Chhattisgarh is a state of paradoxes. It is one of the youngest states in India, but its heritage can be traced as far back as the Stone Age. It's a state where an exquisite tapestry of age-old customs and rituals has retained its colours and vibrancy, despite the increasing influences that permeate across a border shared with six other states.
It's a place where two distinctly different cultures that of the kings and the tribes manage to co-exist peacefully. On one hand are the Nagwanshis, whose progressive mindset is reflected in the erotic sculptures that adorn the walls of the Bhoramdeo temple. And on the other hand is the Bastar tribe that still preserves a custom like ghotul, in which a young man of marriageable age lives with his prospective bride for months before the two decide that they are compatible and would like to be married by the tribal elders.
But besides these paradoxes that make for a rich and varied culture, there is another. In a state that boasts of a 60 per cent green cover, Chhattisgarh has very few animals to show for it. In fact, its state bird the Bastar Hill Myna is on its way to extinction. A fact I realised as I travelled across the state.
Making a discovery
The best way to see this state of paradoxes is to make Raipur your base camp. Located bang in the middle of the state, all the routes literally become the spokes of a wheel from here.
After a stop at the Palace of Kawardha and Bhoramdeo temple, I made a trip to the Achanakmar wildlife sanctuary. The roads were lined with trees, but not a single wild animal was in sight. That was when I began to realise the perils of afforestation; the unending plantations of commercially-viable sal, teak, bamboo and tendu trees may give the state a lush green canopy, but they can't sustain wildlife. When natural forests give way to planted ones, the forest floor a fragile bionetwork of organisms, insects, birds, reptiles and mammals disappears along the way. The absence of wildlife was all the more poignant in this forest, which is located so close to two sanctuaries in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, Kanha and Bandhavgarh, that are both teeming with life.
Blame the Naxals. Or traffic
In other forests in the state, different problems seem to be at blame. At Tamor Pingla, an exquisite natural forest in the northern-most tip of Chhattisgarh, intense Naxalite activities have pushed wild animals deeper and deeper into the forest.
At the Badalkhol sanctuary, the relentless traffic to the famous hillstation of Jashpur has made the wild animals anxious and elusive.
It was on this trip that I chanced upon a waterfall that wasn't mentioned in any tourist guide. Spotting a road sign that said 'Amritdhara, 15 km', we decided to take the detour and were rewarded with the sight of a waterfall cascading down glistening rocks lined with moss. Though I saw larger and more impressive waterfalls later, this accidental discovery held a sweet charm.
Continuing the journey to the state's jungles, I travelled the length of Chhattisgarh to reach Kanger Valley National Park that is home to two of India's most breathtaking waterfalls: Chitrakoot and Tirathgarh. On the way, I stopped at Bastar, the famed tribal land that is equally well-known for its Naxalite rebellion. In fact, as I was noting the Harappan influences on the tribe's terracotta work and admiring the minimalistic quality of their wrought iron sculptures, a series of seven landmine blasts were set off a mere 20 km away. Probably pushing the hapless wild animals deeper into the heart of the national park.
Into the caves
The next stop en route were the Kutumsar Caves, which are a gallery of god's own sculptures, created by him many millennia ago using molten lava as colour and the walls of the caves as his canvas. As you enter the caves through a narrow gap in the mountain, and flash your searchlight on the wet and humid walls, a hundred abstract images of stalactites and stalagmites come alive. And you start giving meaning to those timeless forms, depending upon the state of your mind at that point in time. I was still pondering on them as we travelled through dense tropical forest to reach the Tirathgarh waterfall on the Kanger river. It's a waterfall that doesn't cascade, but gently rolls down a hundred steps, carved by nature, a century at a time.
The nearby Chitrakoot waterfall is a study in contrast. Here the river Indravati takes a massive 100-foot free fall at three spots along a horseshoe- shaped gorge.
No sign of wildlife
On the last leg of the trip, driving back from Kanger to Raipur, I kept my eyes and ears open for any sign of Chhattisgarh's elusive wildlife. We hoped against all odds for a repeat of our visit to the neighbouring Pench sanctuary, where we spotted a leopard towards the end of the trip. But I soon realised that in nature, there is no action replay. We returned after a 10-day trip from the greenland of India, a state that's blessed with three national parks and 11 sanctuaries, without any entry in our personal log-books.
It is a telling comment on the state of affairs, one that is heightened by the fact that the last female wild buffalo, unique to this state, is kept in an enclosure in Udanti Wildlife Sanctuary with the fond hope of finding a male for it to breed with. The last five surviving specimens of the state bird, the Bastar Hill Myna, are only to be found in an enclosure in Kanger, with the hope that they will breed in captivity and not be wiped off the face of this earth.
Gangadharan is a wildlife writer and photographer and president of the NGO JungleLens.