Ankit’s Travel Diaries: Odisha
Written by Black Swan Journeys
April 15, 2016
On my very first trip to Odisha, I wanted to go beyond the usual triangle of Bhubaneshwar-Puri and Konark. After landing in Bhubaneshwar, I straight away headed to the Lingaraj temple, the temple that is the first in the pecking order in a city which is dotted with temples. I had heard stories and had been warned about the infamous pandas – temple priests as they are called here – who latch on to visitors like leeches and take upon themselves to bring you closer to the Gods and help you attain salvation, of course for a hefty fee. Having deposited my backpack and shoes in a thoughtfully provided set of lockers just outside, I entered the temple with trepidation, hoping to avoid the swarm of pandas that I had been warned about and headed straight to the sanctum sanctorum, where given the massive proportions of the temple I was expecting to find a giant statue or linga (representative of Lord Shiva, after whom the temple is so named), which was not to be. The linga is an easy to miss swayambhu (self-born) stone structure and the unique thing about it is that it is revered by both Shiva and Vishnu worshippers.
The other attraction of this temple is the mahaprasad that is made every day for the Gods and then sold to the family of priests which in turn is made available to the general public for a fraction of the price that you would pay in a restaurant for a similar meal. While rambling after visiting the main shrine and prominent among the hundred plus smaller temples that dot the campus, I was drawn to what looked like a kitchen from a well where two men were drawing water from a well nearby. Striking up a conversation with them I figured out that water from this well can only be used for cooking the Prasad that is made for the Gods. One of them kindly introduced me to a cook who agreed to take me inside the kitchen and warned me to maintain my distance from the earthen stoves and not touch anything.
He explained that the vessels used are made from mud and oven from bricks, the earth for which comes from a specified place and are placed over fire, the wood and charcoal for which has to come from certain designated trees. Nine vessels are put on top of each other and periodically rotated from top to bottom. The food primarily consists of various variation of rice accompanied by a host of vegetable preparations. Needless to say that it is devoid of onion and garlic but also any vegetable that does not have its origin in India. Which means that vegetables such as tomatoes, cauliflower, cabbage do not find a place nor do chillies and potatoes.
After the food is ready it is first offered to the Gods and then made available to the general public. People strongly believe that as soon as it is offered to the Gods, it acquires a taste and aroma that is indescribable. But I can tell you that it is the kind of food that I can have every day. It is the ultimate in slow food made in a way that seems unchanged for more than 10 centuries now. The standard course consists of rice and dal accompanied by myriad vegetable preparations. On extra payment you can get sweet rice and other sweets that are prepared. After a hearty meal, I followed the lead of the locals, and lay down on the bare earth that was cooled by the shade of ancient trees and had a happy nap.
From Lingaraj, I walked around 3 kms to the other notable temple of Bhubaneshwar, the Raja-Rani temple, which is of less daunting proportions and relatively quieter as it is not a functional one. If you have not come to Bhubaneshwar specifically to cover all the temples I reckon that these two temples will give you a good flavor.
I decided to move on to the place that I was going to make my base for that night and the next two. I had changed my plans last minute after I spoke to Debjit, whose ancestral homestead, Kila Dalijoda, I had chanced upon while doing my research on where to travel to in Orissa. Odisha is not usually on the priority list of either domestic or international travelers as is the case with Rajasthan or Kerala or even the Himalayas, but I think that is going to change in the foreseeable future probably for two reasons: one, the government is going all out to promote places beyond the usual and second, because of people like Debjit and Leon of, Chandoori Sai, (about whom, more later) among others who have set up interesting bases for people to explore the beauty and diversity that Odisha has to offer.
It has been quite some time that Debjit and and his wife Namrata have opened some of the rooms in their almost eighty year old hunting lodge built by their great-grandfather to accommodate discerning travelers and give them a glimpse of Odisha that is away from the usual tourist map. Having decided some years back to come and stay rather than direct the affairs from afar, they have slowly and diligently restored the lodge back to its erstwhile glory. Over the last many years, they have built strong relationships with the local community and created an ecosystem, which helps visitors get a multitude of experience while also benefitting the local community. They have taken care to provide travelers with the best of creature comforts: the beds can match that of any star hotel and food that is lovingly home-made but what tops all of it is a glimpse into an Odisha that few have ventured into till now.
My host, Debjit, (left) in conversation with the keeper of the ashram who is filling honey into bottles.
On my very first day, Debjit took me to an ashram affiliated to the Aurobindo Ashram of Pondicherry the peace and quiet can only be experienced by being there. Besides being a centre for meditation, the ashram is famous for its agriculture produce, especially honey. After I saw a demonstration of how honey is produced, the pristine forests surrounding the ashram and a strong recommendation by Debjit that I would not get honey like this anywhere else, I decided to stock up and would recommend the same if you happen to ever go there.
In the evening we went to a house of a local tribe, which lived in a traditional joint family setup headed by a matriarch at the helm whose three sons had a hut of their own with separate kitchens and living quarters. The ladies were busy making brooms out of the local grass that was available aplenty while the grand-mother took care of the kids.
We rounded up the evening with a visit to the home of Debjit’s electrician, who had thrown a birthday party for his son. As a part of the celebrations, he had arranged for a night-long rendering of Ramayan, A group of 4 artists regaled the village audience with mythological stories through dance and song. Debjit told me that in recent past these performances could go on till the wee hours of the morning and were very sought after as a medium to educate and entertain people.
The next morning we set out for a 12 kilometer long walk to Janaki Jhor, deep in thick jungle where the kings used to stay in the relative comfort of a fortified machan. Halfway we came across a small hamlet, Banjhiama, deep inside the forest surrounded by beautiful hills. Even though this hamlet is very close to civilization, this place is still quite primitive in every respect of life. I saw beautifully done up houses being cleaned with cow urine and dung. Debjit showed me the the old fashioned rice mill known as “dhenki” in operation, which runs with the help of a small stream flowing through the village. There is small pond which attracts elephant herds during peak summer. This village was once famous for hunters, who have now wisely given up the old profession and turned conservators of forests around them. A further hour of walk from the village we reached Janaki Jhor. Think of it as a luxury version of a machan, covered on all four sides with strategically placed holes in the wall to rest your rifle and shoot at will.
After a quick rest, we took a different route and came back to our vehicle. I think both of us had not walked so long in a long time. In the afternoon after a hearty lunch and some rest, we went to a village around 30 kms away that houses Dhokra craftsmen. The technique employs lost wax casting and is named after a tribe which now spreads across Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Odisha.
A lady putting strings of wax around the clay statue of an elephant. A hole is made in the mould. It is then heated. The heating process melts the wax and the liquid brass is filled in the mould through the hole. The mould is then left to cool down. The artwork is then obtained by breaking the mud mould. After cleaning and buffing the product is supplied to the stores.
The highlight of that evening, however, was the visit to Jorandha Temple. This is the world headquarter of a Hindu sect called Alekh Mahima Dharma. Scantily clad sadhus perform a special pooja at this temple every day. Mahima Dharma is a popular ascetic movement which considers the void, shunya as the divine principle, opposing any idol worship. The void can only be venerated through fire, or its manifestation in the Sun, traits which link Mahima Dharma to the nirguna bhakti tradition.
We reached there almost an hour before the evening prayers were scheduled to start, which gave me good time to first walk around the temple complex, during which I interacted with some sadhus and later to sit in front of the main temple seeing a sadhu sweep the entire temple complex as if he was meditating. This reminded me of the walking meditation that Buddhists practice somewhere in middle Vietnam. After the evening aarti at the main temple, we moved to other shrines where I saw sadhus dancing in gay abandon accompanied by lilting tunes of bhajan by musicians. I saw sadhus and lay followers prostrating before the sun and the temple. Later the novice sadhus would prostrate before the senior monks who in turn would pay respects to their seniors and so on. This would be a wonderful place to spend an evening if you happen to be in that part of Odisha: the sadhus are friendly – they love to pose for the camera, the rituals are unique and the place gives a peek into how different sects coexist in one religion.
The journey back from Jorandha temple to Kila Dalijoda was through a thick forest in pitch darkness and I think I did not exchange a single word. I was still absorbing the uniquely beautiful place that I had just been to and the journey through the still and silent forest was relaxing after a long but rewarding day.
Trainee sadhus singing the evening aarti and bhajan at Jorandha temple
Novice sadhus prostrating at the feet of the senior monks at Jorandha temple.
I had a packed two days as my travels tend to be and also because of the enthusiasm of my host, but if you just want to put your feet up and do nothing there are plenty of ways to do nothing: there are two huge ponds opposite the house where you can spend the entire day watching the world go by or fishing lazily to your heart’s content or reading a book under the thatched huts that provide shade from the sun. If you decide to take a small walk after all the lazing around, you are very likely to encounter a makeshift country bar run by tribal women who offer a limited menu of two items: fresh toddy taken out from the palm trees and a strong alcoholic brew made from fermented rice and local grains. I could only try the toddy as Debjit forbade me from trying the alcoholic drink citing his experience with previous guests whose city-bred constitution could not handle the rustic intensity of the brew.
My stay at Kila Dalijoda, was interspersed with interesting conversations over endless cups of tea. Kila Dalijoda defies being slotted into a homestay or a hunting lodge or a bed and breakfast. I would say it is a great immersion into culturally rich Orissa.
My hosts Debjit and Namrata at their ancestral home Kiladalijoda. They have painstakingly restored back the hunting lodge to its former glory and converted it into a delightful homestay.
Moving on from Kila Dalijoda, I had an option of going to Bhitarkanika National Park, where there is another palace homestay opened by an ex-royal family, but because the family was not there those days, I decided to move towards Konark and Puri. Enroute from Cuttack to Konark I took a bus that dropped me at Pipli, the place that is famous for its applique work. The main thoroughfare of Pipli is lined with shops that sell the colourful artefacts of applique work that this town has become famous for. Behind the shops are the homes that also double up as workshops, where if you are inclined you can watch the artisans in action.
From Pipli, I took a shared auto to Nimapada, and another from Nimapada to Gop, and still another from Gop that finally dropped me at Konark around afternoon. These shared autos, ultra-local buses and all other forms of sundry transportation, I think, are the best way to catch up with locals and get up close and personal with the way of life that characterises the numerous villages and towns that I have passed on during my travels all over India. They are a boon to independent travelers like me as I go out of my way to eschew the luxury of an air-conditioned cab or bus that will take me from one point to another without giving me a taste of what was in between.
At Konark, I straight away headed to the sun temple. I found a kind-hearted shopkeeper who agreed to keep my back-pack. The first thing that struck me about the entire complex was the great number of giant trees that seemed as if they had been planted at the same time when the temple had begun to be built. Later on my guide indeed confirmed that certain trees, especially neem and pipal were planted by design which resulted in Konark becoming a kind of a place that heeled and rejuvenated people because of its pure air, water and unique positioning of the sun. The way I like to visit such places – Khajuraho, Modhera, Belur and Halebid and presently Konark – is to first hire a wizened guide, who explains me the basic story of the place. After that I like to absorb the place at my own pace. Getting the right guide is a matter of luck but even if you get the ones who like to entertain with tales of erotica and stories that seem outlandish, you will get a good first layer understanding of the place.
My guide initially found it difficult to understand why anyone in his right mind, unencumbered by family and children in tow, would be interested in the architectural, spiritual and historical aspects and not the titillating. Slowly he warmed up to what I wanted while still throwing a nugget here and there about the carnal to see if I would catch his bait and goad him further for more details. We had not set a fee for his services but he seemed happy when I paid him off. And I was happy to have made him think hard about the academic aspects of the temple.
As I sat on the manicured gardens of the complex after having seen the place once more without the guide, I saw a big group of school girls troop in with their teachers in tow. The girls, from a remote village in interiors of Orissa, were on an academic tour. I spoke to a teacher who was accompanying the group. She told me that they were here as a part of the annual trip that the school offers to their students, the funding for which comes from one of the mining or steel companies in their area. Seeing those girls listen with rapt attention to the guide reinforced my belief that learning about a place cannot come only from reading about them in the text book, they can be best experience by visiting the place in person. You can read about the beauty of Taj Mahal, but nothing will ever prepare you for the feeling when you come face to face with.
School girls listening with rapt attention to their guide at the Konark Temple.
Konark would be a wonderful place to stay for a night or two. Orissa tourism runs two wonderful properties, which by virtue of their location could be the top choice besides a handful of private hotels. I had a choice to stay in Konark that night but I decided to move on to Puri, where Debjit had set me to stay with his sister’s family. The sister’s husband is the younger brother of the present king of Puri, who the locals still treat as their king. I took two change of local buses to reach Puri. The road skirts the coast for most part and passes through forests that I imagined were dotted with ashrams in times gone by and resorts presently.
Jagannath Puri is unlike any other temple that you would see in India. Spread across a colossal 56 acres of land, it was set up by Adi Shankaracharya as one of the four great maths (monasteries) to unify and revive Hinduism.
The legend of pandas as leeches seemed to be unfounded here too, or maybe I did not experience them as they would have thought it wise to spend time and energy on someone who seemed more vulnerable. The preparation and partaking of food or the mahaprasad is taken to a different level here. Legend has it that Lord Vishnu typical day starts with him taking a bath in the seaside temple of Rameswaram in south India. He comes up to Puri for a meal; goes onward to Badrinath, where he meditates for the welfare of humanity; and retires in Dwarka for the night. Since he eats in Puri, food is as important as anything else. You will believe the legend when you hear the mind boggling statistics: . Within the premises of the temple, there is an area called Anand Bazar, rightly translated as ‘pleasure market’ for the culinary joys it offers. People call it the biggest open air restaurant in the world.
I only sampled some of the food as I was to have the same food at my host’s place. My hosts, being the ex-royals of Puri, receive the Prasad every day from the temple as a part of tradition that goes a long way back. They told me the right way of partaking the Prasad: it is to be had on banana leaf or utensils made of mud; you have to be sitting on the floor and not the table and nothing is to be wasted. The food is very similar to the one at Lingaraj with the difference that there is much more variety.
The next day I planned to visit Raghurapur, the village before taking the train that would take me to the tribal heart of Orissa. Raghurajpur village, only about 30 kms from Puri, enroute to Bhubaneshwar, is famous for the patachitra style of paintings. In fact the village has for years enjoyed the sole rights to paint the statues of the main deities of Jagannath temple at Puri. It is also well known as the birth place of Kelucharan Mahapatra, the legendary Odissi dancer and guru. You could choose to stay in the village itself if you would like to understand the art and dance in more details. The central government through its scheme ‘Explore Rural India’ has set up a guest house in the village. Besides you can ask around and stay in a village home. The people are extremely hospitable and their homes are treasure trove of art and craft. I would have loved to stay here for a night but because I had already made my reservations, I left with a promise to myself that I would come back again soon. My destination next day is a unique place that has come about as a labour of love by a foreigner in India.
An artist outside his home at Raghurajpur. Raghurajpur is home to the famed Patachitra painters who have the sole right to paint the main deities at Jagannath Puri temple.
A couple in village Raghurajpur sorting out betel leaves, which they have picked from their farm at the back of their house.
The story of Leon is inspiring. Leon, from Australia, came to Orissa as a construction supervisor for an Australian firm, fell in love with the landscape and people, sought a piece of land and built his house to spend the rest of his life here. Over a period of time, he has extended his house to set up a beautiful guest house with five rooms at the edge of a village that is known for its exquisite and delicate pottery. In fact, the entire construction has been done in the local style with help from the neighbours in the village and the tiles and bricks and most of the construction material has come from the local potters.
Ladies from the Poraja and Khonda tribes in the gardens of Chandoori Sai. The entire staff is from the adjoining village.
I reached his place after taking a long journey that involved taking a train from Bhubaneshwar to Vishakapatnam and another train to Koraput, that passes through the famed Araku valley famous for being a hill station in predominantly flat Andhra Pradesh and also its coffee. From Koraput Leon had arranged a pick-up to his place. My guides for the evening were the ladies who run Chandoori Sai, named after the local name of the mango tree at the property and Sai, which means house. The ladies from the local community showed me their village and the quarters of the potters, where I could see a lot of action going on as the Indian festival of lights, Diwali, was only a few days away.
The next morning Leon took me to a town called Dasamanthpur, around 40 kms away, where the weekly haat (village market) was scheduled for that day. These haats are held by rotation held in nearest big town or village, where villagers bring their produce to be traded and bartered. But they are more than just marketplaces. The idea is to catch up with friends and relatives, have a drink, make merry and also stock up on stuff till the next week. I picked up a strip of tobacco leaf, hoping to roll them into cigarettes the way the locals were doing, but till date I have not been able to come around to doing it. We also picked up varieties of wild yam and tubers and baby bamboo shoots that would be made into curries later in the day. Leon picked up sarees and shirts that were to be distributed to his staff as gifts for Diwali, the reason for which he had made his trip to the haat.
Tribals buying freshly picked tobacco leaves from the weekly haats that are the centres of trade, barter, entertainment and merry making of people’s life in the heart of tribal Odisha.
Ladies selling vegetables in the weekly haat.
Our dear friend Ankit Aggarwal has been travelling to interesting destinations across India. He has been generous enough to share his travel experiences with us and we in turn are sharing them with fellow travellers.