Little known to Europeans

Little known to Europeans: so said the 19th century map of hinterland Orissa in the library of our Gopalpur resort hotel and so it was with high hopes that we set off on Thursday for the tribal regions of the Orissa/Andhra Pradesh hill country. Perhaps we had invested too much confidence in our nice-but-dim driver and apparently-along-for-the-ride “guide”. After all, the two lads seemed to be doing much of their navigating by stopping the local rickshaw drivers for directions and apparently spoke less English than the average chai wallah.

Despite these boys’ concern for our refreshment & and comfort breaks (al fresco, of course) the journeys were long and uncomfortable as we traversed some surprisingly steep hillsides on not always well-maintained roads in the hope of meeting the Bonda forest people and one or two other clans. I say “surprisingly” because I had always understood the Eastern Deccan to be comparatively flat but here we found the landscape wild, green and mountainous, with village life poorer and less sophisticated than I have encountered in many other parts of India.

When we stopped for burst tyre and Grahame supervised the boys doing their “man tasks” I went to sit with a group of women by the side of the road. Their clothes were shabby and dirty and few of them wore blouses under their saris (a sure sign of extreme poverty) but nonetheless they all had plenty of traditional gold jewellery including nose jewels worn on both sides. More importantly, the little girls all wore the ubiquitous blue school dress, however grubby and torn, proving that compulsory education has reached even the remotest villages.

Here among the poorer and most distant rural communities (if indeed such a ragged collection of people could be called a community) it was easy to see how local boss-men and criminal gangs could hold sway giving rise to some of the terrible abuses so often cited by foreign investigative writers (Yes, Mr Dalrymple, I am talking about you). We soon discovered that it was not so much the criminal overlords we had to worry about as the Maoist guerrillas whose recent activities have meant that the security forces have stopped issuing permits to visitors for entry into the tribal lands of this state.

In fact at one of our stops (don’t ask me where, I was completely lost by now) a man claiming to be a journalist began asking all sorts of questions about our travels in India. I played the dotty Englishwoman and gave him a long list of World Heritage sites and major temples until he got fed up and politely declined the opportunity to look them up on my website. That’s how you deal with secret police, isn’t it Elisabeth? So here we were, miles from anywhere and deprived of our principal reason for having undertaken the journey; I could see my travelling companion’s confidence in my knowledge of the sub-continent beginning to wane.

Communication with the office appeared to be pretty non-existent but the boys must have been given some last minute alternative instructions because we found ourselves being taken to some rather surprising destinations. A crumbling, Maharaja’s palace was deserted except for the skinny old man who finally answered the door gong and showed us around bare rooms by the light of our driver’s mobile phone torch. There were a couple of mouldering portraits and a curious pile of trunks and suitcases, some of them spilling their once colourful contents onto the dusty floor. Nor should I forget to mention the defunct exercise bicycle propped up in one corner.

“Surprising” would be an understatement to describe the discovery of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery along one of our twisty mountain roads. We knew that something was not quite right when we entered a village whose wooden houses were all built on stilts with the livestock housed beneath. That these people were ethnically Chinese and smiling in welcome made it all the more strange. We were driven round to the entrance of a huge, magnificently adorned temple and dormitory complex where boys in saffron and maroon coloured robes played games or sat none-to-attentively with their books. We found out later that several thousand refugees were settle here in the 1960’s and, contrary to expectations, have thrived in this inhospitable place to such an extent that the Dalai Lama himself came here in 2010 to open the costly new building.

I have not read any travel writings on the tribal people of this region and cannot tell whether we have missed an experience of great significance or not but I couldn’t help but be relieved to get back onto the more regularly used roads and to find the villages more prosperous and the townspeople more adequately clad. The markets were overflowing with plump fruit and vegetables (it is mango season) and old churches and mosques rubbed shoulders with ancient Hindu temples: all under the watchful eyes of Bollywood stars advertising silk wedding outfits and gold jewellery.

When you stop for a roadside comfort break in this region it is best to look upwards as well as out across the fields for anyone who might be watching. A chap climbing palm trees using a traditional rope apparatus which includes a loop to hold his feet together came down especially so that we could sample his palm wine. Now, it’s always difficult to know how much to tip in these circumstances and when he looked displeased with my R100 (£1.10/$2) note I thought the worst but it turned out that he was just worried that he didn’t have any change on him.

I suppose that National Geographic type pictures of tribal people are readily enough available on-line nowadays and the questions that arise from the conflict between their vanishing way of life and the modern world would not be answered by a couple of British tourists but we were disappointed nonetheless. However, our photographs of village life and the everyday people of this part of India were anything but disappointing.

1 Comment

  • ET says:

    Wow, you were in the Hinterland there! And yes, stuff them (the suspected secret police) full with harmless material until they leave you alone (or arrest you). Glad to hear you got back to the territories known well to Europeans and thanks, as always, for sharing.

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