CONNECTING THE ‘GHATS’
……. Road trip across Western & Eastern Ghats
And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.
- John Muir
... continued from Episode 2..
|NH326 towards Lamtaput (District - Koraput)
Drive - Satiguda Dam (Malkangiri) to Desia Eco Tourism Camp (Koraput) - 31Jan2021
The drive from Satiguda to Lamtaput is a joy! …. smooth and wide roads along the hills lined with forests... what more can you ask for. It’s a relatively short ride along NH326 towards Jeypore. A misty winter morning with people rushing to 'Haat' (rural markets) that spring up along the highway on Sunday makes an idyllic setting. Though driving past one has to be careful, as the shoppers, onlookers, bikes, bicycles, bullock carts and every other object has the right of way. It’s a view which is bothersome yet captivating. During our growing up days, in many of the remote towns and villages that we lived, the Sunday ‘haat’ (village market) was a mandatory event in our lives … a flashback of many refreshing memories as we negotiated such a market.
|A tribal 'Haat' on NH326
|'Haat' - a social congregation
We had opted for breakfast on the way, for the first time since our start of the journey. In these remote parts, it appeared as if Covid was a distant history. People in general were quite carefree. We stopped for a hurried breakfast, convincing ourselves that Covid was an 'urban curse'. Interestingly the
staple street food, in this part, was a mix of south and north Indian traditional varieties such as Idli-sambhar (baked
rice cakes, lentil curry & coconut paste) along with Puri-sabji (deep fried wheat bread along with lentil curry), and most people seem to opt for a combination of both.
At the Kota junction near Bichalkota, we steer off the National Highway and turn onto Lamtaput road. The terrain and the road quality by and large remain top-class. As you get closer to Lamtaput, Google-maps and the mobile network, begin their hide n seek. Coverage is very patchy in Lamtaput area and mostly BSNL (2G). It is better to cross-check with folks at the destination (Desia in our case) well in advance i.e. while you are still on the National Highway to know the landmarks in case you are driving. Luckily for us, we carry a BSNL phone as a standby option whenever we travel into the hinterlands. At Lamtaput town, leaving the state highway, we turned into Machkund Road. We noticed cluster of people at odd places along the way. It turns out that those were patches where mobile signals were strong. So people thronged such locations eventually turning it into a hot-spot for conversation, convenience and conveyance (bus stop), gradually wayside tea-stalls and eateries come up .... green shoots of a social enterprise in an otherwise remote road.
The drive to our destination at Lamtaput Desia – an Eco Tourism Camp was short. It took us about 3hrs 20 mins from Malkangiri. We reached past noon, and were given a traditional welcome by the ever smiling ladies who run the camp.
Desia is a community based rural tourism initiative. The camp has been setup by a businessman from Bhubaneswar and is run by tribal men and women from Bantalbari village in Koraput district. Koraput district we realised, is the hub of tribes in Odisha, there were 62 tribes reported in undivided Koraput. The domain and activity of these tribes are confined to the forest of Eastern Ghats and along the mountainous river. Tribes express the cultural identity through their custom, tradition, festivals, dress, tattoos and ornaments, some of which are quite primitive.
|Mornings at Desia, around 7.30 am ...fog filled mornings!
Our stay at Desia, turned out to be a brief peek into the traditions of
|With Sarat Routray (left)
tribes inhabiting south Odisha. This happened by chance, and I thank Sri Sujit Mahapatra (Sublime Tours & Travels, Bhubaneswar). While we wanted a guide to do a quick recce of wildlife spots in Koraput. Sujit insisted that getting to know the unique tribes of the region would be a better option since we were visiting the region for the first time. He recommended the services of Sri Sarat Kumar Routray. Sarat is a tourist guide by profession. Wonderful person, knowledgeable and passionate about history of Odisha and in particular the tribes of the region and its archaeology.
The next two days was an eye-opener getting to know the cultural heritage and natural beauty of the tribal highland of Odisha. We drove over 200 kms each day traversing through wild landscapes, with Sarat providing a running commentary, as if in a time-machine trying to absorb the relics of a gone by era. It was a humbling and enlightening experience.
|Vibrant and colorful .... Weekly Haat of Doraguda
Though not a rule, each tribe has its own weekly 'Haat', since the tribal settlements are limited to a locality in a region. We clearly realised that the 'Haat' were predominantly a women's enterprise i.e. largely - for the women and by the women. Role of the male members is very limited. To me it was an embodiment of the lives of a mother, a wife, and a daughter ... their simplicity and desires expressed through their traditions and rituals. The entire spectrum of the age groups were represented. Their bright colors and lively spirit enhanced the vibrancy of the setting and happened to be an important element of life's journey specially in a tribal setting.
The weekly haat as the point of engagement and exchange is the hub for commercial and entertainment business in its modern sense . Every family or household brings in their creation or produce to trade. They come from far flung villages using any means of conveyance. A large population can be seen carrying their produce on their heads or shoulders and walking over significant distances, while the affluent can boast of a bullock cart or bicycle or motorbikes. Even the public transport wherever it exists is fine-tuned to a haat's timing. The haat is also a great place for the young souls to find their mates. In the haat, one enters a completely different universe.
A flurry of activity is interspersed with conversations overs tea or the local brew (sago-palm / rice beer). The vendors and their buyers engage in more than just selling and buying; relationships are built and social alliances pursued.
Haats are an all day affair. It is almost noon by the time it achieves its peak in terms of attendance and activity. There are traders who hop from one haat to the other with items such as electronics, clothes, etc.. The village folks spend most of the day out there and wrap it up with savories or a drink of locally brewed sago palm beer. Everything winds up by sunset.
The most popular amongst the items on sale appeared to be the bangle stall. It had the young and old scanning, reviewing and bargaining over the latest arrivals. As I interestingly watched, nobody tried to wear the bangles by themselves. Having liked a design, it is the shopkeeper who artistically glides the bangles in to the expecting wrists. Its a treat to watch the whole cycle. Reminded me of an old poem by Sarojini Naidu.
Bangle sellers are we who bear, our shining loads to the temple fair...
Who will buy these delicate, bright rainbow-tinted circles of light?
Lustrous tokens of radiant lives, for happy daughters and happy wives
..... Sarojini Naidu (The Bangle Sellers
|The most active shop at the 'HaaT'
As the buyers and sellers trekked in, Sarat kept identifying the tribes, by way of their ornaments, tattoo, way of wearing the saree, the clips in their hair, etc.. Some of the ornaments that they wear were for life i.e. once worn they cannot be removed. Like in the image below, the anklet the lady is wearing will remain until death.
Based on Sarat's narration, we witnessed Gadaba, Bhumia, Rona, and a few other tribes at the Haats that we visited. But frankly you need a trained eye to identify correctly.
It would take atleast a few more visits before someone like me can be capable of talking about their rich traditions and wisdom in greater details. Putting into words the variety, wonder and awe is simply impossible. At the same time the best way to tell the story was through some of the photographs we clicked. Do hope it does some justice.
But what is imperative is the fact that a more sustainable, holistic and a simple
way of life that is traditionally Indian will be lost if we try to push the western supermarkets into these rural settings.
The Bhumias .... the name suggests their origin from the soil (bhumi). The legend says and tradition confirm that they were the first to start farming in the highlands of Koraput.The Bhumia women love their ornaments. Ear ring and nose ring are compulsory for the married women and they wear toe ring too.
|Bhumia mother and son with her traditional ornaments
The Didayi on the other hand, is a small community of hill dwelling tribe native to south Odissa, they are ... ‘Didayi - the wild people'. Didaye tribes belong to the Proto-Australoid racial stock. They typically inhabit the mountain ranges of Eastern Ghats largely around the Malkangiri plataeu. Both animism (concept of soul) and animatism (concept of life) are the principal components of the Didayi religion.
Although their economy has been monetized, barter system still persists and in weekly markets they exchange some commodities which are either produced or collected against essential commodities for their daily use.
To see the dheki in operation please click the link below-
For hundreds of years, the tradition of tattooing was venerated across the agrarian and forested landscapes of India. The ancient maze-like carvings on prehistoric rocks were copied by tribal communities on their bodies.
Living in the isolation of the hilly and forest-covered tracts, the Didayis have to some extent still preserved the primitive features of their society.
We also managed to visit the much talked about Deomali hills with an elevation of about 1,672 m, is the highest peak in the state of Odisha and perhaps the highest in the Eastern Ghat range. This hill range is rich in mineral resources such as bauxite. It also provides shelter to some wildlife too. In the tribal religion the hills & forests are sacred and not to be destroyed by indiscriminate mining.
|Common Kestrel at the base of Deomali mountain
In short, visiting Koraput was a revelation! To get a better idea one has to spend atleast 15 - 20 days in this great land.
Having lived most of the later part of our lives in concrete jungles, there is so little that we know about our rich & diverse country. Consequently when you witness some of the traditions and practices you suddenly realise in a way the tribes have been India's first inventors and creators and have given their cultural inheritance to many of India's agrarian technologies!
|Machkund gorge near Duduma waterfall
it turns out this trip in particular had become more of a social
documentary, unlike my wildlife pursuits. Nevertheless, enjoyed it in
every aspect. Much of the
credit for the visit goes to Sujit Mahapatra, Sarat Routray and the team at Desia. The time spent with them
around the camp fire and over cups of tea was truly remarkable. I must make also mention of Prasant who is a technocrat living in Bangalore. He had done a similar road trip recently, and his insights were indeed very helpful.
After 3 nights
(31Jan – 03Feb) at Desia (Koraput) we were ready to move to our next destination …
Mandasaru in Kandhamal district …. The Silent Valley of Odisha.
......... continued ..Episode 4