Its spectacular wonders, natural and otherwise, make Odisha an enviable, and yet relatively ‘undiscovered’ destination
BY SUMAN TARAFDAR
Rarely are slogans so fitting. ‘Odisha — India’s best kept secret’ is the epithet the state tourism uses, with some justification. Apart from Bengalis thronging Puri to visit the Jagannath temple, the state is not on anyone’s tourism wish list.
Few realise that Odisha has its own ‘Golden Triangle’ with arguably the largest concentration of temples in an assortment of sizes. In coastal Odishan towns, you could be anywhere, and a Jagannath statue would be within throwing distance. Cautionary note: throw anything only at
your peril; this deity reigns supreme in the state. Odisha has India’s largest saltwater lake. Some of the grandest rock-cut shrines. Dense, dense forests cover the state, housing some of the gentlest inhabitants. Massive rivers criss-cross the state, and are home to some of the nation’s epochal dams. It’s a large state, and the interiors are dotted with gentle hills (Eastern Ghats) and picturesque valleys. Crafts abound — from
Sambalpuri and ikat sarees to pattachitra, ganjifa and much more. No, I haven’t forgotten the cuisine, which, yes, is similar to the neighbouring, more dominant Bengali cuisine, though with some notable points of divergence — in ingredients, dishes and even nomenclature.
If you have limited time and can see only one temple, let it be the Konark temple. Yes, it was one of the earliest Indian monuments to be on UNESCO’s list, way back in 1984. Built during the rule of Narasimhadev I (1238-64) of the Eastern Ganga dynasty, even in its ruined, ‘non-living’ temple status, it is awe inspiring in its conception, design and sculptural detail. It’s an entire complex, and despite the central edifice having collapsed, any visitor is awestruck. Akbar’s courtier and biographer, Abul Fazl, who saw it in the 16th century, in its complete form, said that “even those who are difficult to please stand astonished at its sight”. Rabindranath Tagore, on witnessing just its ruined shape, said, “here the language of stone surpasses that of man”.
Incidentally, the Konark and Jagannath temples, along with the Lingaraj temple in state capital Bhubaneswar form Odisha’s Golden Triangle, and are mainly visited by religious tourists. Marginally older than Konark, it is another example of the Kalinga style of architecture, marked by a prominent vimana, which houses the sanctum sanctorum, and a jagamohana or assembly hall where devotees gather to pray. Note, all these temples consist of many structures that lead up to the main and, unlike in the Dravida temples, the tallest structure.
For a more live temple related attraction, visit Puri during the Rath Yatra, but a health warning — you have to be skilled at avoiding being run over at one of the most crowded parades anywhere. Jagannath, along with brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra, is carried in parades for three weeks — in summer, think June / July. Each of the three deities gets their (temporary) brightly adorned chariot, which is then dragged by thousands of chosen devotees, accompanied by elephants, to their summer home. Just in case you were wondering, yes, the word ‘juggernaut’ traces its roots to this event. Puri, however, is busy with thronging devotees almost throughout the year, but especially in winter, when the aforementioned devotees can have some more secular fun at the sandy beaches.
For more historic pursuits, you can’t better the Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves. These 33 ornately carved caves date back to the first century BCE and served as residential blocks for Jain monks during the reign of King Kharavela. The cave walls are embellished with carvings and sculptures as well as the odd inscription. For a panoramic view of the state capital, clamber up to the top of Khandagiri.
To see one of Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘temples of modern India’ look no further than Hirakud dam, the longest earthen dam in the world and one of the first major multipurpose river valley projects started after India’s independence. A popular tourism site for its abundance of flora and
fauna, the dam’s significance as an icon of modern India remains to this day.
With a diversity of terrain, Odisha’s natural splendours are just as prominent. In recent years, Olive Ridley turtles have come to symbolise the need for ecological conservation, which is happening. In one of nature’s most extraordinary annual spectacles, every February, hundreds of
thousands of female turtles swim from the Pacific Ocean to crawl onto the sand at a beach in the Rushikulya delta to lay eggs. Task done, they once again make the epic journey back.
Odisha’s natural bounty means there are a number of wildlife reserves. Two vie for most attention — the Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary — a mix of mangrove forests and wetlands, making for a unique ecosystem spread over the Brahmani- Baitarani delta. It is said to have about 200 species of birds, along with rhesus monkeys, saltwater crocodiles, monitor lizards, and more. Winter sees many migratory birds making it their temporary abode. Expect herons, flamingoes, grebes, seagulls, storks, cormorants, darters, egrets, pelicans, adjutants, terns, skimmers, bitterns, ibises, finfoots… If you are the kind for whom wildlife equals big cats, head for Similipal National Park, which has the largest number of tigers in the state. Maybe make time for 55 species of mammals, 304 species of birds, 60 species of reptiles, 21 species of frogs, 38 species of fish and 164 species of butterflies that also call it home.
Another natural wonder is the Chilika lake — not quite a lake but the largest coastal lagoon in India and the second largest brackish water lagoon in the world. Designated the first Indian wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention in 1981, it is today a site with a unique ecosystem where humans with a range of mammals, birds and sea life coexist. Spread over 1,100 square km, it is the largest wintering ground for migratory waterfowl on the sub-continent.
Did I mention some of India’s best beaches are here — relatively unspoilt stretches of golden sand without any of the pests (human or otherwise) to be found in more popular beaches elsewhere. Puri’s Golden Beach — yes, it’s called that — is already a designated Blue Flag beach, and the state is planning on more beaches getting the same accreditation. Chandipur, Ramachandi, Talasari, Gopalpur, Swargadwar, Dagara, Aryapalli, Astaranga, Beleswar… On reflection, would it be better to keep the beaches of Odisha a secret, open only to those in the know, at least until the luxe lot discover them?
Yes, discover Odisha before the hordes do. Keeping this secret for long will be impossible.