Patalkot The Hidden Paradise
“I would say you should skip rural NIIT for Patalkot. The place is too good to be put off for another trip,” Raghvendra, my local contact, said slumping into the sofa at my hotel’s lobby. He was probably the 20th person who had sung paeans to the deep valley, which is located about 78 kilometres from Chhindwara. “But for this, we’ll have to start off very early in the morning, at least three hours earlier than today or you would miss your Delhi flight,” he counselled flipping through the pages of a vernacular daily he had picked up from the table in front of the sofa. 7 AM was too early for a late riser like me but I had no option. The attraction of unseen netherworld, which is buried in Chhindwara’s Satpura range, weighed too heavily on my mind.
Thus, next morning we set off on Chhindwara-Bhopal highway, which takes you to Parasia, a town about 28 kilometres from Chhindwara. From Parasia, we took the road to Tamia, another tourist spot in Chhindwara, which has a viewpoint or two. Surprisingly, despite being the interior of Chhindwara, the road was as silky smooth as it was in Chhindwara city. Six kilometres before Tamia, we took a right turn for Patalkot, leaving the highway for an arterial road, which zigzagged through the hills. On the way, we came across several hamlets inhabited by primitive-looking people who still carry food in a potli (cloth packet) tucked at the end of a stick (the kind you saw in Govinda’s film Jis Desh Mein Ganga Rehta Hai) during their travel to outside world. We also found a group of tribals scouring for a snake in a pile of mud. We found the tribals walking barefoot, ploughing their farms and digging land for matured ground nuts.
After a drive of over two-and-a-half hours, we reached a plateau where tents were being pitched for an annual adventure sports festival. The front crescent of the plateau, closed by a wall, formed a viewpoint from where you can see Patalkot, the verdant valley, cooped up by the mountains from all sides. Situated 2750-3250 feet above mean sea level, the valley houses over a dozen villages where around 2,200 people belonging to Gond and Bharia tribes live. It is believed that the Bharias have been living there for over 5,000 years. They were discovered only about 500 years back.
A staircase from the plateau leads down to the valley. In fact, the staircase covers only a miniscule stretch of the half-an-hour journey to the nearest village called Rathed. The rest of the journey means walking down on a kachcha path, which turns extremely slippery during rains. I met Dhanraj Khamria and Rajkumar, teachers at a primary school in Rathed, who are about to start their walk down under. “It takes 15 minutes to walk down and half-an-hour to climb,” the duo said before setting off on first part of their daily rigmarole.
Rathed is among the three villages, which have seen a little bit of development in recent years. Besides the primary school, it has a primary health centre and a veterinary hospital. There are around five schools including a high school and a middle school in the valley. Dr Deepak Acharya, a microbiologist, who has documented herbal knowledge of Patalkot for over a decade-and-a-half, claims that doctors and paramedical staff visit the PHC only once or twice a month. The tribals mainly rely on bhumkas, the tribal curators, who treat all diseases with herbals collected from the plants found in the forest. Though the forest cover is believed to have shrunk from 79 square kilometres to 46 square kilometres, it still has abundance of medicinal plants bhumkas have known for centuries.
Since it takes a climb of at least half-an-hour in case of Rathed and more in case of other villages to connect with the outside world, the tribals are a self-sustained community. They mainly sustain on cattle-rearing and agriculture. They grow multiple crops such as maize, millet, beans, toor daal and other grains. They use self-prepared seed for these. For cultivating, they don’t plough the land, as that, according to them, would be disrespectful to the mother earth. Instead they use hoe (khurpa) for weeding the soil. A river called the Budhi, which flows through the valley before merging into the Belwa river, is a major source of water for them.
So self-sustained are the tribals that till 1985 they did not even buy salt from outside. They prepared salt from a plant named harra. The tree of mahua, which produces liquor, has a very significant role in their lives. It is considered holy and a drop of the locally-brewed alcohol from tree’s dry husk—called Japai—is poured into the mouth of a newly born as well as the dead.
The tribals do not believe in a caste system but are steadfast in not marrying in the same gotra. They have over 50 gotras. Interestingly, the groom has a lock strapped around his neck when he goes to fetch the bride. The latter, on the other hand, wears keys around her neck symbolic of the control she will wield on her husband. The tribals do not cremate their dead. They bury them in their courtyard.
The tribal men and women wear traditional dresses and ornaments such as chulki, mundri, hasli, kardona, mohanmala, kushmala, mungiamala, patli etc during their festivals. Their most important festival is Meghnath during which a fair is celebrated on Chaitra Purnima (full moon night in March or April, depending on the calendar or position of the planets). The tribals make a wish and encircle a big pillar on this occasion. The boys compete to climb a tree trunk, which is soaked in ghee and other oily substances. The girls surround the trunk and beat up every such boy who tries to climb the trunk. A boy, who is able to climb the trunk, is considered a hero and allowed to choose his favourite girl as his bride.
The tribal women prepare flour on a manual grinder. They cook chapattis from maize, jowar, bajra, wheat, gram, jhurjhuru flour. Dalia, a mix of maize, jowar and wheat grains, is tribals’ favourite food. The tribals are non-vegetarians and hunt goat, sheep, sambhar, deer, rabbit, boar, wild pig, etc. They smoke beedi, chillum and ganja.
In recent years, Madhya Pradesh government has started organising an annual adventure sports festival on the plateau overlooking Patalkot valley to attract more tourists. But nature-lovers feel the step would create biotic pressure on the virgin valley. “Why don’t they organise adventure sports in Panchmarhi? Why do they want to destroy this hotspot (a virgin place)? We only have eight-nine such hotspots in the country,” asked Acharya, who heads Ahmedabad-based Abhumka Herbal Private Limited, a company, involved in documentation of herbal knowledge in the country.
By Narendra Kaushik from Patalkot