May 22, 2016

The Chattisgarh of Shamans and trances

The beauty of Chattisgarh lies not only in its natural environs and its rich dense forest cover, but it also offers you a fascinating study of anthropology, ancient customs and traditions.

Thanks to technology seeping into even the remotest part of the country and with the increasing adaptation of new-fangled modern ideas, the tribals of Chattisgarh have become greatly urbanized. But  they still follow a lot of their ancient customs and we were lucky to experience a few of them first hand.  

The first were the Shamans. A village near the Kanker palace was celebrating a  festival that included worshiping the local deity and this is where we came face to face with the Shamans. 

Most of the Chattisgarh tribes worship either animals or nature in some form or the other. Religion here is basic and non- complicated.

The Shamanas are supposed to be men of God chosen in their childhood due to their unusual behavior and actions. Spirits, sometimes malevolent but mostly benevolent are supposed to dwell in them and the villagers believe that they are worshiping God through them. Their actions when they are in a trance are not the actions one would expect from a normal human being.

I went to see the shamans with a lot of trepidation. The practical side of me didn’t want to believe in any of this but then on the other hand I was very curious. 

The village was just off the main road and was almost a part of the main town.  It had a very urban look to it, although a lot of houses still had mud walls and thatched roofs and small vegetable gardens attached to them. With the chicks and piglets running all around, it seemed that the villagers were self-sufficient at least in their supply of vegetables and meat.

 But there were a quite a few concrete houses also and a lot of local youths zipped up and down on bikes.

I particularly liked the artistic manner in which the house nos were written on the front wall.

We could see a huge gathering in the center of the village and as we neared the spot we could hear the sound of drums and pipes. We barely had time to take out our cameras after reaching the spot when we saw the Shamans coming towards us. About 5-6 men, swaying from one side to the other, wearing yellow or Black Dhotis, a heap of marigold garlands around their necks. Their hair was disheveled, falling across their foreheads and their eyes rolled in their heads.  

They had bells tied to their feet and some of them carried the ‘Ang Dev’ on their shoulders.  Ang Dev is a long wooden staff with prayer flags hanging from it that represents the local deity.

The shamans as was very obvious from their disjointed steps and zig zag way of walking were in a trance and some of the villagers were supporting them stay upright. They walked without purpose, first going in one direction then another as if their bodies were not in their control and their feet were being directed by an unseen force. The Ang Devs wobbled erratically on their shoulders and people stepped nimbly out of the way to avoid getting hit from the staffs. They danced or rather swayed their way from one house to another dragging along the people who supported them. As they approached a house, the people in the house came out to worship them by washing their feet with water and garlanding them. 

This particular worship was in gratitude for a good harvest. The Shamans went round the village stopping at each house and eventually gathered in the village square where the dancing and festivities continued. 

The crowds had swelled by now, and the swaying shamans,  the strong smell of liquor, the smell of flowers, the drums and the pipes was like an assault on the senses and at least for me it did not make for a very  pleasant experience.
Everyone was trying to look over the wall to see what the shamans were doing, while this young lady deigned to give us a teeny weeny smile.

The villagers might conceive the shamans to be divine and the swaying and dancing and stumbling all a part of being in a trance but then we could also smell  a very strong and distinct smell of the local liquor so we had our reservations about how authentic the shamans actually were. 

The faces around me were a mixture of awe and devotion and only mine seemed to have skepticism written over it. The tribal beliefs, unlike ours are uncomplicated, simpler and non-judgmental. Honestly, If this gets them closer to their god why not. It is better than a 100 complicated rituals.
Perhaps this is a better way to live than us city dwellers who tend to analyze, over think and pass judgment on everything.

Apr 25, 2016

The Chattisgarh of Deer Horn and tribal Dances

 I came out of the air conditioned Raipur airport into the harsh sun and had my first look at Chattisgarh. A black tar road, shimmering in the heat, veered away from the airport into a vast dry landscape. The vegetation was sparse, the few trees lining the road were dusty, their leaves brown and wrinkled, fluttered slowly in the meager gusts of wind. The strong sun had withered whatever grass there was into tufts of drying yellow. The monsoons had come and gone many months back and even in December, the land stretching on both sides of the road looked hot, parched and in desperate need of water. 

The reason I had said yes to this trip was because the words ‘Bastar’ and ‘Tribals’ held some sort of Magic for me. For this was a world that I had only read about through the pages of the National Geographic magazine and here was a rare chance to see it come alive.

We were guests at the Royal Palace of Kanker. Something that we were to realize later was an incredible stroke of good fortune. Not only was the royal family the greatest example of humility and grace but also instrumental in showing us the Chattisgarh we would have never seen otherwise.

Chattisgarh along with Madhya Pradesh has the largest tribal belt in India. Some tribes known to the world, the others still half hidden, valiantly trying to protect their individuality, their customs and traditions against the onslaught of modernization. It was into this world, so alien, so different from our urban existence that we hoped to get a peep into in the coming days.

The good people at Kanker Palace had decided to initiate us into Tribal life by sending us off to a tribal village to see their local dances. The village we went to belonged to the Deer Horn Muria tribe.

The Deer Horn Muria tribe, as the name suggests are animists. The name Deer Horn stems from the fact that their traditional head dress is made up of deer horn. This tribe like all other tribes is excessively fond of their liquor and dancing and holds many festivities specially during the harvest season.

As we left the main road and turned into a narrow lane, we could dimly see the squat flat roofed mud houses of the village in the distance. The harvesting had been done and the land was yet to be tilled for the next crop of vegetables and lentils. Brown was the predominant color here.

After a few miles of bumping over fields, we reached the village. A simple village, the lanes swept clean of dust, mud houses, doors painted a deep blue or red, a few walls with intricate designs painted on the walls as if to counter the dullness in the landscape around us. 

A communal hand pump, and a lone motorcycle leaning against a wall - the only signs of modernization. Beyond the mud wall, little piglets squealed as they tried to climb over each other.We walk around, watching people go about their daily routine, feeling slightly self-conscious about intruding into their lives. 

Since the village was so close to the city most men were dressed in trousers and shirts and not dhotis and some women even wore salwar kameezes instead of sarees. What fascinated me was the jewelry that the women wore. Thick bracelets, necklaces and anklets made of pure silver with intricate designs on them. I would not have expected the villagers to wear such heavy jewelry as they went about their daily chores. According to our guide, the thickness and weight of the jewelry indicates the financial status of the family. Even now, the tribals rarely use banks and the silver is not only used as ornaments but also provides the family with a financial cushion. The jewelry is sold or bartered in times of need. The women therefore, act as keepers of the family’s fortune. 

We were taken to the house where the dancers were getting ready for the performance. A group of young men and women crowded into two different corners of a courtyard, getting dressed and preening into mirrors. The elders were sitting on a raised platform, looking at them critically, perhaps remembering the time when they were also young and ready to dance at the beat of a drum.

The girls wore sarees of plain white but made up for the simplicity by adorning their hair with colorful ornaments made out of cloth and wore necklaces made of silver coins. With traditional makeup on their face and around their eyes, they looked very pretty. 

 The boys were not to be left far behind. They were dressed in simple yellow dhotis with head ornaments similar to the girls’ but with colorful feathers added to them. True to the name of their tribe, a few sported head dresses made out of deer horn and carried staffs with deer made out of wood attached on top.

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Finally after a long wait, the dancers trooped out in a single file and assembled under a tree. It was a hot day and the sun was at its zenith, yet small crowd had gathered to see the performance. Everyone waited expectantly as the dancers formed a semi-circle around the drummers. The drummers started off at a leisurely tempo, the dancers moved slowly, almost languidly to the beat, singing in low voices. 

Then suddenly the tempo became faster and then faster yet, the drummer’s body swaying as their hands flew over the drum, the air seeming to vibrate with the beat. Taking the cue, the dancers now spun, whirled and leaped into the air till they were just blurs of color. Each one lost to the sound of music, each one innately graceful. The wooden deer that the men carried on sticks bobbed up and down making clanking sounds. I am not sure what the dance was about, but it seemed very much like they were depicting a forest hunt.

We stood there mesmerized, watching the dancers give us an insight into their lives through their dance. We were transported deep into the forest, listening to the cries of the hunting men and of the animals. Then as the beat changed, the song became softer, the steps became less frenzied and more joyous and we felt we were celebrating the harvest season with them.
It all made for a very flamboyant and fitting start to our tribal adventure.

(My trip to Chattisgarh was a recce trip with One Life toTravel. Connect with them on FB to learn about their trips to Chattisgarh and other offbeat destinations)

Feb 11, 2016

False Ceilings - A Book Review

It is rather intriguing when a book opens with one of its main characters musing over an ‘If Else’ statement, which is the first thing every software programmer learns and then going on to say that the statement is nothing but a reflection of life.

Amit Sharma, the author of False Ceilings is a software engineer, as is the character introduced to us in the first chapter. And so we assume that the book will be just like a software program; logical, straightforward, linear.

False Ceilings is anything but that.

False Ceilings is a Family saga that takes us back and forth between generations all bound together by blood but equally separated by their petty jealousies and insecurities. At the heart of the story is a secret, guarded almost superstitiously and passed along from generation to generation that both holds together and destroys the family.

The book begins in the current period, moves briefly to an imagined future almost 50 years from the present day and then suddenly without warning transports us to the Dalhousie of pre independent India. The narration is not chronological, the story twists and turns between various time zones and locations. As you get to know one character better and sit back comfortably to discover more about him or her, Amit pulls you through a time warp and takes you to an altogether different age and location, to yet another character and story.

He alternates his focus between the myriad characters, revealing a little about them then very cunningly changing tracks, leaving his readers waiting, wondering and yearning for more. Each character has his own story, each story seemingly independent in itself and yet all of them intertwined.

For me, there are two things that stand out about the book. One is the non - linear narrative that the author very skillfully employs and the other is his stark exploration of the human psyche.

We are almost lulled into believing that the book is all about the secret. But as it progresses you can’t help but wonder if the secret is simply a ruse. The underlying theme of the book is human relationships and their complexities. Very subtly, Amit digs deep into the human psyche to unearth and explore deep rooted emotions, fears and half-forgotten memories of the past that define each one of the characters and makes them what they are.

I suppose the reason why most new authors do not attempt a Family Saga is because it is never an easy genre to write. Chronicling the lives of so many people over generations is a complex task. So it is with False Ceilings. As the book progresses and more and more characters are introduced, you might get distracted wanting to know how it all ends. However, you get the feeling that this is precisely what the author wants, to confuse us before skillfully weaving together the various stories till everything comes together like a perfectly solved jigsaw puzzle.

The writing style varies between being almost nonchalant to philosophical. The prose is simple, direct and flows lucidly. There may not always be a symphony of exquisite words here but then there are no jarring notes either.

False Ceilings is a very intense book. It makes you realize that life itself is nothing but a weird combination of circumstances, missed chances, grabbed opportunities and those almost anguished thoughts of ‘What If ?’

Not very different perhaps from an If Else Statement!

Dec 4, 2015

The Japanese and the Changing colors of Autumn

In many ways, Japan still remains a mystery to the rest of the world. For here, the ancient and the modern not only coexist but seem to do so in great harmony. The land of the rising sun is as comfortable with its bullet trains and cutting edge technology as it is with Zen and Geishas.

Japan has a unique culture, with its own peculiarities and quirks that seem natural to the Japanese but intrigue all foreigners.

It's Autumn in Japan right now, and the country is ablaze with color.
Today, In the Japan and I series, I talk about Japan and how it celebrates Autumn. 

The time I miss Japan the most is during Autumn, when the trees undergo a spectacular wardrobe change, shedding their usual green to don capes of red, orange, rust and vermilion. 

The average Japanese associates very closely with nature and the change of seasons. Both the cherry blossoms in spring and the fall colors in autumn make the normally placid Japanese quiver with excitement. They follow the path of autumn across the island with bated breath. Weather reports on TV add a separate section on autumn forecasts and discuss the color of leaves with as much seriousness as they discuss issues of international importance. Websites like this give information about where the autumn colors are at their peak and when they have reached the ‘End of Season’ stage.

Autumn starts first in Hokkaido, the northernmost and coldest tip of the country and then travels south, slowly turning the island into a palette of colors.

Autumn, inspite of its mélange of colors, somehow makes you introspective. For me it used to be the best time of the year, melancholic yet very beautiful. The famed Cherry blossoms in spring signify youth and vibrancy whereas autumn leaves somehow seems to depict sadness and the impermanence of things. The way the Japanese welcome these two seasons is also slightly different. The Cherry Blossom period, which is also much shorter, is heralded mostly by boisterous sake parties held under the trees. Autumn on the other hand is a time to explore the forested hillsides and shrine and temple grounds at a more sedate, leisurely pace.

Japan’s foremost religion, Shintoism has its roots in Nature. Most of the shrines in Japan are in solitary spots in mountains or their surroundings have been meticulously cultivated so that they always have spectacular natural views.

The shrines are a delight to visit at any time. But during autumn they are a visual treat. Their surroundings are aflame with color, and the simple elegance of the shrine beautifully compliments the autumn foliage.

Some of the most famous autumn viewing sites in Japan are in the temple town of Kyoto. The popular shrines like kinkakuji and Kiyomizudera are always choc-a-block with people taking in the autumn splendor. During weekends, people queue up to take a picture of a particularly good autumn view.

Once during my annual autumn pilgrimage to Kyoto, l decided to leave the more famed shrines behind and go up to the smaller shrines higher up in the hills.

I walked up the narrow path, my feet crunching on the carpet of dry red leaves, the maple leaves forming a brilliant tapestry of colors over my head.

At the shrine, I sat down on a solitary bench besides a pond and just stared at the reflection of the leaves in the crystal clear water. The sky was an azure blue, but the air had the chill of the coming winter in it. In the distance the bells of the shrine rang softly, continuously. And in the sound, there was something of the autumn’s solitude.

The Japanese rejoice in Nature by not only viewing it but also by incorporating it in all facets of their life.

As the season changes, so does their clothing style. Scarves and jackets come out but what is more interesting is these clothes are in autumn colors like rust or orange. You will also find a lot of handbags and wallets with autumn leaves depicted on them.

Shop fronts are decorated with plastic maple trees. Even the food undergoes a change. The plates and serving dishes might be decorated with red and gold leaves. Kirin, the Japanese beverage maker comes out with a special autumn version of their Beer. And it’s not just the packaging that’s different, this beer is supposed to go well with traditional Japanese autumn foods such as chestnuts. Not to be left behind, Starbucks come out with Pumpkin Pie Latte.

Autumn in Japan is not just visually stunning, it’s an experience, made even more special by the unique way the Japanese celebrate the different seasons.

To read the previous posts in the Japan and I series, Please click here 

Oct 5, 2015

Of Biscuit Loving Monkeys and Finding Happiness (Part 3 of the Chail Trip)

We walked back to our rooms refreshed and rejuvenated after our walk in the woods. As we neared the hotel, we saw a huge monkey sitting on a window ledge. It was soon joined by another one from inside the room. It had food packets in its hands and its mouth was smeared with something white. Which idiot would leave their window open I asked my mom before realizing that the window was ours. Luckily some of the hotel people had spotted the monkey too and they raced upstairs, grabbing some long poles enroute. It took them quite a while to drive them away and the room looked as if the hurricane had swept through it. Thankfully the door to the sleeping area was closed so our luggage was safe but the monkeys had gone through our food very methodically, opening packs of biscuits and namkeens, eating what they liked and throwing away what they didn’t. Chocolate biscuits and powdered milk seemed to be a great favorite but they had spat out the aam papad and haldiraam namkeen.  The room had a trail of half eaten biscuits, interspersed with another white trail of powdered milk and sugar. It took half an hour and the combined effort of three of the cleaning staff to restore order.

The wind whistling through the trees and the chirping birds woke us up early the next morning. There were no human sounds. We trooped down to the now empty lawn. The sun was yet to rise and the hills were still dark smudges. It was cloudy and the hills were swathed in mist but the sun made very valiant efforts to peep through it. No one was about except us. It was quiet and very serene.

Later, as we waited for the usual tourist hoards to descend on us we discussed how to spend the days away from the maddening crowds. But surprisingly there were hardly any visitors for the next two days. The hotel staff told us that the rush is usually limited to Sundays.

We walked through the woods, deep, dark, Tranquil. The great pines and deodars were bent with age; almost covering the narrow path with their leaves and forming a canopy that made you feel as if you were walking in a cool green cave. To be honest, we could see the bare patches where deforestation had taken place, the noise of traffic was sometimes louder than those of the birds but I could still make myself comfortable between the roots of a tree, sprawl on the plush velvety grass and read. If we listened carefully we could still hear the streams murmuring in the undergrowth and the wind talking to the pine trees.  There were still wild berries to be plucked from the bushes and conversations with red cheeked kids on their way to school.

The people who enjoyed the holiday most were my parents. Frankly, if left to myself I would have chosen to holiday higher up in the mountains, closer to the mighty peaks and snow rather than a hill resort. But this holiday was as much for my parents as it was for me and it warmed my heart to see them take longs walks together or spend time over endless cups of Kangra tea and books.  

I suppose Happiness is also  growing old together ! 


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