Markets are often the lifeblood of Indian communities, but in remote Chhattisgarh, where tribes people only recently adopted money for use as exchange, they're a bit different.

Brightly dressed locals walk up to 20km to reach huge, colourful outdoor markets so they can trade homespun saris for metalwork, or lentil cakes for the local firewater. This is where cock-fighting bouts are laid on as a bloody sideshow for gambling-loving shoppers, and where village shamans are still used as mediators. No surprise then that the local delicacy is something as obscure as live red ants!

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Tribal women walking to Tokapal market near Jagdalpur. Image by Daniel McCrohan / Lonely Planet.

 Where is it?

Chhattisgarh is India's most densely forested state. Mountains and waterfalls abound, making this a stunningly beautiful area, but also one that is incredibly remote. Until recently, such isolation helped discourage integration into mainstream Indian society and that's one reason why in Chhattisgarh tribal life continues to thrive.

More than 40 different tribes call this area home, which makes for politically unstable but culturally vibrant communities. Ultra-leftist Naxalite guerillas terrorise small pockets of Chhattisgarh, in the far north for example, but in more peaceful areas, such as Bastar, it's the rich cultural diversity that continues to shine. And nowhere does it shine more brightly than in the area's blindingly colourful tribal markets.

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A young girl selling nuts and seeds at Tokapal market. Image by Daniel McCrohan / Lonely Planet.

 Known as haats, these markets are held in different places each day - one day in a village; the next in the forest; another day in a open meadow - but each time it's the same; hundreds of tribes people from many different villages, each specialising in a different craft or skill, converge in one spot to trade their wares.

What's for sale?

Money only began being used here a few years ago. Before that, one villager might try to use the bright fluorescent saris her tribe specialised in making to barter for sacks of mahuwa flowers that grew in abundance in another village and which were used to brew local liquor. Another villager might take some bell-metalwork, made in his village using the centuries-old technique of wax-thread moulding, and try to swap it with another village's local delicacy: live red ants.

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Live red ants being sold as snacks. Image by Daniel McCrohan / Lonely Planet.

 These days money changes hands as quickly as you can say inflation, but the goods being bought and sold haven't changed a bit. The potentially potent mahuwa flowers, resembling dates, are still as popular as ever, as are the red ants which are used either for medicinal purposes (their sting has antibacterial qualities) or just eaten as a snack. Chapura, a chutney made from red ants and chilies, is the most common way to eat ants here, but it's not unusual to see villagers scooping up hundreds of live red ants on a leaf and eating them in one exceedingly brave gulp.

What else goes on?

Market days are sometimes brought to a close with the climax of cockfighting. It's a barbaric spectacle - the cocks have hooked blades strapped to their claws and are then encouraged to fight to the death - literally. But it's still incredibly popular, as locals, mostly men it seems, wager not insignificant amounts of money on the bird they think will survive. Arguments between punters are common, but usually settled amicably, perhaps because of the unusual system of mediation that's still in place in many of the communities here. Most villages have a sirha, or shaman; a wise-old man who, when asked to mediate important disputes, falls into a trance and consults the local gods before advising on the best course of action. It's an age-old respected system that's probably not worth disturbing for a misplaced bet at your local market.

How can I visit a market?

Haats in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh are best reached through the county town of Jagdalpur, about 300km south of Raipur, the state capital. The Chhattisgarh Tourism Board's head office in Raipur help organise a visit to a Bastar market with one of its guides.

Lonely Planet author Daniel McCrohan is currently on the road to update our India guidebook. Catch him on twitter: @danielmccrohan


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