Chhattisgarh Diary: Afoot in Bastar and Kanker

Jennifer Nandi forays into Bastar and Kanker in the forests of central India, which shelter deep secrets but she realises with sadness that many of them have been mined cheaply or defaced. Still, there is reason to rejoice at the simplicity of life

Chhattisgarh’s Bastar division has guarded its deep forest secrets from the eyes of the prying world. Large-scale deforestation was still in the womb of the future and like drops of water, time pooled around the bounteous bamboo. Such forests, called barastari or banstari meaning ‘bamboo shade’, grew alongside the equally abundant Sal. Its local name is “Basta-karna”. But “Bastah” is also what the locals call the goat! And traders, who carry salt for barter in the forests, use a “basta”, or bag. The salt itself, imported into Bastar, is called “Bastakam”.

The mid-sixth century Nala kings of Bastar left coins behind that testify to their dynastic rule in the region. A millennia ago the Chalukyas, Cholas and Hoysalas all sent their armies to Bastar but it would be the Kakatiyas of Warangal (now Andhra Pradesh), who arrived 500 years later, that would keep Bastar.

With the march of civilisation the secrets of Bastar’s forests, like the fragile flight of moths, were sealed. In more recent times, after a geological survey revealed the discovery of iron ore in the Bailadila range, the Japanese become interested. Soon an agreement was signed with the National Mineral Development Corporation and mining operations began in full swing, forever changing the fortunes of the mysterious Bastar regions despite the drawing and re-drawing in the last 50 years of political boundaries.

 

Against this backdrop, we drive northwards to Kanker. It is the sudden drop of temperature and the hum of cicadas that first signal the wondrous delicate rhythms of nature close at hand. In summer the heady perfume of Mahua flowers would have filled our nostrils with their wildly intoxicating smell – not just ours but those of the elephants and monkeys as well. But the Dionysian summer is still to come, for the seasonal shifts of the sun have signalled the inevitability of longer, colder nights and shorter, sunnier days.
We are struck by the unmindfulness of tribals in single file making their way along a forest track completely oblivious of roadside clamour. The men carry poles on their shoulders; the women have baskets on their heads. This is everyday life in the jungles of central India. Then there is the strangeness of stone and wooden pillars along the road. These are memorials erected by the Bison-horn Marias and the Murias to commemorate their dead. We learn later that the Murias place a clay image of a bullock-cart on the grave of a deceased male relative three days after his death as testimony to his work on earth. And more meaningfully, in the case of a female relative, artefacts that might have had meaning in her daily life, such as an earthen jar, are placed on her grave. Only when the families have collected sufficient money do they build a permanent structure over the existing one.
Up ahead we see the river Doodh, a tributary of the Mahanadi that empties into the Bay of Bengal. Making a majestic bend in its course, the river loops around the picturesque town of Kanker. Nestled in that bend and framed by hills laid out in an expansive arc, this quiet sentinel town of Kanker has watched over the routes that lead into its interior.
We are booked at the Kanker Palace that once served as the residence of the Agent during the British Raj. Its right wing is developed as a heritage hotel – its colonial architecture lends an air of old world charm and our host, Joy, who is from the erstwhile royals of Kanker, is very much part of the reason for us wanting to revisit Chattisgarh. He tells us that parts of the old palace complex housed in the older part of the town, Rajapara, have been converted into – no surprise here – government offices! We know what that means – plywood barricades and paan spit on the walls. As if this weren’t bad enough, other parts of the palace have been converted into a ladies’ hostel and a prison! I think most women would agree that, indeed, most hostels for women are prison-like.
Lunch is prepared with local flavours and in traditional style by the palace kitchen from vegetables fresh from the garden. Paddy fields and mango-orchard lands stretch behind the Palace. The elegance and stateliness of the dining room only heightens the pleasure of eating food naturally grown and freshly plucked.
The sun has lessened its dazzle; the winter afternoon sunlight goads us into some birding activity before the early darkness descends. Our host suggests we drive to the village of Lakhampuri, 15 km north of Kanker. The car winds through a rugged hill road until it flattens across scrubland. From within the village of Lakhampuri, a narrow country road leads to the village of Udkuda.
As is our custom, we stick our heads out of the windows to listen first for nature’s sounds. Distinct ribbons of songs caught in taut circles lasso us to an abrupt halt. We feel the compelling urge to stop and inspect the Munias, the Chestnut-shouldered Petronias, the Sparrow Larks and the Bush Larks whose serenading strains had excited our ears. It is easy viewing with no disturbance. Many of the inhabitants of the clean and freshly-painted village are away in the city celebrating a holiday. Of course, these are familiar birds. But it’s a great point for us to view the familiar with fresh eyes each time. It is a pleasure renewed and re-doubled and I love the practice.
Of course, these are familiar birds. But it’s a great point for us to
view the familiar with fresh eyes each time. It is a pleasure renewed
and re-doubled and I love the practice.
Conscious that fast-approaching dusk demands no dawdling, we walk further up into the arc of hills away from the frenzied chirrups of late-afternoon food-gatherers towards the natural rock shelters bearing a treasure trove of rock paintings. Some archaeologists believe that these ancient paintings that depict hunting scenes, local animals and hand impressions could be some of the oldest in the world. The patina of centuries that marched over these priceless paintings only adds to its allure. Over the edge from the rock caves, the valley drops down sharply to gift you a bird’s eye-view of the canopy. Flying across are green pigeons, flitting from branch to branch are Fantail Flycatchers and Phylloscopus warblers. The panoramic sweep is spectacular.
On our descent we train our binoculars on a small greyish-brown hawk-like bird. The silvery grey-brown undersides of its broad, blunt wings contrast with its brown and whitish body. As it lowers itself to land, we get a clean view of the buffy patch on the wing shoulder and the small whitish patch on the nape. It closes its wings, its rufous-edged tail catching the last remaining shafts of sunlight. Leaves obscure the white of the eye after which the Buzzard is named. We push for a better view but it has spotted us too and moves out of reach. Our joys of the evening are not yet over. Showing itself on bare rock, a Sirkeer Malkoha strides out from out the scrub. It is a handsomer relation of the Crow-pheasant. It is a rich earth-brown with a stout bright cherry-red bill. In good light the black shaft-streaks glisten on its head and breast feathers. When it saw us, it sprinted swiftly over the rough ground, head and tail horizontal.
Sitting by the fire that evening, being attended by liveried bearers laden with trays of delectable items to accompany the drinks being served, our charming host, Joy, regales us with stories of his region with a passion that rings true.
Text and photos by Jennifer Nandi

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