Adivasi Markets of Odisha and Chhattisgarh

Adivasi Markets of Odisha and Chhattisgarh

After a few days in the heat, hustle and bustle of Hyderabad, I was headed for a different world – the tribal markets of Odisha and Chhattisgarh. But to get there, I first took a flight to the seaside resort of Visakhapatnam. Vizag is Andhra Pradesh’s biggest city and port but staying near the wide, long beach, and sniffing in the fresh salty air, it definitely has a resorty feel to it. There is also a very wide prom and at sundown the locals and holidaymakers come down for a stroll along the beach and to buy snacks from the pushcarts. Not icecream and candyfloss, but muri masala. All over India there are chaat sellers. Chaat, as far as I could tell, was any sort of usually fried, savoury snack that was for sale from small food carts. Usually delicious and always very cheap. Along the seafront in Vizag all of the vendors sold Muri Masala which I never saw anywhere else (although it is very similar to Bhelpuri which originated in Mumbai). It is mainly puffed rice along with chopped onions, tomato, peanuts, coriander, salt, chilli powder and lemon all wrapped in a cone of newspaper – just like the chips at a bygone British seaside resort.

At the end of the prom was a rather curious seaside attraction – an old Russian-built submarine. And an even more curious giant statue of a baby holding an icecream cone.

From Vizag, I had planned on getting the early morning train to the Araku valley, but I had a late change of heart and treated myself to hiring a car and driver for the day (3000 Rs/£30) so I could stop off at the Borra caves. Apparently, these are the largest caves in India and I can quite believe it. The central amphithetre was enormous. I was a little put off however, by the weird coloured lighting which is supposed to light up the formations but ended up more often shining into my eyes. And there wasn’t a stalactite in sight (maybe I just couldn’t see them as my night vision had been lost in the glare). The trip up into the Eastern Ghats was itself very impressive. The authorities, mindful that this is an area of scenic beauty had rather shot themselves, and the scenery, in the foot somewhat by blighting the landcape with huge numbers of signs saying “Pollution: If you don’t kill it, it will kill you!” and “Garbage throwing not allowed”.

Once over the hills the road descends into the beautiful Araku valley, itself something of a local tourist destination, mainly because of the cool temperatures due to its elevation of about 1000m. My first problem however, was finding somewhere to stay. The place wasn’t packed with tourists but rather the delegates of the “National Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous”. Hardly anonymous, they were all proudly wearing their alcoholics anonymous hats. Fortunately I still had the driver and he found me a room in the “Visakhapatnam Port Trust Horticultural Centre cum Holiday Home”.

The main reason I was here, however, was not to attend the convention but to see the tribal people of the area and in that regard I was lucky as I’d got there on the day of the big weekly market. I absolutely love local markets and this was a goodie. It was mainly food for sale but I also saw locally grown tobacco and also some local hooch. Most of the women here wore three nose rings but I never found out if they were from a particular tribal group. Although the word “tribal” is often used to describe the local people, a better word I encountered was adivasi as its meaning relates more to the original indigenous population.

I only stayed one night in Araku as I was keen to get into the tribal heartlands and there was another major market the following day in Koraput. For this trip I took the train and, from previous experiences of train travel in India I got to the station early to secure my ticket. I needn’t have bothered because despite there only being one train a day in each direction, here in rural India there isn’t so much tooing and froing and so the train was not even half full. Two and half hours later we arrived at Koraput station. In bigger towns, a foreigner would soon be swamped by auto-rickshaw drivers but here, I had to find one myself. One of the main reasons I had chosen to come here was because it was way off the tourist trail but I have to say I was still quite surprised how few foreigners I saw along the way. Here in Odisha and later in Chhattisgarh I only saw a couple the entire time and of course with so few tourists there is the complete lack of hassle.

Koraput itself is not a bad little town and as the market was not until the following day, I had a wander around. Not that you’d know it from the countryside, I was now in Odisha. Although they mainly speak Odiya in Odisha and Telugu in Andhra Pradesh, the main difference I noted was in the structure of the temples and the deities. Having travelled extensively in India (admittedly mainly 20 years ago), I recognised the temples of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, but now in Odisha the architecture was completely new to me. And so were the deities. In Odisha and further north and east there are many temples devoted to Lord Jaganath. I had become accustomed to the regular pantheon of Hindu gods which usually have an anthropomorphic aspect to them but Jaganath looks completely different, dominated by a huge back face with equally large eyes. The main Jaganath temple is a very famous one in Puri but non Hindus are not allowed inside so I took the opoportunity of visiting the one in Koraput to see this strange deity.

Another difference I noted in Odisha is the fact it is overwhelmingly vegetarian and in fact many restaurants also advertise the fact that they don’t even use onions or garlic either. As a dedicated meat eater, I was surprised how easy it was for me to go without meat and I ended up mainly eating either fish curries or cheese curries which were very popular. While in Koraput, I had a few meals in the hotel restaurant and they had at least half a dozen cheese curry variants on the menu and very good they were too. As can be expected from a pretty small town in the middle of nowhere, the best hotel, the Raj Residency, was fairly basic but what do you expect for 750Rs (€7.50) a night? Despite appearances it was very comfortable (not quite as comfortable as the website would suggest however!) and free wifi.

Despite me saying that vegetarianism seemed to be pretty common in Odisha, when I went to the market the following morning there must have been plenty of meat eaters in town – at least judging by the meat section. But, like before, the majority of the market was devoted to fruit and vegetables and, in this case, a quite substantial clothes section.


Jagdalpur, Chhattisgarh

The following day I was up early. This time I was crossing into another state – Chattisgarh. Although Odisha has a large population of adivasis, the majority of Chhatisgar’s population are regarded as Adivasi and in Bastar province where I was going next, this rises to over 70%. Chhattisgarh is also the most forested state in India and one of the most remote (despite it being smack bang in the middle of the country) and that is probably why the Adivasi have managed to keep their customs and lifestyle separate from the Hindu majority. But that is changing. In addition to logging, mining companies have found huge mineral resources which means inevitably that the local people will become increasingly marginalised. Added to the mix is the fact that the area also has a history of Naxalite (Maoist) guerrillas. Unfortunately it now seems clear that in many cases the local Police are reporting the arrests and worse of Naxalite guerrillas whereas in fact this is often just a smokescreen to take away Adivasi land by force and allocate to the mining companies. If you want to read more about this click here and here

Anyway, on that particular day, I wasn’t mulling over the political situation but rather making sure I got to the bus station for the 6am departure of my bus. I got to the bus station on time but was confronted by a fairly unique problem in India. The fact that no one spoke a word of English shouldn’t have necessarily been a problem but even when I kept repeating my destination, “Jagdalpur, Jagdalpur”, no one seemed to understand where I wanted to go and I was met by stony blank faces. And then just as a bus was about to leave, one of the crowd pointed at me and then the bus and cried “Jagdalpur!” and I was once again on my way.

Four and a half hours later, I was disgorged at the other end and found my way to the Rainbow Hotel. I wasn’t there long however as I had heard that there was a tribal market not too far away at Tokpal. So I was soon on a local minibus heading down another dusty road. After about an hour the bus stopped and the driver shouted to me. “Tokpal” was all he said, but that was enough and so I got off. Once the bus had disappeared, I realised I was just on the main road with no sign of a market! However I did spot a dirt track and followed a few people down it. Within a few minutes, there were more people about and then I saw the market. In common with many of the local markets, it didn’t seem to take place in a village but rather the stallholders had just set up shop under temporary awnings, or in fact just found a spot, rolled out a mat and put their produce on that.

I had wanted to come to Tokpal as I thought that it was frequented by Ghadwa people who are famous for their metalwork. Again, 90% of the market was devoted to food but I did find a small area where some ladies were selling their metalwork. And I picked up a very nice piece, of a lady holding a basket of fish, for the princely sum of 500Rs (£5). I must admit I am an ardent haggler but for that price I already thought it was a bargain. It was here that I also first saw mahuwa. At first, it looks like crushed dates but in fact mahuwa is a type of flower which is then crushed, fermented and boiled, eventually producing a potent liquor which is the drink of choice amongst the adivasis, even the young children. At every market I noticed a demarcated area with groups of women sat in front of metal bowls containing the drink. You get a free taster, from a curled up leaf and then once you find a sample to your liking you buy a bottle. I must admit, I only got as far as a taste but it wasn’t too bad, not too alcoholic, quite milky and a bit gritty but not unpleasant.

One thing I didn’t see was the chutney made from red ants called chapura. Apparently they also eat the live, biting red ants! It was quite interesting that here and in common with the other markets, although they had obviously seen very few foreigners, they were very friendly and happy for me to just wander about taking photos. In fact most of the time I felt almost invisible – a bit strange.

mahuwa sellers

The following day I took some time off from the markets and went to the Chitrakoot falls, the widest falls in India and often called the Niagara of India. It was another hour long, dusty bus journey but not too unpleasant. The falls were pretty much in the middle of nowhere – actually at the end of the road with just a few snack stalls, a small Government run hotel which looked deserted and a small temple. A pretty spot though and a few locals were in the shallow pools at the top of the falls washing clothes and themselves and I could see a fisherman in a dugout canoe at the bottom. While I was at a stall having lunch, I also met a Hindu holy man or sadhu, recognisable by his orange clothes, staff and waterpot. Unlike other sadhus I had seen (in more touristy places admittedly where they are sick of it I suppose), he was happy for me to take his photo. It was also a good spot to observe some wildlife – a group of fruit bats were idling the day in a tree and I saw some Indian Ibis doing the same.

Chitrakut falls
fruit bats
Indian Ibis

The following day I was back on the market trail. This time to a place called Darbha. Most of the area around Jagdalpur was dry and dusty, although I could see a lot of the land was used for agriculture. However, on the way to Darbha we crossed part of the Kanger Ghati National Park. Famous apparently as the only area of India with pristine virgin forest, it was also full of wildlife including deer, boars, leopards and apparently the odd tiger as well. However, as far as I was aware no tourists came here. It was quite interesting driving through virgin forest however, although the only wildlife I saw were scores of monkeys by the side of the road. Like a few days before, the driver dropped me off by the side of the road with no sign of a market but again by following the few people about I soon got there.

It was very similar to the other markets, but no less interesting because of that. This was the first time I saw people holding fighting cocks. I hadn’t seen them before because I had always got to the markets fairly early and the cockfighting always happened much later in the day – presumably when more alcohol had been drunk and the crowd were getting a bit feisty. The other thing I didn’t see was livestock. I was expecting to see some cattle selling but I never even saw any meat stalls. There was some fish for sale but it was mainly dried.


Meanwhile back in Jagdalpur: cycle rickshaws are still very common, another meal – some sort of veggie dish with dhal, my room at Hotel Rainbow and another cheese curry. Next up – week 3: The temple towns of Bhubaneshwar and Puri

Rainbow Hotel, Jagdalpur
cheese curry

More photos from Odisha and Chhattisgarh 2016

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