Marriages in India are as intriguing as other diversities in the country. My reading on Bhagoria festival told me that it is a fair where young boys propose to the girls they want to marry and if the girl accepts they elope and stay away till their families agree to get them married. In fact the word ‘Bhag’ in Bhagoria translates to run or elope. So, my intrigue took me to Jhabua in western Madhya Pradesh where this tradition is followed in the Bhil tribes that live in the districts of MP bordering Gujarat.
The first thing that I figured out after reaching there was that there is no fixed venue for this festival. In the week before the festival of Holi, it is celebrated in various villages of the region. Every day the market is hosted by few villages, so the festival in its spirit moves from one village to another. The schedule is published in local newspapers, but I wonder how they communicated this in days before newspapers or did they have a set pattern that they followed to decide the days for the villages? There was also a debate on calling it a Parv or a Haat ie a festival or a market. One view said that it is just a marketplace that happens before Holi where people do their annual shopping, while the others called it a celebration leading to the festival of Holi, of which the market is a big part. Debates will go on but we did figure out that it is a time when everyone who belongs to the community comes back to their villages from wherever they work, with their earnings. Harvest time also precedes this time of the year, so with money in their bags – it is the perfect time to shop and celebrate.
On the first day we visited the village of Vaalpur, which is good 90 kilometres from Jhabua, and the journey took us through interesting landscapes of small dunes like hillocks and some interesting standalone temples in heavily carved stones. What you cannot miss though are the various kinds of vehicles – buses, tempos and bullock carts on the road filled with people going to the fair. Women were dressed in heavy silver jewellery and groups of women wore the same coloured clothes. Once we reached the fair venue, we realised that women moved in groups and each group had its own colour. The colours varied from bright to subdued, except white, there was every other colour, but there were no prints on any clothes. The silver jewellery they wore sparkled as if it has been recently polished and again they all wore the same pattern – across the colours of dresses. It almost gave a feeling as if the pieces have been mass produced and then distributed but then we came across the silversmith who said they are all handmade in the village itself. Men wore quite modern clothes though we did manage to find some with ornate flutes and matching dresses. They roamed around the market, bargaining and buying, enjoying the ice creams being sold on bicycles or sweets that were being made right there. It was a massive fair that ran across the streets of the village and there was music, dance and loads of food.
On the second day we visited the village of Ranapur, closer to Jhabua. We expected the same kind of fair, after all it was the same festival and villages are just a little distance apart. Yes, it was a similar fair, but there were so many individualistic nuances that I was surprised. Women still moved in small groups wearing similar clothes, but here prints appeared on their clothes and red was the dominant colour. Jewellery was still heavy silver, but the designs changed and this village had its own design almost making me feel as if the design is like a village logo, one for each village. At Ranapur men wore big pagris and the shops there had different products. There were many ferris wheels and entertaining games that people enjoyed. Some interesting products sold here were clay utensils, hand woven fabrics and products made from rubber recycled from vehicle tyres.
The ritual is that the boy makes the proposal by applying colour to the girl and if she accepts she applies the colour back on the boy and then by sharing a paan the deal is sealed. Our eyes were on the lookout for this and I only saw one boy applying colour on a girl while another couple shared a paan and I was not sure if I could attribute it to the tradition. I tried talking to many people to find out the ritual’s truth, but I got answers in equal measures accepting and denying the tradition. Some people said it used to happen, but it does not anymore. Others denied it completely saying nothing like this ever existed. My logical reasoning says that this might have been one of those few occasions where youngsters got to interact with each other openly and they probably used this opportunity to express themselves to the ones they fancied. Some of them might have eloped to escape separation and that over a period of time became a practice – accepted or not, we shall never know.
Visiting Bhagoria was like visiting rustic India as it used to be. In both the villages there was no presence of any mass commodities that we see almost ubiquitously, no banners and advertisements were glaring at you or dominating the atmosphere. The number of tourists was also limited, though I did see a small number of foreign tourists clicking away to glory. These were fairs by the people and for the people.
(Writer is a leading travel blogger from India. You can read her stories at www.IndiTales.com and reach her on twitter