In spite of all the problems facing the Adivasis, and the threat to the continued existence of their way of life (see The Adivasis of Chhattisgarh), a visit to an Adivasi village in Chhattisgarh can be an incredibly positive experience. Almost half the State is forested and there remain vast tracts of unspoilt land filled with waterfalls, caves, ancient monuments and rare wildlife. There are over 40 different tribes, including the Gond, Halba, Baiga and Korba tribes, who mainly live in the forests and depend on hunting, fishing and some local cottage industries for their livelihood. The southern district of Bastar is relatively peaceful and is dominated by the Gond tribe, who are well known for their unique marriage system, the Ghotul system, whereby unmarried young boys and girls live together in separately made huts until they decide who they wish to spend their lives with.
The district capital, Jagdalpur, is a good place to base an exploration of the area. Most foreigners stay in the Hotel Rainbow (tel. 07782221684), which is right opposite Sanjay market and has a fairly decent restaurant, albeit quite gloomy and occasionally frequented by rats!
It is also certainly possible to stay in a village with a family, but you should organise your visit through a sympathetic guide who speaks the local language. Chhattisgarh Tourism Board may be able to help with this and are best contacted through their head office in the state capital of Raipur, an inconvenient 300km north – Tel: 07714066415. A knowledgeable local man called Awesh Ali was visiting the Rainbow every day at about 5pm when I stayed recently, and he gave me a lot of useful advice. However, since his mobile number (9425244925) was included in the Lonely Planet he is often booked up for weeks at a time. Try not to call him at an inconvenient hour!
Probably the best time to visit an Adivasi village is during the weekly local market, or haat, when Adivasis from many miles away meet up to trade and to socialise. There are more than 3500 villages in Bastar, so there are markets happening every day of the week. The Hotel Rainbow has a useful sheet of paper detailing the main ones reachable from Jagdalpur. Some of these are accessible using cheap local transport and can be explored independently, but others are more remote and sensitive to visitors. Jagdalpur itself has a large haat every Sunday, in Sanjay market, and many Adivasis come to barter with the town people.
It’s a friendly, colourful occasion, but the unique culture of the Adivasis can be more readily appreciated in the villages.
I took a bus to Pamela market, which is held in a beautiful forest not far from Jagdalpur. The people were spread out beneath the tall trees, the women squatting next to fires and cooking rice cakes, or selling home-made alcohol from glass bottles and large metal containers. Many of the men had brought cattle to trade and posed proudly next to their placid beasts, some of which were decorated for the occasion. Nobody minded me taking a few photographs, and several of the women called me over and asked to be included, all the while giggling and feigning shyness. I tried the liquor, which was made of fermented mahuwa flowers, and found it to be quite mild in taste and in effect.Drinking is perfectly acceptable, for both men and women, among most Adivasis, and they are accustomed to alcohol from a young age. There is usually a separate area set aside for drinking in the markets, and large quantities are consumed over the course of an afternoon.
Apart from alcohol and comestibles, very little was being sold at this market. There was a stall offering bright pieces of material, to tie around the waist, and a man providing betel nut, wrapped in leaves with, and I got the impression it was all about socialising, cattle trading and drinking. One man had a table offering areca nuts wrapped in betel leaves, together with lime paste and various spices, such as cardamom and cloves, stored in small, rusty tins. Later in the afternoon there would be some serious gambling on cock fights, and several young men were protectively clutching birds. The cocks have blades strapped to their claws and are encouraged to fight to the death.
The next day I again travelled by bus, this time to visit Tokapal market, 23km from Jagdalpur. Tokapal is a busy, vibrant market and is well worth seeing.
Hundreds of people crowd into the area, arriving on foot, in buses, in trucks and in jeeps crammed with up to thirty people and at least as many bags and baskets! Everything imaginable is being sold, from large ceramic pots to tiny plastic toys. There are reed mats in one area, fruit and vegetables in another; sections for clothes, for rice and for all kinds of nuts, seeds and spices. I saw people from the Ghadwa tribe selling ‘bell-metal’ craftwork, an ancient technique whereby clay moulds are filled with melted scrap metal and then covered in wax. Most of the Adivasi women wear a lot of jewellery, made from beads, shells, feathers, bones and metal, and the Bhatra ladies are distinguished by conical, gold nose studs worn in both sides of the nose. Some villagers were selling leaf bowls filled with biting red ants but I wasn’t brave enough to try them. They can be eaten live, together with their white eggs, or mixed with chillies to make a chutney called chapura.
I proceeded with smiles and caution and once again had no trouble taking photographs, probably because there are still not many tourists visiting the area.
On my final day I hired a car and driver (R700, plus R700 for fuel) and went to a religious festival in the village of Jaitgiri. I travelled with someone who spoke Hindi and had lived in Chhattisgarh for several months.
Here we drank a different kind of local liquor, salpeer, made from the leaves of the cashew tree, and late in the afternoon we watched a shaman go into a trance to contact the gods. He was helped to do so by frenzied drumming, but we left before it got too dark, concerned that there would be heavy salpeer drinking later and aware that our driver was already less than sober!
Lucy Calder, April 2011