The Dangs is tiny both in area and population; Gujarat's smallest district on both counts. The majority of the population is tribal. Like tribal areas almost anywhere in the country, the roads are pitiful, villages don't have electricity, phone service is spotty and that includes mobile phones. Driving about the district at night, I needed no more than my two hands to count the number of electric lights I found. (One of those lights, or a clump of lights, blazed on top of a hill. More of that, shortly).
Yet in one corner of the district, bulldozers and labourers are hard at work on roads. The labourers live, as such labourers do, in tiny shacks and tents beside the road. A small fire at night wards off both the slight chill and the darkness. In a long series of fields, you will find poles erected by the thousand; in some places, multicoloured canvases are already draped over these poles to form tents to house people. In those same fields, you will also find paired rows of closely spaced toilets, pipes ready to feed into a trough dug between the rows. Workers string up wires amidst the poles; elsewhere, more workers are putting up electricity poles and stringing gleaming electric cable from one to the next. Huge Sintex plastic water tanks sit on round concrete platforms; others lie on their side almost bemused. The river that runs nearby is now generous host to a series of check dams, 22 of them we learn, all built in the last year or two (Government of Gujarat signboards say as much). So the river is really a series of placid lagoons.
All this activity. Why? Because the Government of Gujarat has suddenly taken an interest in the lives of the tribals of Dangs?
All this activity, because February 11, 12 and 13 will see a "Shabari Kumbh Mela" in Dangs. 500,000 devotees expected.
So that's what it takes to pay attention to an entire district, to people otherwise forgotten. In which case, I say, let's have Kumbh Melas all over this country, all the time.
And that blazing clump of lights? The brand new, still unfinished temple on a hill, commemorating the spot where Shabri fed berries to Ram and Lakshman in the Ramayan. Lights up there. Saw them off to our left for many minutes on the night we left Mangal Barde's home in Mukhamal village. That was after struggling to take notes while we spoke, by the light of a tiny flickering oil lamp. No other lights in Mangalbhai's house. No lights in Mukhamal. Lights on that hill.
More on this trip, soon.