Jhabua is a sleepy town on the Gujarat-Rajasthan border in Madhya Pradesh. At one time it was a small village in the midst of a rugged tribal country inhabited by the Bhils and Bhillalas who live away from the mainstream, in isolation that preserves their exceptional and very vulnerable lifestyle sustained almost entirely by the forest. This slumbering village awakens once a year at the Bhagoria festival which falls a few days before Holi – the festival of spring.
No one who has travelled through the great Gangetic Plain could fail to be impressed by its monotony – shabby villages smudged together, separated only by sluggish rivers and dried canals. They have few trees on their outskirts and a small grove divides one from another. The tree hours drive from Indore to Jhabua is in great contrast to this languidness.
The road slices through the bounteous Nimmar plain and the landscape changes rather swiftly. Regular fields are punctuated by crossing paths, and occasional rough tracks . Little streams rush thought their forested banks. Stopping palms uncurl their ladyfinger leaves in the morning sun. But then, nearly suddenly, all water and trees vanish.
The metalled road twines gaily into the contours. A totally dry and barren hilly tract scorched to a reddish brown absorbs the softness of the morning light. Huts lie scattered over the rocky mounds seeping into an infiniteness that seems impregnable.
What struck out of this muddy terrain is the colour that the Bhils wear. Turbans, blouses, angarkhas (upper garment worn by men) in a kaleidoscope of reds, pinks and yellows. Women bedecked in silver finery, trinkets, anklets, ear and nose rings waited by the side as the sun rose to thaw the chill of the Malwa Platean. Some walked with their men and children carrying chicken, goats, pots and pans. Others forked their bullocks raising clouds of red dust as they sped towards Jhabua.
At Jhabua, Bhagoria was still picking up. The Bhils, Bhillals, villagers, policemen and visitors were pouring in for the festivities by the hundreds. An open ground was set up for the haat (weekly village market) which, at a glance, resembled any ordinary vegetable market in and Indian city. A walk through it revealed much more. Herds of pigs hunted for the filthiest spot.
Goats scratched their backs as flies meandered around them. Chickens lay trembling in their baskets in anticipation of being made a feast of Vegetables, grains, spices, plastic goodies, biscuits, sweat-meats, dripping kulfis (local ice cream), jaggery, sugarcane… This super-mart held the crowds who were busy selling, buying and bartering.
The morning got on. The one street that held all began to bulge. It became impossible to move.Swings were being hauled up.Little kiosks stocking the latest silver jewellery, plastic novelties, sindoor (vermilion) and goggles were swarmed by the tribals who seemed to be loaded with money doling out wads of green currency notes to the local traders for the things they bought. But most were window shoppers – appreciating, commenting, fretting, frowning and advising those actually buying.
From within this confusion a rhythmic sound slowly faded in and then became almost unbearable. Beating drums and clanging cymbals. The dancers were here and the drummers were tapping their huge double sided drums experimentally, tuning them to just the right pitch. And as the heat got intense and the mahua (local brew) into their veins the singing and dancing started.
Several groups moved down the street into the square with their musical instruments. Along with them came men wearing ghungrus (anklet bells) and holding sticks to dance to the beats. Some had seared yellow powder all over their bodies which held some kind of ritual meaning. They went round and round to watch and clap and cheer.
Bhagoria is a riotous celebration of life and love marked by music, dance and clouds of colour. Bhagoria is also the time when the young choose their life long mates, elope with them and then marry if they like each other. During the festivities a girl smears the forehead of a young man she desires with gulal (coloured powder). If the boy is similarly inclined he reciprocates the gesture and more often than not they vanish into the forest.
The couple live together for five to seven years. Then if they still wish to stay together, they marry. If not they are free to choose yet again at the next Bhagoria. Once a couple met, the boy would treate the charming young lady to kulfi, sugarcane and a joy ride.
Pretty little girls were decked up in the silver jewellery. Young boys sported smart turbans and long chains in their ears. The onslaught of urbanism saw boys and young men taking an intense liking to colourful plastic goggles which they wore the whole day long. A local showman had put up a weird show with the latest film music blaring out of the loud speakers. With his paan (betel leaf) stained mouth he promised the crowds beautiful women, tigers, and mush more for a rupee only.
But for the crowds the swings were the favourite. Meandering queues waited their ‘Disneyland experience’. Four strong men, their dark oiled bodies glistening, would start the wheel and go on until sweat trickled down their temples and their lungs were out of air. Women shut their eyes and clasped each other tight, their ohnis (shawls) fluttering with their shrills and shrieks.
As the wheels slowed down and the afternoon took on a weary look, the crowds at the Bhagoria gradually thinned out. Stuffed into local taxis, bus tops, bullock carts and on foot the Bhils and Bhillals headed into the chill of a crimson Malwa. And Jhabua went to sleep to be awakened by these colourful people the next year.