India’s tribal village markets
With goods piled high upon their heads, villagers make their way to the Chhattisgarh market. (Patrick Horton/LPI)
In remote, isolated Chhattisgarh, India’s tribal life continues to thrive. Surrounded by mountains, forests and waterfalls, more than 40 different tribes call the area home, which makes for politically unstable but culturally vibrant communities. Since Ultra-leftist Naxalite guerrillas have a history of terrorizing pockets of Chhattisgarh, travellers should always keep an eye on the political climate before visiting. But for those who travel sensibly, the Indian state offers fabulous opportunities to experience incredibly rich cultural diversity. And nowhere does this shine more brightly than in the blindingly colourful tribal markets of Chhattisgarh's Bastar region.
Known as haats, these markets are held in different places each day – one day in a village; the next in the forest; another day in an open meadow – but each time it is the same. Hundreds of tribes people from many different villages, each specialising in a different craft or skill, converge in one spot to trade their wares.
Money only began being used a few years ago. Before that, one villager might try to use the bright fluorescent saris her tribe specialised in making to barter for sacks of mahuwa flowers that grew in abundance in another village and were used to brew local liquor. Another villager might take some bell-metalwork, made in his village using the centuries-old technique of wax-thread moulding, and try to swap it with another village’s local delicacy, live red ants.
These days, money changes hands as quickly as you can say inflation, but the goods being bought and sold have not changed a bit. The potentially potent mahuwa flowers, resembling dates, are still as popular as ever, as are the red ants which are used either for medicinal purposes (their sting has antibacterial qualities) or eaten as a snack. Chapura, a chutney made from red ants and chillies, is the most common way to eat ants, but it is not unusual to see villagers scooping up hundreds of live red ants on a leaf and eating them in one exceedingly brave gulp.
Market days are sometimes brought to a close with the climax of cockfighting. It is a barbaric spectacle – the cocks have hooked blades strapped to their claws and are then encouraged to fight to the death – literally. But it is still incredibly popular, as locals, mostly men it seems, wager not insignificant amounts of money on the bird they think will survive. Arguments between punters are common, but usually settled amicably, perhaps because of the unusual system of mediation that is still in place in many of the local communities. Most villages have a sirha, or shaman; a wise-old man who, when asked to mediate important disputes, falls into a trance and consults the local gods before advising on the best course of action. It is an age-old respected system that is probably not worth disturbing for a misplaced bet at your local market.
Haats in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh are best reached through the county town of Jagdalpur, about 300km south of Raipur, the state capital. The Chhattisgarh Tourism Board‘s head office in Raipur can help organise a visit to a Bastar market with one of its guides.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the location of the Naxalite violence. This has been fixed.