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Our drive to the aptly named Serenity in Kerala was a kaleidoscope of colourful interest both on and off the road. Not least we passed a highly over-laden lorry - a great mountain of palm leaves on wheels - which was heading two hours up the twisting road to Serenity to feed its resident elephant.
The following morning after breakfast Lakshmi, said pachyderm, arrived alongside her attentive mahout to spend the morning with us. She works afternoons in the surrounding rubber plantations that cover the hills as far as the eye can see. All the Serenity staff came out from the plantation bungalow to greet her as elephants are much revered here. During festivals they’re painted in patterns of shocking pinks and bright yellows and taken into the local Hindu temple. Lakshmi is the name for the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity and the embodiment of beauty so she’s always in demand and the absolute star of the show.
It seems that the way to an elephant’s heart is through her stomach and we were given an assortment of food to offer her. Bananas proved to be very popular as were crushed coconut, (crushed, that is, underfoot by Lakshmi), mangoes and jack fruit. It’s very strange feeding an elephant, as the trunk approaches your hand it resembles a snake weaving its way through the air before curling itself around the fruit and deftly swooshing it back to its mouth. The elephant’s twinkling eyes suggest she’s enjoying every mouthful and everyone watching can’t but smile. When one jack fruit failed to pass muster, either it was bad or unripe, it was thrown to the ground and then stamped on hard in utter disgust!
Having very slowly and gently knelt down to allow the children to clamber on top Lakshmi’s meal continued with delivery now from above and behind. Her trunk stretched gracefully over her back in a wide arc to delicately search for food offered from those onboard and now out of sight. Breakfast over, for the moment, Lakshmi then proceeded to set off down the track, complete with her passengers and amble down to the river for her morning bath.
Surely it's no coincidence that it’s so close to the French mélange – a “set of diverse elements”? or even “Melee” meaning a "confused or agitated scramble"?
I’m pulled from my reverie when the crowd in front of me parts to reveal a wild-eyed horseman, on an even wilder-eyed horse, approaching at what feels a lot like a gallop. One arm held aloft like the lone ranger he utters a loud yell as he bears down on me. Just as I’m beginning to wonder if this is personal he brings his horse to a stop in a cloud of dust about 10 yards away, with the equestrian version of a handbrake turn, before disappearing headlong into the crowds again.
This, it turns out is a fairly representative example of what Sonepur is like; loud, intensely colourful and brimming with spectacle; like the Bath and West show on speed. But despite the intensity of the sensory assault, I’m struck by the sense of order that prevails within the chaos.
There’s no feeling of threat or panic here, despite the sheer weight of people who walk shoulder to shoulder through the narrow streets. As any first time visitor to India notices, the concept of personal space has little traction here, but even as a 6ft 5 giant I’m amazed that I don’t feel more uncomfortable - perhaps in the setting of the fair with its elephants, snake charmers, bull, bird and dog markets, I blend in as just one more oddity among many.
Sonepur Mela, in the state of Bihar is a remarkably ancient institution; far less known than fairs like the Pushkar camel fair in Rajasthan, but it’s both larger and older. Visited by Chandragupta Maurya in the 3rd Century BC who came to buy elephants across the Ganges, the fair has drawn countless generations of others who came – and still some - to trade animals from elephants to bulls to horses, birds and dogs.
Today the elephants are no longer officially for sale, but they are still here in the haathi bazaar and deals these days are allegedly are done behind closed doors. The bull, horse, dog and bird markets still thrive.
To the outside world, despite being the home of unified India and the birth-place of Buddhism, Bihar is one of India’s lesser known states. A victim of poor economic policy in the 60s and 70s that some suggest robbed it of the birthright of its natural mineral wealth.
In recent decades Bihar has been plagued by dissident activists and suffered a lack of tourists as a result. To date tourism infrastructure remains minimal so Sonepur Mela has remained steadfastly off the radar for all but the most determined of visitors. Of course this feels like a real privilege and I’m aware of being one of a very small number who are walking around with cameras; this is still a place where people watch things that they find interesting with the naked eye, rather than through the frame of an Iphone.
Staying aboard the stunning river boat, the MV Sukahpa, owned by the wonderfully named Assam Bengal Navigation Company, we travel by village boat to the fair and spend two full days exploring. We witness elephants being made-up with colourful paints by their mahouts, spend time chatting to their owners who sit in deckchairs beside their beasts (just out of trunk range) basking in their reflected glory.
We accompany a huge bull elephant as he walks through the tightly-pressed crowds, somehow avoiding squashing anyone, to the banks of the Ganges, and we share his palpable joy at being allowed to roll over into the cooling water to have every inch washed by his mahout.
I’m powerfully reminded of bath-time with my sons when they were little, with even the same commands issued in a tone somewhere between a request and a threat “leg up please…leg UP!” “turn over… please turn over” all the while the elephant much absorbed in the blowing of bubbles and the all pervading joy of feeling weightless.
And there’s another side to the fair that interests me – as a traveller culture is a fascinating allure, but it’s easy to subconsciously apply an authenticity filter and miss things. For all the horsemen, snake-charmers and decorated cattle, there’s a brash and indescribably noisy side to this event, but a side that is no less valid as a cultural experience. Its icon must surely be the Tannoy public address system.
Albeit hand painted and decorated, it blares almost nonstop through the tight streets by the Hariharnat temple and the rows of commercial stalls selling mostly the same blankets, bangles, vermillion and small brass pots for placing offerings in the temples. There’s a harder commercial edge to this side of the fair – the pots these days aren’t hand-beaten brass, but all bear the stamp of a single company in Gujurat. It’s an undeniably modern aspect to the mela, but of course still a resoundingly valid cultural experience.
At the far end of the rows of stalls I find the apotheosis of the modern cultural experience. A tall structure made of cast iron and wooden floorboards towers above me. Rickety staircases climb the sides going up not one, but three shaky stories to a set of balconies that look down, like a steampunk version of Shakespeare’s Globe, into a deep, sheer-sided well.
This is a Wall of Death, India style. While Tannoys outside blast their sales pitch in competition with the un-silenced roar of the motorcycles warming up, we wait while almost three hundred people climb to the balconies to witness the spectacle. 20 minutes later we’re off and within minutes the wall is – incredibly – populated by what looks like a vertical rush-hour.
Four motorcycles, the first driven by a girl of no more than twelve in a gold shalwar kameez, compete for wall space with 2 small Maruti family cars whose drivers sit not inside, but outside on the doors, even reaching across to shake hands. At speed. While hurtling round and round the wall vertically.
It is instantly and unforgettably outrageous - a mixture of comedy and reckless jackass-ery. There must be a word to describe this chaos, this disorderly scramble. There is, what I’m looking at is a melee.
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There was a steady stream of people walking along the roadside, babies hitched on women’s hips or with legs dangling from home-fashioned slings, men on bicycles or crowded into trailers pulled by tractors and we were all heading in the same direction.
By early afternoon we'd reached an open levelled area dotted with a few trees next to a hamlet. The air is buzzing with the sounds of gossip, bargaining, laughter, banter and the occasional shout from vendors struggling through the crowds with enormous sacks of goods balanced on their heads, a dangerously overloaded moped or a rickety trolley desperate to break free.
The weekly haat is one of the best places to meet the people of Chhattisgarh at their best, mingle with the locals and get a glimpse into tribal cultures. It’s a market but so much more than that; apart from all manner of goods being bought and sold, it’s a great social occasion too. Different ethnic groups put on their best and pour in from miles around to catch up with friends and family, local administrators and social workers come to convey their messages and hold meetings, disputes are settled and marriage negotiations carried out.
Under a patchwork of coloured tarpaulins goods are laid out on the ground: pots and baskets, foods such as dried fish, meat and mahua flowers at wholesale rates, toys, bangles, clothing and silver jewellery sold by merchants, farmers and weavers. Village and forest produce heaped in baskets is bartered for basic essentials like salt, tobacco and cloth. And of course, there's the local delicacy to savour - live red ants!
Away from the main centre there may be an outdoor film showing, the services of a palmist or astrologer to employ or opportunity to get an all-important tattoo before heading to the ‘bar area’ to sample the local firewater – rice toddy or mahua hooch made from jungle flowers stored in hollowed out gourds or plastic jerry cans. Sufficiently lubricated, before the light fades, you’ll find the gambling-loving shoppers betting on a cockfight, mediated by village shamans.
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They were there, waiting patiently for us under a clump of trees, our leathery steeds already saddled with cradle-like howdahs and bare-footed mahouts sporting neatly groomed moustaches. While the mahout effortlessly shimmied onto the neck of our wrinkly vehicle I was glad of the rustic wooden ladder provided. Once on board, as we lurched off into the grassland I began to wonder at the wisdom of this expedition - it’s only when you’re on top of an elephant you realise quite how enormous they are. Although the Indian pachyderm is smaller than its African cousin they can still reach up to 3.5m high at the shoulder and weigh 5000kg. Quite impressive for a vegetarian.
It’s hardly Mark Shand’s epic 600 mile journey across India on his elephant Tara but even an hour or so of travelling this way gives you a completely different perspective of the jungle on a wildlife safari. While you can cover more ground by jeep the elephant is without doubt the best all-terrain vehicle there is; gullies and streams present no barrier and are effortlessly crossed in just a stride or two, sturdy branches are dexterously pushed aside, and dense tangles of greenery seem to magically open as if someone had whispered ‘open sesame’. Just hold on to your hat and get ready to duck on your mahout’s command.
We plodded close to deer, monkeys, a variety of birds and an incredible abundance of butterflies none of which seemed to even notice we were there, our placid 22 year old elephant Pawan, born in Kanha, the perfect mobile hide. Pug marks in the dust set our hearts racing and though we didn’t spot a tiger this time, I’m sure he wouldn’t have blinked an eye if we’d ambled by.
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I looked uncertainly at the steep swoop down, like the neck of a brontosaurus, but the children needed no further encouragement, shoes discarded they ran with abandon to the broad base which hung over the glossy green pools of the seasonal river. They peered over the edge looking for catfish and pirouetted with joy at the setting and the moment of being. They then ran back up and down again until they collapsed at the top, exhausted. The bond with Tony, first met at 6.30 that morning, was now firmly established and the children’s enthusiasm for all that he said and told them was unquenchable.
This was a bush breakfast on our first morning out from Kwihala Tented Camp deep in southern Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park. Mangoes, papaya, pineapple, boiled eggs, bacon and sausages, cereals, toast, passionfruit jam, and coffee were laid out on the bonnet of our open-topped Land Cruiser. Piling plates high, we returned to sit on the top of the rock and scanned the river. Herds of elephant, with many young, were making their way down the river bed towards us, to places where they knew they could dig for fresh water. Male impala sparred with each other among their herds and suddenly a cacophony of noise erupted with their snorting and blowing as other males locked horns and chased off pretenders. Beyond the river bed, we could see giraffe and birdlife abounded. We soaked in the scene for nearly an hour.
The scenery of Ruaha is breathtaking; improbably shaped Baobabs punctuate the landscape, tall golden grasses give way to salt bush and groves of sweet smelling wild lavender. The wide sand Mwagusi River, which flows fast and wide in the wet season, attracts the wildlife each morning and evening to drink from the pools the elephant dig. The wildlife is prolific but it’s the elephant that steal the show. Indeed, there was seldom a scene in which large herds of elephant, frequently with their young, were not visible and they had a cool disregard for us, allowing eyelash-counting closeness.
It seems ridiculous to travel all the way to Delhi just for the shopping - and this is the only place that I'll ever admit to it - but if you find yourself in India and happen to be passing through Delhi, pile into a rickshaw, squeeze onto the metro, hail an Ambassador - just get to the Dilli Haat.
Haat, the name for markets held in most rural areas, are usually weekly affairs. The one in Dehli is permanent, on a 6 acre site, with each stall devoted to a specific area of India. With 62 stalls, a 15 day change-over so that different sellers get a chance to showcase their wares and, although some looked rather more established and there was talk of a pashmina stranglehold on the western edge, there's enough rotation and more than enough variety to feel everything that's good and authentic to buy in India has come to you.
Sequinned slippers, silver bangles, palmleaf fish, embroidered shirts, chilli chutney, saris, terracotta hooks, lamp shades, hand bags, table cloths, masala tea, sandalwood elephants, cushion covers, bile cures, pyramids of spices – everything dazzling in fantastic blues, pinks, oranges, greens and reds. Chilled coconut water after the first 3 acres makes all the difference for the next 3 and the smells and sizzles rising in clouds of corriander, chilli, fenugreek, cardamom from the food stalls is reward at the end.
We stayed for hours and could easily have stayed for days, only our driver was keen that we see the Red Fort. Apparently there's more to Delhi than shopping.
Sometimes a crowd of spectators will have gathered, pointing and shouting garbled instructions. On closer inspection, you will make out the object of all this excitement – a flat wooden board punctured by 32 little round holes and lot of brown polished seeds. This is Bao – Zanzibar’s favourite pastime.
The Bao games – the name means ‘wood’ in Swahili – can last for hours or even days at a time. Players develop little flourishes, scattering the counters (known as kete – usually seeds or pebbles or shells) expertly into holes or slapping handfuls down triumphantly at the end of a turn. Bao is played, under various different names and with many rule variations across Africa, western India and the Caribbean. Swahili people are proud of their version, known as ‘King’ Bao and claim it as the original and purest form of the game. Tournaments are held periodically in Zanzibar and on the coast of the mainland.
The object of the game is simple: to secure as many of your opponent’s counters as possible. Bao masters (usually older men) are said to be able to think strategically five to seven moves ahead, a level comparable with professional chess players. Children learn Bao as soon as they can count, scratching holes in the ground in lieu of a board and using chips of wood or stones as counters.
The African love of carving has produced Bao boards of many different sizes, shapes and forms. The board can be represented as resting on the back of a mythical beast, grows human heads from either end or is smoothed into the shape of a fish.
The road to the hamlet is a dirt track that weaves in and out of the forest and through paddy fields dotted with mango trees on the fringes of Kanha national park in central India. A veritable Aladdin’s cave the Indian village shop stocks the essentials and little luxuries that you can’t grow yourself or barter for in the weekly market. Stretched across the shop’s open ‘window’ brightly coloured packets of goodies invite you to draw near, but dare to try and step inside and the hinged wooden counter comes slamming down. Shoppers have to wait outside and ask for what they want; look but don’t touch – whether he’s 8 or 80 it’s the shopkeeper’s prerogative to handle the precious goods and pass them to you as he or she sees fit.
There are no special offers, extra large economy sizes or two for the price of one deals, just strips of tiny affordable sachets hooked over strings between rafters and dangling just out of reach – one application of shampoo, a lone sweet (German caramel or otherwise), a single serving of mouth freshener or chewing tobacco. In the gloom at the back of the shop plastic screw top jars of sugar can be opened to weigh a few grams in ancient scales and take away in a home-made newspaper bag, or if your chickens aren’t laying well an egg or two can be wrapped in a used and discarded page from an old exercise book for safe transport home. On the top shelf a couple of light bulbs jostle for space side by side with hair slides, a mouse trap and miniature bars of soap decorated with impeccably groomed beauties.
But don’t be fooled into thinking rural life is completely without mod-cons. You may still only have a few hours of electricity a day, or get your water from the village pump, but if like the vast majority of people in India you have a mobile phone, you can get your top up here for just 10 pence.
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The origin of weaving in India dates back more than 5000 years; a fragment of faded pink madder-dyed cloth was found in Indus Valley excavations and in Roman times Indian cottons and silks were exported in massive quantities. The trend continued for centuries until industrialisation and demand for cheap mass-produced goods meant weaving skills were almost lost until a timely revival in ethnic and ethical products.
At a FabIndia unit in central India cotton from the region arrives in trucks covered with bulging hessian sacking, like loaves rising uncontrollably out of their baking tins. Cool rooms for spinning, dying and weaving fan out from a gated central courtyard where during the last 50 years the share holding work force has been producing fabrics for Habitat and EAST and are now highly sought after in its own shops in Indian cities.
The clickety clack, ching-ching of the looms become temporarily silent as people disappear for lunch leaving me the chance to browse the shelves piled high with colourful neatly folded fabrics that will be turned into table cloths, bed covers and curtains.
A day’s drive away in a handful of rural villages a charitable trust works with artisans who would otherwise have just two months weaving work a year and need to seek other employment elsewhere. The project is headed by Vijesh who, after graduating with an MA, decided to forgo a promising career in fashion and move instead to this remote part of central India.
Setting out on a moped to hill villages practising shifting agriculture his bobbin winding and sewing machines taken to demonstrate at local markets were initially viewed in horror and fear. Now, following training, they are skilfully used in dozens of homes, to create beautiful cotton khadi scarves, shawls and stoles that are exported worldwide.
In Bajag a weaver sits on his shaded mud veranda at a simple wooden loom constructed in a variety of ingenious ways (no two looms are ever the same) his legs dangling in a pit below and gets to work. The rhythmic clacking of bamboo and chiming of metal rings is absolutely timeless and the future of the handloom, for now, looks secure.
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The flowers don’t remain on the tree for long; they bloom at night and fall to the forest floor at dawn, creating a cream carpet around their parent. At first light tribal villagers make their way through the forests to the trees dressed with new red leaves where the waxy blooms keep coming till the leaves turn green, and carefully collect each fallen flower. Simply distilled in earthenware pots, fiery mahua liquor is drunk in copious amounts but the entire tree is vital to tribal body, mind and spirit, from cradle to grave.
Mahua leaves are woven into cups and plates used for festivals, sticks of the tree are placed on the bride and groom’s hands during weddings and a corpse is anointed with mahua oil. The flowers can be eaten raw, boiled, or fried and eaten with salt and chillies. In south India Tamils use the flowers when no sugar cane is available, though with caution as an excess is said to result in unbalanced thought and even complete lunacy.
Mahua fruit is eaten as a vegetable, while oil from the seeds is used as everything from a hair fixer, for cooking and lighting lamps, to making soap. The crushed leftover matter then becomes a seedcake used as fertiliser.
Both the flowers and the oil have long been used in traditional medicine as a cure for a myriad of ills. The oil is taken as a laxative and to cure piles, while the flowers in various forms are used for heart, bronchial and eye problems, to treat TB, asthma, blood diseases, tonsillitis and to get rid of parasitical internal worms. The bark is used to relieve itching, to heal wounds, fractures and snake bites. Both the flowers and the bark are believed to be aphrodisiacs.
The wisdom of the tribal peoples is now being taken seriously and scientists are checking out mahua properties. One study has shown that mahua oil has more free radicals than extra-virgin olive oil and it’s also being tested for its potential as biodiesel. Watch out for mahua products coming to your neck of the woods soon.
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