Scenic, Serene, Sublime….
It was all of it and more. We have been planning to travel Odisha for a long time now. The last time around, the plans were truncated due to 26/11 and it took this long to get back at it.
Boy, are we glad….. The smiles on our faces are still intact, even after almost a week post return (one can argue its due to the overdose of selfies perhaps:))
The planning itself was a challenge. Odisha is a very big state and a lot to soak in. We spoke to some of our long-term friends from this region to zero in on the must visit destinations and zeroed in on the same. It was again a challenge to match our interests, the season we were traveling in and the logistics part of it.
Finally let go of the notion that we could do it all in one trip and planned for early march, to coincide with the mass nesting of the Olive Ridley turtles, which was top of our list of must do’s for Odisha.
We usually make it a point to cover Culture, Art, Architecture and Ecology of any region we visit and this trip was no different. And Odisha has LOADS of all of them.
Below if the itinerary we finally managed to zero in on.
Day 1 – Bangalore (Departure 11.30 AM), Bhubaneswar, Dhauli Stupa, Pipli Artist Village, Puri Jagannath Temple
Day 2 – Puri, Chilka Lake by boat (Mirjapur), Konark Sun Temple, Puri
Day 3 – Artist Village, Gopalpur On Sea – Beach Resort
Day 4 – Beach walk for Turtle, Swimming, Lunch, Sleep, Beach walk, Dinner, Turtle watch on Rishikalya Estuary near Ganjam
Day 5 – Gopalpur on Sea, Weaver’s village near Khurda, Udayagiri/Kandagiri, Lingaraj Temple, Bhubaneswar
Day 6 – Bhubaneswar, Bhitarkanika (Via Chandikol), National Park/ Crocodile hatchery, village/ temple visit
Day 7 – Mangroves by Boat, Forest walk, Drive to Similipal (via Chandikol/ Balasore and Baripada to Jashipur, due to suspected bad roads)
Day 8 – Similipal Forest Safari
Day 9 – Khairi Riverbank, Similipal to Bhubaneswar via Harischandrapur, Raja/Rani temple, Mukteshwar temple, Odisha State Museum, Shopping, Bangalore (Arrival Midnight)
As usual, the better half took over and executed the logistics to the last T. Air tickets, Hotels, and a Vehicle on Savaari. With the excitement palpable, other members of the family wanted to join and 4 more joined in and a group of 6 set off from Kempegowda international airport.
The arrival at Bhubaneswar was nothing short of a Wow – an experience we would encounter all through as it transpired through the trip, with the sand art of Biju Patnaik to commemorate his birth centenary right at the airport. With a few selfies and more, we stepped out of the arrival terminal to be greeted by the broad smile and Joy Jogonnath of Chittaranjan, our Driver cum Guide to Odisha. Watching him and the other locals, we felt the tagline of Odisha should include ‘Gentle’ as well:) (although the priest at Puri stand out as exceptions)
With the luggage logistics behind us (6 ppl traveling for 9 days isn’t easy on the luggage rack/ driver:)) and hungry, we set off to our first destination, Dhauli Stupa. A quick stop over for lunch enroute ensured we had the energy to last the long day that it would be. Dhauli is the home for the Shanthi stupa, where Ashoka apparently gave up arms after the Kalinga war, witnessing the massacre that changed him and India forever. It’s a beautiful view from top of the hill beside a river of Bhubhaneswar and all around. The harsh sun (owing to our time of visit) made it a little less enjoyable yet the beauty of it is etched in our memories. It also has a local market as one would imagine around a tourist destination, where the landmark hats of all the travellers were bought:)
Next stop was Pipli. It is a small village/ town on the Bhubaneswar, Puri road, famous for its appliqué artwork. Soaking it all in (amidst the dust of a road under construction) and downing a few bucks and time on shopping for appliqué work, we head to Hotel in Puri, right opposite the very very crowded Puri Beach. Our arrival being on a long week end (that too for Maha Shivaratri) made it worse, with the driver finding it hard to navigate through the busy road to get in to the hotel:(. It was amazing to see the number of hotels packed in to just this 2 KM stretch of a beach.
Check in formalities complete and a quick freshening session later, we headed to the Puri Jagannath temple with the help of the hotel’s very own Priest:)
A stunning piece of architecture and its holiness are all lost once you encounter the many priests in the multiple temples in the 10-acre campus. The 214 feet tall Garbhagudi is an imposing structure, yet ornately carved. Most temples in Odisha are built in 4 parts – Garbhagudi, Mukhashala, Natya Mantapa, Bhojana Shala – some thing we saw repeat across most temples we visited subsequently.
Soaking it (enduring it) all, we step out in to the market area and that’s when the gender biases deepen. After a few painful hours (of shopping), we return to the hotel for dinner and call it a day.
The plan was to get up early for the sunrise and its really early on the east coast of India – Sun rise is before 6.00 AM and we were stunned to see a Sea of humanity at the beach already…. The contrast with our beaches was inescapable, although we managed to enjoy the dramatic sunrise.
The target for the day was rather demanding – covering over 100 KM on opposite sides of Puri, we leave for Mirajpur, one of the boating points of the HUGE Chilka lake. The timing wasn’t right for Chilka lake, very famous for its birds as the season was long over, we undertook a boat ride across the lake just to experience the enormous water body. Enormous it is. Spread over 1100 Sq KM’s, its the second largest water lagoons in the world and the largest in India. The boating was an interesting experience too, with stopover for some tender coconut on an island etc. This location warrants a repeat visit, during the bird season (Oct to Jan)
The next stop was Konark, post lunch at Puri. I wasn’t expecting what I saw. A colossal sand stone structure with every square inch exquisitely carved. I could only wonder how resplendent it would have been during its hey days. I am still in a state of disbelief about the fact that the sun god statue in the sanctum sanctorum of this temple (now ruined) was floating in thin air between two magnets. We soak in the sights and many many pictures of this world heritage site later, return to the hotel to end day 2.
Day 3 was to be relaxing and it was. We start rather late after a lazy breakfast and hit one of the artiste villages Raghurajpur near by, famous of Pathachitra art form, a very ornate, miniature painting style on canvas made by artistes with natural ingredients, the paint itself made of natural minerals etc. The Place we visited is known as the Gurukula as the main artiste here (a national award winner) is a teacher with whom many disciples have learnt. Some more shopping:) this time of the kind I like too:) and we leave reluctantly.
The main stop for the day was Gopalpur by the sea in a beachside resort. The one we stayed at was originally established by the British in 1914, was transferred to the Oberoi’s in the 50’s, was ruined during one of the many cyclones in the area and was recently revived by the present operator. Its indeed in a beautiful location, adjoining the lighthouse, a great swimming pool, spa etc. Enjoyed the day/ evening by the beach side with masala chai and spiced puffed rice, in the pool, and across the property.
The next morning sun rise was the most dramatic so far – right in our room, through the window… Headed out to the near by Rushakalya estuary to see if there were any turtle laying eggs (kidding) – more to familiarise ourselves with the area so we could return in the evening when the turtles do arrive for nesting. Met with some of the folks from the local hatchery established by the forest dept. and they already had several nests from as early as Mid Jan 2016. For some reason, the mass nesting this year is delayed (which is usually during the first week of march – our primary reason for planning the Odisha trip at this time) hasn’t yet happened (per newspaper reports on 17/03/2016).
As expected there were none – turtles we mean. Decided to return by the late evening and returned to the hotel. Some swimming, lunch, siesta (while the better half/ves shopped in the near by market of Berhampur) , beach walk and dinner sessions later, we returned to the same spot by 10.30 PM. It was a long and arduous walk through the soft sand of the beach as by the night, due to high tide (on a new moon/ eclipse night) with some of the folks we met from the dept. and others indicating that there were no turtles on the beach that night. We decide to roam about some distance to chance it and lo and behold, we sight a set of volunteers studying the nesting behaviour of the turtles on the beach who teach us how to look for signs of the turtle from water’s edge back to the beach. We do exactly the same and see one just about leaving in to the water after completing the nesting. Disheartened, but not without hope, we continue on and in about 30 meters we sight another one, that had just arrived for nesting. As instructed by the folks patrolling the area, employed by the forest dept. to locate nests, collect the eggs and move them to the security of the hatchery, we switch off all torch lights, mobile LED etc and patiently wait for the turtle mom to settle in, dig the nest and start the egg laying process. It begins in 15/20 min and is indeed a sight to behold. The turtle lays a clutch of 100 + eggs, this one as was counted later laid 145 eggs that night. After laying the eggs in a 45 CM deep nest hole dug in the sand, it covers the same with sand, compacts the sand with thuds by its enormous body, and later with flippers. In a few minutes it’s very hard to make out where the nest really was. The act of covering the nest with sand using flippers also helps the turtle do a u-turn back towards the water. A few heavy push later, its in the waters, swimming in to the darkness. This was indeed one of the best wildlife encounters we have had so far. The scary circumstances in which it was done dawned on us next morning when we saw the pictures of the partial solar eclipse sighed at the local beach:).
A lazy breakfast later, we leave for the weaver’s village en route Bhubaneswar, cover the Udayagiri/ Kandagiri caves (Jain Caves) before visiting the Lingaraj temple at Bhubaneswar and retire for the night.
The next leg of our trip would take us to Bhitarkanika, the second largest mangrove forest in India, about 250 KM east/ north east of Bhubaneswar. We reach the resort (tented accommodation) by lunch time, rest a few winks and head for the local hatchery (this one for crocodiles)/ wildlife museum near the resort and visit a local village and a temple, marvelling at the local home building style – with bamboo, clay and hay. Spend the evening talking through the experiences so far, retire early for a early AM wake up for the boat ride through the Mangroves the next morning.
5.30 AM and the tea is served at the tent and we leave for the boat ride, the pick up point was about 800 mtrs from the resort. The location is pretty stealthy from the splendorous mangroves you snake into once the boat ride starts. Almost immediately as we start, we sight the huge salt water crocodiles, egrets and other water birds. The star attractions of about 3 unique species of kingfishers were to be sighted a little later through the boat ride. We stop for a quick breakfast on the boat (it was packed) and set out on foot through the forests towards a temple/ watch tower about 3 KM each way. While on foot as sight some of the other signature species – red crabs, mud skippers, deer, wild boars, monitor lizards and other species of birds. The walk through the green forest is a fantastic experience. Once back at the boat, we were surprised to see the water levels had risen well over 8 feet, due to high tide, so getting in to the boat was easier:).
Post return to the tents, freshen up and start off towards the next destination the forest of Similipal. Although it is about 250/80 KM from Bhitarkanika, we were told that road was bad and were asked to take a circuitous route via Balasore, Baripada and finally Jasipur, where the Jungle Lodge was. It was almost 9.30 PM by the time we reached there post a 350 KM drive, circling the Similipal forest.
Mercifully the next morning program (a day long drive through the forest) wouldn’t begin until 10.00 AM so could sleep in a bit. Post breakfast we set off on the Jungle Safari. This forest is well over 2750 Sq KM, of which the visitors are allowed to see just the northern 20%. Except for some picturesque landscape, water bodies, wooden bridges, large trees, and 3 waterfalls, the chance of sighting any wild animal is really really slim. One wonders why with such a low sight probability a Jungle Safari should be run, yet the sights of the forest compensated for the disappointment of not sighting any wild animals. We could sight 3 or 4 ‘Red Squirrels’ on the trees of course.
Visit the Banks of the Khairi river the next morning, the interpretation centre at the resort (its actually another crocodile hatchery) before driving towards Bhubaneswar, this time through a shorter route (Chittaranjan could confirm with other drivers visiting the lodge about the condition of the shorter road).
Post lunch visit the Raja/Rani temple, Mukteshwar temples, both prime examples of exquisite Kalingan architecture. A visit to the state museum which was under renovation was short but very informative. The dust owing to the renovation discouraged us from more time being spent there. Its again a treasure trove of artifacts, information.
We bid Chittaranjan good bye and promise to return soon to experience the Scenic, Serene, Sublime (and Gentle) Odisha, once more for the Lake Visit during birding season and a new one we learned from Chittaranjan – Tribal Tour.
PS: It was also a photographic tour with my entire kit in tow – D810, D300, Lenses, P600, GoPro and the ever-present iPhone6 :). Only 3 Images (Puri Temple and Deity, Lingaraj Temple) are used from the Internet (in the video), thanks to the respective owners, to provide a complete story.
List of Birds Sighted in Orissa…..
Little cormorant, Darter, Large egret, Purple heron, Paddy heron, Cattle egret, Median egret, Painted stork, White ibis, Black winged stilt, Curlew, Redshank, Duskey redshank, Marsh sandpiper, Black headed gull, Common tern, Red turtle dove, Rose ringed parakeet, Brown headed stork billed kingfisher, Ruddy kingfisher, Black capped kingfisher, White collared kingfisher, Rufous tailed finch lark, Pied myna, Marshall’s Iora, White headed shrike babbler.