Over there, that’s the Niyamgiri hills,” says my driver Satpathiji as we drive down undulating roads. Lush emerald green hills stretch out into the distance on all sides. They house densely forested slopes, deep gorges and cascading streams. I am on my way to attend a confluence on indigenous foods at Muniguda in Rayagada district in southern Odisha. The meet has been organised near the Niyamgiri hills, a significance not lost on those attending. These hills, which form a mountain range in southern Odisha, are home to the Dongria Kondh, whose traditional practices have helped nurture the area’s dense forests and unusually rich wildlife. The Dongria Kondh have been in the news since 2014 after successfully fighting off Vedanta Resources, a company that has been trying to mine their sacred mountain’s rich seam of bauxite (aluminium ore). At the centre of the struggle was the Dongrias’ sacred mountain, Niyamgiri–the ‘mountain of law’. The Dongrias worship the top of the mountain as the seat of their god and protect the forests there. The heroic victory had gained the tribe worldwide attention, with the western press dubbing them the ‘real-life Avatar’ tribe after the Hollywood blockbuster. Unfortunately, the hills are facing a renewed threat after a fresh legal bid was launched by the state government to dig up the Niyamgiri mountain and turn it into a bauxite mine.
At the confluence, which has been organised on the grounds of the New Hope Charitable Trust, an NGO helping to uplift the poor and disadvantaged, people are milling around a colourful tent with a series of stalls heaving with all kinds of foods. Glasses of mandia jau–a traditional gruel made of ragi (finger millet)–are being served. There are sweetmeats made of ragi, jaggery and rice; a huge variety of forest-foraged greens; fish from forest streams and ponds; yams and tubers–some like a leg of mutton. The highlight is the giralu–a flattish underground forest plant/tuber that is used as a thirst-quencher at times when water is scarce.
In the afternoon, some of us visit the Muniguda market. We pick up mosquito repellents and nets as we’ve been told it is a malaria-endemic area. The shop selling nets also stocks the distinctive saris worn by Kondhs–rich creamy-white with borders in different colours. We pick up an assortment–borders in red, red and black, dull orange, green and maroon. The shopkeeper takes out some gamchhas from the shelves in a riot of colour–brilliant blues with woven maroon borders; lime greens with reds; sunflower yellows with peach borders. On the way back we come across people selling wild mushrooms which are bought to be cooked for dinner.
In the evening, after a refreshing drink of malted ragi with tejpatta (bay leaf ) and elaichi (cardamom), we set off for Korandiguda village in Rayagada district. Here I meet Loknath Nauri, an adivasi farmer in his sixties who grows 72 varieties of crops on a two-acre farm. He has been featured in various documentaries and media sites (such as on news agency Inter Press Service and on Ecologise’s series Weathering the Change), about how indigenous farming can combat the effects of climate change. Like his ancestors, Nauri can figure out how the weather will turn by observing and recording clues in nature. For instance, he says, flowers on bamboo trees can mean a tough year. “The more the density of flowers, the more severe the drought we face,” he says. If the mouth of the nest of the black-hooded oriole, known as bhartia locally, faces west, the monsoon rains will come from the west to the east. “If rains come from north and are accompanied by storms, I grow tall plants. If they come from the south, then there is no problem. If they come from the west, then the hills will shield our crops, we will get no rains, only wind.”
As dusk falls, Loknath goes off to tether his cattle. We walk back to the car. The sky is lit up with stars. If you switch on the SkyMap app, and point your camera at the sky, you can check out the constellations, says someone. But it does not work without internet, points out another.
Next day, we have an early breakfast of little millet upma and delicious peanut chutney served on siali leaves. We set off to visit the weekly haat at Chatikona where the Dongria Kondh bring goods to sell. I pick up a kapda gonda, an eye-catching, hand-woven, off-white chaddar with colourful motifs. Dhagiri (young Kondh girls) present these to their chosen Dhangara (partner) as a token of their love. The motifs and patterns are embroidered by the Dongria women. The colours in the shawl are symbolic: red signifies blood and sacrifice; green, their mountain ecology; yellow, the origin of the Kondh. The three straight lines running at the bottom represent social security and also mark protection from evil forces; the axe shape design symbolises energy and power; the triangular motif represents the hills, the abode of their deity.
Back at the New Hope campus, Nokul Pirikaka, a Desiya Kondh from Zigri village, has set up a stall selling Kondh artefacts and jewellery. He makes jewellery from brass, white metal, copper and silver. The anklets are the first to sell out as people swoop down on the two tables. I pick up thick white metal rings that adivasi women wear around their necks. And a hair pin brooch.
Lunch is served. There are nine varieties of traditional rice, three vegetable dishes and sambar. For dessert, we have payesh made with jhingoria, barnyard millet from Uttarakhand with coconut shavings, raisins and cashews.
I get up early next morning to visit a few Kondh villages. The ever-friendly Satpathiji drives me through the sunlight-dappled roads and hills. The brilliant azure sky is punctuated by white clouds. He narrates stories he has heard dating back to the days of the East India Company about the resistance the Kondh put up against efforts to destroy the hills. India’s most extensive bauxite deposits lie on top of this series of hills. In an essay titled ‘Battles over Bauxite in East India: The Khondalite Mountains of Khondistan’, anthropologist Felix Padel noted that the special geology of this area was noted by British geologists at the start of the 20th century. T.L. Walker named their base rock Khondalite in 1902, “in honour of those fine hill men the Khonds,” since the mountains based on this rock (‘garnet-sillimanite-graphite schist’) had almost exactly “the same boundaries as Khondistan.” In other words, the Kondh tribe (also called Kuwinga, Kondho, Kond and Khond), who now number about a million, inhabit the very region where India’s best bauxite deposits occur.
Padel, a professor of sociology/ anthropology in India, and author of several seminal books on tribal, mining and environmental issues, lives in the area. For the record, he is also the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin.
I am thrown back to a Satyajit Ray Feluda whodunit, when Satpathiji says that many years back, diamonds had been discovered in the Koraput district (in Doikhal). “Some men were digging around and stumbled across the deposits. They had no idea. But the Marwaris of Titlagarh soon cottoned on and became malamaal on them. Many people came after that, and the government had to get the army in to control the situation. They sealed off the area. Main bhi gaya tha bag pakad key,” he laughs. “But I came back soon. Woh mar peet ka jagah tha. I did find a gomed [hessonite garnet] stone, kept it in the house. One day, without telling me, my brother sold it. Many precious stones were discovered here, including a blue diamond.”
We reach the village of Khalpadar nestled at the base of a hill. A group of Kondh women are sitting in a clearing, talking, singing, exchanging stories. The song is a courting song sung by women to woo their men. It’s a song attached to a particular time of the year when the flowers of a particular gourd bloom in the forest, the mahua fills it with fragrance and there’s a full moon. “The hills, the moonlight, all combine to create a magical atmosphere. No one can resist it, you just have to dance,” says Landi Shikoka, her eyes twinkling. She is the bejuni of the village–the village priestess. She talks about Dharani Penu or the earth goddess who controls the cycle of sowing and harvest. Many traditional songs are linked to the trees, plants and flowering seasons, to the hills and forests, and the creatures that reside within. The women are in the mood now, reeling out song after song. They drape their hands around my waist, swaying to the rhythm as they sing, laugh and make up lyrics on the go. “You want to listen to our tales, Cuttack Kolkata ka milaap.”Another song they sing is from the flowering season of the ridge gourd. The courting song is sung during the full moon when the women woo the men. The lyrics go something like this: “The hills, the moonlight, the fragrance from the blooms, all combine to create a magical atmosphere. We have to dance.”
“Our relationship with our hills and jungles forms a core part of our identity and spirituality and is deeply rooted in our culture, language and history,” says Jagannath Majhi, a member of the Kondh community. “Kondhs have a rich history of resistance to the British and now the government. The British too wanted to mine Khondalite. Lord Clive had come to this region. But he was barricaded by the adivasis. Mitti key handi mein ghusakey ley gaye they angrez usey (he had to escape hidden in a big clay pot). Khurda was the last place till where the angrez could come. The Kondh wouldn’t let them get anywhere near here. It is unfortunate how the urban people have stereotyped adivasis as backward.”
As I leave, Majhi gives me a bottle of fragrant mahua oil as a gift. The foothills around the village are full of mahua trees. The mahua tree’s flowers are used to make liquor, jaggery, porridge and curry. The leaves are dried and cooked as a vegetable dish, or used as fodder. The seeds produce beneficial oil and the cake residue is used as fodder. Kusum koli leaves are used for fodder, its fruits eaten raw, the plant is used as firewood and oil is extracted from the seeds. The seed oil serves as a mosquito repellent and also treats certain skin diseases. I am embarrassed as I have nothing with me to give them. The women laugh, “Next time get us rosogollas from Kolkata.”
By Rail: Muniguda is the only railway station. Trains arrive from Bhubaneswar, Visakhapatnam, Sambalpur, Raipur, Berhampur, Rourkela, Kolkata, Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai, Tirupati, Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Bengaluru. I took the Koraput Express from Howrah.
By Air: The nearest airport is at Visakhapatnam, about 240km away. Bhubaneswar is 382km.
Where To Stay
There are a couple of small hotels in Rayagada: Hotel Sai International (06856-223396) and Hotel Tejasvi International (06856-224945, hoteltejasvi.in). Tariffs range from â‚¹1000 to â‚¹1,800. About four hours away from Muniguda town is the charming Chandoori Sai guesthouse, styled along the lines of local tribal houses and constructed using local labour and materials where possible. The food is mostly seasonal and organic, and includes some unlikely dishes such as roast chicken and apple pie (from â‚¹6,000 doubles; 9443342241, chandoorisai.com). You can also stay in basic but comfortable rooms at the New Hope Charitable Trust
(newhopeindia.org). They have a canteen serving excellent fresh local food.
What To See & Do
Muniguda market is an interesting place to explore and to pick up interesting stuff like wild mushrooms, a variety of millets, cotton gamchhas and saris. You can pick up shawls, saris and jewellery made by Dongria Kondhs at the weekly Wednesday haats in nearby Chatikona, a town surrounded by the Niyamgiri hills. Also check out the Dongria Kondh tribal museum, and its spectacular displays, in town. The festival of Maha Shivratri is a big event here with people from all over Odisha visiting the Shiva temple. Another interesting place to visit is Goudagada, a village of potters, about four hours from Muniguda.