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Colorful Life of Dandami Marias

by K.L.Kamat
Adapted from Author's The Timeless Theater CD-ROM

Orchha is a tiny, sleepy village in Bastar district of Madhya Pradesh. However, on market-days every week it becomes lively, vibrant, and takes on a festive atmosphere. Over centuries the Dandami Maria tribals have led a secluded and isolated life in this area. In order to obtain first hand information about this tribe, one has to walk more than thirty kilometers in the wilderness. As it is very easy to get lost in the forest terrain, Sukhdev Rajmestri, a local carpenter, was engaged as a guide.

We commenced our journey to Orchha from Chote-Dongar before the sun rose. Soon we came across the Amdayi river. What a lovely and serene scene it was! The virgin forest teemed with plants and animals; the towering trunks and branches of  hard wood trees like Sal, Sunja, Seja, and Teak  filtered sunlight onto a moist and spongy forest floor. Some of these trees were covered with orchids, climbers and woody vines. Some parts of this rain forest are almost impassable and it is easy to lose one's way.

All along the Amdayi river, we noticed people engaged in different activities. A young girl was bathing in a shallow pool of water, unmindful of the strangers. (I decided not to photograph her as it would have frightened her.) A group of ducks swimming leisurely in the water changed their course when they sighted the visitors. A youth was perched dangerously on a solitary rock, in the hope of catching a large quantity of fish. A man in the shadow of a tall tree was aiming his catapult at a fanciful bird. A hunter was tracking his prey with bow and arrow held in readiness. Rabbit-trappers had laid their nets amidst the bushes and were shouting at the top of their voices to drive their panicked prey towards the nets.

We came across many tribal families who were on their way to the weekly market. They smiled, greeted us, and offered us food and liquor. People of the so-called civilized world  have forgotten this type of courtesy long ago! From every nook and corner of the forest the villagers emerged in their other-worldly attire. It almost created an impression of a fancy parade. Youngsters had strings of cowrie (brightly colored shell of a mollusk found in India) or bright colored hibiscus flowers as their head-gear. Men wore military uniforms from the second world war or used waist-coats. A few were in skin tight banians (Indian undershirts). The girls were more gorgeously dressed. Their nicely combed hair was tied into buns and decorated with flowers, ribbons, wooden combs, pins and clips. Their earrings and bangles were made of brass. The ladies sported necklaces of red, white, and blue beads. Most wore mini-saris of colorful cloth, hardly enough to cover their shapely bodies.

The Marias consider the market-day as an opportunity for socializing, and hence the entire family is on their toes. In a competition they would win awards for long-distance speed walking: a family may cover forty to fifty kilometers a day, with a load on each member's head, through difficult forests and mountain terrain, and yet go without eating food for a whole day! The tribals have a unique way of carrying their belongings: they carry their bow on the shoulders, and from either end hangs a bamboo basket in which is stored cookware and the produce to be sold. I admired their simplicity, civility and respect for the passers-by. To entertain themselves, young boys and girls chat and sing, reminding one of a flock of screeching parrots.

Dandami Marias are starved of hard cash, and therefore have to go for barter for goods. They exchange produce such as honey, liquor, and mustard-seeds for oil, salt, chilies, and jaggery. The business fraternity cheats the tribals in terms of price and quantity, but they are either unaware or unmindful of this treatment. A visit to weekly marketplace serves them in many ways; they meet their near and dear ones who live in distant villages; childhood friends reminisce. A village youth may offer some puffed-rice to a girl from the neighboring village, as a sign of admiration for her beauty. She in turn may proudly share it with her friends. Many times, old disputes are settled and new wedding alliances are formed right there in the marketplace.

Stories of Bastar Travel
Table of Contents | Arrival | Chotedongar | Jagadalpur Bazar
In Gond Forest | Ghotul Schools | Picture Gallery

When Sukhdev met  the Patel (village head) of Modnar and explained to him that this visitor from a distant city was interested in visiting his people, the Patel became very excited. He hurriedly completed his shopping and escorted us to his village. On our way there he narrated the sorrowful story of his peoples' plight; " Babuji (Sir), from time immemorial we were on our own, therefore we did not mind our utter poverty, hunger, and other miseries and calamities. Now things have changed, and there is too much interference in our affairs. The government officials pretend as if they are our only saviors, and therefore they meddle with whatever we intend to do. We have been practicing  the "penda"(shift cultivation) mode of agriculture for ages, and now these officials have put a full stop to this. We are a wandering tribe. The elders select a fertile land with perennial water supply and establish hutment. We cut down big trees to erect a strong fence against wild animals. After burning down trash and debris, seed is scattered and the crop that results is distributed equally among the people. The vegetables that we grow, the fish we catch, and the meat that we hunt supplements our food supply." When asked why the government should object to this, he explained that "continuous land use leads to its degradation as we do not believe in replenishing our `feeding mother` with manure or fertilizer; instead we shift our entire village to a fertile location! The officials object to `penda` as it leads to soil erosion."

When interrupted with a question, "Since the government is providing numerous facilities, why don't you make the best use of them?" he replied: "We don't intend to lead a parasitic life, dependent on anyone. But, the government officials  impose too many restrictions on us. The Education Department has made it compulsory that our children should attend a far-away school every day!

The Public Works Department  asked us to spare a member of each family to help in road construction and not be paid any wages for it! The Excise Department denied us the right to brew our own liquor. Therefore, we have to buy it from the Government contractor which has lead to heavy debt. Whatever little we have is taken away by these 'outsiders'. In these circumstances how can we make a living, Babuji?" he asked. Sukhdev was not interested in these sad stories. He noticed a wild fruit tree near-by, and like a monkey he instantaneously climbed it, in order to pluck some fruit for his children.

While waiting for Sukhdev, the Maria Patel narrated an incident that had taken place the previous year. His eldest son had run a very high fever after returning from the forest one day. The family got scared and made inquires with Guna, their clan medicine man. On his recommendation, they offered a fowl and a goat to their Matire Devi   (Goddess of the soil) but could not save him. In their society, because there is an acute dearth of brides, it is customary for a younger brother to marry  the widow of the elder brother. Accordingly, when preparations were going on for the Bhahu (daughter in law) to marry his second son, a police party appeared on the scene and accused the lady, of actively participating  in her husband's death, and dragged her to the police station. The Patel and his family were frightened to death and dared not question the police about her fate. However, they were happy when their neighbor brought the news that she had been looked after well, in the police officer's residence. However, the evening she returned home, she was completely shattered. For all their questions, tears was the only answer that they got. When the lady of the house took her into confidence, the young woman revealed  that the officer had used her as a mistress. When he learnt that she was going to be mother soon, she was dragged out of the house and sent back home. She cried throughout the night as the family maintained a vigil. Early in the morning, in the pretext of answering a nature's call she departed from  the hut and never returned. Later they found her body hanging from a tall tamarind tree. "Why does the Government have to punish us, for no fault of ours?" the Patel broke down.

We were on the move again after Sukhdev joined us. In order to cheer up the Patel, I questioned him about their love and marriage."Babuji, boys and girls, men and women are like two wheels of a bullock cart and we make no discrimination between them. They play, dance, drink and  even go to the forest together. The forest is our natural bedroom. Married couples take the shelter of the forest for their coitus. While making love, we are at times faced with wild animals, like the time when I was with my wife under a big tree. All of a sudden my partner got very tense and frightened. When I looked around, I saw a big tiger right behind us. Fortunately a deer came by and the tiger went for the kill."

"Our life partner is a gift of God!"  the man continued. "There is nothing she will not or cannot do. She fondles the husband like a child, loves him like a lover, keeps him company like a true companion, respects him like  a partner, and works with him as an equal", he proudly announced. "I should have selected a Dandami Maria girl as a life partner, who would have made the rest of my life happy", I interjected light-heartedly.

© K. L. Kamat
Dandami Maria
Stamp released by Government of India honoring the Dandami Marias

News of the arrival of guests spread in Modnar village like wild fire. The chief's hut was kept neat and clean. The living room had a roof but no walls! It was like a small tribal museum; corn ears, leaf baskets, drums, bows and arrows dangled from the roof. In a corner nearby, there was a fire place with an undying flame, and a few earthen pots. The housewife swept the place and spread out a blanket for the visitors. A pet parrot made noises demanding to know who these outsiders were.  A domesticated monkey in the court-yard appeared agitated by the arrival of unfamiliar faces. Inside a bamboo basket mother hen was busy incubating her eggs. A rooster kept watch near-by. A large quantity of firewood had been stored in a corner of the compound.

The sweet aroma of freshly brewed `landa` (fermented rice liquor) brought new vigor in Sukhdev`s activity. The Patel claimed, he felt fatigued and was about to retire for the day, when the lady of the house brought in an earthen pot full of `landa`. Like school-children, men and women presented leaf-cups into which the lady emptied  a hollowed  gourd containing the `landa`. The Patel gulped down the first helping and demanded a second cup. "Landa is the best medicine for my father a fact we discovered over years", the Patel's son poked fun at his father's weakness for liquor. With his spirits boosted by the landa, he addressed to his guests: "Babuji, look at my wife, an old ass! How can I go to the forest with her? Please, find a young bride for me whose body  is as strong as that of a wild boar, and agile like a deer." With these words he asked for a third helping landa. The wife instead poured him a pail of cold water on his head so as to bring him to his senses. This act of hers made everybody burst into laughter. As the chief guest (and also because I refused the landa) I was served tea without milk and sugar.

The Patel then  commanded that a dance performance should be arranged in honor of the visitor. Enthused, the boys and girls brought out cane-baskets containing costumes. The boys put on headgear made of a pair of buffalo horns, wrapped with yellow and red ribbons and a bunch of rare plumes tucked in the center. (This sort of headgear has led to the tribe's popular name `Buffalo-Horn Maria` even though they prefer to be called 'Dandami Maria'). Numerous cowrie (see cowrie decorations) strands dangled from this headgear  hiding the dancer's faces from onlookers. An elongated drum was tied to their waist. The girls' hair-buns were decorated with red, blue and white ribbons, wooden combs, and hairpins. They wore numerous, colorful strands of beads around their foreheads. They also decorated their necks with necklaces made of coins, and also wore glass bangles. Each dancer carried a baton that had tiny bells attached. Though they do not use any color for their make-up, their costumes themselves gave them a very majestic look. The booming sound of the drum brought other villagers to the Patel's house. The boys moved forward and backward in a semi-circle and the girls followed their steps. When the drums and bells synchronized to produce rhythmic music, the girls commenced singing in very low voice. However, as the boys played the drums with vigor, their singing pitch also increased. They continued dancing until the Patel put a stop to it.

© K. L. Kamat
Adivasi Dancer
Buffalo-horn Maria

As we had to walk back a long distance to return to our lodgings, it was time to say good-bye, much against our will. The Patel escorted us till his village boundary. When presented with the meager sum of ten Rupees (about a Dollar at the time), he could not believe his eyes! In an emotion filled voice he said: "In your honor I will arrange a  liquor party for the dancers. What a difference there is between your and the government officers` visit to our village! They always try to knock off whatever little we have. You came as  our friend and well-wisher, enquired about our problems, and gave us inspiration. An occasional visit by a person like you gives new vigor to our lives. God bless you, Babuji". After these words, he could no longer control his tears.

See Also:

  • People of India -- Wide ranging topics and pictures depicting the common and uncommon communities of India; their professions, life-styles, and values.


Stories of
Bastar Travel

Bastar Pictures
A care-free woman of BastarA Wooden Idol of Ganesh Worshipped by Tribals of Madhya PradeshA Gift of LoveMaidens on their way to GhotulAdivasi DancerGhotul buildings, Madhya Pradesh
Two tribal youngsters go for a smoke, JagadalpurTribal BeautyGonda Women, ChindawadaVillagers belongings at the Village FairNever Been PhotographedWooden Facial Mask of Bison Horn Maria
A Group of Memorials at Barsur in BastarFarm Guard House (Manchal) of AdivasisGigantic Hat Made with Hay StrawsPicture of Sukhdev Rajamestri Elderly Woman Belonging to Gonda TribeGonda Women
Muria Dancer with Cowrie DecorationsMap of Bastar district in Madhya PradeshMembers of the Royal FamilyBullock Carts at ChindwadaCollection of CombsIn a Tribal Town
A Mahuva TreeNecklace of CoinsOn the way to Bastar FairPalace of Praveer Chandra Bhanj Deo

Kamat's Potpourri Timeless Theater Madhya Pradesh Bastar Travels

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