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There and back again

There and back again
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I had been to Chhattisgarh once before, years ago. Actually to Raipur for a day’s visit. I recall my flight to Delhi from Kolkata stopping for a while at the tiny airport, but that was another time.

Chhattisgarh, Raipur or any of the other places in the state remained unseen and unexplored. Thus, when this new year Raipur popped up on my to-do list, it felt like unfinished business.

Apprehensive, yes, but I could not say no. Braving the early pre-dawn chill and then a short flight, Raipur hit is with its pleasant warmth. For all those shivering in Delhi, you’ll know what it feels like to be able to strip off your jacket and first layer of sweater and feel the sun on your face.

Our hotel was almost a stone throw away from the airport, fortunately, sleep deprived and dying for a caffeine fix we headed over. Raipur is your quintessential small town but you will be mistaken if you question their hospitality or the availability of amenities.  We got to see very little of the Capital city because our job lay 85 kms from there at Sirpur.

So how does one get to Sirpur? Raipur is the closest airport which is about 154 kms away from the city. One can get to Raipur then drive down to Sirpur. The roads are very smooth, trust us on that because we made the journey from Raipur to Sirpur once every day for three days back-to-back.
By rail as well, Raipur is the nearest railway station. Buses and taxis are available from Raipur and Mahasamund to get to Sirpur.

Now the question - what exactly does Sirpur have and why haven’t we heard of it yet? Well here’s possibly why - Sirpur, like Raipur and the rest of Chhattisgarh hasn’t aced the India’s best tourist places yet because of myths that surround it. And these are not our words, this is the MD of Chhattisgarh Tourism Board, Santosh Kumar Mishra speaking about his state.

The 13-year-old Chhattisgarh, formed in 2000 by partitioning 16 Chhattisgarhi-speaking south-eastern districts of Madhya Pradesh (says Wikipedia), has suffered immensely due to serious internal security concerns that plagues not only the state, but the country as well. ‘The concerns aren’t misplaced,’ says Mishra but he adds that the danger lies along the borders mostly and the rest of the state, by and large is safe. ‘Chhattisgarh is as safe or as unsafe as any other state in the country,’ says Mishra.

Now if one goes looking for trouble through uncharted spaces following mud trails, well they are looking for trouble! And we could not agree more. ‘I love travelling myself and I have travelled across the state. I happened to chance upon a group of elderly tourists just a few kilometres away from the Darbha Valley where the bloody attack by the maoists killed state Congress leaders Mahendra Karma and Uday Mudliyar and critically injured party veteran and former Union minister Vidya Charan Shukla. ‘It is perfectly safe to go exploring, but people have to keep their wits about themselves. It is time to break the myths,’ says Mishra.

And what better way to open avenues up than with an national dance and music festival! The Sirpur National Dance and Music Festival, held this year over 4th, 5th and 6th of January was a brilliant initiative of tourism department in the state.

Currently in its second year, the Sirpur National Dance and Music Festival, held sway over the state over three culturally exhilarating days. Day one witnessed Ahvan - Panthi Nritya, Karma Nritya, Bharthari Geet by Suruj Bai Khande; Samanvaya - a specially choreographed presentation involving five classical Indian dance styles of Bharatnatyam, Oddisi, Kathak, Kathakali and Manipuri; Atulya Bharat - a collection of vibrant fold dances from across the country and Langas and Magniars - a performance of Rajasthani folk songs by Bade Gazi Khan Barna and group.

Over the next two days Sirpur witnessed  local folk dances like the Gaur Mariya Nritya, Raut Nritya and the Dadaria Geet. Kathak performances by Rajashri Shirke and group from Mumbai,  Trinity Dance performed by Santosh Nair’s Sadhya repertoire from Delhi, Odissi by Aruna Mohanty and group, a Manipuri ballet performance  by Preeti Patel’s Angika, Pandavani by Padma Bhushan Teejanbai and much more. The highlights of the festival, clearly, were riveting performances by the Wadali Brothers and by Shubha Mudgal that witnessed enthusiastic participation of audiences.

Chief Guest of the event Lee Joongyu, Ambassador, Republic of Korea inaugurated the second Sirpur National Dance and Music Festival in the presence of Chief Ministerof Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh, Minister of Tourism and Culture, Chhattisgarh, Ajay Chandrakar and Member of Parliament, Mahasamund Chandu Lal Sahu.

Lee Joongyu, Ambassador, Republic of Korea said, ‘I consider it a privilege to be a part of the second Sirpur National Dance and Music Festival. The Chhattisgarh Tourism Board has taken momentous initiative to bring out a series on the varied cultural heritage of Chhattisgarh. I am sure that this initiative to promote better cultural relations between Korea and India will remain a precious treasure house of ideas and information and source of inspiration.’

Speaking at the event Raman Singh said, ‘The second edition of the Sirpur Dance Festival is an important initiative that the Government of Chhattisgarh had taken to promote the culture of Chhattisgarh and Buddhist sites in Sirpur. He also added that through this initiative, the state hopes to garner more attention in the national and international tourist circuit.’

Held in the premises that houses Sirpur’s famous Laxman Temple, like the famous Konark Music and Dance Festival, over the years Sirpur National Dance and Music Festival will soon be an event to reckon with on the national scale. A massive stage with the Laxman Temple as a backdrop, the Sirpur National Dance and Music festival is not a festival music and dance lovers should ever miss.
While staying in Sirpur is not quite an option yet with only one resort in place, Raipur is the best place to stop over at if one has to attend this festival. However, even minus the festival Sirpur has a lot to offer to tourists in terms of archeological splendors.

Under the careful guidance of Dr AK Sharma, Retired Indian Superintendent, Archeological Survey of Inida, we got a chance to witness a fragment of Sirpur’s 2500 year old Buddhist history. The Buddhist cultural heritage has a long and special history that dates back to more than 2,500 years and unites most of South, South-East and East Asia.

Once the capital of the Sarbhapuriya and Somvanshi kings of Dakshin Khosala, Chhattisgarh has been one of the most important Buddhist centers from the 6th to the 10th century AD. In fact His Holiness the Dalai Lama also made a visit to Sirpur last year and is scheduled to make another soon this year.

Sirpur is dotted with some exquisite temples and sites that have been excavated and preserved under Sharma’s guidance which include the Laxman Temple, Gandheshwar Temple, Buddha Vihara, Ram Temple, Rajmahal Avshesha, Balseshwar Mahadev Temple and much more. Make sure you see them all, you won’t be disappointed.

15 kms away from Sirpur lies the Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary. If all the history makes you lazy, head over for a dose of adventure. The park plays home to the leopards, tigers, sloth bears, flying squirrels, four-horned antelopes, barking deers, striped hyenas, bisons and the list goes on! It also promises to be a treat for the bird lovers and heaven for the avid photographer.

Thanks to our packed schedule we missed Barnawapara this time, but it surely is on our list for the next time we head over to Chhattisgarh. With places like Rajim, Bastar, Champaranya and Gangrel yet to be explored, we are definitely going back to Chhattisgarh soon - and after reading this - we hope so will you!
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