Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Onkudeli Tribal Market

On Thursday, we went to what was supposed to be the highlight of our Orissa Trip - The Thursday Market of the Gonda tribe in Onkudeli. The Gondas are supposed to be one of the oldest tribes on Earth. We went there early morning, and stationed ourselves on the banks of a narrow stream, from where we could watch the Gonda tribespeople walking over meadows and hills and fording the stream to get to the market. It was a lovely sight, with some funny moments. A tribal man was herding his goats over the stream. In the melee, one clever goat slipped off and hid himself in the bushes. The goat had no intention of being sold. The tribal went off, none the wiser. Whoever said goats were stupid? Another little old lady was carrying an enormous fish, still live. It slipped off her shoulder and fell into the stream. She grabbed at it before it could swim away.

But, sadly... no pictures. The good old Govt. of India has forbidden photography of the Gonda tribe. The silly thing is that this ban came into effect just a few years ago - the Internet is full of pictures of the Gonda taken before that. So the ban seems kind of pointless. Also, foreigners need a special permit to visit the Onkudeli market, and need to be accompanied by a licensed guide. Since Blandine is technically French (although she claims to have been Indian in a past life), we had to get the permit and guide. There are horror stories in the Internet of foreign tourists being turned away from the market because they did not have the permit. There are also stories of cameras being confiscated when tourists attempted photography. There are even scarier stories of how the Gonda are allergic to people photographing them, and can become violent of you point a camera at them.

We found it all overblown. We did not see a single policeman within a 100 km of that place. No one checked our permits. We were rather disappointed, having gone to all the trouble of getting one. There was no one to stop us pulling out our cameras. Far from being allergic to cameras, a couple of the Gonda approached us and offered to let us photograph them - for the payment of the nominal sum of Rs. 100. Unfortunately, we could not take them up on the offer. Our  guide acted the spoilsport. He insisted he would get into trouble if he allowed us - he could lose his guide license.

Now I'm a law-abiding citizen. I kept my hand firmly off the iPad. But Blandine, being French, hates laws of any kind: she sneaked off a couple of photos of a Gonda tribeswoman when the guide wasn't looking. Here they are: very poor quality because taken in a hurry, from behind a concealing paper bag.
Dear Govt. of India. If you see this post, please don't blame our guide. He did his best to stop us. Don't blame me either. I'm a law-abiding Indian citizen. Blame my crazy, lawless French girlfriend, if you must.

The Gonda are famous for wearing no clothes. But before you get prurient thoughts, let me tell you that they cover themselves from head to foot in beaded jewelry. As you can see in the above picture, you can barely make out the lady is nude under all those beads. Those beads form their clothes, for all practical purposes.
Those rings around her neck are a kind of metal neck band that all Gonda woman wear from their marriage to death. It is made of a kind of soft metal that can be bent out of shape, with a bit of force. Probably a tin-iron alloy. Blandine purchased one of those neck bands from the lady in the above pic. When she went back to France, she wore it around her neck. Seriously. It was increasing her baggage weight too much.
She also purchased some of the lady's nose rings and bead necklaces (beads of bone and polished wood). No, don't worry, the lady didn't go nude after that. She had SO MANY necklaces, that she could sell Blandine a few, and it barely made a difference.
What is this? Have the tribals too taken to drinking mineral water? Have no fear. It has not come to that yet. That is our bottle, which the lady asked us to give her. Possibly she wanted it to cart country beer back home. Unlike Bangalore, empty plastic mineral water bottles are still a rarity here. You don't find them littering the landscape as they do here. Hope it stays that way.

In the whole process, Blandine made friends with a lot of Gonda tribeswomen. They were nothing like the fearsome people they are made out to be. They were pretty friendly. The only disappointing aspect was that they demanded gifts. Not wanting to give money, we purchased a lot of small packets of biscuits from the stalls in the market and handed them around. There was a mad scramble for the packets, which was a bit embarrassing. It is clear that tourism has had a negative effect on these people. We had not had this reaction in the other tribal markets. The tribals there smiled if we looked directly at them, but otherwise they mostly ignored us, as if we weren't there. Certainly no one demanded gifts. The lady in the above pic, with whom Blandine had become particularly friendly, shyly asked if we could give her a parting gift, as we left. We went to one of the stalls and asked her to choose whatever she wanted. She chose a coconut and a packet of local fried snacks. Blandine and the lady had a final girly hug, and we left.

Sadly, the guide refused to let us even take a distance shot of market, which seemed rather stupid. It was a beautiful, picturesque place, on a kind of grassy plateau. Made all the prettier with a long line of colorfully dressed Gonda tribeswomen with their fruit and vegetable stalls (at one of those stalls, by the way, we ate baby pineapples - the sweetest, most perfumed pineapples I have ever tasted in my life). 

But not far from the market, there is this lovely waterfall. Our guide permitted us to take photos of it...

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