These days people keep talking about ‘moving on’ with life, with times, with new acquaintances and with new careers. Life has become a fast food joint where we serve and are served with instant delicacies (maybe hazardous for health but delicious to taste) while longing for homemade food. However, in this era of fast moving lives, flash-decision making mental drives and glorious capacity of being amnesiacs, there are some things which haven’t changed much and those things pertain not to human habitats or to metropolitan sentiments but rather to nature — nature at its wildest, deadliest best. Nature too is changing because of global warming, climate changes etc., but these are directly or indirectly connected to human interference.
Let me invite you to a trip with me into the wilderness of Odisha, a journey into the district of Koraput. I am sure Koraput, Rayagada, Sunabeda and the adjacent areas are not unfamiliar to an average Indian who reads newspapers at chai stalls or at the breakfast table. Yes! you got it right — Koraput and its adjacent areas are famous or infamous for being centers of naxalite movement in Odisha. Everyday a dozen deaths occur here due to naxalite and Maoist activities. Human life is at its extreme in and around Koraput — poverty, violence, murder, loot, governmental apathy at one extreme and simplicity of tribal life, hospitality, devotion and hard-work at the other extreme. However, it is not my intention here to either discuss naxalite movements or to bring into focus the poverty of people at Koraput — my aim is to capture through my lenses the richness of nature, the beauty and serenity of a place which is gifted organically yet which starves due to human violence and political indifference. If you have the spirit of adventure and a passion to explore the secrets of nature Koraput is the right place for you.
Koraput is located at the southern tip of Odisha and is around 370 kms from Bhubaneswar. It is 2500 mts above sea level and the highest peak of Odisha, Deomali is located in this district. Koraput is well connected to Bhubaneswar and Visakhapatnam by train as well as by road.
It is closely connected with Andhra Pradesh through the Salur ghat which divides Odisha and Andhra and acts as a natural border between the two states.
The beauty of the ghat roads is unspeakable and indiscribable. The Persian poet Jami had said: “Gar Firduas ruhe zamin ast, hamin asto hamin asto hamin asto” “If there is paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this”. It will not be an overstatement if we use the same quote for Koraput and its adjacent places. Those who love mountains, winters and fresh air would find paradise in this place.
As you travel through the hilly terrains, you find nature at its elements and you also find traces of modernity in terrace farming and the mines.
Koraput and the nearby areas are rich treasure troves of minerals, herbs and hydro power. In fact, the “Panchpatmali mines” located near Damanjodi 30 kms from Koraput is considered to be one of the largest bauxite ore mines of the country. It provides raw Bauxite to National Aluminum Company Limited (NALCO) a public sector undertaking (PSU) through a long, winding conveyor belt that connects the tip of the Panchapatmali mountains to the refineries located at Damanjodi.
The process of industrialization has brought many changes in the sentiments of the natives of this district — some positive and some negative. NALCO is not the only large PSU in this area, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) also has a large MIG aircraft manufacturing sector in this area. The changes heralded by industrialization has affected the natives in multiple ways. Tribal population of these hilly terrains are vehemently possessive about their traditions and their lifestyle. The economic changes that came about with industrialization pushed some of these tribal population into extreme poverty and isolation. Their dressing, food habits, culture everything got affected with the process of external infiltration and economic growth. Whether we name these changes as positive or negative depends on our individual beliefs and opinion.
I could not venture into some of the tribal pockets which are still untouched and extremely perilous. These areas are still dominated by tribes which resist any form of external interference or alien infiltration. However, my personal observation regarding the people of these areas is that they are bonded to nature and earth. Their love for nature and earth is manifested in the form of their worship and cultural festivals. Especially, forms of worship in these areas are hugely motivated by forces of nature like trees, animals and birds. I got a chance to visit some of these places and let me admit that even with my ‘secular’ outlook and fear of hurting religious sentiments, I can claim that I deciphered a religion which preaches love and admiration for forces of nature. One such place is called Kanta-baunsiani (Thorn-Bamboo Goddess) an entire bamboo forest which has been personified by the tribals as the “Mother Goddess”.
The forms of worship in these bamboo bushes are still primarily tribal. Let me note that sacrifice in the form of hens and lambs are still allowed in this place. The goddess is addressed as “Huzoor!” by the priests and there are no mantras but some form of rhythmic invocation in local languages. If you have some wish to be fulfilled by the goddess, the priest gives you a little raw rice and calls out loudly to the goddess to fulfill your wishes and asks you to wish in your heart and pour the rice grains on the altar. This goddess reminded me of Bono Bibi in the Sunderbans who is revered in similar fashion.
When you see these places in Odisha you will feel time stands still and the life that we are leading is just an illusion of modernity and progress. Kanta-baunsiani is a place where nature in the form of bamboo shrubs is revered. You cannot even dream of felling these bamboo bushes.
The story of Koraput remains incomplete. I will take you through some other interesting moments pertaining to places and rituals of Koraput in the second part of this article reserved for my next post.