Glittering caves, prowling panthers, romantic waterfalls and royal invitations – discover a hidden India far from the maddening crowds
A throaty growl, followed by a derisory snort, then the purring of an engine: as you look around nervously for tigers, wild boar or an errant 4WD, a flock of Bastar Hill Myna birds, high in a treetop, burst out in human-sounding giggles and chatter. It’s the state bird of Chhattisgarh and is one of the world’s best mimics – it can imitate almost anything, even people.
This talent once made it a prized cage-bird, but thankfully, it’s now illegal to keep them. See them in their natural habitat in the Myna Park in Jagdalpur – you’ll recognise them by their glossy black coats, rose-and-orange beaks, bright yellow feet and distinctive swirly gold neck markings. To catch them at their most talkative, visit between 10am and 12pm, or 3pm and 4pm.
KING OF THE CASTLE
Several of Chhattisgarh’s districts were once princely states, leaving a legacy of fine palaces, many still home to members of royalty. In a remote hillside setting near the border with Madhya Pradesh, Kawardha Palace, built in the 1930s, is an elegant mix of Italian, Colonial and Mughal styles. Stay overnight if you can (it’s 127km from Raipur), but if you’re pressed for time, call in advance to book a meal in the restaurant or a tour of the palace – possibly with a member of the royal family, which still lives there. Guests stay in sumptuous suites or in one of three cottages. Like the palace, they’re decorated with Italian marble and furnishings fit for a maharajah. (See http://kawardhapalace.com; doubles from £34, full board.)
The steep hills, wide river and virgin forests of Kanger Valley National Park provide the ideal habitat for a huge variety of animals. The Big Five here are jaguar, leopard, sloth bear, wolf and crocodile, but equally exciting to spot on a safari drive or game walk are the rare dainty mouse deer, the unnerving flying snake, as well as a unique species of wild buffalo.
The park is full of spectacular waterfalls and caves, and tribal people also live within it, so a visit here makes a perfect introduction to Chhattisgarh itself. Bisected by the Kanger River, the eastern half of the park is wilder, hillier and has fewer people, so it’s the best place for wildlife-spotting. At 200sq km in area, you’ll need to allow plenty of time if you want to see even a fraction of it.
Take a guide with you to help find the animals, and it’ll set you back a mere £2 a day. Eco-lodges are set up near the park to allow for overnight stays.
The hills of Chhattisgarh are pockmarked with hundreds of caves, many filled with stunning, shiny, bizarrely-shaped formations that make it seem like you’re entering a strange, secret world. Some of the most impressive are in Kanger Valley National Park, but you’ll need to be fairly fit if you want to explore them as they all involve steep ascents or descents – make sure to bring sturdy, non-slip shoes. Others worth visiting include the Kutumsar Cave, where an unusual species of albino blind fish lives, and the Kailish Gufa – the stunning setting and unusual stalagmites and stalactites found in this cavern make it truly astounding. Local folklore has it that one of these formations was once worshipped as a fertility symbol of the Hindu god Shiva. The reason? It’s looks rather like a phallus.
In a land of lush, hilly forests with dozens of rivers running through it, it’s no surprise Chhattisgarh has some of India’s most remarkable waterfalls. One of the most famous is the horseshoe-shaped Chitrakot Falls near Jagdalpur. A vast 300m wide, it looks similar to Niagara, but unlike its Canadian cousin, it lacks the hordes of tourists rifling for the best shot. To see it at its peak, go between July and October.
Chitrakot Falls may have all the drama, but if it’s romance you’re after, head for nearby Tiratgarh Waterfall (pictured). Its 100m drop is tiered over several levels – walk under it to cool off on a steamy day, or climb to the rock at the top for a bird’s-eye view down to a small temple. Take a picnic basket for a tête-à-tête among the nearby ruins of a 1,000-year-old Hindu civilisation, with the sound of the falls crashing in the background.
Although celebrated throughout India, the Dassera festival held in Bastar is unique, focusing on local female deities rather than Lord Rama. Everyone takes part in the celebrations, regardless of religion, and the combined Hindu and tribal elements exemplify the ways the different communities have adapted to live together happily.
At 75 days, this is the longest Dassera in the world, but the main event is in the final 10 days, usually in September. Priests parade through the streets carrying deities decorated with flowers, Brahmins recite sacred texts, and two youths are chosen for some special tasks: a young girl swings on a bed of thorns, seemingly possessed by a deity who gives his blessing to the festival. A young lad is also buried up to his neck for nine days and left to meditate. But if you miss Dassera, don’t worry. You can catch one of the dozens of festivals that occur in the region throughout the year.
THE OLD, OLD TOWN
Not far from Raipur lie the remains of one of India’s most important ancient cities. Archaeologists found the ruins of old Sirpur in the ’50s. Soon after, another significant discovery was made there: Laxman, a brick temple dating back 1,600 years (above). The oldest of its kind, Laxman marks a change in temple architecture because, until then, they had been built of stone or wood. The temple also houses the statue of a 6th-century female Buddhist monk, who was said to have been converted from a life of crime to piety by Buddha himself.
Exploring the ruined town, with the foundations of houses, temples and other structures evident, provides a glimpse into Chhattisgarh’s history. Recently, another level, thought to date back 2,000 years, has been found beneath the original. So far little is known about the city, and archaeologists can only surmise what happened to its inhabitants.
One of the heritage jewels of India, the Danteshwari Temple is hugely important to the people of the region and plays an important part in the Dassera festival. Built in the South Indian Hindu style, it has four distinct parts, including an 800-year-old inner sanctum and two significant stone sections.
Given the high status of women in many of the tribal communities of Chhattisgarh, it’s not surprising to find that the goddess worshipped here is an incarnation of divine feminine creative power. Villagers come from all over the state to pay homage to her. Two rivers, Shankini and Dhankini, meet at the temple, making for a dramatic setting.