The Many Faces Of Real India (Road Trip Diaries Part 2)

Second part of a photo feature series from a 7,500km road trip to discover Bharat that has been eclipsed by India.

Leaving India, Finding Bharat (Part 2)

Ratna and Nadim Siraj


April 22, 2024: From January to April in 2024, Empire Diaries founding editors, Ratna and Nadim Siraj, were on a lengthy road trip, spanning 13 states and covering nearly 7,500km. Delhi NCR was the start and finish for the journey.

The route map roughly resembled a triangle. They started off in the north, then headed east. After a pause in Bengal, they headed west across central India, reaching Goa, before meandering back to the north. They journeyed through UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Bengal, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, MP, Rajasthan, and Haryana.

What was the motive of the road trip? To discover ‘Bharat’ that is buried underneath the more celebrated ‘India’. To make sense of the rural-urban divide. To collect compelling ground reports from the country’s rural heartland. And to piece together photographs of the hinterland.

Here goes Part 2 of a photo feature series from the discover-Bharat tour (Click here for Part 1). Part 2 also focuses on the people we met during the journey. This second part features images from Odisha and Chhattisgarh. Keep an eye on Empire Diaries for Part 3, to be published soon.

Part 2 (Odisha and Chhattisgarh)

Seemacharan Pradhan, an elderly chicken farmer, is selling ‘desi’ eggs on the highway that cuts through Balliguda village in Odisha. The place is close to Kalahandi forest range. Apart from country chicken, he also grows veggies and mangoes, but he doesn’t have money to set up a roadside shop. He spends several hours of the day standing on the roadside, displaying eggs to cars and bikes passing by. During summer, he sells mangoes freshly plucked from his trees. We caught up with Seemacharan while travelling from the forested Phulbani town in Odisha to Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh. To our surprise, the chatty old man turned out to be a world politics expert! Mixing Odia, Bangla and Hindi as he spoke, he shared with us his sharp views on why the two World Wars happened, problems with US hegemony, Western corporate culture, and the economic impact of Naxalism!
A resident and craftsman from Takara village in Odisha arranges handmade baskets, which he displays on a small kiosk along State Highway 57. The baskets are woven from bamboo. State and national highways often turn out to be worthwhile places for the local villagers to sell handicraft and rural utilities. Urban and suburban travellers routinely buy them. However, the sellers are often forced to offer the homemade goods for throwaway prices because they lose out to hard bargaining from the buyers.
Members of a handicraft family from Odisha’s Takara village keep an eye out for travelling customers on State Highway 57. Takara is located near the deeply forested Satkosia tiger reserve. This mother-daughter duo are part of a joint family of craftspeople who weave baskets and various wooden utilities to earn their livelihood. They reside in makeshift shacks made from bamboos by the side of the road. Apart from selling handicraft on the roadside, they also routinely attend village ‘haats’ (markets) and rural fairs, where they get to sell their handcrafted utilities for a better price.
An elderly woman walks towards the lush green Gadiapada Hill in Kandhamal district of Odisha. Her large, traditional hat is standing out in the fading light as she proceeds on her journey after exchanging pleasantries with us. The deeper you go into rural Odisha, the more you will get to see elderly people on foot, donning these prominent handmade hats. The hats have a large circumference possibly because they are meant to serve the purpose of mini-umbrellas, giving protection from rain, not just heat.
Hay is on the way means food is on the way for domesticated cows. However, it is incredible how this villager near Madhapur Chowk, in Odisha, is managing to see the road ahead of him. No wonder he’s not risking the bicycle ride, and has chosen to walk down to his destination. Villagers transporting oversized loads on their heads and on their vehicles is a common sight in rural Odisha. It is too costly for small-time rural residents to hire fuel-guzzling cars to ferry goods and utilities. They prefer to walk or carry the load manually. Public transport doesn’t exist in deeper parts of rural Odisha.
This is another common sight across rural India, as seen here on Gania-Kantilo Road near Kantilo village on the banks of Mahanadi River in Odisha. Taking the cattle out is not as easy as it seems. The shepherds have to constantly keep an eye on their herd’s safety because Odisha’s highways are increasingly becoming busier and riskier. Goats are widely domesticated in India’s villages for multiple purposes: milk, hide, meat, and sacrificial rituals.
Sanjib, a young boatman, quickly tries to anchor his speedboat, so that he can dash off for a much-needed lunch, in Kantilo village on the banks of Mahanadi River in Odisha. When there is no crowd around for a boating ride, he utilises the time by doing odd jobs in Kantilo. But he’s quick to respond when customers drop in for a boat ride. “I am just a phone call away if you need a ride. My number is kept at the gate. Just dial me, and I will show up in a minute with my boat,” says the enterprising youngster.
Village wisdom is in full swing here as two schoolkids use water from a receding river to give their bicycles a nice and clean wash. We bumped into this sight midway into our day-long journey through Bastar district in Chhattisgarh. We were heading westwards from Jagdalpur to Dantewada that day. In India’s villages, the cycle is a vitally important tool for all households, required for multiple purposes, from staying connected to going shopping to travelling for work and leisure.
Mamita Nag, a farmer and pro-organic activist who lives in Chandenar village near Dantewada town in Chhattisgarh, shows us her farmland. She took up organic farming a few years back, and instantly started tasting financial success. Her story defies a major myth circulating in the cities that natural farming is not profitable or sustainable. Mamita is nowadays busy building a network of rural women in the Bastar region as part of her goal to shatter myths about natural farming.
Farming without using water? Is that really possible? This farmer in Chandenar village in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district is showing us a watermelon that he grew on his farmland without applying a single drop of water on the crop from outside. So, how did the watermelon plant get all the water? It soaked it up from the soil itself, which remains perennially hydrated in that area, thanks to a water spring in a nearby hill. The naturally hydrated foothill soil also automatically supplies water to some other crops he grows in that particular area, the farmer says.
A shop-owner eagerly looks out for customers at a village ‘haat’, or marketplace, in Dantewada town, Chhattisgarh. She sells naturally grown vegetables in the popular weekly market. Chhattisgarh’s weekly ‘haats’ are warm and welcoming as buyers from various villages come over to not just buy stuff, but also to engage with the sellers. The warm and personalised exchanges between buyers and sellers at the marketplace who get to know each other is quite unlike corporate-style shopping malls in big cities that lack personal touch.
A girl tries out a set of bangles before buying them while her granny looks on, at the ‘haat’ or marketplace in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada town. The weekly market is visited by residents of dozens of surrounding villages in Dantewada district. Organic veggies, dried fish, cooking pots, toys, balls of jaggery, locally woven garments, even mousetraps – there’s something in the market for all kinds of customers.
Radha, a natural farmer in Chandenar village near Dantewada town, strictly practises organic farming. She finds natural farming profitable, explaining that moving away from chemical farming has slashed the cost of buying expensive chemical fertilisers and pesticides from agribusiness companies. Riding a wave of organic farming, several villages covering a large section of Dantewada district in Chhattisgarh have completely kicked out the use of chemical inputs over the last few years. It’s a powerful example for the rest of India, where many people are under the wrong impression that natural farming is unprofitable and unsustainable.
A woman sells rice beer at the back of the weekly ‘haat’ or marketplace in Dantewada town. Made locally, rice beer is a hugely popular drink across rural Chhattisgarh. It is regularly consumed by villagers whenever they are outdoor. At this ‘haat’, almost all the rice beer sellers are women, while the majority of the buyers are also women. Buyers, after wrapping up a spell of shopping, go to the rice beer sellers, grab a refreshing drink, and head back home.
This beer seller, accompanied by her little child, is eagerly looking forward to sell off her stuff that she she’s brought in on two aluminium cooking pots, at the Dantewada weekly market in Chhattisgarh. Rice beer is made by fermenting and distilling rice, and it’s often wrongfully maligned by the elite class in the cities. The drink is also common in Assam, Odisha, Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh. In Chhattisgarh, much of the rice beer is made in households.
A shopper at the ‘haat’ in Dantewada town in Chhattisgarh is sipping rice beer from a bowl made of dried leaves. Accompanied by her son, she wrapped up her shopping and then purchased a generous dose of the locally made refreshment drink on a small bucket. After a couple of drinks, she took the rest of the rice beer home in that bucket.
A huge fraction of shopkeepers at Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada weekly market are elderly women. They sell a wide range of products, from dried fish, to vegetables, to rural cutlery, to bamboo baskets, to rice beer. A vast majority of the goods sold there are locally made utilities priced reasonably. It’s totally unlike flashy shopping malls in big towns and cities, where most of the products on sale are artificially packaged, foreign-made, and hence, often overpriced.
There are few things in life that are as refreshing as a leisurely bath in the river water! Travellers are seen here making good use of the flowing waters of Indravathi River at the site of the Chitrakoot waterfall in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region. The waterfall attracts three types of visitors: pilgrims who visit an old temple right next to the waterfall; tourists from other states who go over to take a look at the spectacular falls; and residents from nearby areas who go there for a quick dip and wash in the river water.

Click here for Part 1. Coming Soon: Part 3.

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