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A green and pleasant land

Bastar is one place on Earth that is crammed with Nature, writes M.P. NATHANAEL

Local attraction ... A waterfall at Tirathgarh in Jagdalpur.

IT took just a call from the tourist officer Ms. Deepika Roy Choudhary of the Madhya Pradesh Tourist Office in New Delhi, and a week later, three of us ; Ashuti Mohotra of Mercury Travels, Mr. Nayan Chaudhury of Explore India and I, accompanied by Ms. Deepika, landed at the Raipur Railway Station after a day and half long journey by the Chattisgarh Express.

Lunch at the Chattisgarh Hotel and we were on the road (NH-43) to Jagdalpur in a Tata Sumo. Past Dhamtari and Kahker and we were tempted by the basket loads of custard (kanker) apple sold on the roadside by tribal women. After purchasing a few, we drove up the winding hill road and reached Keshkal for a short break.

From atop a tower here near the forest rest house, we got a panoramic view of the valley covered in dense jungle.

By the time we hit Jagdalpur town after covering 300 km, it was dark. At the Akansha hotel, we met tourism officials, who briefed us about our itinerary for the next two days.

The following morning we were on the road to Barsur accompanied by Dr. Satish, an advocate and an active member of the Bastar Tourism Development Committee. We marvelled at his enormous and comprehensive knowledge of the culture and customs of the tribals and even their temperament. His interesting anecdotes kept us spell bound.

The tribals, he informed us, do not hesitate ever to vent their feelings. A bout of anger can result in murder. The police hardly need to investigate any crime of murder, as the murderer would walk up to the nearest police station and confess his crime.

As we approached Barur, having covered 99 km, we saw villagers with various articles and vegetables walking to the weekly market. A riot of colours in the crowded open-air small market, it is indeed a photographer's delight.

No sooner did I approach a group of young girls and boys in their traditional colourful attire to take photographs, than they fled from the spot. The boys explained that they demand Rs. 5 each. Within minutes, they hiked their "modelling" rates to Rs. 50 per shot for each girl.

At one end of the market we found women selling Shalpi, an intoxicating drink brewed locally by the villagers. Groups of men can often be seen squatting and enjoying the drink after pouring it into leaves rolled into cups. Dr. Satish explained that Shalpi is made from a tree known in English as the fish tail palm tree. (The leaves of the tree resemble a fish tail).

A 10th Century temples at Barsur.

Barsur, it is believed, was the headquarters of Nagwanshi King who ruled the region from the 11th to the 14th Century.

Having exposed some frames in the market, we moved ahead to see ruins of old temples. A massive Ganesh idol in a temple fenced on all sides is a subject of research for archaeologists.

Some distance away is the Mama-Bhanja temple. Legend has it that when the king of Barsur summoned Vishwakarma from the northern regions to construct a temple, his nephew did not like it. In the fight that broke out between the king and the nephew, the latter killed the king and had his head embedded within the walls of the temple.

Though there are enquisite carvings on the walls of the temple, it is noteworthy that there is no idol within. There is a striking resemblance of this 10th Century temple with the Lingaraj temple of Bhubaneswar.

There are other temples like the Chandraditya mandir and the Battisagudi mandir. Chandraditya, a rich landlord, got a pond dug during the construction of temple, named after him, in the presence of the king. As many as 56 ponds were subsequently dug in the area.

The Battisagudi temple, (because its 32 pillars are believed to have drawn a large number of devotees of Shiva in the bygone days), the Shivling and the massive image of "Nandi" are the main attractions.

Having spent over two hours in Barsur, we headed towards Dantewara on State Highway No. 9. In the less than half an hour we were in the precincts of the Danteshwari mandir on the banks of the confluence of Sankini and Dankini rivers. Because of Dussehra, the place was teeming with devotees. A three-foot idol of Mai Danteshwari made of black granite is the main attraction.

Dr. Satish explained that there are similar temples dedicated to Mai Danteshwari in Jagdalpur and Donger.

After refreshments at the local circuit house, we were off to Aakash Nagar in Bailadilla. At the entrance to the iron mines, the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) guards demanded passes. The tehsildar of Bailadilla who had joined us, had a word with the CISF officials and we were soon driving up to the heights towards Aakash Nagar.

Having reached the peak, we got a stunningly beautiful view of the verdant valley below encircled by green hills. Fluffy white cumulus clouds descending into the valley added to the aesthetics of the scenic view.

The dumpers on our way back attracted our attention. We halted and the Bailadilla Iron Ore Project officials obliged us by explaining the way iron ore is extracted from the huge rocks in the area.

Back to Jagdalpur. It was well past 9 p.m. and the town was in a festive mood with people moving everywhere.

We visited the local fair. There were strikingly beautiful items made of wrought iron and bell metal terracotta, Kosa silk and wood craft. After an hour of going around the fair, we called it a day.

The following morning, we visited the Gram Shilp where artisans, some of them national awardees, can be seen at work, making durries out of old saris and other materials.

An hour later, we were in the office of the Conservator of Forests.

We set off for Kailash gufa, a dark cave frequented by tourists. Driving through dense forests, we reached the spot after nearly an hour. Climbing up a flight of energy ; sapping and steep stairs, we relaxed near the opening of the caves.

Though the forest department has made lighting arrangements in the cave with the help of a battery, a torch is still a must. The conservator led us with his torch and we descended the steps in the cave which have railings on either side.

The beautiful stalactite and stalagmite formations in the cave are a sight one would seldom get to see in a life time. At the end of the nearly 100-metre long cave, is a stalagmite formation in the shape of a Shivling. Amazingly, the hollow walls of the cave make different musical sounds, on being struck by hand.

The Kailash gufa was discovered by the director of the Kanger Valley National Park in March 1993. A similar cave known as Kutumsar cave can be seen in Tirathgarh.

After a steep ascent back to the opening of the cave, we began our descent and hop into the jeep to be driven through the forest to Tirathgarh.

The waterfalls here are a great attraction for local picnickers. While I got busy exposing films, my friends enjoyed the sight. We had our lunch at the forest rest house near the waterfalls where food is provided to all picnickers at a flat rate. By the time we rushed to the Chitrakoot waterfalls, about 75 km from Tirathgarh, it was dusk. Yet the sound of waterfalls in the darkness is worth the experience. The Indrawati river, which divides the district into two, plunges 95 feet as the Chitrakoot waterfalls. After a cup of tea at the PWD rest house here, we left for Jagdalpur amidst heavy rains.

We were just in time, for, at the Danteswari temple near the palace, deities from all the villages around were being brought to this temple on chariots made completely out of wood (no nails or iron in them). The procession with the chariot on the final day through the streets of the town concludes with a meeting of all village headmen and bidding farewell to the deities to be taken back to their villages.

The Lokotsav was planned last year to coincide with Dussehra. Before leaving Jagdalpur, the following morning, we called on the district collector who has several innovative ideas to promote tourism in the region, one of them being to have deluxe Swiss cottages at tourists spots rather than hotels.

We were back in Raipur just in time to board the Chattisgarh Express on our return journey after a memorable trip.

Travel tips:

How to get there: By air — Raipur and Vishakapatnam are about 300 km from Jagdalpur, the district headquarters of Bastar.

By train — Travel up to Raipur by Chattisgarh Express or Samta Express from New Delhi and then by road. A passenger train from Vishakapatnam to Karendul halts at Jagdalpur.

By road — Taxi and deluxe buses are available from Raipur and Vishakapatnam to Jagdalpur.

Where to stay:

Hotel Akanksha: Rs. 225 to Rs. 650.

Hotel Poonam: Rs. 65 to Rs. 475.

Hotel Anand: Rs. 55 to Rs. 375.

Hotel Akash: Rs. 100 to 250.

Hotel Athithi

Government rest houses, circuit houses and forest rest houses are also available.

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