Bande Utkala Janani……I adore Thee, O! Mother Utkal…..
Words written by Kantakabi Laxmikanta Mohapatra, when Odisha (www.odisha.gov.in) (Orissa till 2011) became independent on the 1st of April 1936.
Odisha’s etymology is “Odda Visaya” dating back to 1025 AD. It was historically also known as Kalinga which was conquered by Emperor Ashoka and also led him to take up a pacifist approach and ultimately embrace Buddhism.
Is Odisha the topmost travel destination in the country? Well, not at the moment but it is getting there. With Odisha tourism (www.odishatourism.gov.in) rebranding Odisha as a Scenic, Serne and Sublime destination, the state seems to be getting in to the “must visit” list of every discerning traveller. Mention Odisha and two things come to mind – The Jagannath Puri temple and the Konark Sun temple. Odisha offers a generous mix of religion, architecture, art, wildlife, food and of course a lot of beautiful beaches. Let us head to Odisha….
Bhubaneshwar is the capital and the most important Railhead on the east coast and a well-serviced airport. September was a pretty good month to visit Odisha; The scorching summer had abated and there was rain in good measure. Mumbai is well connected to Bhubaneshwar and preferred to take the Indigo connection. They had a morning service that would take us to the doorstep of our hotel, Trident Bhubaneshwar in time for a check in at 12 noon. The Bhubaneshwar airport is fairly large and quite clean. Our tour was planned by Narmada Holidays in collaboration with a local partner for logistics. We planned a visit spanning 4 nights and 5 days; ‘Longer duration trips can take you to the tribal hinterlands apart from the main highlights. Our vehicle for the next 5 days was a Toyota Innova which is a spacious SUV which can seat 5 people and yet have ample space for all the luggage. The ride to the city was on wide and extremely clean roads; comfortable and enjoyable at the same time.
Day 1 – Check in done, it was time to get a good lunch for ourselves. Odiya cuisine offers excellent options for sea-food lovers and meat eaters alike. Being a coastal state the catch is among the freshest. For vegetarians, there is nothing to sweat as there are plenty of delicious options still around. We preferred a Santula (A vegetable stew with cumin and chillies) to go with our rice and Indian bread. A few hours rest and we were ready for our tour
Our first stop was the historical Udayagiri (sunrise hill) and Khandagiri caves. These caves are situated near Bhubaneshwar; Partly natural and partly artificial, the caves are of archeological, historical and religious importance. The archeological survey of India maintains the monuments; There are tickets to be purchased for foreign nationals whereas entry is free for Indian and SAARC nationals. There are a total of 33 caves within the precinct of the hills. The most important among these are the Ranigumpha (Rani – Queen, Gumpha – Cave) in Udayagiri, which is a double storeyed monastery and Hathigumpha (Hathi – elephant). The top of Khandagiri cave is a short climb and it offers fine views of Bhubaneshwar from its summit. Spend a couple of hours here refreshed with the cool evening breeze and a magnificent view of the setting sun.
Evenings in Bhubaneshwar are either spent shopping or eating roadside snacks. A popular snack that we sampled was a cup of sprouted pulses, spiced up and garnished with onions, tomatoes, potatoes, lime and coriander. Cheap and nutritious, this one was quite a filler and gave us the energy to move around. Our guide got us to the Market Building shopping area which houses a lot of handloom and handicraft showrooms, book shops and other assorted shops. The local Handicrafts and handloom are promoted by a government showroom called Utkalika which has branches across the state. Priyadarshini, another handloom organization promotes traditional handloom of odisha – Tusser, Sambalpur and Ikkat. We window shopped and made enquiries to our hearts content. September is when the country celebrates Ganesh Chathurti (Festival of the Elephant god – Lord Ganesh). The streets were lined with finely decorated pandals housing the idols of the Lord. We were in time for the evening prayers following which Prasad was distributed among all the devotees. The Harekrishna Restaurant in Kharabela Nagar offers simple and excellent vegetarian fare, which helps keep you light before retiring for the day.
Day 2 – The nandankanan Zoo or The Garden of Gods houses a Zoological park and a Botanical garden. Located about 8 kms from Bhubaneshwar, the Zoo is a great outdoor experience for all ages. The park is well maintained and is a plastic free zone. We hired the services of a park ranger who was able to articulate the details around history of the zoo, the animals who are being reared in captivity and recent additions. The park ranger gave us valuable insights in to animal behavior, especially of the captive lions and Tigers. The Safari is not to be missed and one has to keep a watch on the timings for the same. Half a day well spent! Don’t forget to munch on a spicy cucumber sold on push carts outside the Zoo. Lunch on day 2 was at a place called Dalma, which offered local Odiya veg cuisine comprising of Dalma (lentil dish), vegetables, Indian bread and of course, Rice. Delicious and economical, it filled us up after a good 5 hours spent at Nandankanan on a hot and humid day.
Temple time! Bhubaneshwar is a city of temples and there are over 50 of them and most of them are built to honor Lord Vishnu and Lord Siva. These temples are dated between 8th and the 12th century AD. It is said that King Ashoka developed a simple way of communicating with people of his kingdom. Rocks and stone poles were used to communicate his policy of Dhamma through edicts. Travel 5 miles south of the modern city to find a few of them. Standing out among these temples are the Parasurameshwar temple and the Lingaraj temple. The Parasurameshwar temple has stories carved all around it and it is worth taking the services of the temple priest to help you understand the finer details of the same. Make sure that your next stop is the Lingaraj temple, the largest and one of the oldest in Bhubaneshwar. Non-Hindus can take photos of the architecture from a machan like structure erected outside the western wall of the temple. Bhubaneshwar was also called “Ekamra Kshetra” as the deity Lingaraj was originally found under a Mango tree (Ekamra). On the whole, the temple is considered a guardian deity of the city. With enough time left in the evening, head out to shop for leather, handicrafts and other collectibles.
Day 3 – The Konark temple beckoned us. Situated on the coast, this temple, a UNESCO world Heritage site, is approximately 65 kms from Bhubaneshwar. We had planned a good 2 hours to tour the temple complex with the help of an authorized guide. Konark comes from the combination of the Sanskrit words – Kona (corner) and Arka (sun); This temple thus is dedicated to the Sun god. An umbrella comes in handy during the tour. Make sure that you observe each of the 24 wheels, each telling you a different story. The Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore says of the temple, “Here the language of stone surpasses the language of Man”. The road from Konark to Puri is dotted with pristine white sand beaches and rain trees lining the road. The temple town is one of the 4 holiest of places (char dham) in India and is home to the Jagannath temple and seat of the Puri Mutt (one of the four set up by the Adi Shankaracharya). The temple of Jagannatha is one of the tallest monuments in the entire. sub-continent of India and its height is about 214 feet from the ground (road) level. It stands on a ‘raised platform of stone, measuring about ten acres. It. is located in the hear! of the town and presents an imposing sight. The largest crowd in Puri is seen during the Car Festival of Jagannatha which takes place every year some time in June-July. The idols in the temple are made of the Margosa Tree (Neem) and they are replaced with a new Idol once in 14 years in an elaborate festival called Nabakalabera (New Body); Year 2015 is one such year. There are hotels to cater to every budget in puri and our stay was a comfortable one at the Hans Coco Palms. A good number of them are on the beach front and during heavy showers, the rain just lashes on the windows and doors, just right for you to order some pakoras and tea. The beach front also houses shacks selling fresh sea food and fried snacks. Apart from the temple, the alleys surrounding the temple house shops selling variety of knick knacks, milk based sweets and fresh milk based products.
Day 4- The Chilika lake, world’s second largest lagoon is a day trip from Chilika. The brackish water lagoon is spread over 1100 sq kms and is home to over 160 species of migratory birds. The Irrawady Dolphin calls this place home and tourists set out in trawlers and catamarans to enjoy the marine fauna. Our trip to Chilika was cancelled owing to a fierce cyclone. Shrugging shoulders we headed back to Bhubaneshwar and planned to stop by at Raghurajpur, home to artisans skilled in Pattachitra. Everyday stories are handpainted on cloth and these families have been pursuing this art since the 5th century. The art has a Geographical indication thus protecting them from fakes. The street in Raghurajpur is lined with families on both sides and they welcome you in to their homes to show you live demonstrations and also offer finished work for sale. A little bargaining can get you some authentic and eye-catching work. More to come, the village of Pipli on the way to Bhubaneshwar is home to the Applique form of Handicrafts. The word Applique has a French origin and it involves placing one piece of fabric over a base layer and sewing it in place. The concept is used extensively in canopies, umbrellas and on the chariots of Jagannath temple. You can plan to pick up exquisitely designed bags, totes, umbrellas and other items, which are a nice gift to take back home. For those of you interested in unique things, pay a visit to the Bhubaneshwar Railway station, an important stop on the line to Kolkata. I am personally a fan of trains and train stations and consider stations akin to a cultural destination, a place where non-homogenous people converge. Retired after a good dinner at Hotel
Day 5 – We still had one place to visit and that was the Museum of Tribal Arts and Artefacts. Tribes constitute about 22% of the state’s population (9% of the country) and as per last count, there are close to 62 distinct tribes of which 13 of them have been classified as “particularly vulnerable groups”. The local government has done an admirable job in curating arts and artefacts belonging to these tribes and presently house them in the Museum of Tribal arts and Artefacts. This must-do item helps one understand the state and India as a country and how it is trying to balance between preserving indigenous population against the need to industrialize. Hopping over to a few sweet shops to sample a local sweet called Chhena Phoda made of caramelized cottage cheese. With that sweet ending, we made our way to the friendly Bhubaneshwar airport in time for a check in for our flight to Mumbai.
Odisha has thrown its doors open to the world. Are you next?