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A Trip to Kanker-Kondagaon: The Chattisgarh Indigenous Trail

Almost half-way between the Kanker town and the Kondagaon town, we took a right turn from NH30 towards the village. Around 4 km into that
kanker Kondagaon in Chattisgarh
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The excitement

The state of Chhattisgarh is known for its deep forests, indigenous tribal cultures and its historical importance. Yet, the state has not attracted many travelers mainly because of a general fear about the Naxal movement and the occasional news of violence associated with it in a few districts. However, a little bit of awareness about the districts of the state can alleviate such fears and open up a pleasant opportunity for unique experiences as a traveler.

The disturbances are mostly constrained within the 4-5 districts in the southern part of the state and that too in certain zones restricted by the security forces. If we travel from the north to the south across the state, we come across districts such as Kanker and Kondagaon beyond which restrictions may be high. At the same time the Kanker-Kondagaon area is far enough from the Durg-Bhilai-Raipur zone for the tribal communities to still live in their natural habitat and preserve their cultural identity.

I was also not much aware of the beauty of the region until I got a chance to visit Kanker on a study trip. I along with my students were looking to have a rural immersion as part of our course to understand indigenous communities in our country. We collaborated with a local NGO, and they identified a village in Kanker for a weekend visit. Our plan was to interact with the local community, understand their habitat, observe their lifestyle, and learn from their traditional practices. We planned to spend one night in the village and had an open mind about the living conditions. 

The route from Raipur to Kanker

It was the last week of February, and the weather was rather pleasant for an excursion in this part of the country. We were a group of 18 who were not any less excited than a kid getting ready for her first vacation trip. We had planned to start from our college at Raipur on a Saturday early morning at around 7 am. Kanker is around 140 km away from Raipur and the road condition is very good. We had booked a bus and our plan was to reach the village before noon. We had arranged breakfast packets on the bus so that we could start early. However, the almighty had a different plan!

When we were ready to board, the bus driver was very surprised that we would be going to Kanker and staying there overnight. The confusion arose because though we had booked for two days, we did not communicate well that we were going outside Raipur district. And the issue was that for going outside the Raipur district a special permit was required for the bus. The driver would not risk going without the permit; on top of this, the permit office was closed on Saturdays. All our planning seemed to crumble. If we could not start for Kanker – we could hardly afford a few hours’ delay, let alone cancel the study trip for which we had planned for months! 

The visit

‘After several calls and emails, we made a makeshift arrangement with the travel agency to allow our bus to start so that they can help us if any checks happen on the way.

We started a couple of hours late, but the joy was even more heightened, at least in my mind. The waiting for the start was definitely exhausting for the rest of the group. A good music album that I had prepared in my pen drive was probably the only way to keep up the cheer.

Our bus took the NH30 going South. The road from Raipur to Kanker was mostly flat but beautiful. Some felt sleepy, but I could not. We were going through the forests in some parts and at one place there was a series of ‘Palash’ trees with the bright-red flowers glowing from the distance. Our final destination was a village called ‘Nawagarh’ in the Kondagaon district. We had to cross the ‘Keshkal Ghati’ before that. Keshkal is a small but steep hill and the view from the top overlooking the plateau beneath was mesmerizing. Even the sleepy crowd in the group could not resist but look through the windows. I wondered how the view would change in different seasons!

A typical tribal house in Nawagarh, Kanker.

Almost half-way between the Kanker town and the Kondagaon town, we took a right turn from NH30 towards the village. Around 4 km into that road, we reached our destination. The villagers were expecting us because the arrangements for our food and lodging were planned with them with the help of the NGO. We received a warm welcome from the community.

After some rest we took our lunch and for the students it was a heavenly spread, after having digested the ‘mess’ food on the college campus for so long. Even simple rice, roti, dal, and sabzi tasted so good when cooked with local produce and time– we could not get enough of it.

Post lunch, we attended a meeting with the head of the village (‘Mukhiya’), the village elders and the common villagers. We were introduced to the concept of ‘Gotul’, one kind of knowledge-sharing system where learning happens by observing the elders and practicing the same. A village can have one or more Gotuls and the children are required to attend one of them till a certain age. ‘Learning by following’ seemed to be the traditional way of passing knowledge from one generation to the next.

In the afternoon, we went to a local fair called ‘Madai’. We were told that this happens only once in a year when the Gond tribes call upon their forefathers or ‘Purkha’ for blessings. A few of the people would become the demigods who would be possessed by their Purkha and ultimately celebrated by a procession around the ground. If you have watched the movie ‘Kantara’, just imagine a ten times more thrilling experience viewing the possession live in front of your eyes. For urban people like us, the drama of the moment was more humbling than a mere ritual.

A procession after a Gond ritual to call upon their forefathers (‘Purkha’)

Around the ritual place, a typical village fair was on its full course. People gathered to buy things and try food. I bought a football for my 3-year-old son.

At night, we were presented with a tribal dance performance by the villagers. The theme was related to the relationship between humans and animals – probably much better understood in their knowledge system than through classroom lectures. I kept wondering!

The next morning, I witnessed the sunrise from the top of a small hill that I had to reach by crossing a Mahua-forest. For the first time in my life, I tasted the nectar from the Mahua flower, and it was just amazing! I am a teetotaler and did not crave trying Mahua as a drink, but this fresh juice became an instant favorite. I learned that this stays only for some time in the morning and dries up quickly – no wonder fermentation became the main way to extract the aroma for a drink. Those who do not want the alcoholic version, can experience the taste by coming to a Mahua-forest in the early morning.

Sunrise from a hilltop near Nawagarh village.

The rest of the morning we walked around the village, and the students took note of the social mapping of the area including the boundary system, social hierarchy, and clusters. They had to present their learning about the community after coming back to the college.

One very interesting learning that we had was about the surnames of the tribal people there. There are around 750 surnames, and each surname is related to one thing from Mother Nature such as a fruit, or an animal, or a tree etc. The idea is that you are the protector of the natural entity associated with your surname and hence should not consume the same. This belief limits human consumption of natural resources – sustainability ingrained into indigenous practices.

However, to me the biggest surprise of the trip was still in store. On our way back to Raipur, we took a detour for an hour to a rocky cave area recently discovered in the Kanker district. And there were cave paintings! The archeologists estimated that the paintings may be 10000 years old, and the Government was building an access road for more people to visit and witness history that was trapped for so long. It was a thrilling experience for all of us. I hope we get to know more about these paintings as researchers unfold the story.

Recently discovered cave painting in Kanker Chattisgarh.

The Memory

We reached Raipur in the evening on Sunday. I had lost the football that I had purchased for my son. I remembered that I had kept it on the bus and probably some kids in the village took it and played with it – I was not complaining at all. This two-day visit to the tribal village gave me so many memories for life. My students were very happy as well and expressed that it was the best part of the course. Our bus driver, who was initially unhappy to know that we had to stay overnight somewhere, now seemed happy too – I imagined he might have got the ‘taste’ of a surprise trip as well.

We travel to gather experiences and make memories. I do not think we need to always think of glamorous or faraway destinations to visit. A simple, nearby place if visited for the first time, may fulfill the same desire of a traveler. The state of Chhattisgarh might have little known destinations, but the journey through its roads is truly memorable.

Photos used in this article are by the author.

Santanu Bhadra is a professor of IIM Raipur. He also passionate about photography, travel and writing.

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