Road Less Travelled Travel

To the call of the distant drum

Chitrakote waterfalls in Bastar district   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

She’s attired in a shocking pink sari tied till the knees, adorned with chunky armbands and anklets in silver, double nose-pins in gold, and a necklace made with cowries. There’s festive commotion around her, but the silver citizen from the Halba tribe is engrossed with her red mobile phone.

“She’s waiting for a call from bapa, my father,” her granddaughter, dressed in a feathery white frock, tells me. “The phone is her prized possession now. However, the first time my grandmother heard bapa’s voice she shrieked and threw it away, thinking the devi had reduced him to this size,” she laughs. “There was commotion in the village and it was only when bapa appeared in person the next day that she recovered,” smiles the granddaughter, giving an indulgent hug to her grandmother, now happily chatting away on the little instrument.

In a way, the duo and their mobile is the story of Bastar, one of the most absorbing regions of India. It’s in step with modern ways, yet many a custom of its people hasn’t changed in centuries. Nowhere is that contrast more visible than at the celebrations of the Bastar Dasara, in Jagdalpur, which is where I met the two.

To a different beat

This is a Dasara where there is no Lord Rama or Ravana and no good over evil. This is an event unique to Bastar, dating back to the 15th Century, when Raja Purushottam Deo of the Kakatiya dynasty was conferred the title of ‘rath pati’, or the one who has celestial permission to lead sitting on a chariot, during his visit to the Jagannath temple in Puri. A 16-wheel wood chariot was presented to him, and ever since a rath has remained central to festivities that celebrate the title bestowed on their king.

To the call of the distant drum

Bastar Dasara kicks off on Hareli — a harvest celebration held on the first day of the lunar month of Shravan sometime in the last week of July — and ends 75 days later, ranking it among the longest festivals around the world. The culmination is in October, and during the last 12 days (which coincide with country-wide celebrations of Navratri-Dasara), apart from hailing their king, Bastar also worships its presiding deity Goddess Danteshwari, an incarnation of shakti, the feminine force. The 14th Century Danteshwari Temple in Dantewada, dedicated to her, is among the 52 revered shakti peeths across India.

I reach Jagdalpur on Day 9, when festivities are at their peak, with the raja from the erstwhile princely family of Bastar — at present it’s the young Kamal Chandra Bhanj Deo — welcoming Maoli Devi, the embodiment of Danteshwari Devi, who arrives from the Dantewada temple in a decked chariot. Accompanying her is a sea of humanity, with many shouldering anga devtas or village deities. To me, it seems the entire tribal population, the Gond, Bhatra, Muria, Halba, Dhuruva, Baiga and more, have left home and walked to be part of the revelry. The most visible are persons from the bison-horn Muria tribe, dressed in red and white, who traditionally close the festival. They dance and sing their way into the night to the sounds of drum beats.

To the call of the distant drum

As part of the celebrations, the doors of the Jagdalpur Palace are thrown open, and the visiting population queues up to pay obeisance to their ‘raja’. I see Bhanj Deo seated on the throne at the darbar hall as thousands troop past. It is as if the clock has been wound back many centuries. It is a reminder once again that Bastar and its people move at a pace of their own.

Where to stay How to get there Things to do
  • Bastar Jungle Resort: Aesthetic cottages with modcons, located in Kurandi village, 12 km from Jagdalpur. Look up
  • Naman Bastar: Set in a sprawling estate ringing with birdcall. Rooms clean though modest, located in Palli village, 5 km from Jagdalpur. Look up

Every year, a new chariot is constructed for the festival. And as Dasara enters Day 10, while Ravana goes up in smoke in other parts of India, in Jagdalpur, the chariot is pulled around town. Festivity is in the air and there is a lot to make the eyes wander, especially at wayside haats which offer local favourites like mahua, sulfi and chapura (red ant chutney). As per ritual, the chariot is ‘stolen’ by the Muria tribe at night and taken outside the city. It returns only after the raja offers rice from the fresh harvest to the devi. The return of the chariot marks the culmination of the festival and a series of prayers are offered, chiefly for a bumper crop.

Dhokra or bell metal craft

Dhokra or bell metal craft   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Over the next two days, the visiting devi and deities are thanked and bid farewell, bringing an end to a display of unconditional faith and unwavering adherence to tradition by the tribes. If you want to see a buzzing slice of Bastar, then this is it.

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 4:20:41 PM |

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