In quest of the Mythical Forest
It was decades ago that I had taken, for the first time, to the ghat road from Vizianagaram, zigzagging over varieties of “tableaux – of slumbering hamlets, lush green groves or a gorge with a silver brook under a silky mist – before reaching Jeypore on the brink of Dandakaranya.
The spring festival of the tribals was on. Groups of dancing damsels would stop our vehicle and, satisfied with a coin or two, dance their way back into their rocks and woods.
I had described Jeypore as ‘a sleepy little town’ in my contribution to a series entitled “The India You Do Not Know” in what was once India’s most popular periodical, The Illustrated Weekly of India. I stood ridiculed by the memory of my own description when early in the morning, in one of my late sojourns there, a high pitch microphone began its pre-dawn assault on my sleep. The merchant who employed it did not expect any customer at that hour. He was merely following the injunction of his dear departed father to inspire devotion with a vengeance in the hearts of the townsfolk, resigned to inertia, with appropriate recorded songs before their day began.
The town, surely, was no longer sleepy. Numerous projects mercilessly nibbled at the forests and hills all around it. The main road of the town, with the palace of the erstwhile Maharaja on its western end, and the college named
after him on the eastern end, shook with heavy vehicular movement all the night through.
Tranquility is the second sacrifice the town had made, after its first sacrifice centuries ago, at the founding of the settlement. The king commissioned the digging of a lake. The work force dug on and on – for days and weeks – deeper and wider, but not even a trickle surfaced. The king consulted a necromancer who whispered to him the cure for the jinx -and the king whispered the secret to his priest.
At dawn the priest sat cross-legged at the centre of the arid pit and performed some rituals. Then he climbed on to the embankment. A young girl was passing by. The priest surveyed her. Indeed, she seemed endowed with all the auspicious signs to appease the supernatural guardians of the place.
‘Well, my daughter, will you mind going down and fetching the vessel I left by mistake? he asked, pointing at the bottom of the pit.
The sweet little girl smiled and readily descended into it. No sooner had she stooped to pick up the vessel than a surge of water submerged her. The lake became full to the brim. The occult beings had been satisfied.
The lake continues to quench the thirst of the growing population to this day.
Almost a day-long drive from Jeypore to Malkangjri, with a slight diversion, enabled us to pass through a tribal village where women remained unclad but for some intricate ornaments from the waist down. It was the weekly market day – with the barter system still in vogue.
High on a hillock overshadowed by a cluster of banyan and other trees the market had to conclude all business by afternoon so that the participants could return home before dusk and the beasts were on the prowl.
The women moved about without the least sign of inhibition. I raised my camera. Immediately three or four youths confronted me.
What do you propose to do with the pictures?’ Their question was translated to me by my companion, a leading social worker.
‘Well, I never thought of that!’ I mumbled. ‘I will not click if you object to it.’
‘Don’t sell the pictures. Let them not appear in the papers.’
‘I agree,’ I said. They nodded with understanding and moved away. (I have been faithful to my promise.)
We had just come out of the crowd when two “researchers,” appropriately accoutered for their expedition, accosted us. Half a dozen cameras hung from their shoulders. ‘We came all the way from the city for a few snaps. But they won’t let us have any, even though we were willing to pay them tips. You seem lucky. Won’t you please plead for us?’
My companion carried their appeal to the youths but returned glum. ‘They did not even care to respond to my submission. But what I understood from their conversation, they are fast developing a mood for puncturing the tyres of your vehicle and smashing your cameras – and, ah, if you don’t mind – bits of your heads, too!’ he informed the dandies, his gestures and voice at their polite best.
The photographers jumped into their jeep and sped away.
At 641 feet above sea level, Malkangiri, now a town, nesded in a luxuriant teak grove. The locals claimed that its name was a corruption of Malyavantagiri of the Ramayana fame. They support their theory by referring to nearby Balimela, bearing the memory of the Vanara King, Bali.
Be as that may, there is no mistaking the shy and serene river Tamasa flowing by a few kilometres away. On its bank was situated the hermitage of Valmiki,vour first poet, the guardian of Sita and her twins, Lava and Kusha.
Talk to the tribals and for a few precious moments you will stand convinced that the Ramayana was not merely a literary epic but a chain of factual events intricately woven
into the history of the original dwellers of this forest. Dandakaranya was the stage for many happenings in the epic: Rama’s temporary abode, Surpanekha’s accosting him; the destruction of the demon leaders, Khar a and Dushana; the death of Maricha; the kidnapping of Sita, the death of Jatayu, so on and so forth. But there seems to be events not reported in the epic, but the collective memory of the tribals kept them alive through their life style.
For example, why do the women of a particular tribe go without clothes? One day Sita was bathing in the Tamasa, bare, when she found a group of them spying upon her and giggling. Sita was annoyed. “Being women, how do you fail to understand that I am one with Mother Nature now?”
The repentant women took a vow never to wear clothes themselves! If one did, even thousands of years later, she only invited a curse on herself and her tribe.
It was sundown when we reached the Tamasa. All was quiet and the ancient river was as translucent as the autumnal sky, revealing the charming designs on her bed of bright pebbles. I would have loved to sit there till the moon-rise – a full moon night was in the offing – but that was unsafe, I was warned. I had, however, time enough, reclining on a rock and gazing at the green, to muse over the legend of jhe origin of the river and the forest.
Long, long ago, the region was ruled by a dynasty known as the Dandakas. The last of them, a young epicure who was roaming the forest for hunting, set his eyes, and temporarily his heart, too, on a young lady emerging from a lake. He approached her and proposed to lead her to his palace right away, but she spurned the offer. To his repeated entreaties, her quiet response was he could duly propose his marriage with her to her father.
The young ruler had no patience. ‘Any father should feel honoured at having me for his son-in-law,’ he claimed boastfully and tried to drag her away and, failing, to molest
her. She struggled and wriggled out of his clutches and ran away and reported her humiliation to her father.
And the father was none other than the Sage Sukracharya. ‘What!’ he flared up. ‘Must a ruler prove himself so unruly? His conduct symbolizes the sinful state of affairs and the anarchy prevailing in his domain. Let his kingdom go up in flames!’
A million flames engulfed the region. Sukracharya left the place. His daughter took shelter in the lake. The fire subsided only after it had reduced everything around to ashes.
Monsoon brought a stream down from the hills to the lake. The lake overflowed and became the river Tamasa. By and by a forest grew upon the wasteland. Hermits christened it Dandakaranya – the forest bearing the memory of the Dandakas.