My first thoughts about visiting a national park used to be safaris, birdwatching and game sighting. But my trip to Kanger valley national park in Chhattisgarh helped me change that perspective by letting me understand that a trip to a forest can be beyond wildlife. Even without having any major landmarks to visit, a trip can be complete by simply traveling slow, being present and immersive in the energies of the moment.
A walk tour around Jagadalpur set a good preamble by introducing me to the culture and history of the tribal communities and the royal family of Bastar. Jagadalpur is where most rituals of the Bastar Dussehra center around. Bastar Dussehra, the longest festival in the world is celebrated for seventy-five days thereby attracting tourists from across the globe to witness the congregation and unique rituals of Adivasis inhabiting the region.
We then drove towards Kanger valley National Park, the only national park in India where human settlements is allowed within the heart of the forest that is thriving around the Kanger River. A sumptuous lunch served on patravalis was followed by a walk to see the beautiful Thirathgarh waterfalls and the serene Sita Kund, important sites of pilgrimage in the local culture. After spending some time there, I went on a guided trek to Shivaganga, an untouched gem. ‘The seclusion of the waterfall, reachable by a flight of bamboo stairs laid out through the thickets would be best complimented by an overnight camping and the dance of the fireflies’ as described by the guide.
That night’s accommodation was at an Adivasi homestay. A traditional greeting was followed by warm conversation with the host family, accompanied by homebrewed Mahua liquor and red-ant chutney around a bon-fire, in the courtyard overlooked by a huge Mahua tree. The night’s sky there is certainly a delight for astrophotography enthusiasts. I woke up for sunrise and joined my host on his walk along the riverbank to collect ferns for a perfectly organic meal to start our day. With the mud and bamboo houses, wooden fences, dining on cow-dung smeared floors, slow-cooked food in claypot and on firewood with locally available ingredients, my stay was an incomprehensible experience of sustainable living.
Among three magnificent limestone caves located within the national park, we explored the stalactites and stalagmites of Dandak caves. A fifteen-minute session of meditation inside the dark and silent chamber of the cave was transcending. A Gypsy ride to Kanger Dhara waterfall was followed by bamboo rafting on the pristine and calm waters at Kailash Jheel. Since, our campsite was at a walkable distance from a tribal hamlet, I sneaked out and spent time at the local fair there. Tribal folk had congregated from all neighboring hamlets to watch the ‘Naat’, a theater form where excerpts from epics are adapted into local stories and performed all night.
The next morning started early with an inspiring birding session along the river trail as I was accompanied by a ‘Myna Mitra’, the friend of the Myna birds. This is an initiative by the forest department toward conservation of the Hill-myna, the state bird of Chhattisgarh by getting the local forest dwelling tribal youth involved to track the daily activities of these birds. We got lucky to spot a pair of these birds, the highlight for a typical wildlife trip.
After a quick meal, we headed towards Gumadpal to see a 14th century Shiva temple. Historians haven’t yet found the reason for its unique three-tiered Linga. That day happened to be the weekly market or haat, as locally called. A walk around the haat was another opportunity to get a closer understanding of the local way of life. Haats do not just provide for trade but also for worshipping local deities, entertainment, socialization and even matchmaking. A few women were singing and dancing to the local songs and asked us to join in as well. It was surprising to know that barter still exists here. I tasted local food like tubers, mahua, tendu, and a variety of local brews and wines. Jewelry and home-décor items in dhokra, a GI tagged craft made by a method believed to be practiced since over 4000 years were being sold among several other unique crafts of the region. I witnessed an energy packed session of cockfighting as well.
Having travelled to Chhattisgarh and not seeing the poster boy of its tourism advertisements, did not seem fair. River Indravati plummets down with all her might in a horseshoe shape, making Chitrakote waterfalls the widest in India. I checked into the government run luxury resort to spend my last evening, where every cottage offered a view of the setting sun over the waterfall. A ride in a country boat right into India’s Niagara waterfalls was just the prefect way to say good bye.
From waterfalls and caves to tribal hamlets and local markets, from history and folklore to art and craft, from food and wine to mud-houses and palaces, from dance and music to culture and architecture, my experience at Kanger valley national park was replete, wholesome and truly full of surprises!
- Transport: Jagadalpur is connected by daily flights, rail route and by buses. Self-drive cars or taxis can be availed for travelling within Bastar.
- Stay: Several tribal homestays are available within the national park. Nature camps and resorts run by Chhattisgarh tourism board and heritage stays in palaces are managed by the erstwhile royal family of Bastar. Good hotels of all budgets are available at Jagadalpur.
- Food: Bastar cuisine mostly comprises of locally grown rice and vegetables.
This travel was part of the ‘Dekho Bastar- Season 1’ event organised by India Tourism Board and Bastar District administration in collaboration with Kanger Valley National Park. The article appeared in ‘Apr~May’23’ edition of ‘Bastar Bhoomi’ magazine.