Opening to the past
An annual fair in a cave is a rallying point for Gond tribals
"When I visit the cave, I feel a sense of history with an intensity that cannot be described. My parents and grandparents never saw this. I feel for them, for my community, as much as for myself." Forty five-year-old K S Loya, a resident of Bastar in Chhattisgarh, speaks with a passion that a detached outsider might find difficult to understand. But for the Gond community of central India, the three-day Maagh Purnima jatra (fair, pilgrimage) of Kachhargadh is a rare opportunity to reconnect with community history.
This annual fair in the richly forested Salekasa tehsil of Gondia district in Maharashtra attracts around 500,000 Gond pilgrims from Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Vidarbha in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.The fair, held to celebrate the liberation of the children of Mata Kali Kankali, regarded as the mother of the Gond tribe, from the Kachhargadh cave, was just one of the thousands of obscure tribal jatras held all over central India till around 1976, when a group of activists from the tribal students movement in Maharashtra found out about it. "We read about this fair in the books of English historians like C U Wills," said Motiravan Kangali, a researcher who has written 40-odd books on Gond religion, culture and language, and is the leader of the Gondi Punem Mahasangha, the apex cultural and religious body of the tribe.
Kangali visited the site out of curiosity and found the Kachhargadh cave. "All Gonds had heard of the Kachhargadh legend, but very few knew where Kachhargadh was or if it existed at all. Those days the newly-formed Gondwana Ganatantra Party was trying to unite the Gond community. We felt the fair would be a powerful symbol for the purpose and started propagating its significance." That was 1985. At present, the Kachhargadh fair is the largest tribal fair in India.
The central event connected with this fair is the climb to the Kachhargadh cave in the steep, thickly forested hills close to Dhanegaon, a small tribal village. Slogans of Jai Bada Deo and Jai Gondwana rent the air as groups swarm over the jagged hillsides on the way to the cave. At the end of a three-km trek from Dhanegaon is a huge cavernous opening on a hillside, smelling of the presence of wild animals, and littered with their dung. "Except for three days of the pilgrimage, this cave is the abode of big cats and wolves," Kangali said. "This is the beauty of tribal culture. We do not believe in taking anything away from its rightful owners."
Crowds of pilgrims jostle their way in the dark of the cave, over sharp undulations of rock, to reach a small pool of cool water located below a large, dazzlingly sunlit hole hidden behind a ledge of rock. The pilgrimage is over.
Then begins a descent more torturous than the climb because of the jagged outcroppings of sharp rock and loose stones. The pilgrims stop at thana (shrine) of the primordial mother Kali Kankali before going back down to Dhanegaon. At the shrine, Kangali pointed to a havan kund constructed in the courtyard to make offerings of coconuts and burn incense, "This was not there last year," he remarked. Inside the shrine, a large terracotta horse stands on the altar. "Two years ago there was an elephant here," Kangali said and added, "One never finds out how and under whose influence these symbols keep changing."
He later explained that the Gondi religious ritual has been heavily influenced by Hinduism over centuries. "Rituals are minimal in our religion.
|Entrance of the Kachhargadh main cave|
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