The popular perception about Dantewada’s law and order situation has resulted in most of us forgetting what the area was known for — an idyllic hinterland with undulating hills, deep shaal forests, waterfalls emanating from the Indravati River and quite a few historical temples and archaeological sites as well as various groups of tribal people, with their distinct culture and lively traditions.
It was a daring decision to go to Dantewada. However, we felt quite safe, as we drove through the smooth highway passing through forests. Our first pleasant surprise was when we briefly stopped at the Memory Pillars of Gama Wada.
These are interesting stone pillars raised by the tribal people in memory of their dead ancestors.
Dantewada city derived its name from its guardian deity — Danteswari Devi. One of the 52 shakti peeths, it is where Sati’s teeth is believed to have fallen. The main sanctum of the 600-year-old temple was constructed by the then tribal king in the South Indian style of temple architecture.
The wooden exterior wall was added much later. More recently the approaching garden has been embellished by huge statues of popular male Hindu gods.
During our visit, the temple was crowded with local tribal devotees who spent a while bathing, praying and relishing bhog. We also noticed one local woman leader, accompanied by plain-clothed AK-47 totting security personnel, which is a quite usual sight in the area.
General backwardness, more than the sense of insecurity, has resulted in lack of adequate transport infrastructure in the interior regions. No direct transport was available, so we took an hour-long bus ride to Geedam and then shared an inhumanely cramped shuttle jeep to reach Barsur.
The ride, however, was quite exciting due to the undulating terrain, dense forests and scattered tribal hamlets.
The jeep dropped us at the tri-junction of Barsur. As there was no local transport, we had to walk up to the temples and archaeological sites. The lone woman hawker on the street readily agreed to keep our backpack in her stall, while informing that we were the only tourists on that day.
We walked past tribal villages with their beautiful mud houses, where hens and other domestic animals live harmoniously with their owners’ families. We passed by quaint rural scenes like tribal women combing each other’s hair or idly gossiping under the late winter sun, inside their absolutely neat and clean homesteads.
Near the archaeological sites, the current conflicting interests of the authorities were manifested in a rather humourous way. In front of the Bade Ganesh complex, just below the signboard of Chhattisgarh Tourism Board, a sizable police notice was hanging, announcing a reward for information on Maoists, with photos of about 50 militants! The two massive stone Ganesha images are now placed inside a grilled enclosure for protecting them from human vandalism and the vagaries of nature.
Barsur was once the capital of the Gangawanshi rulers, who, since 840 AD, ruled the area for three centuries. The village was once famously known as the city of 147 temples (each with dedicated ponds).
A few such temples are still intact. Among them, the Battisa Temple, having a full-time priest sponsored by the local panchayat, is still in use. The temple has 32 (battis in Hindi) carved stone pillars and houses Shiva-Linga and the sacred bull.
Mama-Bhanja temple, a little ahead, has a classically fluid design, with a tall Dravidian style spire and sculpted murals. It houses the idols of Lord Ganesha and Lord Narasimha, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
Another small temple is situated on the bank of a lotus pond, which is richly embellished with erotic figurines like that of Khajuraho. The twin temples of Vironmeswara and Gandadhareswars, which, like the rest, illustrate the lost glory of Barsur, are last in line.
While waiting for the day’s only bus back to Geedam, we chatted up the hawker woman. We came to know that the only two-storey building opposite her stall belonged to her family, where her husband runs his own shop. And what about the Maoists, we asked cautiously.
“Oh, they live safely in interior villages and jungles, as police hardly ever venture beyond Geedam. In fact, Barasur is actually a buffer zone between them.” Anyway, to us it seemed obvious that, for creating real assets, sheer hard work and entrepreneurship scored over destructive extremism.
Our driver, a Bihari fellow who was born and brought up in Chhattisgarh, lamented that basically the simple minded local tribals were exploited by out-of-state Maoist leaders.
He explained further, “Tribals are a peaceful lot and these days get extensive government support for employment and other assistance. Only if they can avoid”, he surmised, “their lazy lifestyles, drinking habits and weekly cockfights.”
While returning, we got down at a weekly cattle haat. Other than the women selling handiya (local white beer), almost all sellers and buyers were tribal men. The most interesting event in such a haat is the cockfights.
We saw many proud owners of specially bred and trained fighter cocks checking the birds or negotiating about their sparing partners. Such cockfights involved heavy betting activities. There was heavy police bandobast to control the surging crowds during the actual event.
Our driver might be right, but from our perspective, this different lifestyle of the simple tribal people, far removed from our city’s daily grind, looked fetching for a change.