Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What Lies Beneath

I've been wanting to put up this travel piece for a while, but I'm hurrying because I am dying to put up the next one: I went to Meghalaya recently and wanted so much to blog - only, I couldn't because the first words out needed to be for the magazine. I've lost steam on that one but in the meantime, here is Patalkot. I had mentioned it in an earlier post, this is the longer story.


A tribal settlement in a deep forgotten stretch of the Satpuras...

The most fascinating aspect of this adventure was the idea of it. The idea of a gorge so deep it was seldom ventured into, a valley so hidden it was forgotten. Consumed almost by the hills of the Satpuras, in Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh, these depths have a fanciful name—Patalkot, Sanskrit for the ‘nether-lands’.

To best communicate the extent of this place, it needs a bird’s eye view, or better still, a satellite-eye view. From the firmament, this section of the Satpuras looks as if giant hands had absently run a finger through the surface, doodling a small horseshoe shape as it scooped out the earth. The narrow rut left behind is 1,200-1,500ft deep, and on average, 2-3km wide from wall to wall. The entire valley covers less than 80 sq km. I was excited; frankly, straining-at-the-leash excited to be taking this walk. Trekking as we do through India’s stunning landscapes, this one was still special. My sister Shweta and I were with a group of people on a small circuit through the Satpuras. We’d marvelled at the marbled walls of Bhedaghat, traipsed through the very civilised Pachmarhi and, on this day, we were going down. We drove through to Rathed village and were set down at the beginning of a trail, with a couple of local guides in charge.

I tried to glean a little more about the fissure. What, for instance, was the reason for this sharp depression? No one knows for sure but one plausible theory is meteorite impact. An odd-shaped, sharpish lump of otherworldly stone, crashing with enormous impact, slicing through the land...all conjecture, of course, for there have been no studies, no validation of the surmise. On the other hand, there are myths. Prince Meghnath is supposed to have passed into ‘Patallok’, the nether-world, through this valley. Patalkot’s existence may have been known to the outside world, but the memory had grown hazy, and it was certainly forgotten till about half a century ago. Then in the 1950s, a small scout party belonging to the new administration of the then Central Provinces made their way through and ‘discovered’ the valley anew. They found something more, something guaranteed to send a zing down the spine of anyone who enjoys colonial thrillers featuring ‘remote tribes’—they found human settlements. Scattered across 12 villages, close to 2,000 people lived in the valley, self-sufficient tribal communities retaining no significant contact with the outside world. Since then, interactions have grown but slowly. Before the 1980s, none of Patalkot’s inhabitants had ever tasted salt.

We seemed to be descending for half an hour, but we were not technically in the gorge yet. Already, our breakfasts showed signs of having been digested and instead of digging in our packs for sustenance, we turned to the trees that flanked the trail. Amlas were found to hand and we nipped away; they left a cool taste on the tongue and took care of the thirst—a mistake, we discovered later, for Shweta forgot to sip from her water bottle and developed a thundering headache later. Still we seemed to be walking along the rim of the basin. People in the group dawdled as they took pictures and I was starting to wonder what the guide was about, for time was limited. It would take us four hours to get down there and as much to climb back up—except the sun leaves Patalkot about two hours sooner than it does the world outside. If we didn’t want to climb back in the growing dark, we would have to make better time. In about 15 minutes though, it was official—we were lost.

There are apparently three trails down to the bottom: we’d come from Rathed, the other two go from the villages of Chindi and Chawalpani. We waited for another guide to join us, and the sun was climbing when we finally stepped off the edge. A very little way down, the air around us started to change. It became cooler, the scents of the forest pressed down and everything went rainforesty. Warblers flitted incessantly and, further on, the mandatory stream entered stage right, gurgled charmingly and exited stage left. The forest floor was covered with growth, giving off a bouquet of smells as plants were crushed underfoot. Protected as it was from marauding intruders, and also due to its peculiar geography, Patalkot is a veritable treasure trove of medicinal flora. According to Dr Deepak Acharya, who has made it his work to preserve and document the medicinal plants here, there are hundreds of economically important plants, a clutch of rare flora and even some endemic ones. The people of Patalkot (mostly of the Bharia and Gond communities) are expert foragers, and remarkably skilled at making pulps and extracts. Their concoctions are believed to have therapeutic value and are even able to treat snakebites, measles and cholera, alleviate hypertension, diabetes, coughs and pains.

We reached the floor, and came to a large clearing, rimmed with soaring circular rock walls. I stood there, turning where I stood, craning up long enough to acquire a crick in the neck. I’d have like to see a play performed here, for it was glorious natural amphitheatre. Also, precisely the sort of place that has humankind buckling to its knees in prayer. Predictably, there were deities and other godly representations carved on the stone; an idol installed at one spot, a red, fierce-looking trident lodged in another with ‘om’ emblazoned on it—isolated or not, in some ways the settlement is clearly no different from any other place in India. Not far away, we came upon the Dhoodhi river that flows through the valley. Here and there, the river cuts through rock, and stepping-stones are strewn about conveniently—within five minutes, the lot of us were in the water for an impromptu dunking.

A group of tribesfolk came by, herding goats, strolling with their staffs across their backs, arms casually looped around. They looked at us, I imagine, with as much curiosity with which we studied them. Dark-skinned, deep-lined tribal faces. There were a few girls as well: wearing men’s shirts and what seemed like sari petticoats, tucked in so they stayed at knee length—and on their feet, they wore hawai slippers. The villages of Patalkot have been subjected to rigorous ‘development’—there is a school here now and the clincher, the sign that they have indeed been brought up to speed, comes from the fact that some houses now have dish television. Just another tribal settlement now and, frankly, it would have been just another day-trek through forest and brush, but for the knowledge that this was once a remote, inaccessible trench that no one knew about.

The sun was withdrawing from the walls around us and we hustled. I didn’t fancy tripping into brooks or climbing back out by torchlight. We spilled out of the valley to a glorious sunset, just in time to catch the ball of red fire dipping over the horizon.

Published Outlook Traveller February 2009; picture ©Shweta Vyas


footloose said...

you had me riveted, sheetal. great piece! and sweater can be useful sometimes, no?

Sheetal said...

Thanks! Swetar, useful you mean for taking picture? yes, it got printed and it was most delighted.