ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY go off the beaten track to North Chhattisgarh in search of tinkling boulders, grumbling trees, jiggling swamps, strange sculptures, Tibetan monasteries, prehistoric cave shelters and tribal folklore
The intriguing 9 tonne statue of Mahakal Rudra Shiva stood 8.8 ft tall. Coiled snakes formed his matted locks, two fish made up his moustache, the round chin was shaped like a crab, the stomach was shaped like a kumbh (pot), the knees were fashioned into two lion heads and the waist was marked by the faces of four maidens. We tried to decode the puzzle and murmured whether the sculpture indeed represented the twelve signs of the zodiac. “No, no, it’s just a theory”, cried a lady, who identified herself as a researcher. “What about the tortoise-shaped phallus, the eyebrows and nose of an upturned lizard, the eyelids of a frog, the pupils shaped like eggs, the ears of a peacock, shoulders like a crocodile and fingers in the likeness of a panch-mukhi naag (five-headed serpent)! Which astrological signs do they represent?”
Awestruck, we stood amidst the ruins of the twin temples of Devarani-Jethani at Tala on the banks of the Maniari. Exquisite carvings lay strewn like a jigsaw puzzle dashed to pieces by some invisible hand – the base of an elephant-drawn chariot, majestic pillars with four lion heads as support and outlandish bharvahak ganas (weight-bearing gargoyles). Built out of red sandstone by two Sarabhpuriya queens in the 6th century, the Shiva shrine of Devarani (Young Sister-in-law) fared much better than her older counterpart Jethani (Elder Sister-in-law). Beside an ornate doorway, the sculpture of Rudra Shiva glared in stony silence from a grilled enclosure, with the goat-headed Daksha bowing in veneration outside. Tala is believed to have been the seat of Tantric worship.
We were bewildered, not for the first time in Chhattisgarh. While the state was synonymous with Bastar and Chitrakot waterfalls to the south, we were in the less explored northern tracts. This was a magical land where boulders tinkled like bells at Tintiniya Pathhar, where swamps trembled with every jump at Jaljali in Mainpat, where trees rumbled like noisy stomachs at Gudgud Ped in Achanakmar and nature defied gravity at Ulta Pani near Sarguja where water flowed upwards! We felt like explorers out to conquer unchartered lands, but soon realized we weren’t the first.
From the imprints of prehistoric man at various cave shelters to ‘Chhattisgarh van gaman’, Lord Rama’s trail through Dandakaranya during his exile, the forested region has been criss-crossed by the footprints of famous men. Kalidas came here from Ujjain, allegedly banished by the king as both men were in love with the same woman. It was in the caves of Ramgarh, the oldest natyasala (cave amphitheatre) to be excavated, that the lovelorn poet composed the Meghadootam entreating a passing cloud to be a messenger of love. The caves were also called Sita Bengra where Sita used to stay and the clefts in the ground were thought to be lines drawn by Lakshmana. However, a small anterior cave bore paintings dating back to an older time.
Poet-saint Kabir too left his imprint at Kabir Chabutra where a milk-like substance oozes out as Dugdh Dhara from the bed of a small pond. Nearby, Amarkantak holds the origin of the sacred Narmada. In 639 AD, well-known Chinese traveler and pilgrim Hiuen Tsang came on foot from China to Sirpur during the reign of Mahasivagupta Balarjuna. In glowing chronicles he described Sirpur’s glory as an important centre for Buddhism and a land with 100 viharas and 150 temples.
At Champaran, Vallabhacharya’s dramatic premature birth and miraculous survival heralded his sainthood. In 1479 AD, Lakshmana Bhatta and his pregnant wife Illamma were fleeing from Varanasi to escape religious persecution and conversion by Muslim invaders. As they neared Champaranya, Illamma gave birth to a premature child. Taking the infant to be stillborn, the parents wrapped him in cloth and placed him in the hollow of a tree before continuing their journey. When Krishna appeared in a dream and intimated them of their child’s divinity, they rushed back to the spot and were amazed to find their baby alive, protected by a circle of divine fire with wild animals tending to him. The child was named Vallabha or ‘dear one’ in Sanskrit and went on to become a leading Vaishnava saint, holding 80 baithaks in Gujarat alone.
The road wound past Tala to Malhar, formerly a flourishing town along the ancient road from Kaushambi to the ports of Bay of Bengal. Excavations in the region revealed priceless pieces that trace human habitation from 1000 BC to AD1300 and coins suggesting trade links with Rome! The few surviving monuments were the Dindeshwari Devi temple and the Kedareshwar or Pataleshwar temple built by Somraj, a provincial governor of the Kalachuri king Jajalladeva. Its unusual gomukhi shivalingam guarded by exquisitely sculpted dwarapalas spoke volumes about the cultural sensibilities of the societies of yore. Nearby a makeshift museum held a vast collection of ancient sculptures including a massive 3rd Century idol of Chaturbhuj Vishnu, considered one of the oldest of its kind.
The Kalachuris, also called the Chedi or Hahya dynasty, ruled the area of Dakshin Koshala for 700 years. Migrating from Tripuri near Jabalpur to Tumhan in 975AD, Okkaldev or Kalingraj divided his kingdom into 18 parts for his sons and gave one garh (fort) to each. In 1045 AD, Okkaldev’s grandson Ratandev came on a hunt to Manipur, spent the night on a machan and after seeing the glow of Goddess Mahamaya holding her divine court, decided to make it his second capital, renaming it Ratanpur. Around 1515, there was a split in the family. Keshav Singh came to the present area of Raipur and decided to divide his new kingdom into 18 parts as well, thus making it 36 bastions, hence Chhattisgarh. The old town of Kanchanpur was renamed after King Ramchandra’s son Brahmadeo Rai as Raipur.
In the 14th century, the Bhonsles attacked and eclipsed the Kalachuri kingdom, which went into decline. After two centuries of Maratha rule between 15-17 Century, the British came to the scene. In 1818 Major Blunt became the first British officer to come to the area, followed by General Smith, and the name Chhattisgarh is supposed to be a British corruption of Chedi-garh! After it was carved out of Madhya Pradesh into a new state in 2000, Chhattisgarh was divided into 16 districts, then 18, now 29 with the eventual plan to divide it into 36 districts, true to its name. We headed past Bilaspur and Kota to Achanakmar Wildlife Sanctuary, where a British officer was ‘suddenly killed’ by a tiger, as a roadside board proclaimed.
The forest was rich with sal (used for making railway sleepers), tendu (used in beedi-making), sag/ ironwood (used for pillars) and chironji (dry fruit used as spice). Breaking the patchwork of green were riots of palash/Flame of the Forest, used as a natural dye for Holi colours, as an antiseptic and in herbal facials. By night, the heady fragrance of mahua flowers threw an intoxicating veil into the air. Like the mahua, the salfi or chheen tree is a sign of prosperity and can be found in almost every tribal household. The sap of the salfi is used to make a local brew, jocularly dubbed as ‘Bastar Beer’. We couldn’t try the famous chapda chutney made of red ants mixed with salt and chilli but were so hungry, we would have eaten anything.
After dinner at Chhattisgarh Tourism Board’s Amadob Resort, the perfect base for Amarkantak and Kabir Chabutra, we were ready for our foray into the forest next morning. Spread over 557 sq km and connected by a wildlife corridor to Kanha nearby, the national park has four main routes. Rakshasa is a plateau great for wildlife sighting while Sihawal Sagar is good for crocs, with Gudgud Ped nearby. The next morning, from the forest checkpost at Lamni we turned on to the Khongsara Van Marg to Medhri Sarai, a sacred tree stump that was struck by lightning. Though Achanakmar has 36 tigers, the undulating landscape and foliage makes sighting difficult.
Heading south of Achanakmar, we came to Ratanpur, often described as ‘Talab aur Mandiron ki Nagri.’ According to legend, this is where the skand (shoulder) of Goddess Sati fell, sanctifying it as a Shakti peetha. Her dant (tooth) fell further south at Dantewada. A steady stream of visitors wound their way to the large temple complex, past a corridor of colourful stalls selling a strange assortment of religious items. The stone-carved Mahamaya temple was built by Maharaj Ratan Deo, in 1050 with two minor shrines located on the far side of the temple tank. We noticed a woman selling sanjeevani herb (the famous elixir that brought Lakshmana to life) and were mildly tempted to try Kand mool (what Lord Rama survived on in the forest). The edible tuber had the unappetizing appearance of a leg suffering from elephantiasis! The vendor deftly sliced it into thin triangles and insisted we try it. One bite and we deduced it was strictly for survival.
As we drove towards a small hillock called Ram Tekri, we noticed the ruins of a fort just off the main road. Our guide Mr. Sahu elaborated that Hathi Kila was so named because the Kalachuri king Prithvi Dev Singh built it with a gigantic gateway that could allow elephants. At Ram Tekri, we discovered the hill shrine dedicated to the holy trio of Ram, Lakshman and Sita. Story has it that in the 15th Century, Bimbaji Rao Bhonsle commissioned three idols that he wished to install at the spot. However, Lord Ram appeared in his dream and instructed that he installs the three sunken statues that could be found in Bikma Talab. The king searched the entire lake but couldn’t find it and returned disappointed. The following day, the three statues miraculously appeared standing in front of the door. Accepting it as divine will, the king placed his statues outside and consecrated the divine trio inside.
About 50km from Bilaspur, we made a quick stopover at the well-preserved Shiva or Mahadev Temple of Pali, just off the main road (SH-12) towards Katghora. Its tall circular dome and profuse detailed carvings on its exterior walls are definitely worth a look. The hazy outline of the Hills of Udaipur or Baghelkhand ke pathaar could be seen in the horizon.
We didn’t know what was more surprising – a bean-shaped boulder that tinkled like a bell when struck with a stone or an entire Tibetan settlement that lay beyond in the hilly retreat of Mainpat. Named after main, a type of mud like Multani Mitti found in these paats (pathaar or plateau), Mainpat was a group of 62 plateaus perched at 1100 m/3200 ft. The road climbed 30km from base of the hill through forests of sal and mines of bauxite. The area was home to the Yadavs and tribes like Manjhi, Manjhwar, Kanwar and Pahadi Korwa, until an event in far-flung Tibet changed everything.
After the Chinese aggression in the 1960s, Tibetans fled en masse to India and one group of refugees working in road construction came here from Sitapur. Enamoured by the cool climes of this elevated forest, the Tibetan delegation did a land survey and with consent of the Home Ministry of Madhya Pradesh, nearly 3000 acres was allocated to them. The first camp was created by clearing trees and the early settlers employed traditional Tibetan methods of agriculture, herding sheep and cattle but with little success. After several rounds of experimentation, potato emerged suitable for cultivation besides tau or buckwheat, good for controlling blood pressure and cholesterol. The Thakpo Shedupling Monastery built in 1970 is a repository of old thangkas, wall murals and a solar heater that boils water and cooks rice in just 30 minutes. Today, while the younger generation has migrated for work or studies, a 2000-strong older population remains scattered in Mainpat’s 7 camps.
A meal at Mercury Resort & Restaurant under a Stars n Stripes ceiling with bamboo décor was disconcerting yet delicious. After a brief rest in Swiss tents, we were off to Mehta Point for a view of the valley and plateau. By the time we finished with Tiger Point and Jaljali, we reached Dharamjaygarh only at twilight. Luckily, Shyamphal ji of Ongna offered to take us to the caves in the dark. So led by three friendly locals on a bike, we negotiated our vehicle through a patch of wilderness. After parking, we set out on a 15-minute moonlight trek up an incline armed with torches. Soon enough, we came upon a linear row of primitive art and seeing it by torch light in near darkness only added to the drama. In contrast to the grey rock were dull red geometric and whimsical designs, hunting scenes of man and beast, dancing figures and odd motifs painted eons ago. ‘You can crawl through that hole until it opens into a big cave with lots more drawings’, said Shyamphal ji but we desisted and thanked him profusely as we said goodbye.
Ongna was just one of the many specimens of ancient rock art in Chhattisgarh that are possibly over 10,000 years old. Raigarh, our next destination, has the largest cluster of rock shelters – Kabra Pahar (10km), Singhanpur (29km), Sonbarsa, Benipat, Basna Jhar (37km, near Kharsia), Botalda (8km from Kharsia) and Ongna (50km).
The next day we drove from Raigarh to Kabra Pahar, past lush rice fields for another glimpse of prehistoric cave drawings. A 30-minute brisk trek up a narrow rocky hill took us to what must have been the largest panel of rock art in the region. The higher outcrops were festooned with beehives that the locals harvested for honey. Sadly, the entire rock face has been brutally vandalized with graffiti by locals and callous visitors. Only few images have survived that divulge secrets of the Mesolithic and Neolithic ages.
However, art and creativity has embedded itself in the genetic code of the Chhattisgarh people. Echoes of designs and forms depicted in the caves can still be found in the body tattoos of tribals, in the paintings of the Oraons of Surguja plateau and ritualistic drawings on memorial stones in Bastar. However, nothing exemplified the universal appeal and distinctive style of their art as much as dokra or metalcraft, terracotta and wooden carving.
A visit to the unique Ektal Craft Village, named after the lone taal or taad (palm) tree, was a humbling experience. Set like a walk-through village of about 100 families, this open-house gallery showcased a whole range of artworks by outstanding craftsmen, giving visitors the opportunity to interact with them directly. Nearly 13 villagers are recipients of National Awards while 30-35 have received State awards. Often traveling abroad to conduct workshops in reputed institutes and fairs, these artists still lived in huts, wore simple clothes and displayed certificates and honors with child-like innocence. Adapting the lost wax technique to create metal art with painstaking detail, they sculpt anything from traditional lamps to decorative hooks and animal curios that can be churned in a day to a massive assemblage of idols and life-size chairs that take three months to make. Nowadays, Jaipur artists have taught them how to make contemporary utilitarian goods. Transfixed, we watched them chip away at their craft.
Equally mesmerizing were the Kosa silk weavers of Janjgir-Champa. At Chandrapur’s Devangan Mohalla, a traditional weavers’ colony, Mukesh Kumar Devangan explained the tedious process. The raw material, kosha or silkworm cocoon is procured from Raigarh at Rs.3 a piece. After boiling it in water, resham (silk) is extracted, dyed and then used for weaving. It takes 10-15 days to weave a sari, which costs about Rs.2,000-4,000. Nearby, bells announced the Chandrahasini Temple overlooking the mighty Mahanadi river, hailed as ‘Chhattisgarh ki Ganga’.
But the real window to the state was a cultural complex located 17km from Raipur. Purkhauti Muktangan is literally an open courtyard that showcases the best of Chhattisgarh’s diverse cultural heritage. Several artists have contributed to its aesthetic appeal. Bastar’s famous wrought iron style gates and embellishments, walls highlighting art from various regions like godna (tattoo designs) of Sarguja to Adivasi Madiya Art from Bastar, gigantic statues made by award-winning artist Pilu Ram Sahu, sculptures in mud and metal representing various dances, musicians and customs, sacred wooden carved totem poles by Murra Ram Sodhi and the unusual diwal bitti (embossed wall murals) made of mud and paint by National Award winner Sonabai Rajwar, Purkhauti Muktagan bursts with the vibrant spirit of the region and comes alive during the festive season. In a haat-like ambience, several stalls are set up for artists to sell their wares in the same arena.
Back at Raipur, we halted for some last-minute shopping at handicraft showrooms like Shabari Emporium, Kashtha Shilpa and Jhitku Mitki. We paused at a striking pair of dokra statuettes. “What’s that?” we queried. “That’s Jhitku-Mitki, the famous star-crossed lovers from tribal folklore, who are worshipped even today to fulfill any desire. They are an inseparable pair,” said the store manager before quipping, “A little bit like you two.”
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the May, 2012 issue of Rail Bandhu, the Indian Railways’ in-train magazine.