Deep in the remote highlands of central India, on a dusty scrap of earth set between dense jungle and tall mountains, a lithe tribesman is 10m up in the branches of a sago palm tree, siphoning its fermenting sap into a large pot. Nearby, others are dancing on stilts in ritual dress outside a long dwelling hut. I am sitting observing all this with my guide, Babbu, and the Mughal of Pheripane, the leader of this tribe, as we laugh and drink his own mahua – the dangerously potent brew the sap eventually becomes – from a delicately folded sal-tree leaf, while we dine on fresh dhal and chutney made from crushed red ants.
Even in a place as hugely diverse and mysterious as the subcontinent, this scene is way off the beaten track. But then this is a very rare opportunity I’ve been granted: to visit the Deer Horn Muria tribe, fascinatingly recorded by the early-20th-century anthropologist Verrier Elwin, and one of the Gond tribes in the central-Indian state of Chhattisgarh, which only became independent from Madhya Pradesh in 2000. Chhattisgarh is a long-overlooked destination that warranted just a page in Lonely Planet and a paltry half of one in the Rough Guide to India. It’s a region of which Captain James Forsyth of the Bengal Staff Corps observed in 1871: “All is chaos to the unguided traveller”. It’s long been fairly untamed (rebel skirmishes to the south of Bastar have been going on for the past 30 years, though far away from the areas I am visiting), but it’s slowly opening up, through the pioneering vision of Natural High, a UK travel specialist that shines rays of adventurous light into some of the least explored, most exciting corners of the wider world.
Chhattisgarh, a microcosm of the beautiful complexities of old and new India, is one such corner. It’s a land of leopards, shamans, forest dwellers and animist beliefs, with a Hindu hierarchy and a robust royal family intent on leaving a legacy to the region. I’ve come here in early spring, at the end of the colourful Kumbh Mela festival season, and am staying as a guest of the Maharajah of Kanker at his family palace, two and a half hours south of Raipur. It’s a neocolonial residence, built in 1937, with six rooms in the right wing, now given over to guests, along with a further 12 rooms in outlying cottages.
Jai (or Maharajakumar Ashwini Pratap Deo, as he’s formally known), the maharajah’s youngest brother who runs the tourist side of the palace, tells me over chilled Kingfisher beers how a handful of similar former palaces in the region have now been turned into hospitals and schools. “Our family, whose roots here date back to the 11th century, was among the first to sign a document of merger with the government of independent India,” he says, before he walks across the room, grabs a tennis-racket-sized bug zapper hanging under a pair of antelope antlers and calmly frazzles a massive mosquito with a single swish.
The palace is far more like staying in an exquisite old home than a hotel; my bedroom boasts a high vaulted ceiling, a four-poster bed with a handmade quilt, a vintage gramophone and a candlelit bathroom, all adding ineffable character. When I stroll outside under the pink blossoms cascading down the front balustrade, I find a beautiful old 1950s blue DeSoto, transported straight out of a postcard of pre-Castro Havana.
We return to the palace in time for a breakfast of chila (rice flour) pancakes and sweet-tomato and chilli chutney, washed down with strong masala chai. Later, we take the car to the tribal village of Gobrahin for the madai (market fair). On one hill, thousands of Hindus are queuing to visit a temple; below them are rainbow rows of market stalls selling every ware imaginable, from noodles and bangles to tree bark and marigolds, amid pyramids of sugared pumpkin and okra. There’s a rich smell of spices and wood smoke, and a tremendous din of laughing, chatter, horn beeps and the occasional wail. Then, in front of us, we spot the shamans, in trances, directing the wooden Ang dev (animist deity) to the sound of beating drums and the muri, an instrument somewhere between a flute and a bagpipe. Next to me, an old man gets off his ramshackle bike, and a boy carrying a basket of chickpeas scrunches his bare toes rhythmically into dry Buddha leaves. I’m the only European around, engulfed in a sea of wizened, beautiful and characterful faces. The transfixing sights, sounds and smells are a mass assault on the senses.
In the grounds, there’s an old stone-walled baghwa kholi (tiger den) with a trapdoor, where the current maharajah’s father, Maharajadhiraj Bhanu Pratap Deo, and his grandfather, Maharajadhiraj Udai Pratap Deo, an avid conservationist, used to catch and keep tigers in the 1930s before relocating them elsewhere. Sadly, there are no such cats around Kanker any more – you have to go much further north onto the more established tourist trails of Madhya Pradesh – though a giant-clawed sloth bear with a sweet tooth still prowls the palace grounds, including its 14 acres of organic farm and orchard, in search of succulent mahua berries.
These acres are a bounteous garden of plenty: rice, ginger, cauliflower, spinach, radishes, carrots, onions, coriander, green chillies and tomatoes, as well as figs, guava, custard apples and mangoes of such celebrated sweetness that they are sold far in advance of their harvest. All is grown under the watchful eye of Jolly (Maharajakumar Surya Pratap Deo), the middle brother, a chef of prodigious talents who prepares us tender spiced chicken in a handi (mud pot) for our supper. We feast under a long punkah, a huge rug-like fan that swings gently over us at the dinner table, as Jai and Jolly drink Indian blended whisky and relay stories of the local culture of religious tolerance. The family presides over Hindu and animist temples (some tribes still believe the maharajah is a god). The eldest brother Joe, Aditya Pratap Deo, the Maharajadhiraj of Kanker, is a professor at the University of Delhi, where he documents the history of Chhattisgarh, while sister Anu runs a thriving nursery school inside the palace grounds. The welcome extended by them all is so uniformly warm and authentic that I feel like a newly discovered distant member of the family – a feeling that must be familiar to all who have stayed here before me.
The following morning Babbu and I walk up Kanker hill for sunrise, just before more than 30,000 devotees ascend the same route for one of the last festivals of this season. We admire the high Shiva temple by a holy pond known as Sonai Rupai, where many will bathe, and Bahasse Bhata rock, from which condemned criminals were thrown.
On the way back to Kanker we spot a crowd around a bamboo-fenced ring by the side of the road. “Ah,” Babbu says, “let’s go and watch this.” Our driver stops and we are quickly surrounded. One toothless man in a headband dangles an agitated cockerel in my face and asks for rupees; he wants me to bet on the next fight. He fixes a razor blade to the cockerel’s claw and sends it into the aadurgon (cock-fighting ring), all the while haranguing me for not opening my wallet. But within a minute the other cockerel has neatly slit his bird’s throat, in front of the baying crowd. Here, spirituality and brutality rub shoulders constantly, sometimes dismayingly; I’m glad to escape back to the air-conditioned comfort of the car.
The next day is truly special. Not since Elwin abandoned his Christian mission to become a tribal activist and marry a local girl has anyone from the west paid much attention to the Deer Horn Muria tribe and its virtually unknown culture and festivals. The only way to gain access to the Gond villages that are the seat of its domain is through a guide who has close relations with them – such as Babbu, whose grandfather was head of Bahigaon and who now assists the Kanker family as an intermediary between them and the Gond leaders. After the villages of Bonda tribes in Orissa became over-saturated with tourists, Babbu tells me they are careful not to make the tribes an obvious tourist attraction. “We always accompany our guests on visits to villages; we don’t want to affect any local customs or spoil the area. But when visitors do come, the tribes have a party.”
In the mountains, we stop at a tribal graveyard, a series of humble animist shrines with a few macabre statues, much like a cemetery. It’s the funerals themselves that are unusual: when the elderly die there is a celebration and feast lasting three or four days; only when a young person passes is there a mournful burial (and if a pregnant women dies, it is considered bad fortune – the reasoning being that she must have been very unhappy – and she is buried somewhere else entirely).
When we reach the village, we immediately meet the young people living in the ghotul (the word literally means “spacious tribal bed”), a millennia-old tradition whereby those of both sexes in the years between adolescence and adulthood live together freely, like a tribal youth club – all friends, all equals and allowed to practise free love in a sacred place. It’s a time of revelling, staying up drinking mahua (the late-night fires, singing and dancing usefully deter the wild animals that still can pose a threat in these remote parts), and also working for the community (they do the farming for older villagers who have no children). And no marriage is permitted until they come out of the system. Though the girls are given a natural contraceptive, any babies born in the ghotul are regarded as “chosen” and cared for by the whole village. As Elwin noted, “The message of the ghotul – that youth must be served, that freedom and happiness are more to be treasured than any material gain.”
As the sun turns its full, searing face to the day, the youth come spilling out of the hut, the boys vaguely louche in their yellow and orange ensembles, the girls in red saris and feathered headbands, and begin the mandri (pre-monsoon dance). They start slowly to the drums (I wonder if they have all just woken up, though it’s close to midday), but quickly establish a rhythm and are soon manoeuvering nimbly on stilts – a skill they must learn to avoid the water snakes in the paddy fields – in the steps of the Gedi dance.
As the boys show off, forming an acrobatic pyramid, Babbu and I are served mahua in leaves. It’s sinus-clearing, somewhere between grappa and whisky. We meander through tamarind trees and join the noble-visaged but decidedly tipsy mughal, who, through Babbu’s translation, offers us fermented salfi (another very potent drink) from his sago tree to accompany a lunch of papaya, black dhal and the chapra chutney – prepared with special red ants from the bark of the mahua tree, which are ground with cherry tomatoes, chilli, garlic, ginger and coriander to make a delicious sour-spicy paste. My ramblings about eating crickets in Africa and daily life in London are met with bewildered, slightly stupified smiles – and more mahua. I learn that trees are pillars of life: the sago provides salfi to drink and use as an antiseptic and painkiller, oil to cook, leaves for plates and twigs for toothbrushes. Trees are planted for many tribesmen at birth; the alcohol they produce can then be sold. Meanwhile, the Gond women wear extraordinary jewellery and silver bands round their necks, which they have weighed at the local market to establish their value (both the salfi and precious metals are more practical forms of material equity than a bank account).
But with Google dangling drones into every corner of the world and wifi access inevitable, it will eventually change here – probably in a matter of 10 years. As we gulp cool water from the icebox to combat the effects of the mahua on the way back to Kanker, Babbu says, “There are no money relationships and there’s no technology here yet – it’s a very finely balanced system. Every cultural development has benefits, of course, but also not. The next few years could be the last anyone will be able to see the Deer Horn Muria like this.”
On the final night at Kanker, there is a wonderful scene as Leo the Labrador and Samba the cocker spaniel (house darlings, but neither to be approached casually) get caught up – literally – in the meticulous preparation of Jai’s safa (turban), before we sit down to a massive feast of Jolly’s gourmet goat biryani. As I soak in the sights, scents and sounds of a fast-disappearing way of life, a passage from Maharajadhiraj Aditya’s doctoral thesis resonates in my thoughts: “In our globalising world of modernity,” he writes, “India needs its tribes and customs more than ever, as a critical trace of difference from the west.” That globalising world is nearly upon Chhattisgarh, and who knows what will happen when it arrives; I feel profoundly grateful to have beaten it there.