Carved out of Madhya Pradesh in the year 2000, the state of Chhattisgarh is one of the oldest tribal enclaves of India. Etymology suggests that Chhattisgarh’s name can be traced back to its lineage of 36 feudal territories or forts that do not exist in the same form now.
The landlocked state has a wealth of natural treasures including undulating hills, fertile lands bursting with bright green paddy fields, snaking tributaries of the Mahanadi and the Indrāvati rivers, plunging cascades of waterfalls and dense shaded forests. It is said that this is the very land that even Lord Ram walked on during his exile.
But more than this, it is the intense cultural magnetism that makes for its main draw. Home to the most organic form of living, the state is inhabited by more than 40 tribes that originally lived off the forest – some of them, still do. The complete submission to nature, intense devotion to local gods and goddesses and a life that is deeply interwoven with the deep jungles, the tribes of Chhattisgarh offer an enchanting view of their world.
Incredible biodiversity at National Parks and Sanctuaries, ancient Hindu temples, vintage palaces, Buddhist monuments, unique tribal practices, local handicrafts and stunning topographical wonders makes Chhattisgarh unique from other states in India.
Located in the southern part of the state, Bastar is Chhattisgarh’s most compelling region for a tryst with tribal culture. Even though the region is now fragmented by district boundaries of Kanker, Narayanpur, Kondagaon, Dantewada, Jagdalpur, Sukma and Bijapur districts, together these make the erstwhile Bastar.
A journey into Bastar promises exquisite glimpses from the region, especially in interaction with the tribals. As one of the oldest inhabited regions of the country, Bastar is truly one of the last bastions of traditional lifestyles left in the country. The region exposes you to the striking world of witchcraft, local deities, their magical powers, dances, songs, tribal-centric crafts like bell metal work called dhokra and use of wrought iron, terracotta, sisal, cowrie shells, stones work, paintings and tattooing.
The tribals, who were mostly animists, still exhibit the skill of living off the jungle with rudimentary facilities but extremely sharp natural instincts. Their symbiotic life in the forests is something that is incomprehensible to the modern world.
A glimpse of the primitive social and commercial life of the tribals is best seen at the weekly haats or markets. Here, small tribal communities trundle from far off distances with jungle produce collected over the week. At the haat, they sell this to earn money, which they can immediately use to buy things that are not available in the forests. Soaps, clothes and jewellery are the main objects to purchase. Barter was not uncommon till a few years ago and is still present in some places. The other way to see tribal life at close quarters is at the time of local festivals and fairs (madhais).
The people of the land
The mosaic of traditions and layered social fabric of Bastar makes a rendezvous with the tribals very complex. While the entire Deccan region starting from parts of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and even Andhra Pradesh can be called the tribal belt of ‘Gonds’, the term is generically used. In context to Chhattisgarh, while many of the tribes speak the universal Gondi with variations and accents of their own tribal dialects, their physical features, dressing, music, dance and craft clearly distinguish their identities. The heart of Chhattisgarh is occupied by these major tribes - Bison Horn Marias, Murias, Abhuj Marias, Bhatras, Dhurvas, Halbas, Dorlas and Gadbas.
The tribal stronghold in different regions of Bastar can be broadly defined in context to the directions emanating from Jagdalpur and Narayanpur, two key towns of the region. While Murias are spread over a large region, a fair population can be seen near Kondagaon and Narayanpur area. The Bison Horn Marias can be seen in the southern part of Bastar, in Dantewada and in Jagdalpur. Abhuj Marias, the most reticent of the lot, live in the deep jungles, west of Narayanpur. The Bhatras are commonly found northeast and southeast of Jagdalpur, the Dhurvas in the south and southeast of Jagdalpur, Halbas are spread all over the region in small pockets, Dorlas in the deep south and Gadbas in the southeast, spilling over to Odisha.
Tribal villages are divided as paras (group of villages). Each para can have up to 80 or more clusters of homes. The most prominent people of the village are the siraha (witch doctor), gunia (sorcerer), the gaita (village head man) and gurmayi (singer or religious songs).
A local deity also takes the form of the much-revered ‘Anga Dev’ who is enshrined in a large wooden ladder-like form, or sometimes even a stone, stick or a tree. The Anga Dev and various deities find significance during different festivals of the tribals. The most common form is a broad ladder like shape, with the face of a snake in front and embellished with peacock feathers.
These tribes, some more elusive than the others, were possibly the first occupants of the region, settling into the jungles and living off the land for thousands of years. They were mostly animists, but now a shade of Hinduism seems to have tinged their ceremonies. One such annual religious ceremony is the Lakshmi Jagaar.
Lakshmi Jagaar is an oral tradition of performing a ritually enacted myth, featuring Goddess Lakshmi and her consort, Narayan. Lakshmi Jagaars are largely seen in the Halbi speaking areas of Bastar, especially villages off Jagdalpur, Narayanpur, Kondagaon, Dantewada and Bijapur.
The local temple of the village hosts the Lakshmi Jagaar for three consecutive years and is conducted by the gurmayis (singers). The ceremony is hinged on harvest themes, and can last from 11 days to longer. These are usually held in the winter months from October to February. The Lakshmi jagaar can start on any day, but must end on a Thursday. On this day, the songs are sung for the whole night. During the festival, the gurmayis take a break in the day and at night, usually spending only the afternoons in the temple. In fact, jagaar can be translated to ‘being awake’.
On the final day of the festival, fasting and lack of sleep are seen as religious gestures, but the jagaar also has entertainment value. It is on this day that the legend of Mahalakshmi and her consort, Narayan, comes to an end. While Lakshmi and Narayan are the highlights of the story, the jagaar is organised to invoke gods from all parts of Chhattisgarh (and other places) to bless the village for a good harvest and a prosperous year. The folk tale sung by the gurmayis is the highlight of any Lakshmi Jagaar.
Kinds of Jagaars
Apart from Lakshmi Jagaar, other oral traditions like Tija Jagaar (also known as Dhankul) and Bali Jagaar (sung in Odia and Pengo) are also held in the villages. While Tija Jagaar is organised in the monsoon months, Bali is organised during summer. While the storytelling and themes are different from Lakshmi Jagaar, the celebration is alike. There is a principal singer called the gurmayi who leads the ceremonies for days (Gregory and Vaishnav 2003).
The main singer at a Lakshmi Jagaar is the senior most gurmayi called the pat gurmayi, who assisted by two younger women, who are known as cheli gurmayi. The pat gurmayi is usually an elderly woman who can leave her home to sing in different villages. The cheli gurmayis are often seen accompanied by their young children, since they are still attached to household duties. The singers do not see this as an occupation, but more as a call from the goddess to participate in the ceremonies. The gurmayis say that it is at the order of the goddess that they take on this role. But mostly, the skill is handed down from generation to generation. It is likely that the tradition is passed on in the same household from grandmothers, to their daughters and daughter-in-laws and to the younger girls of the house.
There is no official pay attached to this responsibility, but it is seen as a matter of great honour to be invited as a gurmayi to different villages. As part of the ceremony, they are offered rice, millets, fruit and even money for their services, but there is no income attached to the singing. If a jagaar is to be organised, then the village headman invites the pat gurmayi of his choice after consulting the priest and the witchdoctor. The gurmayis are escorted and hosted at the village, and given lodging and food facilities with great respect.
At the jagaar
It is the role of the pat gurmayi to see to it that the jagaar is organised properly. A small hall in front of the main sanctum of the village gudi (temple) is assigned for this. Each morning the hall and the sanctum are swept, washed and in some cases caked with cow-dung. One of the walls of the jagaar is painted with a large mural depicting different aspects of the village life. In the centre is Goddess Lakshmi, who is surrounded by other deities, the Anga Deva and vestiges from the village life - hunting, different animals, the sirhas in trance and also gurmayis singing in front of pots of rice. There has been a prominent Hinduisation of this mural over the last few years. One is likely to see gods like Hanuman and Shiva, and political symbols like a lotus feature in these murals.
Two large pots of rice are kept facing the sanctum, which houses the chief deity and other significant deities of the village. At the beginning of the jagaar, the women of the village sow barley in small baskets, which grow into small plants, a few days into the jagaar. These can be seen everywhere in the gudi. The offerings to the goddess are in the form of lentils, fruits, incense and rice.
The gurmayis take their seat facing the sanctum, behind the large pots of rice, to sing. They work in groups of three to five, with two main instruments, dhonu (a two meter hunting bow like stringed instrument) and chiriya (a short split bamboo broom like instrument to strike the dhonu). Both form the main rhythm for the gurmayis to follow. Additional instruments are also part of this and are played by the men of the village. These are, mohori (oboe like instrument), nagara (big drums), turburi (small drum), a dhol (elongated drums) and a dhapra (tambourine).
On the key dates of the jagaar, the gurmayis fast all day long. In the evenings, the women of the village get together and cook prasad (offering) in a makeshift kitchen outside the gudi. The prasad consists of roasted sesame with jaggery and sweet jaggery water served in leaf bowls.
On the special days of the jagaar (on major events like marriage and Lakshmi bearing a child), the entire village and some from adjoining villages congregate at the gudi. Women come in and make bowls from large leaves, which are filled with rice and lentils, and offered in front of the large pots of rice. At the end of the jagaar, these are taken to the fields and mixed with the mud, or deposited to a local pond or river.
The song sung by the gurmayis follows a single pattern and tone through the hours. These are broken into couplets - shorter ones with 20 beats and longer ones for 40 beats, with the last few beats silent. There is a lot of repetition in verses. The storyline is that of Mahalakshmi’s life. It covers her birth, childhood, marriage and even motherhood. The episodes are fragmented in different sections like:
- The story of the origin of the world
- Embedded narratives about King Meng and Queen Mengin, who descend from the upper world to the middle world
- Introduction to King Mahadev and Queen Parbati who help Kind Meng and his wife conceive a baby, but take a promise in return, that if a girl is born, she would have to marry Mahadev’s younger brother, Narayan.
- Story of Mahalakshmi. In this part the challenge of Narayan, previously married to 21 wives, and falling in love with Mahalakshmi is depicted. The struggles of managing his new wife along with the jealous wives are detailed in different stories. The myth ends in reconciliations and everyone living happily ever after.
The words are simple so that everyone understands, and is largely stripped off of any poetic nuances. The main themes revolve around invoking the goddess to ensure that the jagaar goes smoothly, that the village is blessed with a good harvest and that they are free from omens and illnesses (Gregory and Vaishnav 2003).
Gill, Stephen. 2015. The Chhattisgarh. Unistar Books.
Gregory, C.A. and Vaishnav, Harihar. 2003. Lachmī Jagār, Gurmāi Sukdāi’s Story of the Bastar Rice Goddess. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Mahavar, Niranjan . 'Arts and Crafts of Chhattisgarh', www.cgtourism.choice.gov.in (viewed on March 20, 2008)