If you are touring Puri or Gopalpur-on-Sea, perhaps you are not told about the other side of Odisha, which is higher in elevation than Panchamarhi in Madhya Pradesh or Mt Abu in Rajasthan. Deomali or the God of the Mali tribe on Odisha-Andhra border is Odisha’s highest point at 1672 m. A solid rock mass, the peak is a vast tableland overlooking the beautiful countryside of Koraput, a utopia far from the maddening crowd.
Deomali during an overcast morning
Rich in animals and high altitude plants including a variety of orchids, Deomali until recently was practically unknown. However, the plateau at its base has been a cradle of indigenous culture and farming heritage of local tribes, such as Mali, Gadaba, Paroja, Kondh and many more.
Agricultural Communities around Deomali
Deomali is a land of captivating beauty. However, tribal communities that inhabit en route Deomali make the journey more engaging and educative. These communities are considered the original inhabitants of India. They have been carrying forward a legacy of rich and distinct cultural traits for many generations. One of their essential assets is their rich agricultural biodiversity treated of global importance.
Deomali Peak is located on Odisha – Andhra border near Semilguda Town, which has decent staying facilities. You need a personal vehicle to travel the peak and the surrounding villages including Nandapur. Start early in the morning and return before the evening falls in. There is no food facility at the peak. Plan accordingly. You can alternatively stay at Chandoori Sai or Desia, both award-winning resorts influenced tribal architecture. They will also arrange your trip to Deomali with prior information.
It is one of the areas where rice was originated. Even today, the region is celebrated for the genetic diversity of Asian cultivated rice. The traditional varieties grown here are thought to be harbouring dominant genes for biotic and abiotic stresses, aroma and palatability. The tribal communities around Deomali may not be aware of their merits, but their understanding that has evolved naturally with the changing environment and agricultural practices are recognised by FAO as a GIAHS site (Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Site), India’s first.
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We started our journey to Deomali on a fine morning of early June from Semiliguda, a small industrial town, 30 km from the peak.
The morning was overcast and delightful. Our first stop was at Kunduli from where we had to leave the highway and take the mountain road to Deomali. Kunduli is also known for the haat (weekly market), where you get the first glimpse of Koraput’s agricultural diversity, organically grown vegetables and fruits sold by the Mali women clad in their colourful saris and elaborate jewellery. They are the most beautiful among all the tribal women in the region. The nose is straight and sharp, the lips are thin. They tie long saris that are given a knot at right shoulder and hangs 2 to 4 inches down the knee. You will be simply drawn to them for a chat and tempted to buy a dozen of banana or raw cashew for your day’s consumption. The bananas are the best you would have ever eaten.
Mali Women ay Kunduli Haat
Mali people were originally gardeners and residents of Kashi. They had been brought here by the Rajas of Jeypur to serve the erstwhile kingdom.
From Kunduli, the peak is about 20 km and you are already at a height of 1000 M from sea level. After driving about 5 km we stopped near a mountain slope field where a group of men and women were seen engaged in farming ginger spices on red soil. Perhaps once it was a forest now cleared for agriculture.
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All of a sudden it started raining and it was a different adventure driving through the mountain though it was risky. Before we entered to the curving ghats we stopped. For a moment the rain subsided and then we started driving again to the hilltops.
However, once we were at Odisha’s roof, it started pouring with thunderstorms. The temperature was dropped down to 16 degree Celsius, at a time when North India was suffering through a heat wave close to 50 degree Celsius. However, the wind speed was very high and frightening. There was not a single soul near the peak. The rain lasted for two hours and we were held doing nothing. Once the rain receded we started exploring the peak and then started descending.
The descent from the peak was an experience of a lifetime. At every turning, there was a surprise waiting for us to be unfolded.
One of the major attractions for me was the land use, how the local communities tap the mountain streams to irrigate their terraced fields where you see different crops growing simultaneously, rice, millet and corn being the principal crops. While rice and millet are traditionally grown for thousands of years, corn has been introduced recently. On the edge of each farming plot, you see rows of banana trees and occasionally trees of jackfruits. In some parts, rice had already been sown offering a dazzling mosaic of green and golden hues to your eyes.
We never realized when we had hit the highway again. Our next stop for the day was nearby Nandapur, the former capital of Jeypur Kingdom and an important centre for Jainism in the Medieval Period.
Nandpur was an influential centre of Jainism in the past. The nearby village of Subaie has a cluster of 10 Jain Temples from the 8th century CE. The Tirtha was dedicated to Jain Tirthankar Rsabhanath. Part of Bastar – Koraput Jain civilization at Subaie you find a number of sculptures of Rsabhanath and Mahavir having influence from South India.
It is known from the Jain scriptures that much before the Christian Era Jain preachers had explored the dense forest tracts of Bastar – Koraput to spread their religion among hill tribes.
The Mali tribe of Deomali – Nandpur has a deep influence of Jainism. For instance, they are traditionally vegetarian. Even today Malis worship many of the Jain idols as their Gram Devtas.
Nandpur is also well-known for its Batish Singhasan (32 steps throne). According to folklore, Nandapur was once inhabited by pastoral tribe, Gaudas. One day a Gouda boy while taking care of his cattle came across the plateau where present-day Batish Singhasan stands. He would sit there playfully and deliver judgments like a scholar or a great king. However, once out of this place, his behaviour would change to that of a common man. One day the king of Nandapur discovered him delivering sound judgements. He decided to build his palace here in the line of Batish Singhasan of famous Vikramaditya.
Nandpur is also endowed by nature. A short drive took us to Rani Duduma waterfall hidden in the dense forest and hills. Cloaked in mysteries, the tribes worship her as Mother Goddess; however, don’t take risk bathing here as the force of cascading water can drown you at any moment.
Deomali is unquestionably one of Odisha’s best kept offbeat wonderlands where culture unites nature set against a timeless romance.
Author – Jitu Mishra
He can be contacted at email@example.com