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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.
For more grass roots culture encounters take a look at our website, or get in touch to book your tailor-made trip to India.
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.
If you're interested in discovering local arts and crafts on your travels, get in touch and we'll be happy to plan your tailor-made trip to India.
Like his father before him, after working in the fields he sits on the floor of his home and takes out his brushes to paint dancing peacocks, holy trees and the greatest of gods, Badadev who created the earth and every creature on it.
Santosh is a Gond, a member of one of central India’s largest indigenous communities who for centuries inhabited the region’s deeply forested hills, worshipped nature and the gods of trees, rivers, hills and lakes who protected them. Gond folk-lore and tribal stories were passed from generation to generation in song and the songs transcribed into art.
During weddings and other festive occasions, using vegetable and mineral dyes collected from the forests and a twig from a neem tree tied with a rag as a brush, village houses were painted with geometric patterns, animals and plants for good luck.
Though the Gonds were gradually deprived of their kingdoms and land, and young men in search of work left in droves for the cities their ancient tribal culture clung to survival through festivals and rituals, songs and dances.
When Gondi art was finally discovered by the outside world the artists transposed their work from mud walls to paper and canvas. Myths and folklore, images of daily life and dreams, pictures from the memory and imagination fill the canvas, their outlines crammed with tiny fine lines, dense dots and dashes of multi-coloured intricate designs in acrylic paint.
Each artist has his or her own unique patterns or way of detailing - fish scales and drops of water, a line of creeping spiders, the mark of a plough on a field, the crescent moon, young shoots in a paddy field. That pattern becomes their signature and reveals the Gonds’ continuing bond with nature, a reflection of their culture where life and spirituality are inseparable from the forest and its inhabitants.
From simple beginnings Gond art is now highly in demand and has encouraged the Gonds to take up painting stories once again. Santosh is just one of them and though he now lives on the edge of Bhopal his heart remains in the forest.
If you're interested in visiting rural India take a look at our website or get in touch to book your tailor-made trip.
Rajasthan is synonymous with valiant Rajputs who fought to death in battle while protecting their opulent palaces, but look a little harder and you'll find some rather gentler people living a much simpler way of life.
In rapidly modernising India the Bishnoi follow the same way of life they have done for 500 years, though it’s a way that can be best described by the contemporary buzz phrase ‘sustainable living’; the Bishnoi care for and protect animals, trees and the whole environment around them.
Close to a tiny settlement in rural Rajasthan normally shy chinkara gazelle happily wander by the roadside and blackbuck, an endangered antelope which only remains in protected reserves elsewhere in India, graze undisturbed in Bishnoi farmlands. I’m invited by a woman with a large half-moon shaped nose ring to enter a simple thatched hut. It’s cool inside and though spartan, when my eyes adjust to the dim light I see that it’s spotlessly clean and the family’s few belongings are neatly arranged. While a small bird helps itself to some seed I learn how to grind millet that will become part of a simple vegetarian meal; the Bishnoi never harm or kill any living creature or eat meat.
Since the 15th century the Bishnoi have followed the 29 principles of Jambheshwar, whose code of conduct was designed to aid their survival in the harsh deserts of Rajasthan. He was a forward thinking guru indeed and these days would no doubt be an award-winning conservationist. Central to what soon became a religion for the “29ers” was the direction not to cut down any living tree. The Khejri tree that grows here tolerates the extreme climate and finds water by sending its roots way deep into the ground. It’s almost evergreen, gives shade from the sun, provides fodder for animals and fruits fit for humans, it releases enriching nitrogen into the soil and provides fuel for fires. It’s a super-plant extraordinaire.
Bishnoi devotion was put to the test in the 18th century when the maharaja of Jodhpur, in need of much timber, sent his army to chop down the forests. All the villagers could do was put their arms around the trees to protect them but the soldiers carried out their orders. 363 Bishnoi sacrificed their lives to save the trees. Visit any desert village and you’ll find this story has become a legend, but it’s one worth being proud of. Forget the warring Rajputs and meet the Bishnoi – Rajasthan’s very own eco-warriors.
Read more about how to find the heart of rural Rajasthan by taking a look at our website
The plane door opens into thin air and a very barren landscape – mostly browns, lots of rocks and the occasional spear of a poplar. Ladakh looks tough and dry, the Ladakhis – small, nutbrown and wiry behind the customs desk - are tough and dry too, until they thump an official stamp down on the arrival form and smile.
Driving through town and out towards the villages that cling to the lower slopes of the Ladakh range, there seems to be nothing but dry which explains the need for toughness and the apparent lack of vibrance. Gradually though, as the eye gets used to the landscape, small pockets of colour poke out of the drab. There is the Indus of course, glacial blue, snaking through the valley.
The pure white of the snow along the piles and piles of mountains. The deep indigo of the sky. Closer to the villages, more trees appear – bright green leaves of the poplars and willows – and in the orchards there's the subtle pink of apple and apricot blossom. In May it's a bit early for the barley and wheat but by June the terraced fields are blankets of emerald.
Then there are the prayer flags. Blue, white, red, green and yellow – they're tied to every rooftop, every bridge, every TV aerial. They are strung up between rocks on high mountain passes, attached to remote shepherds huts and decorate every temple whether it's the ornate Hemis monastery or a tiny stone-built ghompa in the middle of a mountain stream. They flutter in the winds, spreading good will and compassion across the earth until their colours fade almost to grey, fraying and tatty where they've been battered by the elements.
On a walk up to Stok Kangri, the highest mountain in the Zanskar range, Pujan our guide, hands us a bundle of prayer flags to tie between a stick of willow and a jagged rock edge. Below is a fast flowing river, full of melted snow. Warm winds whistle through the narrow mountain passes, taking the prayers with them over the peaks and down to the distant plains. Each colour represents a certain element – blue is the sky, white is the wind, red is fire, green is water and yellow the earth.
For us, breathless and lightheaded, watching the small rectangles hanging far above the rest of the world, they represent dreams, faith and longing. They are hung in answer to adversity, floods, famine, the hardship of life in the harsh environment. They are the colours of hope.
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Where the roads peter out, yak trails begin and here semi-nomadic Brokpas depend on the yak for their livelihoods. From the animal comes transport, food and clothing, and in an age when young Bhutanese in the west of Bhutan have discovered baseball caps and T-shirts worn with pride under their traditional gho, Brokpa fashion remains steadfastly traditional.
Men’s black shamo hats have five fringes hanging from the rim, spun from yak hair. The result is both distinctive and practical, working as a gutter and drainpipe when it rains, or head cushion when carrying heavy loads.
In small groups dotted across the remote hills between Trashigang and the porous border with Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in India, the Brokpas move seasonally with their animals between fresh pastures while keeping their eyes open for the revered yeti, or migoi, an animal so important in this part of the world that Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary was created to protect it – as well as other inhabitants including Himalayan black bear, fox and squirrel.
In the autumn Brokpa men on horseback race to the sacred mountain Jomo Kukhar to honour their protective deity, the mountain goddess Jomo Kuengkhar. Racing is followed by rounds of home-brewed ara, prayers, songs and dances offered in return for blessings for prosperity.
As frost begins to cover the high pastures at the onset of winter some of the herders descend to the lowlands with the animals on their ‘grain journey’. Yak produce; butter, cheese and dried meat, is bartered for corn and grains, all the while enjoying the hospitality of a Nepo host who, though entirely unrelated, takes them in and treats them as members of his own family. The favour is returned when the Nepo people in turn head to the hills in the summer months.
The immense privilege of trekking in this remote wilderness is to find a people whose culture seems frozen in time as they continue to live and practice age old customs and traditions in much the same way as their ancestors did. The intrepid travellers who make it here though the deep valleys and over the 4153m Nachungla Pass might even be lucky and be treated to Ache-Lhamo nomadic opera or a Yak Cham – the dance of the yaks.
The valley is steep sided, made up of purple rocks, great slabs of grey slate and mud banks filled with rounded stones that were forced up from the sea bed 40 million years ago.
Rock falls happen daily and the Border Road Organisation are responsible for clearing it – often with shovels and brooms, with the occasional digger for the heavier stuff. The BRO are also responsible for the road signs – when there's not an inch of room either side of the road, they'll paint it on the steep rockface.
Chilling means the place of the Muslims – Chi being Muslim, Ling being place – and is a tiny village whose population of 30 are all involved in metal working, apart from the 4 who are the noisy voices in the two-room school. The village is no more than a cluster of houses reached by a narrow path winding up from the road; some buildings have been here since the first Muslim arrived in the 14th century and cling to the rocks like limpets.
These days, everyone is Buddhist, have been for hundreds of years if the pile of stones on the Mani is anything to go by.Metal working sounds much more industrial that it's meant to. The metal here is copper, brass or tin and small sheets of it are gently knocked into submission with minature hammers and heated on outside grates - no more than 2 foot long - in the apple orchard, with a fire made from a couple of bits of coal and bellows which turn out to be an entire sheep skin.
A blanket over his knees, his lined walnut face low over the flame, the metal worker sits on the floor and taps out intricate patterns on teapots, copper spoons and cooking vessels which line the walls of his kitchen and also those in the King's Palace at Stok. As we leave he reaches into his pocket and hands over a spoon, a lotus flower embossed on the handle and tiny hammer marks in the bowl.
It is not polished, the edges aren't straight but it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever been given.
Scenes of hunts, spoor depicted alongside their respective animals for teaching purposes, records of the arrival of white people in pith helmets with ox-wagons. No one else in their right mind calls the Kalahari home and it’s no small feat to subsist in this hostile landscape. As semi-nomads, the Bushmen move with the seasons, their destinations determined by the availability of food and water.
It’s hard to imagine that there are still people whose street knowledge includes how to concoct lethal poison from bits of a tortoise, which stunted and desiccated shrub will yield a juicy tuber, and remembering where, in an immense landscape, you buried an ostrich egg filled with water a few months ago. It rather puts a trip to Tesco in perspective.
The Bushmen are hospitable to strangers and place a high value on family (particularly children), gift-giving and story-telling – told in their largely unwritten “click” language. Their deep understanding of the environment and its inhabitants goes beyond textbook stuff; hunters are so tuned to the psychology of their prey that they can follow animals where the spoor has long since vanished and still come up with the goods.
Walking in the footsteps of the Bushmen is something we all ought to do at least once.
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Instead of paying a fortune for lunches out, munching unhealthy snacks or lugging your various containers of home-made curry, rice and breads on a long, hot and crowded commute from the suburbs to your desk, in this megacity it makes perfect sense to let someone else do the latter for you.
Spending a morning with Laxman, a 30 year old dabbawalla I recently found out more. Laxman’s family moved to Bombay from Pune to find work. Between him and his father before him together they’ve been delivering lunch boxes for 50 years. Setting off on a bicycle through rain and shine, oppressive summer heat and torrential monsoon downpours they’ve never once let anyone’s midday sustenance go astray.
The incredible delivery chain works without any great layers of management, reams of documents (very unusual in India) or investment in the latest technology. Like the 4000 or so other dabbawallas, Laxman belongs to a co-operative and since the late 1800’s they’ve relied on good old fashioned teamwork to get the job done.
Once the trains are commuter free, the first dabbawalla picks up tiffin boxes from homes on his patch where housewives have lovingly prepared their husband’s and children’s favourite dishes, and takes it to the nearest railway station. Deciphering the various code marks on the tin, a second dabbawalla sorts them according to destination and puts them in crates in the luggage carriage on an appropriate train accompanied by a third dabbawalla.
Laxman is the fourth in the chain and at around 11.30 every morning, wearing the traditional white cap to identify his service, he takes them by bicycle from the end station, Churchgate in his case, to grateful recipients in the city’s offices in perfect time for lunch. In areas with a high density of customers a special cart is used – sometimes holding 150 boxes pushed by three or four dabbawallas
The whole process happens in reverse in the evening when more than 175,000 tiffin boxes complete their return journey home. According to a study by Forbes magazine it’s reckoned that the error rate is just 1 in every 16 million transactions! If only more things worked like that.
Take a look at our website if you're interested in more cultural insights into local life across the Indian Subcontinent and Africa.
Sunrise is early in Ladakh, the tips of the mountains turn pink by 5.00am and the sky is nothing but pure blue an hour later. At Thiksey monastery the day starts early too – standing on the flat roof, 3600 metres above sea level, are two monks in maroon robes each blowing long trumpets – drungchens - out into the thin mountain air. The deep booming echoes around the Indus valley, bouncing off the slopes, reminding villages for miles around that morning prayers are about to start.
The monks of Thiksey are from the Yellow Hat sect, founded by Je Tsongkhapa in the 14th century, so called because when Tsongkhapa came over the moutains without a hat he used his yellow bag to keep his head warm. There are about 60 in Thiksey, ages ranging from eighty six to three and a half, who live in mud brick buildings, painted white, that tumble off the slopes and have willow sticks stacked tightly above the doors to stop them collapsing in an earthquake.
Some of the buildings are far from the main hall and as the sound of chanting begins to pour down the 107 steps, monks race up, their feet slapping on the stone. Outside the ornately carved entrance are many pairs of shoes - crocs in bright pink and green, plastic flip flops - all kicked off in a hurry.
It takes a moment or two to adjust to the dark and the cool of the inside, but by the time we're seated on rugs that are laid out for visitors and are leaning against the beautifully painted plaster walls, it's easy to see the line of monks sitting on raised benches – the eldest at the front, the youngest by the doors.
At first the prayers seem very solemn, heads bowed over the text; the chanting is mesmeric and beguiling, even though it's relatively tuneless. After several minutes individual voices strike out, high squeaky ones that spill over the low melliflous sounds nearer the front. Offerings of rice in round flat dishes are placed in intervals along the benches.
A small boy wrapped tight in his maroon robes against the morning chill, leans over to his friend and whispers something into his ear. Without missing a beat, the friend, shoulders shaking with laughter, grabs a fistful of rice and chucks it at him. They laugh so hard they lose their place in the text. Behind them sits an older monk, completely bald, wearing dark sunglasses and mustard coloured robes, swaying to the prayers like Stevie Wonder.
Suddenly, with no warning, the room erupts with noise – conch shells, bells, trumpets, drungchens and drums – all together, an overwhelming sound, joyous and full of hope and life. We feel it wash over and into us and soon it's almost impossible not to laugh out loud. By the time the young monks come round offering us yak butter tea - and I'm not sure if it's the altitude, or the early morning, or the sheer joy of being here – whatever it is, we're weightless.