I had first read about the tribal markets in Odisha around three years ago, it was instantly on my list of places to visit. A search for accommodation in that region led me to the Desia Koraput website and after numerous email exchanges with the founder, Yugabrata Kar, I landed in the tribal hinterland.
Two cab drives, one flight and an overnight train journey later, I arrived on a sunny winter afternoon in Desia Koraput and I was welcomed with purple flowers and wide smiles by the entire staff. The staff is a mix of local tribals — the Bonda, Mali and Harijan, well trained in hospitality including aspects such as laying of tables, presentation of food, setting up the rooms, etc.
The community-run eco-stay is set in a remote village called Bantalabiri, around 60 km from the nearest town Koraput, in South Odisha. It is run by tribal communities and is one of its kind in the region with lush landscapes, dense forests and tribal culture.
I was here to experience tribal cultures, conduct drawing workshops for the tribal children and document my travel experiences through my sketches. The eco-stay sits nestled surrounded by tall Nilgiri trees and verdant surroundings of vegetable patches and mango tree orchards exuding a rustic charm.
Since it was winter, I loved waking up in the morning to a dream-like misty garden while the tall Nilgiri trees stood in a trance like state waiting for the sunlight to interrupt their dream.
The cottages themselves are uniquely constructed to blend with the earthy surroundings. Yugabrata had brought in an Architect from Shantiniketan, Bengal, who combined his ideas with those of the traditional construction style of the region. Thus the cottages are made of rammed earth, painted white and rusty red. The interiors are decorated using Odisha handicrafts like straw baskets as lampshades and applique cloth lanterns. Instead of curtains, there are white drapes on the window giving it a vintage feel. The rooms have a rustic charm as well as a contemporary feel to make the urban traveller feel at home.
The Desia project employed more than 100 local families in different aspects of setting up based on their skills. Currently, there are around 10 to 15 local people from different tribes working at Desia. The staff was trained in Puri at a tourism institute and gained knowledge of the day to day operations that go into the eco-stay.
I explored the renowned markets that occur in Desia. The first was the Thursday market at Onakadelli where the Bonda, Dhuruva, Mali and Gadaba tribes assemble to sell their forest produce as well as alcohol. There is a variety of alcohol like those made with rice, mahua flowers, and the fruit of the palm tree. I sampled a bit of all three.
My guide, Kusho, suggested that we pay the sellers with biscuit packets instead of cash and to my surprise they were overjoyed at receiving biscuits. The second section of the market is where the Mali tribe bring their fresh produce of vegetables. I was delighted to see the vegetables, roots and leafy vegetables, fresh from the farm, and would have loved to load a truck full of them back home if it was possible.
En route to the Onakadelli market, we stopped at the majestic Duduma waterfalls, formed by the Machkund River which separates Odisha from Andhra Pradesh. The Duduma cascades down into the rocky outlet into the narrow gorge below. The views are breathtaking from above and I couldn’t help but sketch from two different angles.
Another weekly market happens on Saturdays at Lamtaput. One of the staff members, Punnu, and I travelled in a shared colourful village auto-rickshaw to the market. Here the Mali tribe people get their fresh vegetable produce and exchange them in return for grains and legumes. The market was abuzz with vegetable stalls, hawkers selling live chickens, stray cows wandering between the stalls and a police patrol team doing rounds announcing over the loudspeaker and instructing people to keep their masks on.
Back at the eco-stay, I conducted drawing classes for children every afternoon. I taught them to draw from observation as I do. The children are from tribal communities nearby. Although there is a local government school, their students face a lot of difficulty in coping with their school curriculum due to a lack of proper attention and guidance.
So to give the children a more well-rounded education and learning, Yugabrata has hired a tutor who comes daily and teaches the children history, math, songs, etc. on the premises at Desia. There are around 15 children in the age group of 5 and 12 and I found them to be very well mannered, polite and eager to learn drawing. Most children were using colours for the first time and it was indeed a delight to see the happiness on their faces as they played with colours.
Another wonderful initiative at Desia is setting up a tailoring class for the local women at Desia. Yugabrata has hired two teachers who teach the women tailoring on weekdays. At present, there are seven sewing machines and they learn how to stitch blouses and salwar kameez amongst other things. This will empower them financially as tailors.
I was also invited to watch a Dhemsa tribal dance performed by the people of the neighbouring Bantalabiri village. Men were playing traditional percussion and wind instruments while the women formed a chain to dance and match steps with the music.
Having seen the Bonda women at the alcohol market with their thick necklaces and colourful beads adorning their bodies, I planned a trip to the Bonda village called Bondaghati with my guide. The Bondaghati lies secluded and took around a 2-hour drive from Desia Koraput. I was struck by the number of children in the village. There were groups of people everywhere either chatting or watching some activity like the butchering of a pig or goat. The women went about their chores like cleaning the front yard of the house or grinding grains. The Bondas are one of the 62 distinct tribes in Odisha with their distinct language, attire and beliefs. They are animists and forage in the forest every day for roots and small animals in addition to practising some agriculture. In the last two months, the Border Security Force (BSF) deployed in that area has brought basic amenities to them like water storage cans, utensils, rain shelters and bedding.
It is also noteworthy that although being quite remote, the government Covid vaccination program covered all the people of Bondaghati successfully.
Transforming A Tribal Hamlet
Desia Koraput is the brain child of Yugabrata Kar, a travel entrepreneur. Before venturing into the travel industry, having visited remote villages as part of his job as a Sales Engineer with a reputed organization, Yugabrata noticed abject poverty on account of the dwindling demand of traditional sources of livelihood. Another problem, as is true in all parts of rural India, is the decline of tradition and culture because of the aspirational value attached to moving to cities and getting jobs there. And the introduction of technology such as television and mobile phones, though it brings information, also dilutes the local culture.
Determined to bring about a change, Yugabrata decided to introduce the concept of responsible eco-tourism with a focus on promoting local culture as an attraction for travellers. Thus was born Desia in 2014 to empower local tribal communities by providing livelihood, and encouraging them to keep their arts and crafts alive by promoting them at Desia.
Because of the increasing footfalls of travellers to Desia, the community has benefitted indirectly too. Two local men bought a 4-wheeler vehicle to take the travellers around. Some took up the role of guides for the travellers and so they have an additional income now.
Tribal women, especially those of the Bonda tribe, are known to wear colourful jewellery. To also encourage them to pursue this as a livelihood, an artist was invited from Shantiniketan to teach the local tribal women to create different kinds of jewellery using naturally found material such as seeds, shells, etc.
There is also a quaint ‘Noni shop’ at Desia run by the staff, which sells local, natural and handmade products such as lentils, turmeric, legumes, handloom textile, honey etc. which are grown by the farmers and local weavers. The products are of premium quality and are pure and natural.
But his massive project was not without its share of challenges. The location is extremely remote and wasn’t attractive to investors. And due to the constant clashes between the Naxalites and police personnel, the project got delayed by a few years. Also, he had to build trust in the local tribals and present a vision that they could share and participate in.
Eight years on, the Desia project is doing well and the local people have a sense of pride in what they do. That gives Yugabrata immense satisfaction. His goal is to replicate the eco-tourism model of Desia at other locations like Deomali which will attract travellers and further empower locals of that area.
Written by Priya Krishnan Das; Edited by Yoshita Rao