Forest clad hills, huge trees, clear bubbling streams, strange bird calls, springs trickling from dense bamboo groves, men with bows and arrows; we are at Sarai Deeh, a small sleepy village populated by the Paliha tribe, deep in the jungles of central India. Sarai Deeh can only be reached in a 4×4 jeep with a good driver, and that when the weather is good. The nearest petrol pump is more than a hundred kilometers away, and modern India some light-years beyond the horizon.
The idea was a brainwave of my cousin, Yadvendra Singh Samode, the owner of Samode Safari Lodge Bandhavgarh, probably the best jungle resort in India. Rather than going with the usual images of big cats, Yadu decided that images of the jungle and its aboriginal inhabitants would look better in the rooms of the resort. The result was a dream assignment, a commission to explore and photograph the jungles of eastern Madhya Pradesh and its human inhabitants. The images displayed in the rooms would be chosen from these shots.
I first heard about the Palihas in the shikar stories narrated by my uncle. Back in the 1960’s, when hunting for game was still legal, my uncle and his friends used to frequent the jungles around Sarai Deeh. In their shikar camps they used the services of a Paliha tracker. Their tracker was so good that once they tracked a Sambhar stag (Rusa unicolor) for more than twenty kilometers, over six hours, before finally bagging it. As a child I was fascinated by this story and I liked to hear it over and over again. I was especially impressed by the fact that the tracker could jog along the track of the deer for hours, pointing out signs that were invisible to everyone else.
When looking for a suitable remote area for the assignment I immediately thought of the Palihas and their villages and made a beeline to my uncle’s farm. The plan was to explore this remote corner of Madhya Pradesh over a few visits, walk around in the jungles and visit the tribal villages especially the Paliha villages in this area.
A quick telephone call to my uncle revealed that there were two Paliha villages in this area and they were still relatively untouched by modernizing influences. Apart from these there was also an interesting village of the Oraon tribe and many Gond villages. Most of these villages were quite remote, but a sturdy 4×4 could take us there.
In all, over a couple of visits, I spent about a fortnight walking in the jungles and visiting these villages. I concentrated on the two Paliha villages first. Called Sarai Deeh and Chirai Pani, literally “the Sal grove” and “the bird’s water”, these are the only Paliha villages in this area. They are about 15 km from each other as the crow flies. Typical Paliha villages, they are located at the edge of the forest. The clean thatched huts are spread around in small clusters, with paddy fields between them. Each cluster has a small vegetable patch behind it and a courtyard in front of it. There are huge shady trees and bamboo clumps all around. The Paliha decorate the walls of their huts by painting patterns in three colours (white , grey and ochre).
The Palihas are hunter-gatherers, they still spend a lot of their time in the forest. A small tribe, by most estimates not numbering over 40,000 individuals, the Palihas have never been studied formally. Their main populations are in the Shahdol district of Madhya Pradesh and the Sarguja district of Chhatisgarh. What they lack in numbers though, they more than make-up in their knowledge about the forest. Their reputation as hunters and trackers is legendary.
Short, thin and dark skinned, the Palihas are a shy people. Although slowly opening up, they still try and avoid contact with the outside world. My uncle, who has a farm near Sarai Deeh, first visited the village in the early 1960’s. He remembers that on his first visit, the whole village ran off into the jungle. A few enterprising youth finally came out of the jungle to talk to him, but only after he had waited patiently for more than an hour.
Even today they are a shy lot. When I drove into Chirai Pani, I could see some of the villagers running off into the jungle on seeing our vehicle. They joined us after some time but only after they felt reassured that we meant no harm. It took us many hours before they became comfortable in our presence and allowed me to photograph them.
The modern era is slowly dawning, albeit very slowly, on Sarai Deeh and Chirai Pani. Both villages have hand pumps for water and Sarai Deeh even boasts of a primary school and some people even have mobile phones. But for most part, the Palihas still live like their forefathers, in the lap of mother nature, nurtured by her and in turn respecting her.
Today, due to strict enforcement of the anti hunting laws, the Palihas rarely go into the jungle to hunt. However centuries of tradition does not disappear overnight. Hunting and the jungle are still an important part of the Paliha culture and folklore. On one of our walks in the jungle, we came across a campsite. Under a rock overhang, near a stream, was an extinguished fire. There were some burnt leaves, a few smooth stones and some bones strewn around. Our guide told us that this was a typical campsite used by a Paliha hunting party. When out hunting the Palihas subsist on the game they kill. They have a unique way of cooking meat. Large flat and smooth stones are heated in a fire. When hot they are removed from the fire and meat wrapped in the leaves of a particular vine is sandwiched between them. The heat of the stones cooks the meat. The stones and the leaves lying around the campfire had been used by the Palihas to cook meat in this manner.
I talked to some village elders about their hunting techniques. Understandably they were quite reluctant to talk about hunting, but after some persuasion they opened up. While hunting their main weapon is their intimate knowledge of the jungle. Their hunting technique relies on stealth and they usually ambush their quarry. Traditional home made bows and arrows are their weapons. The Palihas are one of the few tribes in central India which use poisoned arrows to hunt big game. The elders did not disclose their recipe for the poison, but they told me that it was made from a creeper and was totally plant based. The even showed us some old poisoned arrows. The poison lasts very long and is very potent. Even a small nick, which draws a little blood, is enough to kill a large animal. The poison does not affect the meat if the animal is retrieved within a few hours. They also have an antidote for the poison.
The usual modus operandi is something like this: the hunter first identifies a suitable place for the ambush, usually a point on the path which the animal usually takes every night. He then takes his bow and arrow and stands in wait near this path. He usually sticks some broken leafy branches in his loin cloth and then stands absolutely still in front of the trunk of a large tree and waits for the animal to arrive. Because of the lack of visibility, even on a full moon night one can see very little in the dense central Indian jungles, and the limited range of the bow, the ambush takes place at very close range, sometimes less than 10 feet. He might have to remain absolutely still for hours. When the quarry arrives, he waits till it crosses and then shoots his arrow. With luck the arrow strikes the quarry and wounds it. The arrow is fired at very close range, ideally about 5-15 feet. If the animal is wounded and the poison takes effect, it heads for the nearest water hole. The hunting party then tracks the animal and retrieves it.
Along with Sarai Deeh and Chirai Pani, I also photographed in Amli Damak, a village of the Oraon tribe and some other Gond villages.
Originally from the Sarguja district of Chhatisgarh, the Oraons moved to Amli Damak, their present location, a few decades ago. The Oraon are a large tribe, numbering over a million people. They speak their own language Oraon language which is related to the Dravidian languages.
Primarily agriculturists, the Oraon are tall, dark and well built people with handsome features. In contrast to the shy Palihas, they are assertive, bold, adventurous, and fun loving. As soon as the villagers saw our vehicle they quickly gathered around it to investigate. And when they found out that we were interested in photographing them the whole village turned out in their best clothes to get photographed. They also brought along tools of their trade, baskets for carrying earth, plows and other digging implements. Soon the whole village had a festive atmosphere. It was almost as if we were in a fair. I was allowed to stop photographing only when it became too dark to take pictures.
Apart from images of the beautiful people, I also got some other interesting images for the rooms of the Samode Safari Lodge, Bandhavgarh.