Compelling, Captivating Chhattisgarh

Tales of dances and ways of life we've forgotten

19 SEPTEMBER 2014,
Sirpur Temple in Chhattisgarh
Sirpur Temple in Chhattisgarh

Chhattisgarh – the youngest state of the Indian republic is also the most attractive in terms of tourism resources. The beautiful state of Chhattisgarh was carved out of one of India’s largest state – Madhya Pradesh in the year 2000 and already there is a buzz in the air as far as Tourism is concerned. The state’s mandarins have formed an exclusive Tourism Board with experts drawn from various fields to showcase the state in all its glory to the discerning world traveler. A carefully prepared tourist brochure emphatically declares – “Welcome to Chhattisgarh – a young state but an ancient land, referred to in ancient texts as “Dakshin Kosala”.

As part of its policy to promote Tourism aggressively within India and abroad, the Chhattisgarh Tourism Board had recently invited a group of Travel Journalists along with Photographers on a Familiarization Tour of the state. As part of the tour, we were taken to some hitherto unknown destinations blessed with nature that was at its pristine best.

From the cosmopolitan ambience of the capital city of Raipur to the fascinating tribal landscape, the new state of Chhattisgarh began to unfurl its inherent beauty like a veil slipping out from the head of a beautiful woman. Even the word “Exotic” will be an understatement as far as the charm of this captivating state is concerned. The weeklong Chhattisgarh jaunt was easily one of the best FAM Tours that I ever undertook.

We were amazed to discover that much of the state (44%) was densely forested and the impressive Vindhyachal mountain ranges offered the perfect backdrop to the state of Chhattisgarh. Barring a few urban agglomerations, much of the state is dominated by fascinating tribals who lend a touch of exotica to this incredible state. The swift flowing Indravati and Mahanadi rivers meanders through the state and offers many scenic vistas on either side. In terms of waterfalls and underground cave systems, Chhattisgarh is right up there with the best in the world. The cave systems with their quintessential stalactite and stalagmite formations are truly astonishing.

In the serene environs of the Tourist Lodge at Raipur, we were shown a 1-hour documentary on the state of Chhattisgarh, which was rather informative and a great way to tune in to the state’s tourism attributes. In the midst of my animated conversation with the well-informed Tourist Guide provided by the Chhattisgarh Tourism Board, I became aware that the state also had a rich virile past.

In the days of yore, the state was witness to numerous reform movements like the Satnam Panth, the Kabir Panth, the Ramnami Panth and the Rae Das Panth to name just a few. Most of these movements were socio-religious in character and intended to raise the society from petty religious and cultural beliefs to a society that would be more liberated and enlightened.

According to our guide Vikram, since much of the state is tribal dominated, the state was plagued with several tribal uprisings particularly during the late 18th century. These tribal uprisings flared up as a sign of protests against the unfair and manipulative practices of the rulers. The Halba rebellion of 1774, the Bhopalpatnam rebellion of 1795, the Paralkot rebellion of 1825, the Tarapur rebellion of 1842 are some of the noteworthy tribal uprisings that occurred in the state of Chhattisgarh. The last great rebellion was the Bhumkal rebellion of 1910. Our guide Vikram was of the opinion that all such tribal movements ultimately paved the way for the creation of the state of Chhattisgarh as it is today. The new state of Chhattisgarh symbolizes the hopes and aspirations of India’s unique tribal communities. According to the renowned British reporter – J.B. Beglar, centuries back, a group of 36 Dalits (lower caste) had had gone into exile to the south of the then Jarasandha and set up their own exclusive bastion and named it “Chattisghar”.

I embarked on a walking tour of the city of Raipur in the company of my knowledgeable guide Vikram and we came across the city’s main thoroughfares that were bustling with activity. The city of Raipur is still evolving and there are a plethora of government offices dotting Raipur’s landscape. The city is gradually being developed by the mandarins to serve as an industrial hub. One of Raipur’s most enduring landmarks is Raj Kumar College, which is one of the most renowned educational institutions of Central India. After an hour-long walk across the main thoroughfares of Raipur, we retired to the seclusion of the Tourist Lodge.

From tomorrow we would embark on our first real experience of the state’s multiplicity of tourist attractions. After an early dinner, we retired for the night only to wake up early next morning to a cacophony of birdsongs. Today we would be visiting the Bastar district of Chhattisgarh. After breakfast we hopped in to our air-conditioned coach and as the coach wended its way across the narrow alleyways of Raipur, we had our first brush with rural Chhattisgarh. We were amazed by the unique dressing style of the womenfolk of rural Chhattisgarh. The saree is worn by the womenfolk in the traditional style that is popularly referred to as the – “Kachhora style”. They looked gorgeous in their traditional jewelry consisting of necklaces made out of coins as well as the Phuli on the nose, earrings (Khunti), intricately designed bangles, an exotic ornament shaped like a belt that adorned their waists and the marvelous Bichhiyas on their toes all of which made them look like some antediluvian beings.

According to our guide Vikram, women of Chhattisgarh were more liberated than their counterparts elsewhere and I was amazed to know that when it comes to terminating a marriage (divorce), it is the women who call the shots here with the traditional custom of “Chudi Pahanana”. So all you men folks, you better be aware! By the time we reached Bastar, it was evening and the sight of the red molten ball dipping across the far horizon seemed ethereal. After the strenuous journey, we retired for the night after an early dinner so as to be able to wake up early to visit the fascinating tribal landscape of Bastar.

In Bastar alone there are diverse tribes like the Gond, Bisonhorn Maria, Abujmaria Muria, Halba, Bhatra, Parja and Dhurvaa. We were amazed to know how well the tribals managed their day-to-day affairs. Each village has a chieftain known as the “Sarpanch” and is well supported by a team of counselors who are popularly referred to as the “Panch. Although each tribe has its own element of uniqueness in terms of culture and traditions, almost all the tribes of Chhattisgarh, I am told have one thing in common, courtesy their Eco-friendly lifestyle that hasn’t changed much in spite of the advent of modernity.

We were indeed lucky since the weekly “Haat Bazar” or the village market was on. Hundreds of men, women and children gathered at the colorful “Haat” and engaged in brisk trading. We had one of the most unique experiences of our lives when we saw the live trading of goods through the centuries old “Barter system”. As we sipped from the locally brewed rice beer –“Landa” in a corner of the “Haat”, the sight of a tribal poultry vendor selling off his chickens in exchange of one goat was a scene straight out of an India of the medieval period. A typical village “Haat” has everything from the locally produced agricultural produce to the nitty grittys of tribal jewelry. According to anthropologist Alexander Duffin from Washington DC, who was on his second trip to Bastar – “Bastar comes alive during the Dusshera festival. The 10 day event is a riot of colors and the sight of diverse tribes celebrating the festival with a zeal that is unmatched anywhere else in India”. Try to coincide your trip to Chhattisgarh during the annual Dusshera festival.

We were initiated into the mysterious world of tribal rituals by the well-planned itinerary of the Chhattisgarh Tourism Board that took us to some remote tribal hamlets of Bastar. The tribals rely on the threesome rituals of Siraha, Gunia and Gaita. While the first one is the medium, the second one is the native sorcerer while the third (Gaita) is the religious chieftain of the village. These magic rituals are organized by the Chhattisgarh Tourism Board upon prior intimation.

Tribals in this part of the world lay lot of stress in the upbringing of their progenies. We were shown the traditional “Ghotuls” or dormitories wherein spinsters both male and female are trained in the tribal customs and traditions. I was most impressed by the sight of the boys making designer combs for their girlfriends! One of the world’s leading Anthropologists – Verrier Elwin had carried out his path breaking Anthropological research based on the Ghotuls of Chhattisgarh’s tribals. Although, visitors are strictly prohibited from entering the Ghotuls on their own, the Chhattisgarh Tourism Board can obtain the necessary permissions if there is a specific need for anthropological research.

The most amazing part of Chhattisgarh’s tribal traditions finds expression in their rhythmic folk dance. Every evening, a group of local dancers would perform in the village where we stayed as guests. Washington DC based anthropologist Alexander Duffin, who was part of our group had come armed with his state-of-the-art Camcorder and recorded the exotic tribal dances on his Video player.

What is so special about the tribal dances of Chhattisgarh is that they are community based and are performed in groups and never ever on an individual basis, which speaks volumes about their strong community orientation. We also observed that the dancers gyrated in circles. The sight of men folk in their traditional attires with their colorful headgears, some even wearing horns of Bisons and Stags along with glockenspiel attached to their wrists and ankles made for a truly exotic cultural fare.

I was most impressed with the Karma Dance wherein both the male and female dancers performed in unison and in praise of the Karam tree. A specially dissected branch of the Karam tree is passed from one dancer to the other and at the end of the dance it is ritually washed with milk and the locally brewed rice beer and implanted on the center of the dancing ring.

Chhattisgarh is renowned for its Cave system. One of the most renowned cave systems is the Kailash Gufa, which is very popular with the tourists for its stunning stalactites formation. The ubiquitous limestone pillars dangling from the roof of the cave and the stalagmites jutting out from the ground level is a sight that is truly mesmerizing. Getting to the Kailash Gufa isn’t all that easy. It is tucked away inside a hill, which is all of 55 meters deep. My guide Vikram revealed that some of the stalagmites have been worshipped as “Shivalingams” centuries back. The Kutumsar Cave, ideally located in the Kanger Valley National Park circuit is conspicuous by its subterranean cave system and we made an entry to the cave by a flight of stairs that was quite narrow. As we made our way inside the cave it was pitch-dark and unable to move any further, our guide Vikram lighted a torch and led us upfront in the midst of the stalactites and stalagmites. Every now and then, he would switch off the light to make us frightened. The specialty of the Kutumsar cave is the “Blind Fish” that thrives in the cave’s perfect microclimate.

We also explored the Dandak cave system, which is much larger and infinitely more spacious in comparison to the Kailash Gufa and the Kutumsar caves. Since the Dandak cave system is strategically located on a hillock, you have to climb a flight of 500 steps to access the cave. However, once you reach there, the rocky formations appear like intricately done up carvings done by a master sculpture. The sight of stalactites dangling down is truly gorgeous. No visit to Chhattisgarh is ever complete without witnessing some of its magical waterfalls. The Chitrakoot waterfall, which is the largest waterfall in India, is so stupendous that it is compared with the world famous Niagara Falls. We drove through the road to the west of Jagadalpur and reached the sight of the waterfall in one hour. I must say the drive was beautiful and the condition of the road was first-rate. The Chitrakoot Fall is a fall of 1,000 feet and this horseshoe shaped fall is best viewed during the monsoon season.

Another waterfall that kind of left a deep imprint on my mind was the 300 feet high Tiratgarh waterfall located in close proximity to the Kanger Valley national Park. The unique feature of this fall is that it is quite possible to rest oneself under the fall and there is also a flight of steps that extends all the way to the bottom of the fall. The surroundings of the Chitrakoot waterfall is conspicuous by the presence of ancient ruins, which is believed to be a thousand year old.

Other waterfalls like the Dantewada Waterfall and the Mendri Ghoomar waterfalls too were a feast to the eyes. The later one was absolutely charming and offers breathtaking vistas of the valley below. Although much is known about Chhattisgarh’s exotic tribal culture, it would perhaps be apt to state that a few of the districts of this incredible state used to be the bastion of royalty and one can soak in the regal grandeur of Chhattisgarh’s regal past by visiting the magnificent royal palaces like the Kawardah Palace and the Kanker Palace. The Kawardah Palace in particular is conspicuous by its Italian marbled façade and was built way back in the year 1930 by the then ruler – Maharaja Dharamraj Singh. The palace is located in a splendid isolation with the backdrop of the enchanting Maikal hills. The royal family still resides in one part of the palace on the top floor while the majestic Durbar Hall, conspicuous by its impeccably designed Corinthian pillars is open to all. Should you wish to stay here at the palace, accommodation is available in the form of 6 regal rooms on twin sharing basis. Almost all the regal room features are intact along with matching furnishings. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served at the royally resplendent Dining room and every day before dinner, guests of the palace are offered complimentary drinks at the palace bar that is conspicuous by its Zebra striped marbled flooring. Most visitors to the palace who decide to be guests of this impressive palace are drawn towards the enchanting trekking trails to the nearby villages renowned for their fascinating tribal culture and traditions.

If the Kawardah Palace stuns you with its brilliant Italian architecture, the Kanker Palace with its colonial Raj era charm will leave you spellbound. The cozy Raj era ambience is palpable and there are 3 exclusive rooms available for guests who intend to bask in the palace’s royal grandeur. Much of the original palace architecture and furnishings are still intact and very well maintained. The royal family still resides here and they take keen interest in the upkeep of the palace. One of the highlights of being a guest of Kanker Palace is the fact that as guests of the palace you get an opportunity to dine together with the royal family, just like the days of yore.

Traveler’s Fact File:

By Road:

The National Highway 6 and National Highway 43 connects the state of Chhattisgarh with the rest of India. The later is one of India’s best National Highways that runs from Kawardha via Raipur to Jagdalpur all the way to Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. Traveling within the state is very smooth due largely to the excellent road conditions. A wide network of roads links even the remotest of villages to cities like Raipur and Jagdalpur. A wide range of vehicles ranging from brand new cars and Utility vehicles are easily available for hire at Raipur, the state capital, which is the base from which to explore the rest of the state.

By Rail:

Raipur, the state capital, is on the Howrah-Mumbai line and is well connected by trains to cities like Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai. Of special significance is the Shimliguda Railway Station, which is located at a height of 3,628 feet above sea level, making it the world’s highest railway station in terms of Broad Gauge railway tracks.

By Air:

Raipur airport is well connected to Nagpur, Delhi and Mumbai with routine flights being operated by some of India’s leading airlines like Indian, Jet Airways and Jet Lite etc….

Accommodation:

Raipur has numerous good quality hotels to suit every budget. The Chhattisgarh Tourism Board operates Tourist Lodges in key tourist destinations. One has to book well in advance of one’s departure with the Chhattisgarh Tourism Board. Apart from Tourist Lodges, the Chhattisgarh Tourism Board encourages home stay mode of accommodation in places dominated by tribals, like Bastar for instance. Home stays offer not only a unique opportunity to savor the region’s rich tribal landscape, but also cuts down on the cost per unit of accommodation.

For further information on Chhattisgarh, please feel free to get in touch with -

Chhattisgarh Tourism Board,
Paryatan Bhawan,
G.E.Road,
Raipur – 4926006,
India