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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Wednesday 1 February 2023

Varanasi- A Sketch Travelogue

Ganga Aarti in Assi ghat
Varanasi or Kashi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and one of the most important pilgrimage centers for Hindus. The legend of Varanasi goes back 10,000 years to the oldest Hindu epics including the Puranas, Vedas and Mahabharata. Archaeologists have discovered pottery dating back to 1000 BC and as late as 1500 AD. It is a city on the banks of the river Ganga.

Sketch from the plane window.

I traveled with my mother to Varanasi or Kashi in November 2022.  I took a boat ride in the evening on the river Ganga , around sunset, and did a rapid sketch.

You may like to read my blog post on the Brokpa tribe of Ladakh. 

Ghats from the boat ride in Varanasi
Staple Benarasi breakfast- kachori, subji and jalebis. So scrumptious! The kachori is not the hard shelled ones I am used to in Mumbai or Pune. These are like pooris but with a dal (lentil) stuffing.
Staple Benarasi breakfast

Durga mandir at Durga kund, Varanasi.
I loved the colour of the temple. This is an 18th century temple constructed in stone but painted with this colour.
Durgakund temple in Varanasi

Benarasi tea is quite renowned and every nook and corner there are tea stalls selling tea with similar taste and quality. Benarasi Chai is milky with lots of ginger and sometimes cardamom. This tea seller told me that for 6 litres milk they add around 500 ml water. All tea stalls serve tea in earthern mugs. I loved Benarasi Chai and most importantly it is not cloyingly sweet like in some other places. This tea seller called Kashi is the owner of Kashi tea stall on Assi ghat road.

Chai wallah in Kashi

Kashi, the chai wallah in Kashi
Our guest house owner informed us that this 500 yrs old Ramnagar Durga temple is the only temple in Varanasi which was not destroyed or desecrated by the Islamic invaders or British colonialists. It is around 12 kms from Varanasi in a quiet village. I was stunned by the intricate carvings, depicting different scenes from Hindu mythology. Of course, my sketch doesn't do justice at all to the sheer beauty of the temple but I had to capture the memory. See some poetry carved in stone.
Ramnagar Durga mandir, Varanasi

Ramnagar Durga temple, Varanasi

Ramnagar Durga temple, Varanasi

Ramnagar Durga temple, Varanasi

A must see on anyone's trip to Varanasi is the Aarti offered to Ganga river also addressed as Mother Ganga. Aarti is a ritual oblation of light, incense, flowers, etc offered to Gods and since Ganga is worshiped, there is a morning as well as evening Aarti offered to her. We attended the Aarti on Assi ghat. Seven young priests wearing uniform clothes offer light, water, flowers and incense sticks in a graceful motion in complete coordination and sync. It is a spectacular display accompanied by percussion beats and chants. I did some sketches capturing the postures of the priests and the different items offered to the river. Swipe to see the video of the Aarti.
Ganga Aarti in Assi ghat, Varanasi

Ganga Aarti in Assi ghat, Varanasi

Ganga Aarti in Assi ghat, Varanasi

Ganga Aarti in Assi ghat, Varanasi
Give me Red!!
There is so much colour, especially bright ones, around temples in India. Sketched this stall selling pooja items like coconut, red cloth and flowers while waiting outside a temple in Varanasi. Touched it up later.
Outside a temple in Varanasi

Outside a temple in Varanasi

One very popular thing to eat in Varanasi is Benarasi Paan, which is betel leaf parcels with a stuffing of areca nuts, gulkand (sun cured rose petal jam) and a few other additions. Betel leaves are a good digestive and are eaten after a meal. I sampled a paan at the Keshav Paan Bhandar, a very old shop where four old men sat and made these little leaf parcels.

Keshav Paan Bhandar, Varanasi

Flower seller outside a temple.

I had such a sublime and splendid morning. My mother and I watched the morning aarti on the Assi Ghat at 5.30 am and thereafter took a boat ride to see the sunrise. I sketched away and she chanted the Rudram Chamakam. Such a beautiful experience it was to watch the golden sun emerging on the river while Varanasi slowly woke up to another day.

Sunrise on a boat ride in Varanasi

I am happy I could take my mother on this holy pilgrimage and could capture beautiful memories in my sketchbook. 

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