Saturday, February 11, 2012

Orissa Tribal Tour—the soul of India

When we met Ajay, our local guide in Visakhapatnam, he was quick to congratulate us on visiting all of the biggest monuments and beautiful sights his country has to offer, but now he assured us, we would be experiencing something quite different. Now we would be entering the soul of India — Orissa.

He imparted these words of wisdom with his signature welcoming smile and eyes glistening with enthusiasm. He soon shared with us, that he had spent most of his life in the jungles of Orissa with his father who was a teacher of the tribal people. For this reason, this area and these people are near and dear to his heart. But he further explained that during his lifetime he has witnessed the effects of the government’s attempts at (so called) improving their standard of living, by simplifying their lifestyle and attempting to settle the wandering tribes into permanent villages. As he described these government intrusions, we could see the sorrow creep into his expression. We would see for ourselves soon enough that the changes forced on these indigenous peoples have altered their way of life irreparably.

Our five days in Orissa were filled with mixed emotions about the tour itself and the ethics of the company Dragoman hired to arrange our visits. We were travelling in a caravan of three jeeps and felt at times like we were on a human safari. What we were looking for was elusive and when we found it, it was fleeting. Ajay did his best, but we felt at times that he was given an unobtainable task.

The distances between villages were significant and it always seemed like we would arrive just after the tribal women with the signature jewelry and woven clothing we were meant to visit, had left for the market. If we arrived at the market, we soon found the tribal people were up in the hills for a special festival. When we entered a village, we often feet unwelcome. Children were asking for biscuits and chocolate, because that was what was usually provided in order to allow tourists like us to take photos. Something just wasn’t right.

Ajay filled us in on the some of the more difficult facts, such as how the government had provided asbestos roofing tile free of charge to the villagers so that they would not have to re-thatch their roofs, with no attempt to explain to them that they were using materials that are banned in most countries due to their carcinogenic properties. We also learned that alcohol abuse is widespread among a population of young men who carry a hatchet and a knife as part of their tribal dress, leading to violence.

Not a pretty picture.

But even with the difficult facts and frustrations of long drives, we did get a glimpse into the life of these beautiful people. I tried very hard to make a connection and to let them know how much I appreciated the stunning patterns of their saris and the glitter of the gold in their nose rings and earrings. We managed to communicate through hand gestures and smiles, which go a long way when it is the only common language available. Although I know they have seen themselves many times in the cameras of the tourists that bother them day after day, they still giggle each time and seem to get some kind of pleasure out of seeing themselves or their children in my viewfinder. It somehow helped me feel ok about intruding in their lives in such a crass way. But I know I was only kidding myself.

Each evening before dinner Ajay filled us in on the traditions, family structure and history of the tribes we would be visiting. It was a lot of information and I can’t remember it all well enough to pass it on, but this link will give you some insight.

In addition to the cultural side of the tribal area, we were also privy to state politics. Orissa will be having an election in a day or two and everywhere we went we were bombarded with election propaganda. Since most of the tribal people are illiterate, each party is represented by a symbol. It took us a day or two to figure out why all walls in most villages had painted slogans on them along with pictograms. “Vote for” accompanied by a drawing of a teapot, or a hand, or a seashell. Then there were small trucks with loudspeakers blaring out political party platforms travelling all through the state at all hours of the day and night. Each truck bears the colours and the symbol of the party. Ajay was quick to comment on the propensity of the incumbent party to quickly pave roads or make any quick fix upgrades to assure the villagers’ votes in the upcoming election. We also witnessed a lunch catered by a political party in one of the villages we visited. Nothing like a good meal and alcohol to assure a trip to the ballot box!

In spite of the difficulties, we did have a lot of very positive experiences on our tribal tour, that will stay with us always. Here are some excerpts.

… We stopped our three jeeps at the entrance to a bustling fruit and vegetable market. Ajay walked us through, pointing out the many items we could not identify or had never seen before. We tasted rice alcohol, nibbled on mysterious nuts and tasted hand made sweets. Many of the women selling goods and/or shopping for them had triple nose rings. This Ajay told us this identified them as belonging to one particular tribe. In many cases their goods were neatly grouped in circular piles. Ajay explained that these items were priced by group rather than by weight. The people were as colourful as their wares for sale and we thoroughly enjoyed our wander through the first of several markets we visited on the tour.

… We were met by the Chief of the tribe, dressed in a beautiful lilac Salwa (long man dress and skinny pants) at the entrance to the village. He was a very handsome man, and we could see right away that he was well respected by the villagers. He accompanied us through the village, and as his guest, we were very well received by the local people. Ajay translated if the Chief explained something specific about the tribe or the village and added information as we visited different areas and saw different aspects of their daily life. Then we took a two-hour walk through the jungle to reach a second village on the other side. The views and the flora and fauna were exquisite and we were all very happy to be walking in nature instead of driving quickly around it in our jeeps.

As we approached the second village, I took a look around and marveled at the beautiful scenery. “Do the villagers ever travel to other parts of India?” I asked Ajay. “They do, but only to neighbouring villages when they marry into different tribes.” he quickly replied. “In that case,” I said, shaking my head and once again gasping at the beauty of the terraced rice paddies, lakes and the tree covered volcanic cinder cones behind them, “they must think the whole world looks like this!” I couldn’t help wondering if it might lighten their load if they knew how lucky they were to breathe in this fresh air and have such a beautiful piece of this earth to call home.

… We were met by a very interesting looking man with dreadlocks tied in a bun on his head, who it turned out, was the tribal spiritual leader. He walked with us through the village and at the end of our tour, gathered all of the women and children into a central area. He then performed a tribal dance while they accompanied him with their singing. As we left the village they all gathered to bid us farewell with a wave and a smile.

… When we walked into the village, we happened on a Bonda tribal elder being fitted with all of her traditional jewelry. Some of the Bonda women’s identifying attributes are their large wooden earrings, heavy neck and wrist bangles, shaved heads and beaded headdresses. We were told that only the elders of the tribe still follow these traditions, and we saw for ourselves that the young married women and their female children were dressed in modern Indian saris. When we crossed to the other side of the village, we saw a large group of villagers dressed in traditional garb (men and women), preparing for a performance. We assembled to one side of the open space and were treated to an amazing traditional dance performance. The women had large peacock broom like props and the men played traditional instruments. At one point in the proceedings, Marc was invited to join in, and before long many of us were up dancing. It gave us an opportunity to participate and enjoy our interaction with these people and their traditions, although we were quite aware that they only don these beautiful costumes for very special occasions — and to please westerners.

… The first thing we saw was a woman sitting on the floor with a basket of silk cocoons, pulling a thin thread, and rolling it on her bare oiled thigh in a soothing rhythm onto a spindle. Behind her was a man sitting at a loom, weaving the beginnings of a full-length sari. This was a co-operative village of weavers who spin, die and weave their own fabric. We walked through the village to see how the whole process worked from start to finish. As we experienced in Varanasi, hand weaving of fine intricately patterned cloth is a painstaking and extremely time-consuming craft. At the end of our visit we were served the obligatory chai tea and presented with the finished products for our viewing (and purchasing) pleasure. I already have three scarves in my bursting travel bag, but I couldn’t leave without a tangible memory of these people and their handiwork.

Each time I wear my beautiful olive and black silk/cotton blend scarf, I will remember the small woman sitting in lotus position rhythmically pulling natural fibres out of a cocoon, that would later be dyed specifically for the pattern in my scarf. And even more incredibly, another member of this tribe would then thread the loom and work for days sitting behind it to complete this beautifully designed and carefully crafted piece of fabric.

… The members of this tribe use a wax relief method to create intricate metal folk art originally used for ceremonial purposes. Typically the subjects would have been animals such as cows, elephants or goats. These sculptures would be left on ceremonial altars as kind of a perpetual sacrifice. Over time, the sculptures became popular with tourists and they widened their focus to include some jewelry and other folk art pieces. I tried very hard to find something small to buy, but everything was just too heavy. I was so intrigued with watching the process of how they make these works of art, that I completely forgot to take photos. Internet to the rescue, I have found some examples!

… We walked into a thatched roofed building and found several men sitting next to what looked like a wagon wheel with an axle. But lined up beside each wheel were rows of drying pots so we soon realized that they must have been potting wheels. The thick wooden dowel in the middle (the thing that looked like an axle) fit into a hole in the ground and by manually grabbing onto each of the spokes in the wheel and getting momentum going, the wheel began spinning like a top. One of the villagers offered to show us how a pot was made and we were mesmerized as he opened a large black bag and grabbed a large handful of dark clay. He kneaded it a few times to get all of the air bubbles out and threw it on his spinning wheel. Within minutes the lump of clay transformed into a large perfectly shaped vessel. His hands and a leaf were used to perfect the lip of the vessel and a wire was used to cut free the completed pot from the spinning wheel. Ajay translated as the man explained that they take orders from other villages, for both ceremonial vessels and day-to-day kitchen and cooking ware. As we left we admired the rows of pots drying with new admiration after watching how they were made from the clay these men gathered themselves and prepared.

… We walked down to the edge of the marsh and seated ourselves in two canoe-like boats, each steered by a man with a bamboo pole and accompanied by a local bird watching guide. For an hour we glided through the Mangalajodi nature reserve viewing the largest number of birds we have ever seen in one place (My camera is not good at capturing wildlife but you can take my word for it that we saw hundreds of birds every minute!) The most spectacular part of this place was that until recently it was known as “poachers village”. Through the help of an organization called Wild Orissa, the “poachers” have been trained as bird watching guides and now make their living through tourism rather than killing birds. Normally the lake hosts over 150,000 birds of 200 species during the peak season of which at least 80 are migratory birds. It felt like we saw all of them in one short hour. This was our last experience in the tribal area and it was a wonderful way to experience the nature and tranquility of, as Ajay describes it, the soul of India.


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