18-Jan-2009 -- Talari -(actually Tilori´-with a diacritical mark as in the Survey of India Map No 73/D/4 /SE) lay in the Kandhamal District of Orissa. This was to have been one of the first Confluence visits that I had planned, but due to strife and communal violence the trip had to be shelved until things improved. I had initially planned our trip in July 2008, but there was a big uprising after the killing of a Hindu seer, violence had broken out between the tribals, left wing Maoists, Christians, right wing Hindus et al. Whole villages, churches, missions and crops were burnt. Massive roadside trees were cut down to impede road movements of the security forces deployed. Besides the human cost, a lot of damage was done to the fragile ecosystem of the place. The district was out of bounds for months, the build up coming during Christmas. However better sense prevailed and normalcy was restored by January 2009.
We left Bhubaneswar on the 17th January and drove on towards Phulbani, the district headquarters of Kandhamal. It was an overnight journey from Bhubaneswar, traveling west into the heart of Orissa. We took advantage of long weekend and I, Kashi, Narayan and our Man Friday-cum-driver-whipping boy all rolled in one Ananta decided to make good time. We were to be joined by Emmanuel Rath, an old acquaintance from Phulbani who knew the district like the back of his hand. We left Bhubaneswar in the evening, timing our departure so that we could have our dinner at Chumki Dhaba which is nearly midway to Phulbani. The traffic after Nayagarh is nearly non existent, as few travel the road at night. Just four kilometers after Daspalla, we stopped at the Chumki Dhaba, nearly missing it in the dark. There had been no electricity since the last few days, and the thatched structure was dimly lit with a few kerosene lanterns.
Traditionally, dhabas are meant for tired truck drivers looking for a break from their long journeys, alongside highways. They offer cheap food, music, and at some places an open-air television and charpoys (bed frames strung with jute thick strings) that are a tad uncomfortable but have the best ventilation given the summer temperatures and erratic power situation of rural India. A wooden plank would be placed across the width of the charpoy to keep the dishes. One needed to squat on the cot and have food. The food is typically inexpensive and has a 'homemade' feel to it. These makeshift structures are the only source of food on the highways and in common parlance are referred to as the `dhabas', irrespective of the state or region.
In my travels all over India, I have encountered many such places and carried very pleasant memories of excellent food, friendly people and big hearted honest hospitality. I have dined at a Dhaba on the Leh Kargil Road in Kashmir, another at the outskirts of Diglipur on the Andaman Trunk Road. I still savor the food that I had at the Vaishno Dhaba on the Delhi Amritsar Highway where only vegetarian food sans onion and garlic was cooked in clarified white butter. In the Dhaba, everything is pretty much gourmet food. Even the simplest of teas is made in bubbling pots and served straight from the fire in chipped glasses.
The concept of dhabas has a history. Centuries ago every town used to maintain a resting place also called chatram, dharamshala or choultry for the weary travelers. Most of these were attached to temples and here the journeymen were provided food, place to rest and allowed to take bath and freshen up. The kings of yesteryear too made such arrangements for the pilgrims and travelers passing through their kingdom.
Chumki Dhaba was little more than a big bamboo hut. Outside were a dozen charpoys on the flat brown earth. It faces the Kuaria Dam reservoir, which is also the source of the fresh fish that is always available on call here. On my earlier trips to Phulbani, my driver always insisted that we stop here, as they served ‘junglee meat’ i.e. deer, wild boar, rabbit etc. This was done surepptiously, but the place had been repeatedly raided by the forest officials and the owner had been booked for poaching and trading wildlife under Indian Wildlife Protection Act 1972. This time too, Kashi went to the open air kitchen and mumbled about ‘junglee’ meat, but was disappointed with the thumbs down given by the cook. However there was a good choice between fish and chicken curry.
The hungry horde decided to have a go at both, and I being the only vegetarian amongst the lot was quickly served my ‘dal tadka’ and roti.
They say that the best way to make a fish curry is to catch the fish fresh and cook it immediately. Similarly, the best way to make a chicken curry is to cut a chicken fresh and cook it immediately with its juices intact. And if it is a ‘desi kukuda’ or country chicken the taste is much more authentic. That is what was done at the Chumki Dhaba. There were many chicken clucking and pecking amongst the charpoys, and Kashi chose the one that was roosting in a corner. The chicken was grabbed at and bought to him for his approval, very much akin to getting vintage wine to the table before serving it. After meeting the stringent approval of the group, the chicken was taken to the rear of the dhaba and quickly slaughtered and freshly cut. The whole chicken was thrown into the cauldron full of luxuriantly thick yummy looking gravy simmering over the slow fire.
The fish too was caught from the dam and kept fresh in a small pond behind the Dhaba, and soon a wriggling medium sized one was got. The gutting and cleaning was keenly supervised by the whole group and intricate cooking instructions given. I knew that it would take them a good hour for finishing their dinner so I thought it better to catch my forty winks, as the charpoys were pretty inviting.
In my half slumber, I could hear them slurping and yumming the tasty fare. They gormandized for a good half hour, and I forced them to hurry up as there area was heavily patrolled by the para-military forces, and I did not want to be stopped and frisked and asked hundreds of questions.
The heavy meal had a sopoforic effect on Ananta, and just a few miles later, he was drowsy. I thought it prudent to take over the wheel, as the road is on a hilly terrain right up till Phulbani. Ananta was soon snoring away in the rear seat, and I drover on to Phulbani. We reached Phulbani just before midnight and were greeted by Emmanuel at the Hill View Hotel. Two comfortable rooms had been booked for us; the night temperature was at the season’s low of 4 Degrees Celsius.
We got together and planned the trip for the next day. Emmanuel told us that the fog was usually very thick till 8 A.M and an early morning departure would not be possible. The whole trip from Phulbani to Tilori would be on winding hill roads with hardly a straight and level stretch. I had planned an early departure, so that we could come back to Phulbani before nightfall, as it was still quite risky to travel the area at night. We decided that we would take a check early in the morning and then decide.
I set my Cell phone alarm for 5 a.m. The night was quite chilly, and we had to use room heaters, as the flimsy blankets provided by the hotel were inadequate to keep the cold away.
The alarm woke me up, and I went out of the hotel and walked up to the nearby bus stand, where I knew there was an all night tea stall. The sun was not yet up, but there was absolutely no fog. As the tea stall I took the opinion of the locals as to whether the fog would roll in or not, and an wizened old gent in a worn down military greatcoat told me that it would be a clear morning. The rising sun was lighting up the horizon in a glorious red, and I went back to the hotel and woke up everyone with a battle stations cry to get ready. I rang up Emmanuel, who was told that his predictions for a foggy morning were wrong, and that he should reach us within half an hour.
The hot water in the hotel was a boon, and everybody was up and out within forty minutes. We left Phulbani at 6 A.M and traveled further west. The road wound its way along the forest for the most part, but from time to time meandered up the steep hills of the Eastern Ghats. Most of the forest was lush-green and one is progressively dwarfed by giant teak and sal trees that soar skywards. One can develop a crick in the neck trying to locate their topknots. Many of the tree trunks have yawning hollows that were high enough for a man to hide.
We stopped at a thickly forested desolate stretch of the road. The canopy over the road was dense, but shafts of sunlight trespassed here and there. This was pure bliss, the deafening silence of the forest. The entire route was peppered with informative road signs that tell you all that you always wanted to know about forests and their inhabitants but didn’t know where to look. There were catchy slogans put up by the Forest Department, most of which harped on conserving nature, animal corridors, forest fires etc. There were many rhesus monkeys sunning themselves wherever the sun’s rays penetrated the thick forest cover.
In between some of the larger villages we started to see tribal India at its best: goat-herders carrying baby goats, herds of water buffalo and emancipated cows stopping traffic on the road, tattooed ladies with arms covered in tribal bracelets carrying bundles of sticks or straw on their heads. It being a Sunday, many of the tribals were making their way to the churches (whatever was left of them post riots).
This was the heartland of the Kondh territory. The Kondhs are one of the biggest ethnic tribes of Orissa. Their name is derived from the Telugu word ‘Kontha,’ which means hill. They are farmers and hunters were once infamous as they practiced human sacrifices.
Kondhs are sub-divided into three groups namely, Desia Kondh, Kutia Kondh and Dongaria Kondh. The Khonds became notorious after the British occupation of their district about 1835 for the prevalence and cruelty of the human sacrifices they practiced. These Meriah sacrifices were intended to further the fertilization of the earth. The Kondhs were brought into limelight by Verrier Elwin (1902-1964) a self-trained anthropologist and tribal activist, who began his career in India as a missionary. He was a controversial figure who arrived in India in 1927 for missionary work, but soon abandoned the clergy to work with Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. He went to live among the tribals and explored and documented many tribes. He devoted himself to the tribal world, opening schools, a leper home, traveling and photographing, writing tirelessly about tribe after tribe. In 1954, Nehru appointed him as advisor of tribal affairs in the North Eastern states of India. His monumental works included his study of the Kondhs and their Meriah practice.
The Garmin was slow to register due to the low temperature. We crossed Phiringia and Sarangad, and had breakfast at K. Nuagaon. We saw many burnt and damaged churches all along the way. I stopped at a few places and went inside the broken prayer halls. Prayer books and bibles lay strewn all around. I saw half burnt crosses, damaged pews, smashed doors and windows. The altar in the corner had the picture of the Sacred Heart. The eyes of Christ in the picture regarded me tenderly. It was disturbingly reminiscent of the pictures that were put up in our classrooms at the Stewart School where I had studied. Those who painted the picture of Christ always placed the eyes in the dead centre of the eyeballs, giving them the effect of following one, looking directly at one in whatever corner of the room one was.
In another ravaged church, there was a wooden statue of the Madonna and child that had been axed into two halves, one portion was lying half burnt. It was a heartbreaking sight, a poignant reminder of how intolerant mankind can be in matters of faith and religion. I was deeply disturbed by the half sliced statue, which was lying on top of a heap of broken furniture. I instinctively picked it up and carried it with me. (I resolved to make a similar statue and give it to the church if and when it is rebuilt).
We drove past many makeshift camps of the Central Reserve Police Force. In most of the places the Jawans were idling about or were playing volleyball. I stopped at a couple of places and talked to them about the situation. There said that the apparent calm was very deceptive and the area was a tinderbox just waiting to explode once again. Kandhamal is one of the most picturesque and beautiful district of Orissa, with thick jungles, mountain streams, wildlife, waterfalls and the beautiful hills of the Eastern Ghats. There are a multitude of tribes that inhabit the small scattered hamlets. The tall trees on both sides of the roads are hundreds of years old. Thick teak and Sal trees abound and the greenery is just wonderful. The district is a land of scenic beauties, natural springs and hill tracts, perched with history and antiquities. There are many unique natural spots and few of the last remaining virgin forests of India.
From Nuagaon we drove up further up till Simonbadi. The NH 217 from Raipur to the Gopalpur Port is excellent, though due to the sparse traffic it is only a two lane road. A kilometer and half after Simonbadi, the Garmin Nav veered sharply to the right and we soon came to a tri junction. Following the Nav arrow we passed the villages of Kairpanga, Alari, Kumarmunda and Pangalimaha. About a kilometer after we crossed the narrow bridge of the Gumari Nadi, we reached Tilori. It was about 8 kms from the junction where we had left the highway. The small village was typical of most of the tribal hamlets of Orissa. The road ran right through the village starting with the small temple of the gram debata (village deity) at the beginning. There were houses on both sides, cows tied to posts outside. We passed the small post office, the village grocery shop, the primary health centre and stopped outside the compound of the school. There was a tea shop there with a few old people whiling away their time. We were a welcome intrusion, and soon had a good gathering. We ordered for tea all around, and very soon the Gram Rakhi or the village policeman came around in his ramshackle and creaky bicycle and enquired about the purpose and nature of our visit. This part of Kandhamal was infested by Maoists rebels, and the Gram Rakhi’s duty included investigating every stranger who visited the area.
The Gram Rakhi satisfied himself after peering into our vehicle. He realised that we were harmless as the maps, GPS and cameras passed his scrutiny. However the Tripod in its cover could have been a gun or a rocket launcher, and we had to unpack it and mount the camera to convince him. I am not sure that he understood the purpose of our visit, but seeing the maps that we were carrying he guessed we were forest officials on some survey work. We showed the village crowd the CP location on the Google Earth image, and the Gram Rakhi agreed to take us to the place.
The Gram Rakhi is the lowest rung of the policing system. Orissa has about 56,000 villages which are guarded by 18,000 rakhis. According to the police manual, there should be one rakhi for every village, but due to flawed government recruitment policies, one rakhi is usually responsible for five villages.
The duties of a rakhi involve maintaining peace and to brief the police about any trouble in the village from time to time. Only a rakhi can identify an intruder in the village. Any strangers entering the village will never escape his shrewd eyes. They also guard the government’s property besides escorting criminals to courts. Exhausted and worn out, these men work all thirty days of a month and are required to visit the nearest police station once every week to brief the inspector in charge of the problems in the villages. Some of them have to walk at least a hundred kilometers every month. All this for a pittance of a salary and just one set of khaki uniform every year.
We parked our vehicle at the tea shop, leaving Ananta to keep the village urchins at bay. We loaded all our equipment of the bicycle and proceeded to the direction from which we had come. About half a kilometer from the spot, we took a left turn and followed the Nav indicator which took us to the base of a hill that towered over the village. We realised that we could have easily driven to the point as the small path was motorable. The topo sheets that we had studied had indicated the CP to be located on a relatively high altitude, but we were not prepared for what was to come.
Our Survey of India Maps and Google Earth research had suggested that this might be an easy stroll though goat pasture but on reaching the base of the hill we were reminded how misleading a nice satellite photo can be about surface conditions compared with the Confluence Point first hand on the ground experience. We ground to a halt about 850 metres from the point, and had to abandon the bike. The CP lay midway up the steep hill which was full of very thorny vegetation. Carrying the equipment after dividing the lot, I, Kasi, Narayan and Emmanuel ventured forth into the thick growth. There were no paths and soon we were crawling through scratchy tunnels in this impenetrable and seemingly endless night mare.
Vague notions of returning to the vehicle for the machete and chopping nearly half a kilometer through the stuff came to our minds but these were soon discarded as it would have added another day for reaching the CP. There was no look out point, and it was just a blind thrashing of the small trees to create a path that kept us going ahead. Kasi tried to find a climbable tree so that he could get the bearings and maybe find a better direction to take, however there were no trees thick enough. This hill side vegetation is prone to forest fires in summer and the vegetation usually burns down every second or third year.
I being the tallest had to bear the brunt, as the thorny branches kept brushing me in the face. After about two hundred metres of inching forward, Emmanuel decided to call it quits, and no amount of encouragement could egg him on any further. For the last half hour we had been crawling claustrophobically through the vegetation tunnels, ripped by thorns and not really enjoying ourselves a whole lot. We decided to go back and take a second try from another direction.
I and Kasi did what we had never done before in any of the Confluence hunts till date. It had always been further and forward, and on about half a dozen occasions when the going had been too tough, we had stopped and recharged ourselves, but never beat a retreat. However for the first time we had to trace out path back. We reached base, and ruminated on the approach to take. Kasi suggested we get hold of some of the villagers whom we had seen working in the fields on the way, and make them cut a path thru the growth. However this could have taken more then half a day, and it was already 10.00 A.M.
We seriously contemplated staying overnight and making an attempt the next morning. The Gram Rakhi suggesting that the school would be an ideal place for us to shack up for the night. He even volunteered to cook us a meal.
We tried to guess the location of the CP by crude dead reckoning using the compass and the GPS. It was apparently on a small outcrop of rock about three hundred and fifty metres uphill. The CP lay somewhere just beyond the outcrop, the vegetation we noticed took on a taller, thicker and denser appearance at the higher altitude. It was so near yet so far. Just 275 metres according to the Garmin, yet it was so unapproachable.
We sent the Gram rakhi back to the tea shop base, asking him to get our vehicle. Kasi wanted to have another look-see at the scans of the Google earth imagery on the laptop. We both had a vague notion that there could be another approach from the rear flank of the hill.
Very soon, the Gram rakhi was back with our SUV, and riding tall on the bonnet was a middle aged villager, gesticulating wildly as the vehicle lurched on the uneven path. Hardly had the vehicle slowed down, that he jumped and came running to where we stood. After introductions had been made and the formalities exchanged, we knew that our lucky angels had send forth a messiah in the form of Balunkeshwar Dalabehera, the Kondh Dehuri. The Dehuri is the shaman, sorcerer, medicine man, spell maker, sacrificial priest, foreteller of bad weather and bad crops, soothsayer and teller of the folk lore of the respective tribe he belongs to.
Balunkeshwar was the Kondh Dehuri of Tilori. His family had held sway on the predominantly Kondh population of the area since ages. He had got word of our visit and was rather annoyed that he had not been informed. He was a talkative man who interjected his conversation with a smattering of English words. We soon opened up to him and told him our dilemma. He too suggested that the climb would be too difficult to make until a passage was cleared, and promised that he would get the work done by the evening.
We took a closer look at the Google earth map and soon could pinpoint the location where we stood. We scanned the imagery at the maximum zoom and found a faint line that seemed like a cattle track about 250 metres further away from where we stood. The Satellite imagery was of February 2007, just about a year ago. Kasi went forth for a recce; both he and I were reluctant to call it a day. Our enthusiasm was infectious and soon the Dehuri too was all raring to go.
We decided to jettison the skeptics and I, Kasi and Balunkeshwar set forth once again. Like it or not, we were determined to conquer the CP. We started climbing up, the inclination of almost 40 degrees made us stop after every couple of steps. Meandering among bushes, stones, tree stumps and fallen trees we trudged forward, stopping to regain our breaths after every few minutes. Surprisingly, the Dehuri was very much at ease and was prone to give me a heave ho over the difficult parts of the stretch.
The GPS now indicated the CP to be 220 metres, of course, the GPS unit didn't show the topography of what we were about to get into. We found ourselves climbing straight up and over loose rocky ground surrounded by dense scrub jungle, with small trees covered with thousands of needles and vines covered with pretty little flowers and tiny thorns.
It was a long climb, we had gained almost a quarter of a kilometer in elevation. The difficult part was yet to come, as the vegetation varied as we rose higher and hindered our progress. After about half an hour of stopping and going, we took a break. Our water bottles were nearly empty, as the sun was up and we were all sweating profusely. The elevation was about 700 metres, but the temperature was well into the 30’s. Just when we were about to restart, we heard the scampering of feet and soon the Gram Rakhi emerged from the foliage. He had had a change of mind, and had followed us. He was carrying two bottles of water, and his stout stick was what we needed for clearing a passage in the undergrowth.
As we continued upwards, more and more of the surrounding landscape revealed itself, and the view became increasingly impressive. The green blue hills all around were shrouded in the late morning haze. We looked down at the village of Tilori, the green fields stretching all the way to the horizon.
In the end it took us nearly two hours to reach our target, with quite some time wasted by taking a wrong ridge top and having to climb down one ridge, push through some very dense scrub and then climb up to the next ridge. Over slippery ground due to the loose stones, through bushes and little trees we ascended some 75 metres above the path that we had slashed/bludgeoned. There was a small clearing on our left and a dense forest on the right. Since the inclination was almost 45 degrees it was difficult to perform the usual confluence dance. The CP lay just at the base of a big rock; in fact we could get the correct reading by standing on the rock with the Garmin outstretched to the limit of our arms length.
We talked about how we were seemingly the first humans to stand here, even though the Dehuri said that he had been up here many a time earlier. We took the necessary pictures and exchanged high-fives before heading back to the path, once again cutting our legs on the thorny trees.
The description of the CP is as follows :
East of the CP was the uninterrupted view of the hills that stretched till the horizon. There were a good growth on coniferous three in the hill nearby, bit at the distant hills were balding and devoid of vegetation.
West to the CP was the thick vegetation, more denser then that we had experienced on our way to the point.
North of the CP were the smaller hills. We had ascended from this direction and from our vantage point the hills were dwarfed.
South of the CP too was thick vegetation, the Dehuri suggesting that we would have to take that approach on our way down as it would be more convenient and quicker.
We spent a good half hour at the CP, where the Dehuri held us spellbound with his tales of Meriah Sacrifice. Talking to him was like being pulled along in a slipstream of a comet. In fact he told us that there was a big cave a little bit uphill where the Kondhs used to worship in bygone days. He said that the deity had been now carried downhill to the hamlet years ago and no more do the villagers climb up for their offerings. In fact he offered to take us there, telling us that though it was taboo, he would bend the rules for us.
Balakrushna gave us a vivid description of the cave, saying that it was so spacious that the Kondh deities held their ‘deba sabhas’, meaning a parliament of gods inside it. He told us of the many young virgins who had been sacrificed there. It was incumbent on the Khonds to purchase their sacrificial victims. Unless bought with a price they were not deemed acceptable. They seldom sacrificed Khonds, though in hard times Khonds were obliged to sell their children and they could then be purchased as Meriahs. Persons of any race, age or sex were acceptable if purchased. Many were bought and kept and well treated. Meriah women were encouraged to become mothers.
He told us about an albino monitor lizard which was always present inside the cave. Most of his stories were taken with a pinch of salt, but he had aroused a lot of curiosity in me, and much to the chagrin of the others, I as the Commander of the CP Project ordered that we would proceed further up the hill. There was a vehement opposition and howls of protest, but the Dehuri had sold the idea, saying that it was only a fifteen minutes climb, and that we would get a straight descent from the cave to the village below. He said that he had been up to the cave only a year earlier, and that the climb was not much. The spot where he pointed to us was about a further 150 metres up the hill, nearly on the crest. There was a thick growth of tall trees, but even with the Camera zoom we could not find and discernible trace of a cave. Kasi doubted his words and was very reluctant to proceed further. The sun was up high and it was well past noon, but I had vague notions of the sacrificial altar of the Kondhs about which I had read a lot, but never seen one.
I then decided to make it alone along with the Dehuri, but this blackmail cajoled the others to agree to go further up. We made our way up, gradually inching up the steep slope, our ascent was made a bit easier as the trees were now taller, and we could hold on to their trunks for leverage. The Dehuri was his sprightly self, and I could see that he was getting pretty excited as we neared the place. After a good half hour’s climb, we reached the cave, which was quite nearly as big as had been described. Rather then a cave, it was a big hollow formed by huge triangular rock slabs. It was not what could be exactly described as a cave; as it was open on both ends. Rather, it was a massive rock shelter, a clean and cool place and could have easily seated more then fifty. I could comfortably stand my full height inside. I was very near collapsing, the one hour walk having totally exhausted me.
Balakrushna fell on his knees and chanted his Kondh incantations as an obeisance to the deities. He kept repeating a few chants in a sonorous voice, swaying on his knees. He was soon in a trance, murmuring and whispering, the soft sound reverberated from the roof of the shelter. There was an eerie feeling and soon Kashi was making impatient gestures about leaving the place. After what seemed an eternity, even my patience ran out and I poked the Dehuri in his ribs. He came out of his trance with a happily smiling face and was soon his talkative self.
All we did was listen to him, one extraordinary story dovetailing into another. It was both fascinating and frustrating trying to follow him. He would stray from one story to another, and when I asked him certain points which I did not understand, he waived me off impatiently, carrying on in the same pitch and speed.
Kashi had meanwhile wearily resigned to the fact that we were not making a quick departure, and had rigged up the Handy cam and was diligently recording all that the Dehuri spoke . He spoke of the many taboos and myths connected to the cave, and rued the fact that very few of the villagers came up to the spot due to the difficult trek. Here he let out the secret that he himself was visiting the place after a good twenty years and had lied to us about his recent visit.
The Dehuri told me that during the worship, the conch shell was blown, and it had a special effect, the sound reverberated in the cave and the echoes repeated themselves until they gradually died out. I tried imitating the conch shell blowing with my cupped hand, but the desired acoustical effect was not achieved.
There were signs of fires having been lit inside the cave. There was charcoal and half burnt wood. The cave roof was blackened by smoke over the centuries, but I am sure if a careful study is made, there may be some prehistoric drawings hidden beneath the soot. I stretched myself full height and scraped off the soot from one small rocky ledge, and there were discernible ochre coloured symbols. Strewn on the floor were quite a few pieces of rocks could have possibly been Stone Age tools. I wanted to pick up a few, but it would have been sacrilegious, as the Khonds venerated the place it would have hurt the sentiments of Dalabehera. (I made up my mind that later some day the place justified another visit though I kept it to myself as there would have been howls of protest from the others).
After a good hours rest inside the cave, we packed up for the descent. We were all tired, thirsty and hungry. My legs shivered with exhaustion, and I had to give my share of load to Kasi. The Dehuri got me a forked stick which would help me in descending. Going downhill, I needed all my balance and concentration. The rocks were loose and if a slip up happened, it would send us crashing down, with quite disastrous results.
After about fifty metres, we came to a clearing from where the village below could be seen. I spotted a tall sal tree, the bark of which had a big cluster of dried resin. This resin is akin to frankincense or myrrh, and is used in practically all Hindu religious ceremonies. We carefully removed the resin which in local parlance is called ‘jhuna’ and packed it up in leaves.
Halfway down the descent, we found a track and followed it to the fields that lay beyond the village. The village dogs announced our presence and soon we had a good gathering of people, all of whom surrounded the Dehuri, making inquiries.
We were welcomed by the crowd, who held us in a certain awe and veneration as we had visited their sacred grove up in the hill. The children had only heard of the cave, and there was a sense of excitement. Many asked of the albino monitor, and I am sure that the Dehuri had stock for many days of tall tales to tell to the villagers.
We passed a big well from which we drew welcome pails of cool water. Kasi nearly drenched himself and after a quick wash and scrub, we made our way to the teashop. A village boy was sent to our starting base with instructions to fetch out SUV and the rest of the team.
I meanwhile downloaded the photographs from my Camera to the laptop and the villagers were given a first hand view of the cave. Word spread fast, and soon we had a crowd of nearly a hundred Kondh villagers, all excitedly peering at the screen of the laptop. They were speaking in their language, the Kui dialect, none of which was understandable to us.
The Gram rakhi had meanwhile managed to cook up a very tasty meal of rice, dal and vegetables. We relished the frugal fare, though Ananta opined that one of the black cockerels pecking around should have been a tasty inclusion in the menu. Soon it was time to pack up and say our goodbyes. This was amongst the most interesting of the CP visits we had done till date. Despite the difficulties we had encountered, the sheer relief of not having to turn back, made us forget the travails that we had faced. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend the CP to anyone but a hard-core confluence hunter.
The Kondhs are the friendliest people I have ever met. They are always glad to meet you, and happy to help you out on any crazy scheme you might be into. Especially if it means they get their picture taken. And when you leave, there are handshakes all around with smiles and well wishes. There was a lot of emotional back slapping and hugs as the Gram Rakhi, the Dehuri and the villagers gave us a send off. I had promised to send them the photographs of the cave. It was certainly one of the most difficult, dangerous and interesting CP visits that we had done till date.
We continued on our way to Nandul ( 20o N 83 o E) which was next in our planned CP.
CP visit details:
- Distance to a road: 1.75 km
- Distance to a track: 850 metres
- Distance to houses: 1250 metres
- Duration: Five hours from start until we were back to base.
- Time (distance) for the hike from Base: 3 hours
- Time at the CP: 12.30 noon on 18th January 2009
- Measured height: 740 metres
- Position accuracy at the CP: 6 metres
- Topography: the CP is situated midway on a very steep 400 metres high hill.
- Vegetation: Scrub and medium growth trees. Dense undergrowth made traversing very difficult.
- Weather: Cool and moderate. 25 o C (felt temperature)
- Description of the CP: Located at the base of a rocky outcrop.
- Given Name: The Meriah Cave Confluence
Rating of this hunt:
Degree of Challenge:
4 – A difficult climb up a steep hill at the end of a village. The vegetation
and scrub make it all the very difficult. Both the ascent and descent was dangerous.
(1: very easy drive to the point; to 5: a death march - glad it is
4 – Beautiful scenery with the hills all around. Quaint tribal village,
with their unique life style (Scale: 1= not interesting at all; 5= take your breath away)
5 – Met many people and made quite a few friends. The discovery of a
possible prehistoric cave with stone age tools made the trip very
interesting. (Scale: 1=dull; 5= most stimulating).