My Eastern Ghats tribal adventure began with a shaky start. The jumping off base of Raygada arrived at pre dawn and I felt my first tremors of anxiety as I got off at a nearly primitive train station. It was pitch dark with a handful of stars glittering coldly and I could only see glowing red ends of cigarettes moving ominously on faceless crowds. There was no electricity and suddenly from somewhere somebody clutched my hand. Startled out of my skin, I nearly screamed out loud, when my guide Sarat Routray welcomed me to the tribal belt of beautiful Odisha.

With the help of his flashlight we skipped across the railway tracks and walked for some time through a tunnel of darkness, until the main road of Raygada town blazed in front of us. Lights shone from everywhere, hurting my eyes with the naked glare and I found myself checking into a small inn. It was a ghastly little thing, facing a noisy busy motorway and I stayed put, until a clear dawn broke open the dark night. Sunrise happened thankfully soon enough and we walked out in search of breakfast. Fried Indian bread called puris were being sold from every hand pushed cart along with freshly steamed south Indian rice dumplings called idlis and the strange combination made me realise my geographical position.

Suggested Read : The land of the Avatars

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One beautiful summer morning

The tribal belt of Odisha shares border with the southern states of India and there was a heavy South Indian influence in just about everything. Raucous south Indian film music blared from ramshackle road side eateries and women with flowers in their hair, added more to the South Indian accents. There was quite a bit of North Indian traces too and Raygada being an important transit point for trucks carrying Odisha‘s mineral wealth throughout the country, was a pitstop for drivers from all over India. The town‘s streets were lined with vehicles, inns, eateries and garages and urine and petrol stench covered everything like a thick blanket.

Needless to say, I disliked Raygada immensely and breathed a huge sigh of relief, when Sarat arrived in a sturdy rental car. We immediately started our journey to explore deep into the heart of tribal Odisha and the landscape became magically beautiful, the moment, the city limits melted off. It was a beautiful young morning with an unbroken road stretching happily through a stunning countryside of tobacco, cotton and sunflower fields. Pristine beauty stretched all around us, bordering both sides of the road until it ran into the silvery hill bound distance.

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Tribal beauty and powerful raw colours met my eyes immediately and their childlike simplicity left me speechless. It was market day; the most special day for the tribal communities, when entire families walked for miles carrying on their heads, baskets of fresh produce, kindling wood, babies, chicken and pots of homemade wine. We passed through troops of laughing gay ladies on the way and eggplants, pumpkins and tomatoes tumbled out from their fat, happy baskets. They waved, smiled and chatted with Sarat every time we stopped under flowering mahua trees. Fresh young summer with its balmy heat made these enchanting giant trees to burst forth in blooms and their intoxicating fragrance attracted bees in hordes. In the morning light, rural remote Odisha looked placid and soul soothingly peaceful. It was a far cry from the fearsome violence rocked image that I had of Odisha‘s tribal belt and once again, traveling proved to be a great teacher.

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We drove deep

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Into the colourful tribal heart of Odisha.

We drove for some time through remote glassy smooth road, heading diligently towards the famous Chatikona weekly market. Located near the Bissamcuttack railway station, it is the best place to spot the real “Avatar” tribes and is definitely a ” Not to be missed tribal market of Odisha”. The flamboyant Dunguriya people clamoured there for their weekly shopping and they were joined by equally spectacularly attired Desiya Kondh groups. Apart from their gorgeous culture, strong religious common grounds tied both the communities together and then there was the awe inspiring tale of Niyamgiri Hills.

More from Odisha : Dance like a man I

Revered by the residing Dunguriya and Desiya Kondh tribes as the life spring of their existence, the Niyamgiri Hills of Odisha are rich in the mineral bauxite. This caught the interest of the UK based mining giant, Vedanta and they, along with the local governmental forces were all set to strip the hills off their natural resources. This meant, denuding the forests on and around the area of the hills, breaking down Niyamgiri into bauxite ores and eventually violating the homes of the Dunguriyas. For the Dunguriyas, who lived there, clearing off the Niyamgiri Hills meant not only the destruction of their homes, but also their deity Niyam Raja’s abode, breaking off their spiritual connection with their souls, their ancestors and exploiting their social, cultural and religious rights. They loved the hills more than their lives and fiercely opposed to its destruction.

This battle raged for nearly 10 years until the Dunguriyas chose death over the destruction of the Niyamgiri. Finally on a bleak 2014 January morning, some of the most exploited people of our world, finally won against the massive joint power of  an international mining corporation and local government interests. The Supreme Court of India ruled in the favour of the Dunguriyas, with immediate order to stop clearing of the forests around the area and the victory of the downtrodden Indians was rejoiced throughout the country. It was indeed a groundbreaking victory and the beautiful Dunguriyas became renowned the world over as the real “Avatar” tribes. It was a heart warming tale, which seemed straight out of a fable, where good wins over the evil and happiness (even if not ever after) actually happens.

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It was a fertile land of cotton fields

TRAVEL TIP – Chatikona market is held once a week near the Bissamcuttack railway station, around 48 kilometers away from Raygada town. Surrounded by beautiful valleys, waterfalls and at the foothills of the revered Niyamgiri hills, Chatikona market was already bustling when we reached there. And it was something like a fairy tale. Teeming with primal fashion, beauty, romance and colours, it was India at her best.

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Mahout trees

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Tobacco plantations

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And friendly smiles.

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It was a land

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Which was still primal

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And as old as time,

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Where deep in its heart

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Photogenic yet busy

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Weekly markets

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Like Chatikona happened.

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