By the end of the farming activities in the month of February, everyone around me in Sukma was talking about the mela (local fair) of Ramaram. They all seemed to be excited about it. When I asked my colleagues from Shiksharth about the mela, they all reminisced about the fun they had there last year. Listening to them was a delight. They told me that this mela is different from the ones we usually see in cities. I was curious to know what makes it so special and hence, I went to experience it with my team members at Shiksharth.
The mela starts from a place called Ramaram in Sukma, Chhattisgarh and moves around the whole district. People from different parts of the state come to attend it and to experience the beauty of Bastar. The mela starts in the beginning of February and ends in March. Once people are free from farm related activities, they have enough resources to sustain their livelihoods for the next 4-6 months.
The mela has been divided into a few sections like games, food stalls, daily household items, drinks and toys. Games are meant for all age groups. There were horse rides and trampoline games for children. When not playing, they were busy convincing their parents to buy toys and sweets. I saw that the children were the happiest when they got these items. If not, they would cry their heart out to get what they want.
As a child, I remember going to the Dussehra mela every year. I used to sit on my dad’s shoulder from where I could see the crowd, what they were doing and buying. It looked larger than life, from up there; grand and celebratory.
Here, games for adults include darts, ludo and playing cards. They bet money in it. I took some time to understand how they are playing these games as it was totally different than how I have played it or seen others playing earlier. In one of the dice games, they have six dice in a basket. These dice have card faces – spade, hearts, club and diamond, plus two more that I saw for the first time. They flip the basket upside-down and look at the side of the dice that’s up. Everyone bets on the shape and win or lose huge amounts of money.
Walking ahead, I found stalls of tattoo artists. These were put up by people from outside, not the locals. Then there were stalls for household items. The food section was also interesting. There was everything from fast food to traditional recipes, snacks and local drinks like Mahua, Tadi and Chhin at a reasonable price. While I was trying the drinks, I got talking to the woman who was selling it. She told me how they make it naturally, with the produce from trees around them.
The temple and the place around it is decorated beautifully. Locals perform a puja (prayer) here and sacrifice animals, goat and hen, in the honour of the Devi (goddess) as a mark for their devotion. Whoever comes to the mela must visit the temple to get a sight of the Devi. Some people start dancing in groups, as if they are possessed by the spirits. People say “devi aa gayi hain inpe”.
People who travel to visit the mela usually do it by public transport, and don’t have their own vehicle to go back to their villages. So they often decide to stay at night. The local doctor, knows as vaid, also stays back, in case he is needed. The residents prepare temporary houses for the visitors to stay. These houses are made out of the branches of the Tule tree.
At night, people perform nataks (play) and dance. The plays start from 11 pm and goes on till 6 am. They enact a few romantic stories and some folklore. Artists from other states are also invited to performs these plays. You get a glimpse about the gender roles, lifestyles and culture of the community.
I wanted to know why people celebration this mela and how the importance of praying to the goddess is attached to it. On asking around, I came to know that people here believe that during the period of Ramayana, Lord Shri Ram visited this part of India in his exile. Due to the religious significance, people of Ramaram, Sukma and Pakela started worshipping their Devi. In this mela, all the Devis from different regions are brought together. People make a palanquin in which they carry their Devis’ belongings from one place to another. One ritual involves worshipping the palanquin and the vaids (local doctors).
The King of Sukma plays an important role here, as the puja starts only when the king arrives and offers prayers to the Devis.
I had a great time at the mela. It was a chance to experience the local culture and participate in different ways. I also met a few volunteers of Shiksharth who came from far away. For them, it was also an opportunity to meet their relatives in this area who they usually don’t get to meet because of the long distance and poor transportation facilities. For tribal communities, the celebration of their tradition matters and it shows how their lifestyle is deeply rooted in it.