Dotted with water bodies and swamped in greenery, the 18-year-old state hosted the annual classical dance and music extravaganza—Chakradhar Samaroh—in the little town of Raigarh. The virgin green trails and slow pace added to the charm.
Words & photographs: Ambica Gulati
Ducks waddled, white lotus swayed in the pond, children did some muscle movement on the swings, women bathed and prayers rang in the air—the park near the hotel was inviting. The cloudy sky and the fresh breeze gave this little green space around the roundabout some colour. Raigarh is a little town that comes alive during navratris, Dussehra and the annual Chakradhar Samaroh. Known primarily for the Jindal steel plant, school and colony that it houses, the little town is like any little town in India—slow, narrow streets, small shops and little bazaar. But everyone seems to be very aware, for, in my search for a unique Chhattisgarh dish, the shopkeepers gave me weird looks, “nothing is unique now, everyone travels and goes out and you find everything available here”. So, I settled for gupchup aka golgappe with dahi and potatoes and meethi chutney. On the streets, idlis, dosas, pakoras were very common,
In the two-day stay, mornings were about green trails but evenings were all about dance and music at the city’s huge Ram Leela ground. The entire town would come to the confluence of performing classical arts, perhaps the largest I had seen till now. Living in Delhi, I am more used to seeing these in the closed environs of auditoriums.
This was the 34th edition, I was told by the city administration. And thanks to this famous legacy, Raigarh is known as the ‘Cultural capital of Chhattisgarh’ or so says the administration website. Going by the info here, Raigarh is famous for kathak and classical music, thanks to Raja Chakradhar Singh. At the birth of this tribal king belonging to the Gond clan, his father Raja Bhup Deo Singh organised a Ganesh Puja and fair. This was 1905. Chakradhar ruled from 1924-47. He wrote many books on dance such as Nrityan Sarvasam, Taal Toynidhi, Raga Ratna Manjusha and Mooraj Paran Pushpak. An exponent of tabla, pakhawaj, he was a dancer and musician himself. Many luminaries of arts came out of the state.
In fact, he took 60 artistes to the first All India Music Conference held at Allahabad in 1938. A year later, in 1939, the conference organised a welcome party for Viceroy of India. While Karthik Kalyan performed the kathak, Chakradhar assisted by playing the tabla, and Viceroy Lord Linlithgow gave him the title of Sangeet Samrat
Now, the palace is just a ruin. The Shiva temple in the back courtyard was swathed in fungus.
Around Ganesh Chaturthi annually, the city hosts artistes from different parts of the country for 10 days. The festival ended on a big bang with Akhtar Brothers making the night even more dynamic with their Bollywood medley.
With green pictures being the lure, the drive to this spot, around 20km, away from the city was a smooth one. Perceptions vary—what Delhi calls monkey menace is ‘monkey watching’ here. But I was disappointed not to find a jharna, albeit a cordoned off ‘kund’ is where Ram put his arrow and water spurted out. There is also a Shiva temple here in a bamboo shelter. Barring the battles between the monkeys, there is nothing disturbing here.
Google had some really amazing images of these caves with rock drawings, going back to 30,000BC and discovered by CW Anderson in 1913. But they are not of this area, as we discovered after a six-hour-long adventure. They were quite close to Ram Jharna and we had to walk just a kilometre and a half in the forested hilly terrain, or so the board said. But this turned out to be an adventure of a lifetime. Luckily, with three of us–Dipanshu Goyal, Abhinav Singh and me—it wasn’t as unsettling as it could have been. The caves actually should be off the tourist map for they are just three big holes in the hills, inhabited by bats and bees with practically no sign of the rock paintings. Warning: Do not attempt to climb without a guide or company.
The GPS took us somewhere in the middle of a rocky hill and thick green shrubs and ended there. We couldn’t see a path. And then the rain decided to come. So, almost one and two hours in this rocky space and we came down disappointed. But Abhinav Singh refused to give up and he roped in a tribal–Krishna Kumar Nishad came on a recommendation by the tea stall owner near the road, and up we climbed again, this time through a tougher path used by the tribals. The showers kept coming, the path strenuous and we walked on the edge of the hill. One step down, and we would have been injured by the sharp edges jutting out. There were three caves, albeit no grand paintings. In one there are honeycombs and villagers have lost their lives. In fact, they are superstitious about going close to the caves. Our guide even pointed out a spot where Raja Chakradhar had fallen, running away from the bees. But the steep uphill climb in the rain without any equipment tested our comfort zone and we did feel like explorers. Also, we were lucky for the area doesn’t have poisonous plants or wildlife.
The area is dotted with Devi temples. You can find one every few metres. The city of Raigarh boasts of a beautiful Gauri Shankar temple in its bazaar area. A mall and cinema house too are in the vicinity. Mostly regional and Bollywood movies play in the four good cinema houses in the city.
Just a few kilometres out of the city, and my driver stopped at another Gauri Shankar temple. Behind this was a pond with fishes and villagers feed them a lot.
And then we drove ahead to the famous Maa Chandrahasini temple, located on the shore of river Mahanadi. The massive river flowed gently at the back as we worshipped another form of Durga. It is said that one of Parvati’s limbs fell here, when Shiva was walking around with her corpse. It was torn into 52 pieces by Vishnu’s sudarshan chakra.
The temple is known for its ritualistic sacrifices. During navratri puja, the king sacrifices a bull and at other times, goats. The blood of the bull is said to wash away all black magic and negative energy from their lives. It was a little sad to hear this—can such animal sacrifices lead to any kind of happiness?
Bridges & Waterfalls
The engine revved once again. We were off to see the longest bridge in Chhattisgarh called Surajgarh bridge. Going over the Mahanadi, this 1,830 meter-long bridge improved connectivity between Chhattisgarh and Odisha.
But the day of greens wasn’t over. We drove into the neighbouring state of Odisha from another highway. This was as green as Chhattisgarh and lovely rocky formation with its little waterfall was known as Koili Ghughar. It is widely believed that a Shivalinga is in the middle of the fall. It can be seen when there is less water. But I only saw a priest sitting by a temple at the shore.
Museum & Food
With a few hours left to catch the flight at Raipur, the state’s hustling capital, I walked around the museum built in memory of Mahunt Ghasidas. Beautiful rock sculptures, languages engrained on rocks and tribal life are showcased in this three-floor museum. Then off to Gada Kalewa in the same complex, where I gorged on some yum snacks. Run by a self-help group, it has many rice-based offerings such as farra, chilla, and other sweets. So, I did find dishes unique to Chhattisgarh. Even the stalls here have mud floors done by hand like ancient times.
How to reach
Raipur is well connected to most major cities of India by road, train, air.
From Raipur, it takes five hours by train to Raigarh. There are many budget and a handful of nice hotels here.