I rolled down the window of the old Ambassador car and strained to tune out the local remix of a Kishore Kumar melody. As our vehicle rumbled along the winding roads that run between the verdant paddy fields of Jagdalpur, in the Bastar district of Chhattisgarh, I sniffed the fresh air and listened for a different kind of music.
“I can’t hear it. Are we near?” I asked Palomji, my driver. The sound I was so eager to hear was the loud reverberation of thousands of gallons of water gushing down from the rugged, 100-foot cliffs at Chitrakote Falls. Called the “Niagara Falls of India,” the country’s widest waterfall earned its sobriquet because of the expansive horseshoe shape it acquires during the monsoons.
Chitrakote, which descends from the Indravati River, is about an hour’s drive from the small town of Jagdalpur. It is difficult to fathom such a gigantic waterfall emerging from such a gentle and innocuous body of water. The calmness of the Indravati just before the plunge is reminiscent of a tiger creeping up to its prey; a slow and silent approach, just before a frenzied offensive.
There are many vantage points to view Chitrakote from the adjacent cliffs. However, I was wary of the crowds wielding selfie sticks, and decided to hop in a boat and watch the falls from below. With the flair of a seasoned daredevil, our intrepid boatman navigated us through treacherous rapids, right to the base of the gushing falls. The splash of water droplets on my face, the resounding roar of the falls, the rocking boat, and the magical strands of a rainbow against the backdrop of white froth coalesced into an experience I still rhapsodise about.
Chitrakote is famous, but there is more to explore in rugged Bastar, where tourism is relatively underdeveloped due to the region’s association with Maoist activities. With Jagdalpur as my base, I explored several nearby places in a rented car. After Chitrakote, I headed to the Tirathgarh Waterfalls, which is formed by the Mugabahar River, a tributary of the Kanger. At Tirathgarh, the water drops down the craggy cliffs in white, frothy cascades, earning them the nickname “Milky Falls.” The uneven stone formations divide the river into several channels, creating a stunning vista.
Thanks to these channels, there are several places to bathe in clear water below the falls. To enjoy them without the crowds, I paid Tirathgarh a second visit, this time at sunrise. The experience of standing beneath the gorgeous waterfall felt right, the way humans are supposed to interact with nature. I thought again of an uninhibited relationship with the world as I watched children running ahead of me into the narrow, slippery, moss-covered pathways of Kutumsar Caves. About 40 kilometres south of Jagdalpur, Kutumsar is a long natural cave system. Its five huge chambers have magnificent formations of stalactites and stalagmites sculpted at the glacial pace of one inch every 6,000 years. Mineral-rich rock adds bands of brilliant colour to these formations. Not a single ray of sunlight penetrates the dark cavern. The wildlife too has evolved duly, and a rare species of blind cave fish (Indoreonectes evezardi) inhabit the underground waters (open 9 a.m to 4 p.m; entry Rs 25 per person; closed Jun-Aug).
Another glimpse of evolution in harmony with nature is on view at the Anthropological Museum. Established in 1972, the museum displays the cultural traditions of Bastar’s tribes. Exhibits include collections of clothing, headgear and footwear, paintings and carvings, musical instruments, ornaments, and weapons (open 9.30 a.m to 5.30 p.m., closed Sunday, entry free, photography is prohibited inside the museum).
Getting There Jagdalpur is 280 km/6 hr south of Raipur, which is connected by direct flights to major Indian cities. Taxis charge Rs 3,500 for a one-way trip.
Season Chitrakote Falls is most grandiose (and muddy) in Aug-Sep (during and just after the monsoon). In Oct-Feb, the weather is more pleasant and the water pristine white.
Stay The Dandami Luxury Resort run by the Chhattisgarh Tourism Board offers both tents and cottages (cgtourism.choice.gov.in; from Rs 1,750). Naman Bastar, about 6 km from Jagdalpur, provides an eco-conscious, local experience (75877 75500; www.namanbastar.com; doubles from Rs 4,500).