As a development professional, I often get to visit places that an urban traveller wouldn’t generally consider for a holiday. One such instance was when I was required to visit the capital city of Chhattisgarh (a young state situated in the centre-east of India), Raipur, for some last-minute meetings at the Ministry. The one-and-a-half day visit was surely not enough to explore the growing city in its entirety but I did get a glimpse into the surprising blend of traditional and modern life.
Instead of the nearly 24-hour-long scenic train journey that I would have preferred, the last-minute meetings required me to board a morning flight from Delhi. I was greeted at the airport by a hue of bright blue in the sky with scattered white clouds. It made for the perfect opening sequence to the artistic experiences in the land of the Gonds and Bhils – indigenous tribes of the region. Here’s a Gond painting I found on the internet, that aptly describes my feeling on reaching this land “full of surprises”!
(You can read about Choti Tekam and other Gond and Bhil artists like her here)
Not finding a chartered bus to Naya Raipur from the airport, we hired a cab, finished our meetings at the Ministry offices; and after a great subsidized meal at the canteen run by the Indian Coffee Workers’ Co-operative Society, took another cab back to the Raipur city. Ola Cabs are among the options in public transport that make commute simpler, like in several Indian cities.
We checked in at Hotel Mayura on the Great Eastern (G.E.) Road, a well maintained three star hotel in the heart of city; and retired for a couple of hours in our comfortable, twin-sharing deluxe room.
My colleague and I stepped out in the evening to explore the city. Being compulsive walkers, we walked aimlessly, stopping randomly at tea-stalls and street-food corners. We crossed markets, malls and other signature structures of a regular urban city.
Three different facets of this city’s culture, caught my eye.
First were the lovely graffiti on the walls of Jail Road. Here are some of them…
Second was how women friendly the city seemed. It was heartening to see women out at night – alone and in groups – riding along on their two-wheelers or simply out for an evening snack. A higher sex ratio than the national average points towards the state being supportive of its women.
Third was the focus on sustainable urban design. We saw bus stops with LED signals and voice announcements to cater to the differently-abled (though they were elevated and not wheelchair-friendly), something not common in many Indian cities. I also found the ongoing construction work for a “skywalk” – an elevated system of roads for pedestrians – quite interesting. While the project has recently come under immense public criticism by citizens who feel flyovers for cars are a better solution to minimize congestion, I personally feel encouraging sustainable movement options like walking and cycling are what should be promoted where possible, rather than vehicular transportation that increase pollution and burn fossil fuels.
We walked back to the hotel close to midnight. Courtesy cancellation of the next day’s meeting, we rose late with an intention to visit the Mahant Ghasidas Memorial Museum at Ghadi Chowk, beside the President’s House (the official residence of the President of Raipur’s Municipal Corporation). Being situated at a distance of a mere kilometre from our hotel, we decided to walk as usual. It was a sunny October day and we did not mind the mild perspiration on our foreheads. We crossed Shahid Smarak Bhawan – a memorial to honour Indian freedom fighters – which sadly was closed for the day.
We entered the Mahant Ghasidas Memorial Museum, buying tickets worth a mere ₹5 for Indian nationals, and found ourselves deep into a world of archaeology, anthropology and natural history. The museum was built by a local king in the late nineteenth century; and opened for public by Dr. Rajendra Prasad, first President of independent India, in the year 1953.
It was a weekday and we saw a group of bright, happy kids from a local school, escorted by their teachers, exploring the history of their land and ancestors.
Some areas of the museum were being renovated while some areas did not allow photography, including the section that attracted me the most – the indigenous people and cultures section. Here are some of the pictures I was able to click, where allowed.
We walked out of the museum mesmerized, looking for the perfect setting to sit and share notes, when we located the Restaurant Gadh Kaleva within the campus. It is an open air food joint that specializes in Chhattisgarhi tribal cuisine.
The sumptuous thali (platter) on their menu triggered a healthy appetite. As we sat down to relish our meal served in brass plates, it took considerable effort to pause and take this picture first. I promise it tastes even better that it looks!
It seemed natural to take a leisurely stroll around the campus after the hearty fare; the tribal art installations and Chhattisgarhi crafts shops made for a welcome pitstop.
A sense of contentment seeped in as we sat down under a shady tree, by a quaint cabin in the campus. The city had managed to spring its delightful surprise on us and secured its place in our minds, as a destination for another sojourn.
– Text and Images (except ones captioned otherwise) by Ritesh Datta