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Bastar – Exotic Images

Bastar. The very name spells magic, conjuring up images of perhaps the most exotic tribals of India. The track nestled amidst the hallowed land of Dandakaranya through which Lord Rama is supposed to have passed. Scholars have also identified Valmiki’s (author of the epic Ramayana) asharam here.

Bastar has largely bee, as one historian put it, “the backwater of the river of Indian history”. It has the largest concentration of tribals anywhere in the world. This land is richly endowed with mineral wealth and also with enormous forest resources.

On the mountains of Abujmarh spread over the tehsils of Narainpur, Bijapur and Dantewara live the Maria tribals of Bastar. This 3900 square kilometre tract of dark closed region shelters about 6000people in some 190 villages. According to the anthropologist, Grigson, the Marias have mongoloid blood in them. They have a coppery complexion with straight black hair, wide mouth and thick lips. The women are graceful, light in complexion and pretty. The jewellery the Maria women wear is even more exotic. Most of it is hand-made – necklaces made of cane, grass or beads. They decorate their hair with combs made of bamboo and fillets. On their wrists they wear a number of loose cylindrical bracelets of aluminium and brass. The men mostly carry a knife called kaseyeq which tucked into the loin cloth they wear around their waist. The men also wear a small turban sometimes. The women on the other hand tie a skirt around their waist which hangs down to the knees, they have tattoos on their faces, foreheads, arms and breasts.

Like most tribals the Marias have few inhibitions. The women enjoy a considerably amount of freedom. Both boys and girls are allowed to spend a nigh out in the ghotul (king of rest-house) every week. Cases of pregnancy are few, if there are – the boys are fined and the girls are married off to the boy of the parents’ choice. The girl’s husband always accepts the child as his own. Widow remarriages are common. Girls have the freedom to seek divorce. Divorce is permitted on the grounds of adultery, incompatible temper, inefficient house-keeping and barrenness. A wife’s fidelity is however a sensitive issue.

Ghotuls have generated a considerable amount of curiosity in the world outside Bastar. Among the Marias these are regarded as a shrine built and protected by Lingo Pen, a Gond cult hero. Here the unmarried boys of the village learn songs and dance from their leader. They also sleep in the ghotuls. Once a week there is a dance when girls also participate. It is treated like a pilgrimage. The Marias believe that conception cannot take place within its walls.

Weddings are a simple affair. The boy’s father goes with gifts to the girl’s house. The ceremony is simple. The boy’s father says, “We have heard there is a flower growing in your garden. We have come to pluck it and put it in our hair”. The bride and bridegroom are then locked in a room and water is poured from the roof of the house onto the bridal pair. There is general merriment all over.

Goddess Danteswari is the reigning deity of the Marias. They also deify the spirit of the forests, hills, trees and soil. Marias are steeped in superstition. They have immense faith in magic and sorcery. In one village where Elwin, the anthrographs it was declared that he had made all the women barren. The Marias believe that one reason why the crops are so poor is that officials defile mother earth by trampling on her with their shoes.

Rice is the principal crop of the area. Maize and millet-like cereal are also grown. The Maria also ekes out his food supplies from mahuwa and yams, another jungle product. Marias are mostly omnivorous and are known to eat squirrels. They supplement their diet with roots and tubers. Red ants are special delicacies as are flying ants, mushrooms, crabs and rats.

They are addicted to the use of liquor brewed from the mahuwa and tari. They are fond of fish. Pork is a major item in their diet and almost every major ceremony commences with the sacrifice of a pig.

Bastar often resounds and reverberates with the beats of the drum. The day’s strains and worries are dissolved into evening dance and song. Country dances are the chief source of amusement and cockfighting, a favourite pastime. The dancers wear gay colours, the drummers wear a headdress of bison horn and shells with tall cock and peacock feathers. Otherwise simple and austere they appear at the dances in psychedelic clothes and accessories

The Bastar tribals’ kingdom of happy laughter, gay abandon, dance and song, of limited wants, a small world of peace and freedom, is today jutted against avarice and clamour of the modern world. They are the most cheerful, light-hearted people, with a great sense of humour. Freedom they value as their most precious possession. In spite of the travails of existence the Maria retains a happy cheer. The sufferings of a tribal can be well gauged, when he sleeps outside by the fire-side and amidst the roar of wild animals. He lives totally in the present, knowing nothing of the past or the future. When a village site is changed, almost everything is abandoned. When he dies, his clothes, his tangia, utensils, everything belonging to him, is buried with him.

Today change is the word which the sylvan gods of Bastar whisper all around – fake imitation jewellery has flooded the weekly markets with all its hues and glamour; bells and brass ornaments: plastics and mirrors hold out a big attraction for the simple folk; plumes and bindis are bought with glee. The change in other basic values in many cases is fast whipping the countryside. The Bastar tribals has been ushered into the crucial social milieu where articulate fissures in his traditional life have emerged on the surface. His expectation is exploding. Let’s hope the small world of his aspirations is not too remote.