In any major global city today, you will find new-age cafes advertising exorbitantly priced plant-based menus and self-styled health experts pontificating on the benefits of superfoods like turmeric. ‘Plant-based’ might be a modern-day buzzword, but the philosophy of eating roots, shoots, and leaves dates back centuries. Nowhere is this more evident than in Patalkot, a valley concealed deep in the Satpura hills of Madhya Pradesh.
One misty morning, on a clifftop with sweeping views of the deep, forested valley, I get a crash course on what living off the land really means. Two men set up a makeshift shanty on the pavement at the cliff’s edge. They lay out neatly labelled packets, pouches, and bowls, filled with the most mysterious looking powders and potions. The ingredients resemble the contents of my kitchen pantry – turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon – but look, stouter, healthier, and just slightly different.
Each container of tree bark or root is labelled with an ailment: hip pain, tooth ache, coughs, high blood sugar, and stomach gas. The forest has a cure for it all.
For years, the residents of Patalkot lived in isolation deep within the valley, with no easy access to surrounding towns. Relying on the forest for all their needs, the communities are especially skilled in making unique herbal medicines from forest produce. Over generations, the Bharia and Gond tribal communities here honed their rare skillset, gathering medicinal plants and herbs, grinding them into powders and pulps, and formulating cures for diabetes and body pains, toothaches and coughs.
The pavement medicine shop I am at is one among a handful, set up by the residents of Patalkot on a daily basis. The men tell me about their carefully harvested produce and how to use it. There’s wild ginger, which when brewed into a tea, helps relieve a cold. A rough-hewn wooden glass looks most intriguing. “Fill it with water overnight and then drink from it the next day in order to control blood sugar,” they tell me. To reduce high blood pressure, there’s brajkola – tiny pieces of wood that you hang on a string and wear around your neck. Small logs of wood are heated up and rolled over the body to treat pain. There are bunches of safed musli, a root with many benefits, including helping diabetics. For easy sale, the contents of the forest have been powdered, packaged, labelled, and laid out on the pavement for visitors to buy. Patalkot truly is a fascinating world of forest treasures.
Around 20 kilometres from Tamia in Madhya Pradesh, a road winding past fields of corn and carpets of yellow flowers leads to Patalkot. Twelve villages and several smaller hamlets are spread across 79 sq km of the horseshoe shaped valley. Before we begin our descent, I have a clear view of this deep green basin and the villages of Rathed and Kareyam from the hilltop lookout next to the medicine sellers. The valley plunges 1200-1500 feet deep into the earth, shielded by soaring walls of granite and sandstone rock, covered in a dense and ancient forest. Gond and Bharia tribal communities inhabit these villages, farming corn, local rice, kutki, and vegetables.
Today, a motorable road from Tamia connects nearly half of Patalkot’s villages, ending at a dense mango grove at the settlement of Kareyam. But it is the narrow mountain paths, or pugdandees, that are used more often by the local inhabitants as they gather firewood and graze their cattle. These are the trails that trekkers also traverse as they explore the valley on foot. The Doodhi River flowing through the valley is the main water source, giving life to the forest and the rare plants that the locals forage for.
The ‘medicine men’ from Rathed village learnt to forage and rely on the forest from their forefathers, and now, they gather their produce two to three times a week, so they can set up shop for outsiders.
On a visit to Patalkot, spend some time learning about their deep knowledge of the forest and their unique way of life. Tourism initiatives like the Tamia-based Tribescapes allows visitors to interact with locals in their home. At Kareyam, we walked through lush fields of corn to the home of Kamal and Budia bai, a family from the Bharia tribe. Wild vines cover the roof of their home, where they grow pumpkin and lauki. In their courtyard are pots of cherry tomatoes and gigantic sunflowers. For our lunch, Kamal plucks four kernels of corn from his field, while his wife grinds tiny chillies into a deadly, set-your-mouth-on-fire pickle. We eat a homely lunch of chulha-roasted corn, roti, slivers of farm fresh cucumber, and chilli pickle. My lesson in farm-to-table dining is complete.
Getting there: Patalkot is 20km/35 minutes from Tamia.
Visit: Contact Pawan Srivastav of Tribescapes (6264030609) to organize your visit. Tours with a local guide from Patalkot start at INR 500.