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Well its been a while that we came back to all of you with an interesting story and this particular one fits the bill perfectly! This time we have a PhD student in Archaelogy, Tathagata Neogi, who has a deeply ingrained interest in exploration of diverse cultures and who also aspires to be a travel writer. According to him the single biggest motivation for him to travel is – People and the diverse ways we live and interact with the world around us. Check out below his interesting two piece story on research and travel among the remote Asur villages of Jharkhand.

tatagatha

“Because no one comes here anymore. Netarhat was once called the Queen of Chhotanagpur (plateau) and it was full of Bengali and other tourists at this time of the year. A more affordable and peaceful alternative than Darjeeling or Sikkim (hill stations on the Himalayas). But tourism has declined rapidly in the last decade after the meteoric rise of Maoist insurgency and violence in the area. This broke the backbone of the economy here. Only high profile politicians come here before elections accompanied by large regiments of security personnel.”

Reflected Anil (name changed) as we left the deserted compound of Neterhat tourist lodge. We had started early that morning in a jeep for Jobhipat and Sakhuapani, two hamlets inhabited by the Asur tribe, situated in the remote forest terrains of the serene and verdant Netarhat plateau. On our way, we made a short detour to visit Neterhat town, preferred by colonial administrators and later Indian tourists as a health resort and popular tourist destination during the spring and summer months. Knowing this, I had expected that Netarhat would be a small and touristy hill station like Darjeeling. I could not be more off the mark. A boarding school, struggling to maintain its former glory; a solitary and defunct SBI cash machine; a small post office; a very heavily defended police station; and a well maintained guest house to accommodate high profile political guests once or twice a year: that was the hill station of Netarhat. It was Monday afternoon; apart from some students from the boarding school and a small construction crew near the guest house, Netarhat resembled a ghost town. Having started before sunrise with just a cup of tea, we were famished. However, our efforts to find a single food shack proved futile. It was 2 p.m. and the driver was already getting restless. Before nightfall he had to travel another 140 kilometers to reach within the 30 kilometer perimeter of Ranchi, the state capital of Jharkhand. The area inside this perimeter was considered to be safe from the Maoist insurgents who controlled the forests despite decades of para-military missions to neutralize them. The terror stricken driver insisted that we move on. Anil, Reshma (name changed; an Asur lady and my local contact) and a couple of her relatives and I left Netarhat and started towards our final destination. We were already out of mobile phone connectivity, we were starving, but could not stop and waste time on food as the twilight was just a couple of hours away.

Travel Stories

Deserted Netarhat Tourist Lodge

The objective of my visit in this deserted, remote conflict zone was to conduct a pilot ethnoarchaeological survey among the Asur tribal community. From various official and academic documents coming from the colonial era, and  solitary work from K.K. Leuva, a government officer, it was evident that like the Agarias in Chhotanagpur,Asurs (probably a branch of the same tribal community as evidenced by their myths), were dedicated iron smelters. They efficiently exploited iron rich laterite veins, and other forest resources abundantly available on the Netarhat Plateau to produce iron blooms which were later brought to the plains and sold off to the Lohars(blacksmiths). These reports claimed that the Asurs were so dedicated in the craft of iron smelting, that they were not keen on cultivation and led a largely pastoral life, and depended on the forest resources for food and also foods obtained through exchange with agricultural tribal groups and non-tribal customers in the plains. Due to their over dependence on the staple finance, the community was hard hit as smelting was increasingly smothered since early 20th century in form of Forest Laws, which restricted their access to resources like timber and later the Bauxite mining companies, backed by the government, applied restrictions on mining and land use, crucial for smelting. Hence gradual decline in smelting led to large scale displacements among the Asurs, as they found it difficult to take up cultivation and hence adapt to a new way of living. The Asurs today therefore either try (often in vain) to secure some living through cultivation in the rugged upland terrains of Netarhat, and the younger generation are recruited as underpaid day labour  in numerous bauxite mines that dot the region. Though bauxite has ideologically replaced laterite ores as the life giving “red sand” as the Asurs’ source of livelihood, one could easily discern the lamentations about the second, and more permanent loss of Lohasur’s Kingdom* with the steady and permanent decline of indigenous iron smelting. Government of India has categorized the Asurs as one of the “primitive” tribes and accorded them “endangered” status because of their dwindling population of not more than 2500-3000 people scattered in small villages on the Netarhat plateau.

Asur Fieldwork 062

Before we left the tarmac road we crossed a few more heavily defended para-military stations, stopped at the only grocery store in the area to pick up rations for the month and halted to collect samples of leaves and soil used by local adivasigroups for skin and hair care used for different kinds of cures (all of these, much to the displeasure of the driver who was getting anxious about returning to the plains before nightfall).  Our jeep slowly wound around the serpentine roads that passed  through open cast Bauxite mines. Our lungs burnt and vision obscured by plumes of red dust that incessantly rose from dirt roads frequented by heavy trucks ferrying mined bauxite to factories in different parts of North India. We emerged from the mining area, coughing and asphyxiating. Reshma told us that those who work in these mines have a very short lifespan. Lung problems are common in the Asur villages. Nearest hospital is 40 kilometers away in Netarhat, and only form of transport are bauxite trucks, with the sleazy drivers and their assistants often overcharging or seeking sexual favours from hapless passengers. Autos (more familiar to western audience as Took-took) are only available during weekly markets to carry merchandise from the plains.

Asur Fieldwork 076

We finally reached Jobhipat at 4 in the afternoon. Still hungry and exhausted, I wanted to take a bath and collapse on a bed! We hurried to the government guest house I was booked in, at Jobhipat. The existence of a government guest house at such a remote location sounded dodgy to me, and I expressed my interest of staying with an Asur family in the village for the month. I tried in vain to convince my hosts that this will be a wonderful experience for me and a very important element of my research methodology. But they insisted that I stay at the guest house, which was safe and had basic sahure (urban) amenities. The “guest house” that dawned on us was a cluster of single storied flats, unused since 1980s. Moth eaten doors, falling windows, chunks of cement from crumbling ceiling, three decades of dirt, awful smell of rodents and bats welcomed us! My hosts told me that these self contained apartments fell in disuse with the gradual increase in insurgent activities since early 1980s. Government visits are rare, and when there is an official visit, the representatives prefer to return to comparatively secure state capital almost two hundred kilometers away. After a failed attempt to accommodate me at a nearby boarding school, Reshma insisted that I stayed in her house at Sakhuapani, a neighbouring village, ten kilometers away. We were quickly dropped and the car raced back to Ranchi!

Asur Fieldwork 065

*Lohasur is a mythical figure in Asur and also more dominant Munda creation myth, that celebrates the defeat of the Asurs through trickery and deceit by the principal Munda sun god Sing Bonga. Lohasur is worshiped as one of the principal deities by the Asurs, along with Agyasur. Lohasur is believed to have been a master smelter and the god of the bloom, who ruled over the forest tracts and invented iron smelting technology.

Disclaimer: All of the above content has been reproduced here with the due content of the original author. 

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