Through the land of tribes

Usha Shetty

When you disclose that your going on a holiday to a place like Chhattisgarh, reactions more often range from 'what is that?' to 'where is it?' or a faraway look with brows knit, trying to jog dubious memory, followed by a 'But what can you do there?'

The Narmada Temple. Photos by author
It’s a place that creates umpteen memorable memories. As our group of seven discovered, the picturesque state has much to offer every kind of traveller.

Endowed with natural beauty

Chhattisgarh was created in the year 2000 by carving out the southeastern chunk of Madhya Pradesh. Excellent roads, toll plazas, glitzy lights, shopping malls — the two bigger cities, Raipur and Durg (home to the Bhilai Steel Plant) proved a revelation to the likes of us with a stereotyped notion of what the word ‘urban’ means in relation to a place like central India. Chhattisgarh is not only blessed with large forest cover but also with huge mineral deposits which has lead to creation of mines like the Bailadila iron ore mine, leading to a flourishing mineral industry.

As much as it the place lives in the present, it is also rooted in its past. All of Chhattisgarh or the former Dakshin Koshal (Lord Rama is said to have spent part of his exile here), abounds in ancient temples and is a historian’s delight — like the Rajiv Lochan Temple in Rajim or one of the Shaktipeethas, the revered Maa Danteshwari in Bastar district’s Dantewara (where Sati’s tooth reportedly fell) at the confluence of the Dankini and Shankini rivers (plenty of exotic names here). The Bastar Dussehra, one of the biggest festivals of the state, has nothing to do with Lord Rama but is devoted to Maa Danteshwari, venerated by both the tribals and Hindus.

What’s more interesting is that from an architectural point of view, the 10 to 12 centuries old Bhoramdeo temple, we were surprised to discover, served as the template for the famed Khajuraho temple. Its beautiful setting amidst forests and rivers and the intricate erogenous sculptures, also to be found in the nearby Madwa Mahal temple, made it one of the most memorable spots to visit.

History is alive in Sirpur (also known as Shripur), once the capital of the South Koshal kingdom, and now scattered with temples and monuments. The spaciously laid out 7th century Laxman Temple is one of the country’s most exceptional brick temples. An important centre of Buddhism, Sirpur was visited by Chinese scholar Hieun Tsang in the 7th century.

The Gandheshwar Temple, with the majestic Mahanadi as its backdrop, is interesting but badly maintained. More distressing was the fact that a younger, “educated” generation — students from a neighbouring college — had just wound up a picnic there with scant regard for cleanliness or sanctity of the place.

In contrast, is the relatively well-kept and quaintly named Deorani-Jethani Temple at Talagaon. The towering eight-ton Rudrashiva statue here is one of a kind, with various parts of its anatomy represented by different animals and faces.

Yet another unusually named shrine is the Mama-Bhanja Temple in Bastar near the twin Ganeshas of Barsur, said to be the largest statue of Ganesha in Asia to be carved out of a single rock.

We made two forays into neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. One to the holy Amarkantak, the source of the riveA tribal from the Bastar  region in Chhattisgarh. r Narmada and the river Sone. The Narmada temple here pleases with its pristine whiteness. So do the Kapil Dhara falls nearby, where Sage Kapila is said to have tried to stop the sprightly Narmada, wanting her to remain in Amarkantak.

The whole outing entailed a drive through the Achanakmar Wildlife Sanctuary. A surprise bonus was the visit to Kanha National Park, but we were disappointed as we did
not spot any animals.

Bastar’s Kanger Valley National Park too didn’t oblige but gave us a glimpse of the Bastar Myna, the state bird. Deep inside its enchanting virgin forests, we crawled into the Kutumbsar Caves with their stalactite and stalagmite formations.

Beautiful to behold were the Tirathgarh Falls, formed by the Kanger River cascading down 300 ft, with scores of monkeys to beware of, all the way down the steps leading to the bottom of the falls.

Tribal culture
The waterfalls that impressed the most were Chitrakot Falls near Jagdalpur, reported to be the largest waterfalls in India. The river Indravati descends from a gracefully curved horseshoe shaped cliff (as wide as 1000 feet during monsoon, comparisons with the Niagara are inevitable) into a huge, 100 ft-deep basin that proves ideal for boating.

The sight of the falls lit up at night amidst the surrounding darkness added a magical touch to the experience. Another unforgettable experience was a dance by some young members of the Baiga tribe, illuminated by a bonfire and aided by the car’s headlights (payment for the dance is three bags of rice!). Equally interesting was a stopover at a tribal haat in Bastar and interacting with tribals at various places. Chhattisgarh is home to some of India’s oldest tribes; some in Bastar are said to be over 10,000 years old.
At the other end of the spectrum was a visit to one of Chhattisgarh’s royal houses, the gracefully built palace of Kawardha (now partly a heritage hotel) and a meeting with Prince Yogeshwar Raj Singh.

An early morning ride around Raipur with all of us squeezed into a single phatphatiya; the numerous wayside dhabas that offered not only fresh, hot, good food but also great hospitality — my personal favourite; the tiny Sahu’s at Mahasamund, which had some out-of-the-world parathas and lassi was memorable (it constantly amazed us South Indians how universal the idli and dosa had become, featuring on the menu at most of these places). For those who’ve never set foot in Chhattisgarh, we cannot emphasise further the joy of holidaying there at least once in a lifetime.

Travel tips
*Connectivity: By train — Well linked to all major cities in India

By air — Raipur is connected to Mumbai, Nagpur and Delhi.

By road — NH6 & NH43 run though the state. Nagpur, Vishakhapatnam, Jabalpur and Ranchi are among the cities closest to it in the surrounding states.