Barbara Forest – A Blend of Nature, Indigenous Culture and Archaeology

It was 6 PM on an October Day. I was at Salia Dam enjoying the pristine beauty of nature, sun going down against the western sky turning it into a pallet of golden and turmeric hues; and a fisherman sailing through the placid water after the day’s catch in his bamboo raft, a watercraft that has survived from the prehistoric time.

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In less than 30-minute pitch dark shrouded all around us. I and Chitra, my companion dared to drive into the jungle of Barbara, Asia’s largest teak forest. The distance was less than 10 km, but the forest road in the dark came as a major obstacle. There was not a single soul to ask. We lost the direction. With no hope of finding in the middle of nowhere and fighting against the eerie evening, we gave up our daring adventure. We turned back our vehicle in the direction of Odiart Museum, my camping site. To drive 30 km, it took nearly 2 hours in the dark jungle treks.

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Human Adaptation in Satkosia Tiger Reserve – Challenges and Prospects

Barbara Forest is a nature’s best-kept secret near Chilika Lake in coastal Odisha. It is named after a British woman, Barbara who had been killed by a tiger in the late 19th century while she was with her husband in a hunting expedition.

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However, Barbara Forest is not very old. Historically, this region was under the rule of Raiyat Zamindari System of Banapur. Till 1870, there was no restriction for cutting trees in today’s Barbara Forest. The locals had almost cleared the forest to support their agriculture. In 1871 for the first time restrictions were made to fell trees and the practice of seasonal agriculture. In 1880, it was declared as protected forest and in 1883 it was taken over by the Forest Department, Bengal.

Travel Tips

Barbara Forest is spread over Khruda and Nayagarh Districts near Banapur Town in Coastal Odisha. The forest and its surroundings can be approached from National Highway that connects Bhubaneswar with Berhampur. While at Barbara, one can also visit the nearby Chilika Lake at Balugaon and Barkul, which have also staying and food options. Also, visit Banapur Bhagawati Temple and the 13th-century Dakshya Prajapati Temple. The nearest airport is at Bhubaneswar (120 Km) and railway station is at Balugaon (25 km). The other nearby city is Berhampur (70 km).

 

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According to Mr A.L. McIntire, Conservator of Forests, Bengal, 1908:

‘In 1883 the forests were placed under the management of the forest department, a forest settlement being carried out at about the same time. Under the latter a total area of 110 square miles of forest was declared reserved forest, free of rights, and the rest of the forest and waste, was declared to be protected forest, in which revenue paying Raiyats were allowed to exercise a number of privileges, such as gazing their cattle and cutting bamboos and trees, of kinds which were not received, for making their houses, agricultural implements, etc and for firewood. The most important timber and fruit trees were reserved, and they were not allowed to cut or damage them, nor were they allowed to cultivate any parts of the protected forests before such parts were properly leased to them, and they were required to pay grazing fees for cattle in excess of the numbers supposed to be necessary for ploughing and manuring their fields, and cesses for permission to remove unreserved trees for firewood, etc. Since 1883 the 110 square miles of reserved forest have been carefully protected from fire, grazing and unauthorised felling; and efforts have been made to increase these forests by planting teak in small parts of the area. Under this management, the growth of trees has steadily improved’.

Thanks to the British Forest Management, even today, the slopes in the hills still hold the natural evergreen-deciduous forest, where teak is the prominent trees. Some of these trees are more than 80 feet high and 10 feet wide in circumference.

To oversee the forest management, the British also had built a teakwood panelled forest bungalow in 1912. Today it is a major attraction in the forest. Giant squirrels are found in great numbers in the teak forest of Barbara. While on a trek, one can find them in their acrobatic best jumping from one branch to another. But I was unfortunate. The forest is also a heaven for bird watchers. Woodpeckers, bulbul, bets, oriole, jungle fowls, baya weaver bird, parakeets are found in abundance in Barbara Forest.

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On my day 2 trail, I stepped into mystic ruins on the fringe of Barbara Forest. Bankadagada, the remains of a fortress butting out of a hill, and a Shiva Temple built in Pre-Kalinga style of architecture are the major archaeological heritage of the area, that any serious traveller to Barbara cannot miss.

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The area was the capital of Sailodvaba in the 7th century CE. Sailodvabas ware the first to introduce temple building activity in Odisha. The ruined Shiva Temple is one of the earliest having beautiful carvings of amorous couples and Tantric deities on its walls. There are also loose sculptures carved in the formative styles sheltered within the complex. Some of these sculptures strongly resemble with sculptures of Java and Sumatra (Indonesian Archipelago). One may wonder – around this time of history, the nearby Chilika was a major hub for maritime trade. Ships would sail from ports of Chilika to Southeast Asia for trade and business using wind power. Ideas would be exchanged between these regions and therefore bring artistic influences.

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South Chilika Coast – Back in Time

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According to a local legend, during the reign of Sailodvaba ruler Pulind Sen, the king once saw in his dream the next ruler of the dynasty, a heavenly personality, was coming from the Mahendragiri region. Pulind Sen followed the instruction and welcomed the young man and coroneted him as his successor.

The temple built in Astayana style (the central temple surrounded by seven smaller temples) was perhaps built by the successor of Pulind Sen.

The Barbara Forest is surrounded by the timeless rural charm of interior Odisha. Inhabited by Sabara tribes and ethnic Odia communities, you are simply drawn to vast paddy fields that appear as emerald greens as far as your eyes can stretch. Sabara is an ancient tribe and were the original worshippers of Lord Jagannath. They speak in Mundari language, a branch of Mon-Khmer group of the language spoken in Mainland Southeast Asia. Apart from their adaptation to jungle life they also do subsistence farming, fishing, animal rearing and brewing of mahula alcohol. Their houses are made of wattle and daub. Sabaras also revere Barbara Forest and each of its trees as their Gods.

Also, Read Here:

The Heritage of Mahula Drink in Ganjam – An Anthropological Journey

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The region around Barbara is also a major elephant corridor. To chase out elephants, apart from being vigilant and night after a night patrolling they erect manchas (temporary small raised structures) to watch animals’ movements in harvesting season.

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For a traveller, each one of these wonderful souls has countless tales, ranging from their version of tribal and Hindu mythologies to sustenance, farming to food security and local actions against global climate change. You are simply back in time with scores of experiences that you can cherish for your rest of life.

Author: Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

The Heritage of Mahula Drink in Ganjam – An Anthropological Journey

Imagine 8th Century Odisha and in particular Bhubaneswar! A major Peeth of Tantra Sadhana practised by a group of esoteric Shaivites, called Kapalikas, who worshipped Bhairava/Shiva and his consort Chamunda!! The central ritual of their tantric communion was to get indulged in alcohol and sexual intercourse.  Kapalaikas were masters in converting both ascetics and lay people of other sects towards their faith for which they had introduced Kapalini, a woman of passion.

‘Drink this pure nectar which is the medicine for worldly existence. Bhairava has said that this is the instrument to remove the bondage of the soul’ used to be the instruction in the process of conversion while offering a vessel full of alcohol to the targeted individuals and groups.

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Today all that Kapalika conventions that were once a common sight in Bhubaneswar may sound mysterious as the present Hinduism revolve around the idea of Sanatan philosophy.

However one wonders if in the surviving tradition such kinds of alcohol-based rituals ever exit. In the last couple of months, I have driven through three/four times on the National Highway 16 that connects Bhubaneswar with Berhampur and faraway Chennai. However, my destination is mostly Barkul, a small village on the shore of pristine Lake Chilika and the site of ODIART Purvasha Museum where Virasat E Hind works as a consultant.

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The View of Khalikote Hills from the Highway and Lake Chilika

Travel Tips 

ODIART Purvasha Museum is located at Barkul on Lake Chilika at a distance 100 km from Bhubaneswar and 70 km from Berhampur, the largest city in Southern Odisha. The museum is strategically located in a major tourism hub on the National Highway that connects Kolkata with Chennai and closes to the rail route connecting Eastern India with the rest of Southern and Western India. The nearest airport is in Bhubaneswar, which is a 2-hour drive from the museum.

The museum has limited accommodation facility at the moment (only 4 rooms) for visitors to stay, but the nearby Barkul has varying staying options in a property managed by Odisha Tourism Development Corporation.

Besides the museum and a scenic boat ride in Lake Chilika, a traveller can also explore the rustic rural life of fisherfolk and farmers and the historic temple of Dakshya Prajapati at nearby Banapur. Chilika is also a heaven for seafood lovers. With prior intimation, the museum can arrange delicious ethnic lunch at its premises.

Contact Details

Odiart Centre, Barakul, Balugaon,
Khordha, Odisha-752030
Contact No-9439869009,  9853242244
Email : odiartchilika@gmail.com 

Each time I drove I was haunted by the beauty of the vast sprawl of Khalikote Hills to the west of the highway and they occupied largely my mind for a while. I was curious to know what lies surround those hills and beyond.  My curiosity finally brought me here to a couple of tiny villages beyond the Narayani Shakti Peeth, only 4 km from the National Highway.  A drive through the forest, hills and interspersed valleys of rice fields were magical at the time of retreating monsoon. Suddenly your car stops in a Sabara village with no vehicles around. For a moment you are drawn to a medieval world or perhaps to a much earlier time.

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The Scenic Jungle Road Interspersed with Rice Fields and the Sabara Village around Narayani Peeth

Savaras are Odisha’s most ancient tribe who speak Mundari language of the Mon-Khmer group (Mainland Southeast Asia). Once used to be hunter-gatherers, now they are mostly settled, subsistence farmers. In the absence of historical records, it is difficult to trace their early history in the region, however archaeological finds of Neolithic – Chalcolithic sites reveal aspects of Sabara way of life 4,000 years back in time. In the past, they perhaps also exploited marine resources at Lake Chilika, which was a bay then, but their arrival to Odisha was through the land route and can be linked with early migration of modern humans. Biologically speaking they share remarkable similarities with other Austro-Asiatic language speaking groups of Jharkhand, West Bengal, Assam, Myanmar and Vietnam.

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The Ancient Hill Tribe of Lanjia Saoras – Journey with a Shaman

Little wonders, the Sabaras were also the original worshipers of Lord Jagannath and like Kapalikas of Medieval Odisha, the offering of alcohol to their tribal deities, are part of their daily rituals. In the village I stepped into, the first sight that fascinated me was the cooking of mahula (mahua) alcohol all around.

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Dongria Kondhs of Nimayagiri – Mother Nature’s Own Children

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Offering of Alcohol to the Forest Deity by Sabara People

Indigenously fermented food and beverages have been used for centuries and are treated essentially for the well-being of many people across the world. These are prepared in the household or cottage industry using relatively simple techniques and types of equipment. According to scientists, fermentation improves the digestibility by detoxifying the toxic elements in the food and on the other hand it improves the flavour, aroma, nutritional values and texture in less cooking time.

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Mahula Flowers are Spread for Drying in a far flung Desia Kondh Village in Rayagada District

In mahula drink, the flowers are thoroughly washed in water and submerged in plastic drums for 4 days with the addition of ‘bakhar’ (syn. ‘ranu’). Fermented mahula flower mass is distilled in a metallic container by keeping another earthen pot on the top of the first container in a reverse manner. The joints of two vessels are sealed by using a sticky mud pond. A metallic pipe is connected to the upper earthen vessel, which passes through water and opens into a collecting vessel.

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The lower metallic container containing fermented mahula flowers is heated at a lower temperature with wood fire. Finally, steam is condensed in a metallic pipe and collected in collecting vessel.

The preparation of mahula drink at the village has remained traditional and is part of the indigenous knowledge system.

As in the film, it began with a ritual offering to forest deities (a group of triangular slabs) in the remote past, a practice still followed among the tribes.

However, with the increasing demand among the people of the plains, today brewing mahula alcohol has become a cottage industry deep inside forest villages. People from the non-tribal villages around Chilika come here regularly for partying and buying the country liquor. Thanks to this new patronage the traditional know-how has survived in the otherwise fast-changing world dominated by fast food and foreign beverage in large quantity but expensive prices.

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I returned back after spending a couple of hours with a determination to explore more and bring untold stories of Sabaras in the next part.

Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com