to explain the meaning of each song and its relevance in Naga culture. It was a long ride considering that we took over an hour to cover the short distance. In Nagaland, each district is inhabited by a particular Tribe in majority and each village represents a particular clan within the tribe. Every tribe has its own language and surprisingly, each village has its own dialect which another clan might struggle to understand. ‘Khonoma is inhabited by the Kuthotsu clan of the Angami Tribe’, we were told.
Watch the video here:
On reaching Khonoma, we registered our entry at the tourism office from where we took directions to our homestay. As a first impression, it felt like it was just another settlement on the hills, something similar to my hometown. But as I began to walk towards the homestay along the narrow lanes and past the tourism office- a new world started to unfold. The entire village is built on a slope, overlooking the paddy fields. The slope makes it a requirement to climb winding stairs to get from one house to another, from one street to another. As you do this, you will not just pass by umpteen number of morungs but also walk through gardens full of colourful flowers and traditional Angami Naga gates. All this, while you are being mind-blown by the gorgeous view of the never-ending terraced fields of paddy and vegetables. If not the same, I bet this is far better and untouched than the terraced farms of Bali that has flooded the Instagram feeds. The guava trees around every corner of the village and the widely covered creepers of the Chayote squash added a vibrant hue of green to the entire valley. The extremely warm and obliging villagers allowed me to pluck a few guavas that tasted like nectar. Those were definitely the best guavas I had in my life till date. We then walked down the streets to our homestay, a cozy simple house that stood overlooking the terraced fields. Since we had little time before sunset (The sun sets by 04.00.p.m.), we dropped our luggage, freshened up quickly and ventured out to explore the village and make the most of the daylight.
As we strolled around the lanes, we were intrigued by the several morungs and the traditional Angami houses that we passed by. Morungs are Naga structures that are comparable to Gurukuls of olden days. The elders of the village would pass on their knowledge about life skills and tradition to the younger generations here, usually in the evenings after finishing their day’s chores. Although the Morung system is slowly passing into oblivion in modern days, Khonoma is one of the few places where these structures are conserved in their entirety. Every Morung and house had animal skulls (ranging from one to hundreds in number) hanging around their roofs and walls. We were quite fascinated with the collection that ranged from Mithuns and mountains goats to boars and other cattle. As we stood there, watching a few women who were busy with their job of de-husking paddy with a large pestle and stone, we were greeted by them with warm smiles to have a cup of tea in their house. I instantly accepted their invitation, jumping into the idea of seeing how a traditional Angami Naga house looked like inside.
Basic mud-smeared walls with knitted bamboo doors and their wooden roofs adorned with hundreds of skulls all around. “These skulls are prized possessions that represent the heroics of our ancestors. The Nagas are primarily hunters and our forefathers saved up the skulls of all their kills. The larger the collection, higher was his societal stature until the government brought a ban on hunting. Given the history of Nagas being head-hunters before the coming of missionaries, don’t be surprised if you bump into human skulls in some of the remote villages elsewhere”, explained a member of that house. Although the other members in that family couldn’t speak English or Hindi, they continued to smile at us for as long as we were there. However, communication is never a problem in Nagaland with almost 90% being proficient in either English or Hindi.
We visited the Naga heritage museum and then walked up to a small hill where the church stands at a vantage point, outside the village entrance, overlooking the entire hill range. From there, we walked back to the village and climbed up a few stairs to reach the highest point of the village. The setting sun let the hills in the background cast their shadow on the undulating green paddy terrace. The view of the range of hills and the entire village from there was a sight to behold for which, we had lost our senses and not to the dropping temperatures that had started to numb our skin 😃 After the sun had called it a day behind the hills, we munched on some local snacks like sticky rice roti, pakora at a café at the village entrance. We grabbed a few packets of Puffed sticky rice and Naga chilli smeared channa from a small shop before heading to the homestay. We hurried up to warm ourselves in the comfort of our homestay’s kitchen where firewood was setup to cook the night’s supper. Sips of hot tea and long conversations with our Angami host and other guests culminated with a delicious Angami meal that comprised of boiled vegetables and steamed rice with vegetable stew- all grown organically in our host’s backyard. The country chicken curry was a bonus for the non-vegetarian in me 😊
The plan for the next morning was to catch the sunrise from the paddy fields by walking along the stream that flowed down the valley. However, the freezing temperature made it impossible for us to get out of our cozy layers of blankets. The plan that had to follow our breakfast was a visit to Dzuleke, a quaint little village located 10kms away. It consists of merely 32 houses and the residents are also from Kuthotsu clan who decided to move out from Khonoma to a more secluded place when the land on the outskirts were open for new settlements. Today, it is supposed to be one of the prettiest villages that is promoted by the state’s tourism board and accessible only by foot or one’s own vehicle. Since a one-way ride was costing us 1500Rs., we dropped our plan of a day trip to Dzuleke.
There is one NST bus (Nagaland State Transport) that connects Khonoma to Kohima every morning. But the state is largely shut on a Sunday and it is an important note to consider if you are planning your travel/stay in Nagaland. After the day got a bit warmer, we packed our bags and headed out in a personal taxi to our next destination- Naga heritage village at Kisama, the main arena of the Hornbill festival.
Meanwhile, some interesting things I found in this village:
Large bird feathers are made into a garland and hung high around the farms. “It is just for decoration purpose”, I was told on asking what it signified.
There a large stone erected which signifies the previous rift between the Nagas and the Indians on the mainland (It is quite an interesting read how the Nagas fought the Indian army)