The scenery is lush as far as your eyes can stretch! There are mountains of incredible beauty soaked with the floating clouds of the monsoon. You are reminded of Kalidas’s Meghadootam here, each rain-bearing cloud acting a messenger of love and passion. Numerous streams flow through them cascading the slopes and the valley floors. Mysterious forests of Sal trees once filled with tigers and leopards wrap this Dreamtime landscape. You hear countless elephant stories when you talk to country souls of this enchanting land.
As I drive through this unexplored Shangri-La in Odisha’s Keonjhar, I am dragged to her myths – long ago, the land where I am now was floating for millions of years. However, with god’s grace, the hills of Gonasika and its neighbouring hillocks were stable. In good old days there lived a rishi in Gonasika. He was a bachelor. One day while he was resting he heard someone approaching him. There was a girl of Asur Tribe who had come in search of solitude. Both fell in love at first sight. In no time they got married and in course of time delivered seven sons and seven daughters. Now the problem was how to settle them. The hill of Gonasika was inadequate for their shelter and provides food. They required cultivable fields.
With no other options, the couple prayed to the Almighty.
Dharam Devata appeared and instructed the rishi to slaughter the Kapila cow and sprinkle her blood to make the earth steady. The rishi brought the cow to Gonasika and killed her. Then he sprinkled her blood on the earth. The earth thus became stable making it suitable for rishi’s children. They were first Juangs on earth.
After killing the cow, the first Juang family relished the meat and buried the head in the middle of the hill, but suddenly water sprang from the nostrils of the cow and gave birth to the sacred river Baitarani.
Gonasika is located at a height of 3000 feet from sea level in Keonjhar District of North Odisha. Surrounded by lush mountain valleys and majestic hills of Chotanagpur Plateau, Gonasika can be approached by road from Keonjhar (25 km) through the National Highway that connects Mumbai with Kolkata. It takes about 2 hours from Keonjhar through a leisure drive with a number of stopover in-between. There are no stay and food options at Gonasika. We recommend Nature Camp at Sana Ghagra near Keonjhar for accommodation, which can be booked through online. While there are plenty of Juang Villages around Gonasika, we recommend the village of Kadali Badi which has retained some of the anarchic characters of Juang culture. It is situated at a distance of 7 km from Gonasika.
The Juang, an aboriginal tribe of Keonjhar revere Gonaskia as their original mother and the place of their origin. Their villages are around Gonasika and Kanjipani on hilltops or slopes or on valleys amidst hills and forests all around. The Juang villages are located near streams and River Baitarani. Mostly settled farmers now they were portrayed very differently by the 19th century British historians and anthropologists as the wearers of leaf dresses. They are medium in stature with a long head, prominent cheekbone and broad nose showing affinity with the tribes living in the Mon-Khmer region of Mainland Southeast Asia. Their language is Mundari belonging to Austro-Asiatic language group spoken in parts of Eastern India and Mainland Southeast Asia.
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During the time of Hunter’s visit in 1877, this account reveals – ‘the men wear a single cloth. The women had not even this, but simply strings around their waist, with a bunch of leaves before and behind. The life they live best is to wonder about the wood collecting wild products which they barter for food.’
Today, this may sound a fairytale as the Juangs have gone a long way of progress, thanks to various government initiatives.
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The central attraction of a Juang Village is the dormitory house, called Majanga or Manda Ghara, which also serve as a guesthouse and general assembly place. Their traditional musical instruments and weapons are also displayed here. In front of the Majanga, there is a spacious ground or plaza where the Juang boys and girls dance with their changu (circular drums).
Believers of animistic religion, Juang offers sacrifices of fowls to the Sun God when in trouble and to the earth for a beautiful harvest.
Houses of Juang are small which can accommodate a married couple and their one or two children. Goats are kept in separate sheds made of wooden plants.
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Close to a Juang village live two or three Gouda (cattle and sheep/goat herders) families. They heard the cattle of Juangs and supply milk to them.
A visit to their land will expose to the diversity of their agricultural practises. The valley floors and the mountain slopes are filled with varieties of crops like beans, millets and pulses. These add as supplements to their rice diet. They also are fond of eating the meat of all animals except sloth bear, snake, tiger and vulture. During Akhand Shikar or ceremonial hunting on Amba Nuakhai (new mango) eating ceremony they chase other animals in the forest. However, today most of the forest is gone, thanks to the population explosion, infrastructure creations and mining.
Gonasika is Odisha’s own Dreamtime stories with its myriad beliefs and tales. It is truly a traveller’s paradise interested in people and the deep-rooted beliefs in their landscape, forest, rivers and wildlife.
Author – Jitu Mishra
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org