The sky was a riot of red, yellow and orange hues, similar to the clothing the people around me were wearing. The sun that had disappeared behind a distant grove of trees moments ago, now dipped beneath the horizon. A cool breeze washed over the gathering, and, as if on cue, the numerous wooden and metal musical instruments that had been playing since late afternoon, raised their volume a few notches, injecting a sense of urgency into the gathering. It was time! Time for the goddess to come out in her doli (palanquin), for the serpentine procession to take the deities for a ride around town, singing and dancing.

I was at the Danteshwari temple in Dantewada, about 265km from Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur, to witness the annual nine-day Phagun Madai festival that takes place in the days leading up to Holi. Hundreds of people, dressed in traditional attire, had gathered in the temple courtyard. Over 500 tribes from the region were represented: Gondis, Halavas, Parajas, Marias and Murias, Singhbajas, Dhuruvas, and many more groups whose names I couldn’t gather. Every year, they come from far and near to pay their respect to goddess Danteshwari, mother to all their clans. With them come their village or community deities, and their brightly painted chhattris (umbrellas) adorn the Danteshwari temple courtyard. The gathering is an important social event, during which the general merrymaking is accompanied by a renewal of connections, fixing of marriages, and negotiations on land-sharing agreements.

Phagun Madai is perhaps the country’s biggest tribal festival, dating back more than 700 years. The priest of the Danteshwari temple, 52-year-old Harindranath Jia, whose family has handled the religious affairs of this region for seven centuries, explains that the festival was started by Raja Purushottam Dev to unite the scattered tribal communities. “In earlier days, travel was difficult and people were mostly cut off from one another."

So, every year, for nine days culminating in Holi Dahan (the eve of Holi), the tribes meet. Special prayers are followed by evening processions with the goddess’ doli. Traditional hunting rituals are enacted in the dead of night, with humans performing the roles of both hunter and prey. “The day after Holi, the tribes go back home," says Jia. “During the festival, their stay and meals are sponsored by the temple administration. It has been that way since the raja’s days."

The excitement was palpable when the goddess was carried out of the temple in a royal red palanquin. Even the Central Reserve Police Force men raised their guns in salute. The procession started moving in two neat rows, with no pushing or rushing. The sweet, enchanting aroma of mahua flowers filled the evening air as young and old danced to the accompaniment of beats of the Munda baja, the kikir (a stringed instrument), and various types of drums, flutes, and wooden clappers. I tried to take photographs and record the movements on video but soon gave up and just joined the rhythm.

Each has its distinctive headgear, jewellery, weapons and musical instruments. Photo: Swati Sanyal Tarafdar
Each has its distinctive headgear, jewellery, weapons and musical instruments. Photo: Swati Sanyal Tarafdar

There was undeniably something in the air. I had felt it as soon as I arrived in the town of Dantewada, driving down from Raipur with four others. The first part of the drive had been filled with dust from road construction, but soon we were driving past farming settlements, and the occasional palash tree, providing the only natural blaze of colour in a brown and grey hinterland. The sun was hot even in early March, though, closer to Dantewada and its forests, there was a cool breeze under the foliage of sal, palash, piyal and mahua trees. There was something about the landscape that led to thoughts dwelling on the purpose of life.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before I gave up struggling with my gadgets, and just soaked in the energy. Despite the diverse crowd—each tribe with differing headgear, musical instruments, attire—everyone was dancing in precise, joyous moves.

A tribal musician. Photo: Swati Sanyal Tarafdar
A tribal musician. Photo: Swati Sanyal Tarafdar

Earlier in the day, at a village market, I had spotted coriander, tiny white brinjals and cauliflowers being sold alongside glass bangles and plastic hair clips. All the buyers and sellers were women, with tattoos on their limbs, saris worse-for-wear, palms and heels cracked and rugged, wrinkled faces lit with bright smiles. Once the day’s business was done, the gossip sessions began. The women seemed freer than their urban counterparts, revelling in daylight, sipping country alcohol made from the nectar of mahua flowers and the sap of the salfi tree. I immediately felt confused about my own understanding of modernity, liberation and independence.

I walked up to a group to ask for a sip. The translucent, amber liquid, drunk from a sal leaf shaped into a bowl, was sweet like port wine.

‘Mahua’ flowers being collected to make a local alcoholic drink. Photo: Hindustan Times
‘Mahua’ flowers being collected to make a local alcoholic drink. Photo: Hindustan Times

When the old woman we bought red puffed rice from heard we wanted to try salfi, she instructed her son to lead us to the nearest tree. He climbed up swiftly and returned in minutes, pouring us cups of the fresh sap. It was a gesture born of kindness, without any expectation of reward. I learnt another lesson that day: Generosity doesn’t come from abundance. It may even be the other way round. The previous day, a 24-year-old woman had cooked us a lunch spread just because our local guide told her we wanted to taste chapra, the tangy red ant chutney. What did she want in return? Nothing.

Returning to the celebrations, I ditched both gadgets and apprehension and surrendered to the unchanging rhythm. The dancers’ heavy silver anklets raised ostinatos that I sometimes still hear in my sleep. I can still see the absorbed, meditative movements and hear the drumming in my mind. Once I allowed myself to get immersed in the moment, my reservations melted away, and it felt as if the universe was changing shapes and boundaries in sync with that uncomplicated, unhindered rhythm.

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