A nervous rooster leapt into a short flight and squawked angrily at our car as it bounced through the dusty haze of the village road. A sense of intrigue hung in the air. We had already crossed the large memory pillars enroute – simple but emphatic memorials of important people from the tribe. Each one was painted in vivid colours depicting life of the deceased with the model of a bird propped on top to signify easy passing of the soul. Not a single village or person could be spotted through the dense forest or sprawling bright green paddy fields for kilometers. Our destination, a Bison Horn Maria village, seemed elusive, amping up my excitement to get to Jogi San’s house. He had promised an unforgettable lunch.
The tribal villages in the Bastar region of southern Chhattisgarh are made of small clusters of huts, sometimes as less as five or six. About eighty of these make a larger para, led by a community head known as a maajhi. As I meandered through the narrow lanes between brown walls of village huts, Awesh, a local culture enthusiast and my guide for the day, pointed out small nuances of the Maria architecture. The essential pigpen, the flat stones dug into the earth to make a boundary wall and immaculately clean sunny courtyards. The village head, Jogi, was a dear friend of his and was more than glad to extend a lunch invitation to me. Other journalists from news channels and magazines had not been offered such a warm welcome. I was ecstatic. My interest lay largely in seeing the Bison Horn Maria culture at close proximity – their homes, their clothes, headgears, tattoos and more than anything, a live kitchen in action. After all, I couldn’t give the world famous red ant chutney a miss.
After a quick johar (greetings in local dialect), we got down straight to business. Jogi hollered for an assistant and picked up a small basket and a long stick and walked briskly to a Mahua tree, a few homes away. Before I could take out my camera and meter for the subject, the assistant was halfway up the towering tree, propelling himself with bare hands with the agility of a monkey. Later I found out, this ‘agile’ man was all of 50 years old. I silently felt embarrassed at my own dwindling fitness levels. He had identified a large red ants’ nest and prodded it with the long stick. Just a few nudges and the big blob, eggs and all, came down with a thump, right in Jogi San’s basket. I stood at a distance, watching large lethal looking red ants rain on him. A short dance of shedding the ants ensued but without getting fettered. He swiftly jogged back to his house and clasped the crawling mass into a saal tree leaf, binding it with a vine. The key ingredient was deposited to the kitchen, where his wife took over.
As I trotted back, keeping pace with Jogi San, three men stood gallantly over a white furry object on the floor of the courtyard – a rooster. They mock complained how it had been a battle of sweat and fortitude; they ran around for 45 minutes before one of them could sweep across and jump on him. Now, all the essentials were in the kitchen. Jogi’s family swung into action, two of them roasting the chicken and then plucking each feather out. In the far end of the open kitchen, Jogi’s wife poured the crawly ants into a wooden mortar and brought down the pestle with extra vigour, hiding an embarrassed smile as I pointed the camera in her direction. Ginger, salt and a hint of chilli were added to the red crispy concoction. With and a few bites on Jogi arms, it was established that it was successful catch of the day. Meanwhile, the smell from the chicken wafted through the brown dung swathed roof walls and into the noses of the hungry coterie of a vagabond, her guide, driver and several men from the village. A quick makeshift container was sewn together with saal tree leaves, the chicken poured in. Some water, salt and chilli and leaf vessel was shoved into the burning wood fire. Jogi also retrieved a small cup of saige, a watery rice soup that was to be served with the chicken.
The twenty minutes passed quickly as the lunch company quickly grew boisterous over some salphi and mahua, delighted that I was game to taste the local tribal brews. Leaf cups were being passed around generously and a slow buzz accompanied the hunger. Soon, the saal vessel of the chicken started getting charred, it was salvaged from the flames of the fire and torn up to reveal perfectly cooked tender chicken.
As I chewed the delicious bits, frequently dipping them into the red ant chutney, I wondered if it was the same rooster that had escaped the wheels first.
Contact Awesh Ali (ph: +91 9425244925) for trips that orient you to tribal life and get you acquainted with the vibrant haats (local markets) of Bastar. He recommends festivals known as madhais as the best time to visit the region.
For more on this beautiful state, check out our recently released pocket guide series on Chhattisgarh.