I have been fortunate to meet many like-minded people online, through travel blogging. Recently, I happened to meet one of such friends offline, during his visit to Bangalore. He greeted me with a souvenir, a nice palm leaf box containing chikkis. He explained that it was the ‘panai olai petti’ containing the famous candies from his hometown. After I returned home, a little bit of online browsing about this souvenir unfolded some interesting facts for me.
Talking about the southern states of India, two neighbours have a lot in common. What triggered this thought were the names of places starting with the letter ‘K’, one from each state. Kodagu and Kovilpatti from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu respectively. Meanwhile, the ‘C’ is what makes these two ‘K’ places famous. ‘Cauvery’, the holy river originates in Kodagu and ‘Chikkis’, the peanut candies of Kovilpatti has earned a GI tag for itself. Enough is written and done on the internet about either of the places.
What I do know is, that there are several other lesser-known places in India where people celebrate sports other than cricket. Only initiatives by governments, support from sponsors and adequate media publicity can encourage and motivate more people to nurture a sporting culture in our country, anything other than cricket.
There were many iterations in the initial plan and the destination was changed multiple times, but my family and I finally decided to visit and explore Bastar. Holistically, Bastar is a region spread across multiple states and was primarily ruled by the Kakatiya dynasty. But with changing administrations and new state formations, the Bastar region is now split into seven districts in the state of Chhattisgarh with Bastar itself being the name of a district. The region is one of the richest in India in terms of tribal culture and reserves of natural resources. Taking Covid safety precautions into consideration, we decided to drive our own vehicle instead of taking a flight or public transportation to avoid coming in touch with random people.
When people in our immediate acquaintance got to know about our choice of destination, a few thought that we were crazy. And then, a few concluded that we had lost it when we told them that we were doing a road trip right through the red-corridor area. But it was a combination of inquisitiveness, curiosity, adventure and assurance of safety from a local friend that finally got my family and myself on a road trip to what is infamously called the Naxal heartland- Bastar. To add a little bit of spark to this wild road trip, was our new ‘Flame-red’ colored car that was delivered to us just a couple of days ago. We did not have a number plate on it and were going to cross five state borders with a ‘Temporary Registration’ sticker.
With all that background, let us discuss the crux of every traveler’s doubt- Is Bastar safe for travelers?
First things first, about Bastar-
The public transportation or connectivity in the Bastar region is almost non-existent. So, if you are a budget traveler or a backpacker, then this trip will not work out for you. Hire a self-drive vehicle either from Raipur or Vishakhapatnam (The nearest major cities with airports) or get one from home.
For stay at this point in time, there are ‘zero’ places listed on Airbnb. Limited hotels are available only at Jagadalpur which you can make your center point of travel. Alternatively, there are some resorts run by the Chhattisgarh Tourism Board (CTB) scattered in good locations across the region that you can manage to find online or through local contacts.
The Details of our visit to Bastar.
We started this trip from Hyderabad on the morning of Christmas-2020. As our journey proceeded from the plains towards the forests, the changing terrain was an indication that the red-color (of the red-corridor map) was getting more significant. We strictly adhered to two conditions laid by our friend/ local guide who was based out of Bastar. One, to stay connected from the time we started from Hyderabad and update him frequently (based on the mobile network). Two, do not drive after sunset. We had planned the entire route and our halts in consultation with him. With Kothagudem, we had officially entered the ancient ‘Dandakaranya forest’ region, the modern ‘Naxal heartland’. Only difference is Ravana had kidnapped Sita from the region back then, one could possibly be kidnapped or shot at by a Maoist in modern day. The day’s drive was mostly un-exciting with a good wide National highway passing through Sal tree forests alternating with cotton fields till Badrachalam, where we stayed for that night.
The following day, when we took a deviation towards Konta at Chatti junction is when we started to notice the actual change in terrain and demography. Civilizations suddenly disappeared and the roads became emptier. For most stretch it was just us, driving either through thick forested areas or large open grasslands. No man-made concrete structures, whatsoever. Even if it felt like we reached a tribal settlement after driving for a few kilometers, the settlement was limited to just one or two huts with their set of cattle and poultry. It was a little eerie to think of, but that did not stop us from halting our car and taking a few photographs.
After reaching Konta (The Andhra-Chhattisgarh state border) is when we started to sense the heavy air around us. Every village that came thereafter was spread across 1 to 2 kilometers along the highway. And every village had a CRPF camp with an armored MPV (Mine Protected Vehicle) at their gates, ready to be driven out at any given point. All camps had hero stones erected near the gates with names of the martyrs from the respective camps who had died during service. We were heading towards Sukma, possibly the brightest red spot one would find on the map. With extremely unreliable mobile connectivity to reach out to our guide, we had started to reconsider if we had made the right decision to take the road less travelled! Anyway, there was no way we could undo our plans since we were already there now. Instead, we decided to go ahead by thinking about the adventure and excitement that may come ahead to us.
Meanwhile, I got a message delivered on my phone from our guide. It had the contact name and number of a volunteer (Person X) based out of Sukma. We were told to meet Person X and have a cup of tea with him at Sukma before continuing our journey towards Jagadalpur. After reaching the Sukma bus stand, we called Person X and waited for him to arrive. In a bit, a young boy came to us on a bike and asked us to follow him. Even before we could complete our words of enquiring his name, he said: “Haan, haan, follow my bike” and we trailed him through narrow residential lanes to a big mansion. Another man (Person Y) welcomed us warmly and we were kind of overwhelmed and at the same time, wondering whom and why we had to meet someone in Sukma.
Person Y asked us, “Weren’t you supposed to be a big group of people?”
“No, it was just our family travelling”, we clarified.
“But Person Z told me that five of you will be arriving here for the meeting”, he said.
“Person Z? But we were supposed to meet Person X!”, we told him with a perplexed look on our faces.
We realized that there was some confusion. We were at a wrong place… in Sukma! I immediately called up Person X and told him about the situation. I then handed over my phone to Person Y and we were fortunate that both X & Y knew each other. Both of them were local leaders and represented the same political party. X came to Y’s house and it followed with some chai served to us. Our basic introduction and conversation were limited to local politics, our journey so far and our trip to Chhattisgarh. About half an hour later and as discussed with our guide from Bastar, we decided to continue our journey further.
A short while later, when we were ascending the Ghats, a bunch of CRPF men who were on their random patrol stopped us and enquired the details of our trip. Without much drama, they let us go after knowing that we were random tourists, heading to Jagadalpur from Bangalore.
Our guide arrived at Dorba with his family and escorted our car for the rest of the day. We reached Jagadalpur for the night’s stay. Over the next few days of our stay in Chhattisgarh, we explored several settlements and hamlets located in areas where no roads exist. Through our extensive drive through vast expanses of paddy fields and coal, iron and other mineral rich mountainous and forest terrain, we got a better sense of geography and geo-politics of the area.
So, come to the point! Was it safe?
I would like to explain this with multiple incidents and my viewpoints. PLEASE NOTE that these opinions are purely based on my personal experience. This may differ for each person visiting there.
As per our guide, our visit to the local’s house in Sukma was to acquaint us with a localite in that region so that, if we were being tracked by someone, they would know that we were harmless tourists and not associated with any other intention. But my viewpoint is that, apart from Sukma, we explored the districts of Dantewada, Bastar, Kondagaon, Kanker, Narayanpur, Gariaband and Dhamtari during the course of our stay in this region. All considered to be core areas of Naxalism/ LWE in the state. We drove our number less car with a ‘KA-TR’ sticker all around –> Not a single day did anyone stop us, ask us or threaten us. It felt like we were travelling in any other Hindi speaking place in India.
When we entered the villages, we had a local person accompanying us almost always. We were told that a lot of villagers worked as informants to the Naxals. (starting from children as young as 8-10 years to grown adults, across gender). So, if a localite familiar in a particular village that we were visiting accompanied us, we would be safe –> My viewpoint on this is, when we moved to the interior parts, the villagers could speak only the local dialects of either Halbi or Gondi. Why that, when we visited the Gotul on one of the days, I even understood a portion of a conversation between two villagers standing next to me. They were discussing that I was a foreigner, who had come there to see their dance. Like really? I look so INDIAN in color, features, dress and in every other sense. Even then, the exposure of these tribals to the world outside their villages is so limited that any visitor would look alien. In such a scenario, communication would’ve been a task for us if we wanted to understand their culture better. A translator helped us to bridge the gap in communication.
We were told that the Naxalites come out after sunset and bother the villagers for rice and other needs. We had heard of stories of how people/visitors/ guests were kidnapped from houses at night. We met so many villagers from various tribes, visited their houses and ate their food. They were excited to host us and shy to talk to urbanites. Never at any point did I feel like we were going to be harmed. We even stayed for a night at Dantewada and most other nights at Kondagaon. The villagers didn’t seem to talk about anything to me like kidnap or murder.
There are several tribal communities that are still primitive in their culture and do not come out in contact of normal civilization. Barter still exists in this part of the world. Permits are required for entry of many villages, especially for those visiting the Abujmadh area. To think of, it is unfortunate that inspite of conscious efforts by governments to empower the tribes, it is still falling short.
Somewhere near Kanker, we were by ourselves on a night journey towards Raipur. While we were told that the highways were safe, there is one point where we were asked to stop and wait for about 2 hours. With us, there were hundreds of other vehicles also who had stopped and spent the hours getting a nap during the waiting time. Daily, the ITBP policemen do combing in this area. Inspite of several positive experiences like those above, things like these present the intensity of the underlying danger and threat.
By having all these presumptions, it cannot be ruled out that naxalism is REAL. And it is in abundance in these areas. The underlying thought cannot be ignored that I must have gotten lucky!
My verdict on safety for travelers:
I went to Chhattisgarh and returned safe. Every place across the WORLD has its own threat, but in different ways. When you are in Rome, be a Roman. So, whichever place you choose to travel, keep the local customs and sentiments in mind. If possible, get in touch with a localite and take them into confidence. Travel to build connections and build connections to travel.
With Social distancing becoming the new normal, the world and its people are never going to be the same again. Whilst at this, I consider myself fortunate for having some of the finest experiences during my travel in India, prior to Covid-19. Mostly village fairs and religious congregations are something that draw most crowds, world over. Apart from them, there are yet a few non-religious events that are extremely popular in India and are crowd-pullers.
Here is my list of five such events which perhaps are never going to be the same when normalcy sets in again.
1. The Live rocket launch viewing in Andhra Pradesh: With a seating capacity of over 10000 spectators, witnessing a rocket launch at Sriharikota is once in a lifetime thing. I was fortunate to see the biggest space vehicle yet from the Indian stables (the GSLV) roar into space. The launch of ‘Chandrayaan-2’ was the last biggest event from ISRO before lockdown. Click here to read further.
2. The Republic day parade at New Delhi:One of the largest displays of the Indian might in terms of culture alongside the discipline and strength of the combined defense forces, people throng the Rajpath road at New Delhi in thousands every year. I’m guessing that it may never be the same again.
3. The Boat race of Kerala: This event is a sporting event that’s more of a prestige to win and a craze to watch. I had the opportunity to witness this madness in the biggest festival of them all- The Nehru boat race. Click here to read further.
4. The hornbill festival of Nagaland: An event to celebrate the amalgamation of cultures of all tribes of Nagaland, this annual event is a must be at-least once. I was fortunate to be there in the December of 2019, the last event before the world went under lockdown.
5. The Kodava hockey festival in Karnataka: The world knows that India is a frenzy nation when it comes to cricket. The madness at the stadium is on a next level. But the national sport of India- Hockey is celebrated at an altogether different high in Kodagu district of Karnataka. This congregation holds the Guinness record for being the largest festival dedicated to Hockey in the world. Click here to read further.
Come the night of Mahashivaratri, there will be festivities across the country. People stay up all night and participate in bhajans, pooja offerings, chariot pulling etc. all to keep themselves awake for the night, so that their beloved Lord, Shiva gets good rest after taking care of them all year. But it is the day that follows the revered night, that is the essence to this story of mine. The day that follows Mahashivaratri is when Shakthi, the consort of Shiva and thus, the female power is celebrated across the Northern part of Tamil Nadu. The companionship of Mother Angalamman to Shiva, the graveyard dweller is celebrated with a festival called the ‘Mayana Kollai’. As a friend explains, Mayana Kollai translates to the ‘Raid of the graveyard’ in Tamil. I had planned to witness this festival at one such temple dedicated to Angalamman, closer home, at Kaveripattinam.
The festivities had started as early as the sunrise at the Angalamman temple, with the Goddess being taken on a temple car/ chariot. She is supposed to travel along the streets of the town, to the graveyard by evening from where she returns to the temple by night. All other rituals that are part of this journey of her’s are what make this festival more interesting. It is a festival where the entire town / village participates with no barrier of caste or societal status. The chariot leaves the temple with the idol of Angalamman.
She is greeted by devotees who throw a mixture of salt crystals and black pepper or beans all along her way. She is hailed as a symbol of fertility who is calm throughout the year and takes on her powerful form on this day, once in a year. The villagers get their body pierced with various things near the temple premises and walk across the village to the graveyard, where the piercings are removed. This body paining is what they believe, is a gratitude to the almighty for the wishes that have come true or as a part of a prayer that needs to be fulfilled. The size and things pierced can vary depending on individual’s prayers. While those with tridents pierced around their mouth are a very common sight, the more pious go further to get their torso pierced with hundreds of lemons. Yet, a few pull cars, buses, trucks or large stones with ropes that are hooked through their bare skin.
If u peek into one of the many shops (I don’t know if that is the correct noun for such places) around the town, apart from those getting the body piercings, you will find another set of people. Men and children will be getting their faces painted and dressed up in sarees, a representation of Angalamman. With metal arms attached to the backs, elaborate costumes, jewelry and crown worn, Angalamman is impersonated by these people. They hold tridents and dance to the beats of drums across the streets. Several times on their way, they get possessed or get into a state of trance, until they all finally congregate at the graveyard. Animal sacrifice too is a common sight on the streets on this day.
It is evening by the time the temple car and everyone else reaches the graveyard. That is when the most interesting part of the rituals takes place. The folk impersonating the goddess gather around a random grave and dig it up. The bones from the grave are pulled out and chewed by them. This is called the ‘bone chewing’ ritual or what gives the festival its name: Mayana Kollai or the ‘Raid of the graveyard’.
There are several legends and references that explain the significance of this ritual, depending on the region. Here are some of the references I found on the internet.
Post this ritual, the goddess calms down and returns to the temple on the temple car. The festival culminates when the it reaches its home.
While witnessing all this self-violence, I started to deeply think, why this is necessary to please the gods. Although I couldn’t find a convincing conclusion, what I realized is that this form of ritual is not unique to Hinduism alone. It has been largely practiced worldwide, across all major religions. Some of the closest references are:
Stone pulling Ceremony is an annual traditional event held across the Angami villages to commemorate a certain important day. It takes place in one village per year on a rotational basis. So that way, it takes about 5 to 10 years by the time this ceremony reoccurs in a particular village. This event is usually timed around the Hornbill festival as there will be people from across Nagaland and outside visiting Kohima (The region where the Angami tribe is a majority).
The stone referred here is a large monolith that weighs several tons and the size and shape is not fixed. It is at the villagers’ liberty to pick the monolith they want to use for the occasion and can be either quarried from the village itself or bought from somewhere else depending on the resources. The large stone slab is then placed on a sled that is made of tree trunks and pulled using thick entwined vines from the forest. Thousands of Angami Naga men pull the large monolith over a few kilometers to finally errect it upright, engrave the details of the event and mark the day.
This year, the stone pulling ceremony was held at Mima village. It was organised to commemorate the 75th anniversary of christianity in the village. The monolith was symbolized for forgiveness, friendship and peace to the enmities that the village had with various villages before the coming of the gospel to Mima village.
The typical stone pulling ceremony (Click here to watch the complete video) is solemnised by the pastor from the village’s church with recitals from the Angami bible before the start. It is then followed by firing a round of shots from the muzzle loaded guns in the air. The captain stands on the slab and shouts Angami cheers through a loudspeaker to motivate the pullers. While all the strong and younger men folk of the village join hands to pull the stone, The eldest two men of the clan walk, leading the tribe. The women get dressed in their traditional attire and walk with a khophi (an utility basket woven with bamboo or cane) hung on their back and they stay around as a mark of support to the pullers. A few of these women carry cotton in containers made of dried bottle guard and walk ahead of the pullers as a part of the tradition. And yet, the remaining women go around distributing gruel made of ‘Job’s tears or Chinese pearl barley’ to all the passersby and the participants from their traditional Aluminium pots. It is served in bamboo cups that are carried in the baskets hung around their foreheads. The gruel provides an instant boost of carbohydrates for the toiling men in the hot sun.
In a Christian majority state, the tribal traditions are still thriving. It was a different experience watching the entire village dressed in their ethnic best and gathering to pull the stone uphill from the starting point to its destination. I somehow drew parallels with the chariot pulling tradition of the Puri Jagannath and several other temples of South India.
Isn’t it true that we all somehow follow the same way of life, only with different names for our faith and the process we follow to achieve it?
Holi is Big in Northern India and the most beautiful in the Braj Bhoomi- the Land of Lord Krishna. Festivities start a week in advance with Lath-mar Holi in Barsana and Nandgaon, phoolonwali Holi (Holi played with flowers) and Widow’s Holi in Vrindavan, Huranga at Baldeo and Holika dahan and Rangowali Holi at Mathura and Vrindavan are some of the major parts of the festival. Articles, blogs and photos are all over the internet about how beautiful this celebration is and the fun of participating in the festival of colours. Deeply inspired, a two week trip was planned through the state of Uttar Pradesh whole-ly, to soak in the festive fervor of Holi.
This visit to Mathura is a part of my fortnight long backpacking in the typical pilgrimage circuit of Uttar Pradesh covering Lucknow- Ayodhya- Faizabad– Varanasi- Saranath– Allahabad- Agra- Mathura-Brindavan- Fathehpur Sikri– Delhi
As per plan, we reached Vrindavan to spend the last two days of Holi- the main days and get coloured in different hues of Gulal. The plan was to reach the hotel, change to clothes that we had kept aside specifically for Holi and then go out to the areas where the colours were being thrown at. However, the entire town was already painted with colours by the time we arrived in our delayed train. A samaritan helped us get an e-rickshaw so that we could reach our hotel. The rickshaw had to squeeze its way through the crowd that had already gathered out on all roads. By the time we reached the hotel, we started to feel miserable about having wasted our leaves and having travelled all the way to Mathura from Bangalore was a big mistake. It was very unfortunate that our experience of the famous Vrindavan Holi was no-where close to fun. Although we were inside the rickshaw, we felt more vulnerable to getting coloured than the rickshaw itself. Goon like mobs would specially target people who were new to this kind of celebration. I had atleast 4-5 men together hold me by my head inside the rickshaw and colour my face. Few others even pulled my scarf and shawl to ensure that every inch of skin was coloured. No! It was not a pleasant way to welcome guests to a new place!
Banke Bihari temple in Vrindavan is where Holi is best celebrated with the priests throwing colours at everyone. On the day of Choti Holi, although we managed to go to the temple, we were drenched in wet colours. Leave that, our faces, hands and every bit of skin was chapped because we were smeared either with coloured cement or sand. This mixture is a norm and hurts like hell when it is being thrown at. We somehow managed to catch glimpses of Holika that were being burnt in some interior corners of the town. Women folk had gathered around effigies placed in the middle of firewood, food grains, vegetables and all other important things required for burning the pyre. We were colour soaked till the bone by the time we braved the task of reaching the safe confines of our hotel doorstep amid all the cemented colours and sand. Taking pity at our plight, our hotel incharge asked us to stay indoors the following day, as the last day could get wilder.
Finally, the main day of our fortnight long trip had arrived. But, we could barely think of venturing out on the streets on the day of Rangowali holi. Since our hotel was located in the main city area, we set our chairs out in the balcony of our room on the 3rd floor and watched the frenzy on the streets. It was disappointing to watch the Rangowali Holi turn into an event of Kheechadwali Holi (Holi played with water from the drainage). This kind of celebration can give the worst memories especially for girls and foreigners while goons attempt with ruthless amount of coloured glass powder. It can affect your eyes, skin, blood vessels anything! On top of it all, people are sloshed in Bhang and one cannot be sure of what’s gonna happen next!
Really, I’m not exaggerating the displeasure; the festival of colours is exaggerated through good photography by the photo enthusiasts who are all mostly male. I’d bet you not to plan your Holi trip to Braj with a bunch of girlfriends or with anyone who is new to this area. I strongly recommend you either plan on the day of Phoolon wali Holi or be a part of a private Holi celebration at a friend’s place amidst known crowd. This trip to Mathura has left scars of ir-repairable displeasure and sadness!
Army and Hockey runs in Kodava blood.. It is that time of the year again when the schools and colleges are closed for summer.. Bosses have approved the leave requests from their Kodava employees atleast a month in advance.. Schedule is out.. Flight tickets booked in time as a player /Techie/Banker working abroad has to make it for their family match.. Its the biggest and the maddest festival dedicated to a sport anywhere in the world… It’s the ‘Kodava Hockey Festival’ yet again…!!
Over 300 teams participate with players including people of all age groups- right from a 10yr old primary school kid to a 75 yrs old granma.. Anyone with a mere passion for the game are allowed to join the team, only to fight it out for the coveted trophy each year.. Only 2 rules apply to participate- #1. Be a Kodava and represent your family team #2. Play the game with passion.
One Kodava family volunteers to take the ownership to organise this huge event each year. This year- it was the ‘Madanda’ family. Hooked up with too much work, I couldn’t make it to this year’s tournament.
Hence, I’d like to make a mention of the last tournament I had attended- ‘The Iychettira Cup-2012’.
The opening ceremony was a gala event with some of the who’s who of the Indian VVIP league gracing the event.. It was followed by a nail biting, action packed, stiff fight during the exhibition match between the ‘Indian national team’ and the ‘Coorg XI’.. The men in blue(Oops.. in white) battled it out at the end though..
During the 23 days long sporting fiesta, the family where I belong to- The Somayanda family, came through till the 5th round/the quarter finals, but failed to make it further.. The last day was the final fight between Palanganda and Kaliyanda.. The latter lost the cup inspite of a tough fight of 1-2.
One has to experience the madness sitting amidst the crowd cheering for their family teams atleast once in their lifetime.. All up there in the spectator gallery with just one thought in their mind and one feeling in their hearts- ‘HOCKEY’..!!
Very few people know of the grandeur of the Dasara celebrations in Madikeri. Considered next to Mysore Dasara in pomp and celebrations in Karnataka, it is a 9 days long event.
The festivities start off on the day of Mahalaya Amavasya with 4 karagas getting all set at a place called Pampina Kere. These Karagas represent the 4 Mariamma temples of the town: Dandina Mariamma, Kanchi Kamakshi, Kundurumotte Sri Chowti Mariamma and Kote Mariamma. The Vrathadharis or the Karaga holders travel across the town to all households through the next 6 days of Navarathri. They dance and perform a balancing act with the idols(Karaga) on their shaved heads with a knife in one hand and a club(Bettha) in the other.
On the eighth day: people decorate their shops and vehicles to celebrate Ayudha Pooja. Also, vehicles are decorated and assembled at Gandhi Maidan where the best one is awarded in each category.
The 9th night commemorates the last part of the Dasara celebrations where 10 tableaux or Dasha Mantapas are taken out across the main streets. These are one from each temple in Madikeri, and depict a story from one of the epics. Each tableau will be as long as 4-5 trailers connected to a tractor. This inturn, will have separate trucks loaded with sound systems and other backup.
The participating temples in this grand finale of Dasara are: mantapa of Kote Mahaganapathy temple, Sri Kanchikamakshi temple, Pete Sri Rama Mandira, Sri Kote Mariamma temple, Dechoor Sri Rama Mandira temple, Sri Chowdeshwari temple, Sri Dandina Mariamma temple, Sri Karavale Bhagavathi temple, Sri Kodanda Rama temple and Kundurumotte Sri Chowti Mariamma temple.
These mantapas will congregate at the center of the town in late night hours and put up a great show of colour, light, sound and an amazing display of creativity.. People flock to see this splendous show of efforts of over a 100 dedicated minds behind every tableau. The best tableau is awarded each year.. Finally, all the 10 tableaux proceed towards ‘Banni mantap’ and this brings the curtains down on the festivities and marks the dawn of a new day.
I had always wanted to witness this celebration but had been quite apprehensive about facing the wrath of the abuses that would follow with the joy of celebration.. And moreover, this festival happens in the southern part of Kodagu district and I always got to know about the celebration of this festival only after it was over!
But some wild wishes and what one truly seeks, do come true. This time my encounter was unplanned and I’m glad it happened.. I got to witness the unique celebration in Kodagu district, of a festival called “Kunde Namme” a.k.a. Kunde Habba or the “Festival of abuses”.
The tribes belonging to the Jenu-kurubas, Betta-Kurubas, Yeravas, Paniyas, Kembetti and other sects all congregate in a common place- usually a town area to celebrate their festival of abuses and to make merry. By abuse- I mean abuse God, man, machine and everything that they come across on that day. This is a tradition that has passed on through generations among these tribes.
Legend has it that the main deity Aiyyappa had taken the tribe into a thick jungle for hunting. Deep in the jungle, he fell in love with Bhadrakali and eloped with her leaving his followers abandoned. Since then, the day is observed every year where these tribes abuse their god for betraying them. They find god in everything and every person they come across and hence abuse them in turn.
The tribal folk, mostly men are togged in weird clothes. Many take to cross-dressing, some dress like ghosts, some like witches and some dress up in costumes that are just random and as weird as possible.
They block every man(folk who belong to communities outside the above mentioned tribes) on roads, barge into shops in the town and demand money. If their demands are not met, then profound abuses are hurled at them. But one must not assume that they can escape from the wrath of the abuses by simply meeting their demands- they still get abused..!! Remember, no god will come to your rescue on that day as he himself is in being abused 😀
Also, most of the members of this group belong to the labour class who work in estates, domestic helps etc. Hence, the day doubles as a good opportunity for them to vent out all the frustration on their masters..!!
But, by the end of the day, they all congregate in their common place of worship and surrender to their god, plead for his mercy and ask for his blessings for the rest of the year. A portion of the total money collected by them on that day is religiously offered to the deity and the remaining is used for a lavish community dinner.
This festival happens on the 4th Thursday in the month of May and is celebrated in and around Gonikoppal considering its proximity to the Nagarhole National Park where most of these tribes are based.
After a lot of last minute hiccups, the planning of more than 3 months had finally materialised.. And there we were… At Allapuzha.
At 10.a.m we were on the stands looking out for a nice place which would give us a good view of the river. The 60th Annual Nehru Boat Race was scheduled to start at 2.30.p.m. ‘The crowd had started to pour in from as early as 6.a.m., to get a good seat’, we were told.
Pam and I were sitting in the last row (We considered ourselves fortunate enough for getting chairs to sit).. Sam had ventured out of our stands to get some good photographs and to find a better corner seat for all of us.
Just then, this gang of 6 huge Malayali men dressed in their white Lungis came in and stood behind us.. They pushed our chairs forward so that they could accommodate a few more chairs on the already crammed podium. We barely had space to keep our legs and we were wondering what they were upto. Without knowing the language, we only ended up giving them some wild stares. Pam belted out a few words in Kannada.
Next thing we saw was: Each of these men placing biiig hand bags in between their legs, covered by their lungis and each- pulling out a bottle of local brew (the tags on the bottle indicated that it was pure-strong-local). They pulled out a glass from their bag and poured the drink and gulped it all down RAW in the blink of an eye (It was faster than that of one drinking water). And then… One of them started to utter something to us- From the fact that he had just finished a bottoms up and the tone of his speech, we knew for sure that we were being verbally abused. Although with my little knowledge of the language, I managed to understand a few swears, I instructed Pam not to react. We would surely be outnumbered by men there, in God’s own country. Like a call from God himself- Sam called us to inform us that he had found a better place for all of us to sit. We vacated the spot in the very same minute.
On the way, Pam walked upto a cop and said, “Those men in the last row there, are boozing; Each man is carrying at least a bottle which they are not supposed to possess in a public gathering”. The cop replied an apologetic “OK, OK Sir, We will look into it” and walked off as if Pam had just spoken to deaf ears.
We met Sam and just as we were narrating the scene to him- We saw 2 more men carrying handbags and settling down right beside us. And soon they pulled out a bottle each, bottoms up, gobbled up some minced beef and then started cheering at the water in front of them, where the race was yet to begin. Even before we reacted, Sam pointed at the platform onto our left. More than 10 men were repeating the same procedure- handbags covered by lungis- bottoms up- cheer out loud. And then we looked behind at the gallery- and we were like “What the F***…??”. Every lungi fellow had a glass in his hand..!!! And then we knew, the exact reason for getting such a vague response from that cop. The Policemen were clearly outnumbered by those drunkards and that seemed like quite a normal phenomenon to the cops to take any action. And we too quickly learnt to live with it..!! Soon, the crowd of drunkards increased and also the excitement.
And.. The boat race had a roaring start with a lot of frenzy and madness.. We too were at the peak of our excitement.. And suddenly this scuffle started between 2 groups. The next thing we saw was random people being thrown into the river by random people… Typical to any Indian movie, the cops gave a late entry. They arrived in speed boats and pulled out a couple of them from the water and sped away..
The below picture shows:
A hard core fan who watched the match sitting on a coconut tree from 10.a.m to 7.00.p.m.
A drunk fan standing on a pole and cheering for his team whose limbs finally gave way into the water after 5hrs.
Another bunch of fans seated in the gallery who are supporting themselves by holding onto the electric lines.
This was definitely one hell of a maddening-superbly-awesomeness-crazy-experience that I am going to cherish for life.
Kerala: “The Land Of Lungis” is truly God’s own Country… L.O.L. 😀
Have you ever experienced any such psychotic crowds? Share it with me.. 🙂