Friday 31 March 2023

Exploring Bastar- A Sketch Travelogue

In January 2023, I visited the Bastar district in Chhattisgarh. I got in touch with Unexplored Bastar who planned my trip and also provided me with a guide. I created a sketch travel journal during the trip, like the Ladakh one. Let me take you to Bastar through my sketches. 

I took a flight from Mumbai to Jagdalpur via Hyderabad. 

People waiting at the airport at 5.30 am.

View of the planes while waiting in the lounge. 

My favorite thing to sketch on a flight is the plane window!

Sunrise from above the clouds.

My first stop was the Danteshwari mandir in Dantewada, which is one of the 52 Shaktipeethas where the Mother Goddess is worshipped as an incarnation of Shakti.  According to Hindu mythology, Sati Devi, the first wife of Shiva, committed self-immolation in the Yagna kund (holy sacrificial fire) out of anger, because her father, Daksha, had insulted Lord Shiva. 

In utter grief and anguish, Lord Shiva carried the body of Sati devi, refusing to put it down. He also started the Tandava Nritya, the dance of destruction which threatened to destroy all worlds. Fearing the worst, Lord Vishnu, cut the body of Sati devi into 51 parts and thus creating powerful Shaktipeethas wherever the pieces of her body fell. 

Danteshwari mandir holds the tooth of Sati devi (Dant means teeth in Sanskrit) and is a very important pilgrimage center. 

Danteshwari mandir in Dantewada

The image of Goddess Danteshwari in the garba gruha is carved in black stone. and there was quite a throng of devotees since it was a public holiday on the 26th of January. I sat in the shade and did this sketch as curious people gathered around to take a look at what I was doing. 

My next stop was Barsur which was many centuries ago an important site with around 147 temples dating back to the 11th century built by the Nagavamsa dynasty. It is located around 80 kms from the main town of Jagdalpur and on the banks of the river Indravati. Currently, there are only around three or four temples, that too in ruins which can be visited. The first is the Mama-Bhanja temple believed to have been built by sculptors, an Uncle- nephew duo in a record time of 24 hours. The second is the Battisa temple, a Shiva temple with 32 pillars (battees is 32 in Hindi). The third is the twin Ganesha idols probably part of a temple earlier.

You may like to read my blog post on the cuisine of the Lepcha tribe.

The Mama-Bhanja temple

The Battisa temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and located in tye Barsur town of Dantewada. The inscriptions in the temple mention that the Someshwara and Gangadeshwara temples were constructed in the year 1209 by Queen Ganga Mahadevi of the Nagavansha dynasty. The queen and her KIng husband separately worshipped in the temple hence there are two scared Shivalingas. The presence of two Shivalingas is what makes this temple unique. 

The Battisa temple with 32 pillars 

The twin Ganesha idols are the 3rd largest sandstone figures of Ganesha in the world. 
Me sketching the Nandi.

The next stop was Madarkonta Caves. I was apprehensive about entering the Madarkonta caves after seeing the photos online because there are no steps so one has to walk and crawl over big boulders and narrow passages inside. But a little coaxing from my guides encouraged me to give it a try. A local guide from the Maria tribe named Benjan guided us. That's him holding my sketch. The outside of the cave was beautiful with sedimentary rocks stacked on top of each other. We reached a large chamber inside and I sat to meditate for a few minutes. The guides had put off their torch light and upon opening my eyes there was not a speck of light. Just beautiful darkness and my breath. Such a unique experience.

Entrance to the Madarkonta caves

My guide inside the cave, Benjan. He is hoping to join the Army.

Meditating inside the cave. My guide took this photo. 

Inside the cave.

After the unique cave experience, we spent some refreshing time by a rivulet, with birds chirping around and the sound of water.
A picturesque scene by the rivulet

After the refreshing time in the shade, it was time to face the scorching sun at Tirathgarh waterfalls. The waterfalls are around 35 kms away from Jagdalpur and cascade down from a height of 100 feet. I sat under the burning sun to sketch this while my guide shooed away monkeys who were trying to grab my colour palette, thinking it was food. 

Tirathgarh waterfalls
The Tirathgarh waterfalls.

Some herostones or Veergal near the waterfalls
Tirathgarh waterfalls

After sketching at the Tirathgarh waterfalls, we visited a tribal market. Having visited tribal markets in Koraput, Odisha, I was looking forward to experiencing it. 

Some tribal communities in Chhattisgarh eat red ants as part of their diet. The red ants grow in abundance on Sal and Mango trees. They form nests by joining large leaves and lay their eggs inside. The tribal people collect these large clutches of ants plus their eggs and make a chutney (dip) out of it. It is locally called Chaapda. The chutney is made by crushing the ants and eggs live along with garlic, ginger, salt and whatever seasoning they fancy and eaten with rice and lentils. This dish is high on protein and believed to offer immunity against flu, malaria, etc. I saw this beautiful tribal woman selling ants out of leaf cups in a market. She broke into a smile upon seeing her sketch. And just in case you are curious, no, I didn't eat the ants 😁 last photo of the close up of the ants taken by my guide.

Another interesting thing I sampled was the Mahua alcohol which is one of the oldest indigenous alcohols in India. The Mahua tree grows abundantly in central, western and eastern India. And the tribal communities such as the Gonds, Santhals, Dhuruwa, etc worship it as the Tree of Life. Every part of the tree- flowes, branches, leaves are used by the tribals in some form or the other. The mahua tree as well as the alcohol was inextricably linked to tribal life for centuries until the British banned it citing it as a health hazard (how ridiculous!). Probably this is the only alcohol made from sweet mahua flowers over a laborious 8 day process. This lady from whom I bought the alcohol was also making cups out of large leaves to drink the liquid from. I saw several groups of women coming, buying their share and sitting and chatting away. My guide explained this is their version of a kitty party. Women come for shopping in the market, catch up with friends over a glass of liquor ad have a good time. Women are the same everywhere.

That's me drinking mahua alcohol from a leaf cup. 
I saw women and men selling heaps of dried mahua, which people buy and make alcohol in their own homes. 

I returned to Bastar and in the morning visited another Danteshwari mandir next to the Bastar Palace.

We then visited the Narayanpur temple, the only temple dedicated to Sri Vishnu in the area. 

On the way to the Bastar Shiv mandir, we stopped for lunch at a small eatery run by the local tribal village women. Food was served in leaf bowls, the ultimate sustainable method. What impressed me was that they had UPI digital payment. 

I sketched the view next to this eatery. 

I stayed at a village-run homestay near Chitrakote waterfalls. The house was made of mud and the room was quite simple and comfortable. 

The Chitrakote waterfalls is horse shoe shaped and is compared with the Niagara waterfalls. The local people don't appreciate that comparison though. I agree because each place is unique. The waterfall is also worshipped by the local people. My guide @akashwithsky explained that many from Bastar may not be able to go to the Ganga river which is very holy for Hindus so they offer their prayers to the Chitrakote waters instead. The best time to visit the waterfalls in its roaring glory is after the Monsoon , from August to November. What I saw now is a mere trickle compared to what it looks like in its full form.

I also visited a few artisans in Bastar. The first was the Dhokra artisans. 

The lost wax casting technique or Dhokra art as it is called in India, has been in continuous existence here since around 5000 years from the Indus Valley Civilization. One of the earliest figurines discovered from the IVC is that of the 'Dancing Girl'. I had the opportunity to visit the Dhokra artisans in Kondagaon, Chhattisgarh. First, a clay core is made in the form the desired final image. Over it is applied a layer of wax, shaped and carved intricately. The wax is a mix of beeswax, resin and a bit of charcoal. This is again covered with clay, which takes the negative form of the wax from inside, becoming a mould for the metal that will be poured inside it. Holes are left in the mould for the molten wax to drain when the clay is cooked. The wax is replaced by the molten brass. The liquid metal hardens between the innermost clay core and the inner surface of the outer mould. After it cools, the outer layer of clay is removed and the metal is polished. Dhokra art making still thrives in the states of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and Bengal and I have quite a few pieces of Dhokra art that adorn my home. So glad to have an insider view of this ancient art.

Bastar is known for its terracotta art. I visited the National award winning potter-artist Shri. Ashok Chakradhari at his workshop-cum-residence. There is a custom amongst the tribal communities of Bastar, of offering votive figures to Mother Nature whom they worship. The clay for the terracotta is sourced from river banks and strained to get rid of impurities. It is then mixed with sand and kneaded in a machine to make it smooth and then poured into vats to allow it to settle. The Votive terracotta figures are hollow and are made with multiple cylinders and pots of various shapes. For eg, the head, trunk and legs of the elephant are made separately and then joined with mud. Geru or red oxide is used to impart a reddish tint to the clay. After joining the various parts of the figure, it is further decorated with pieces of clay and then baked in a kiln at temperatures ranging from 700° to 900° C. Check the pictures of the finished products.

On the way, we visited the Bastar Shiva temple. Not much is known about this temple and the Archeological Survey of India seemed to be doing some renovation work.

I visited the Anthropological Museum in Jagdalpur and saw these memory stones erected in memory of near and dear ones.

Last but not least, I would like to mention my guide, Akash, who made sure I had a comfortable trip and with whom I rode a pillion on his scooter around Chhattisgarh. 

I did this trip with Unexplored Bastar, a travel company based on social entrepreneurship model. 

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Thursday 1 December 2022

The Brokpas of Garkon- A Sketch Travelogue


Brokpa girls

I spent five enriching days in Garkon, home to the Brokpa/Aryan/Dardic tribe, during the Apricot Blossom Festival in April 2022. My earlier plan was to spend two days in Garkon, but thanks to the bad experience in the Achinathang homestay (read my previous blog), I shortened my stay at Achinathang and spent two more days at Garkon. I took a bus from Achinathang to Garkon and reached the  Payupa Guest House, run by Diskit and her husband Tashi Lundup. It is a multi-storied house with several rooms. Since I was traveling solo, they gave me a room on the ground floor with a shared bathroom and toilet. 

This was the first sketch I did of the view outside. 

Warming up for the Garkon sketch series

I met a very interesting person in Garkon. He is the folk singer of the village, Sonam Wangyal, and was a storehouse of information about Brokpa culture and history. One thing he said was interesting. It was one of his relatives who had gone to graze his cattle on the border who discovered the infiltration of Pakistani terrorists on the border and informed the Indian Army, which eventually led to the Kargil war in 1999.

Sonam Wangyal, the folk singer of Garkon

While walking around the village, I saw this old Brokpa house with Ibex horns on the door. After I had sketched it, the owner came along and offered me some dried apricots from her tree. 

A house with a lot of character in Garkon

I think it is now time to tell you about the Brokpa tribe.
When Alexander, the Macedonian King invaded India in 326 BC, there were three soldier brothers who stayed back. Their names were Galo, Melo and Dhulo. They stayed back originally in the Gilgit Baltistan area and then wished to move to greener areas. One of the brothers shot an arrow and it fell in Dah (Dah means arrow), So Dah became the first settlement of the Brokpas and then eventually the descendants of the three brothers, settled in the villages of Hanu, Garkon, Darchik and 2-3 other villages, one of which is in Pakistan now. The Brokpas were animists and worshipped Nature and later embraced Buddhism. They do keep their animist traditions alive too with festivals and celebrations. Polyandry was common until a few generations ago. They speak a language called Dard or Shina and their language has no script. They speak Ladakhi fluently but the Ladakhis cannot understand their language. They marry only within their community although that is fast changing with the younger generation going to cities for work and studies. Both men and women wear headgear with flowers on it.

Two young Brokpa girls

Two young Brokpa girls

I was lucky that on the day I was there, 14th April 2022, the Apricot Blossom Festival, locally called Chuli Menduq was being organized by the Department of Tourism. All the Brokpas from Garkon and the neighboring villages came in all their traditional attire and finery.
The Brokpas looked like walking floral bouquets. So amazing. I noticed that the Brokpa attire is a celebration of all things sourced from earth. There is silver, pearls, coral, flowers, turquoise, sea shells, goat leather, coins, seeds, wool, etc. It was a bonus for me. It was a riot of colour and a feast for the eyes. There was dance and music too and I sketched in a frenzy to capture as much as I could.

The bright orange flower, Monthu-tho, is very important for the Brokpas. They value it even more than gold or silver. Whenever there is a dispute between people, this flower is offered as truce and to symbolize peace. During all the happy occasions like weddings or birth of a child, all the community members wear this flower as part of their headgear. This flower grows in a shrub in the fields in September. This is the headgear worn by Brokpa women.
The floral headgear for Brokpa women called Molan Kho

Monthu Tho- the most important flower for the Brokpas

I also sketched the Brokpa footwear and pants worn by women.

The shoes are called 'Aala Peela'. Peela means shoes in their language. The bottom part is made of goat leather and the upper part of wool. So colorful! I am considering joining the Brokpa tribe for their sheer love for bright colours.

The pant is worn underneath the kaftan or Kurta and is made of wool with rich embroidery in bright colors. It was quite heavy to hold.

Brokpa women's pants

Brokpa shoes called Aala Peela

I wanted to do another portrait of a Brokpa woman and the mother of my homestay owner sweetly agreed to pose for me. The Brokpa women wear their hair in 14 plaits. 4 on each side and 6 behind. This lady told me when she was young, they had to comb their hair everyday and plait it. They never cut their hair. But now things have changed. She said earlier, rajma (kidney beans) and corn and other seeds were used as part of their attire. The silver used to come from Skardu, now in Pakistan. The traders would exchange salt in exchange for silver.

Brokpa girls from the back. They wear a cape made of goat skin and until two generations ago, girls weren't allowed to go outside or be seen by men without the goat skin.
The cape of the Brokpa girls.

The traditional attire of the Brokpas is elaborate and heavy!

I got the opportunity to watch and sketch Brokpa musicians on percussion and wind instruments. The Brokpa songs are all about Nature, about Apricot blossoms, the river, the mountains. They share a close connection to nature like most people in the villages.

The wind instrument is called Surna, the tabla like instrument is called Daman, the sticks are called Danshing and the single percussion instrument is Bhoonsh.
You may like to read my post on the Lepcha tribe in Sikkim.

I think the Brokpa men may be the only men in the world to wear floral headgear with such confidence and elegance.
Brokpa men with floral headgear
This is a 500 yrs old Ladakhi house belonging to the family of Tashi Lundup, @payupaguesthouse which has now been converted into a museum. This was restored 150 yrs ago in its current state. It is a 4 storied structure. The ground floor called the 'Bhu' was used for keeping goats and sheep. The 1st floor is called Kattsa, used during winters where the entire family gathered. Leading to the Kattsa is another large room, where the handprints of Guru Padma Sambhava are kept on a Sabdak, an ancient symbolic rock, which represents the local deity. The food after being prepared is first offered to the deity and then partaken. There are small cells for storing butter and hold household items.

The 2nd floor is called Sbyarkhang, used in summer. The 3rd floor is a prayer room called Chokthang. 4th floor is the terrace.

Brokpa museum in Garkon
Some of the items in the museum as such these pots are made of stone. They are over 200 years old and were made in what is now Pakistan.

Collection of museum artifacts
At Garkon, I felt fortunate to sit by the Sindhu/Indus river, from which our country Bharat gets its anglicized name India, and sketch this beautiful scene, with the sound of the gurgling river water and the musical notes of the Whistling Thrush. The sun cast a molten golden glow on the waters on the horizon. So beautiful! I wanted to go and touch the water and fill up my water brushes too, but I already had a swollen ankle and thought that navigating more of these boulders would cause more strain. There will be another time I am sure.

Indus river in Garkon

As I was wandering around the village, a young man Phunchok invited me to see his newly renovated guest house called Betepa Guesthouse. He offered me tea and I sat on the terrace and sketched this panoramic view.

Phunchok of Betepa Guest house in Garkon

Below is the Payupa Guesthouse.
As I had mentioned earlier, the Brokpas have kept their animist traditions alive alongside the Buddhist practices. This is the sacred walnut tree of the village called Changri Aatho, where their guardian spirit is believed to be residing. Every year, the Brokpa villages take turns celebrating the Bon festival called Bonona. So Garkon gets its chance every three years. The tree and stone are worshipped and offered holy fumes called Phok (juniper leaves). The first harvest of the season is also offered to the tree and villagers come in traditional attire and sing and dance in celebration.

During the Apricot blossom festival, the men and women performed a folk dance. It was a slow-moving dance but very graceful and the dancers sang in chorus. One of the women offered me a headgear. It was very heavy on my head. The songs they sang were about Nature, love, river and mountains.
A coffee table at Paupa guesthouse with Tibetan Buddhist motifs. This kind of decor is ubiquitous in the regions practicing Tibetan Buddhism such as Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh, and parts of Himachal Pradesh.
My hostess at Payupa Guest House, Diskit, made this syrupy side dish with dried apricots which are just boiled in plain water. The result is a syrupy jam-like dish that pairs well with rice-dal and rotis.

Seeing me sketch at the Chuli Menduq, a Tourism minister of Ladakh, Aga Syed Taha, asked me to draw a portrait of him. I said I did not have loose papers and that I wouldn't tear a page from my sketchbook. He managed to get some A4 printer paper and asked me to draw on that.
Assistant Director of Tourism, Aga Syed Taha

All in all, my Garkon visit was extremely fulfilling as I got a deeper insight into the culture of the Brokpas. My next stop after Garkon was Temisgam/Tingmosgang which was equally beautiful in its own way. Read about it here.

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