Much confusion abounds in Sambalpur. And it starts early. You could get off the Hirakud Express at Sambalpur Road or Sambalpur, and no one, train conductor and fellow passengers included, will be able to convincingly explain the comparative benefits of alighting at one station over the other. Because you’ve been on the train for close to thirty hours, you’ll likely hop off at Sambalpur Road because you just need to stand on firm ground before you forget how that feels.
Then you’ll look for transport to take you to your hotel of choice and a crowd will gather around your rickshaw in silent wonder. The slightly glazed look will give you away and everyone will know your alien status. Many pairs of wondering eyes will ask you why you’re in these parts. To visit and explore, you will explain. This will confuse everyone and fill you with temporary self-doubt.
Clearly not many visitors to Orissa take the leap of faith that is required to bridge the gap between Puri and Sambalpur. It’s not just the 400km across bumpy roads that keep the more obvious type of traveller away from this part of western Orissa. There aren’t any fancy hotels, though one or two make some pretty outrageous claims; there isn’t much by way of local cuisine on display; it doesn’t quite have a rustic charm but big city comforts are absent as well. There is some half-hearted attempt, my frenetic Googling reveals, to market “tribal tourism” and frankly that’s not just repugnant but also dishonest. The city is too far from the real heart of tribal Odisha and urban enough that it’s near impossible to get any real sense of indigenous lifestyles.
Here is what you can find, which just a little bit of patience and a good local driver. Lots of quaint little temples, dusty little villages where you’re likely to stumble upon a weaver creating that perfect Sambalpuri sari, local village haats, one temple of modern India - the Hirakund Dam and even a national park.
One way to get to the heart of Sambalpur is to just follow the Mahanadi. Everything important and exciting in these parts is in some way connected to the river. “In Sambalpur it has already become a river of the first magnitude with a width of more than a mile in flood time, when it pours down a sheet of muddy water overflowing its submerged banks, carrying with it the boughs and trunks of trees, and occasionally the corpses of men and animals it has swept away,” says the Imperial Gazetteer of India about the Mahanadi here.
The river will first take you to Samalai Gudi, a temple to Samaleswari, the presiding deity in these parts on the banks of the river. The other temple of importance in the town is the Budharaja Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva and perched atop the Budharaja hill. Then follow the river to the most important of the many temples here. Huma is about 30km of potholes away and the drive is fairly uneventful. A few complicated twists and turns close to the destination and you see the main gate of the Bimaleshwar Mahadeo temple. If you're likely to be lazy you'll only see some interesting looking rocks in what appears to be a little stream. Avoid this impulse and take a little walk around the temple and you’ll see the lovely shimmering waters of the river studded with rocky islands, both big and small. You’ll also see that the temple leans at a precarious but very definite 80 degrees. On a warm and sleepy afternoon everyone, including the dogs, take their siesta sprawled in every which corner of the temple.
But the supremely shiny-cheeked and cheerful Swami Satyanand Saraswati will be happy to walk you around the temple and tell you the story of its sacred fish.
Legend has it that one particular fish called kudos must not be caught in the vicinity of the temple. These fish belong to Lord Mahadev and catching them brings grave peril. The boatman giving rides behind the temple lost an arm because he caught a kudos here, Swamiji will tell you. The boatman will likely smile his charming gap-toothed smile, peep out from under his enormous hat and tell you that he lost his arm in the blasting at the Chiplima hydro-electricity project. Confusing? Not to Swamiji. It’s all connected he says. In the meanwhile if you’re interested in seeing the rather well fed fish, you’d do well to remember that they prefer Krackjack over regular glucose biscuits.
Taking a boat ride, skipping stones across the water and just sitting on the ghats and staring into space are also highly recommended. This is also a good place to start the search for that perfect Sambalpuri. There are several little settlements in Huma where you’ll find scattered weavers. But a good local driver will be able to take you to other villages where the entire village is involved in the craft.
The Sambalpuri weave is a type of Ikat - a kind of handloom where the yarn is tie-dyed before the weaver begins work. Like most other Ikat fabrics the Sambalpuri fabric is also woven on a pit loom. The loom is fitted over a pit that is deep enough for the weaver to suspend his feet into it while working. There are many motifs that are typically associated with Sambalpuri weaves but the most common is the Passapali, a chess-board like pattern. Local shops and wholesalers supply the weavers with the threads, the dyes and the patterns. The men work the looms and the women help with the dyes and also supplement the family income by tending a small vegetable patch or working as hired labour in the paddy fields. There’ll be plenty of opportunities to walk through such villages as you explore more of the area and the best places to buy are often local haats that move from village to village.
Back in Sambalpur meanwhile dusk has fallen and the local Vadilal’s is getting packed. But take a quick walk down V.S. Marg before you go wild and crazy with a choco-chip cone. V.S. Marg is the city’s main street and is really quite persistent. Everywhere you go V.S. Marg will follow. Any place that isn’t V.S. Marg is off the same street. Here you will find Laxmi Madras Hotel, the New Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant run by Joseph and Oina Chen, a very fancy and completely out of place (it’s all steel and glass) supermarket called Planet Harjit. Most hotels in town are on this road so you’ll discover the many little oddities by and by.
The most popular tourist destination in the area is the Hirakud Dam, the longest in the world, which forms the largest artificial lake in Asia. You’d think that this would make the dam easy to spot. Not true. Be prepared for many U-turns and sudden left and right turns, because apparently it is quite easy to get lost on the way to Hirakud. Once you’re there however it’s a rather serene drive over the 21km long dyke. I’m told that the Gandhi Minar and the Nehru Minar are good places to observe the area. I wouldn’t know because we managed to get lost again.
The next logical (if any logic still applies) destination is Chiplima, the second hydro-electricity project on the Hirakud. An 80ft fall on the river is used to generate power. The steel and some machinery used here came from Factory No. 2055 in the former Yugoslavia in 1962. Fishermen whose main deity is Ghantlei inhabit the area and if you walk across a narrow and somewhat shaky bridge you’ll find yourself at the Ghanteswari mandir. The devout buy bells for the goddess and thousands of bells hang everywhere - on the trees, the window grills, on strings.
Another day spent exploring the nooks and crannies of V.S. Marg and you’ll be ready for the caves at Vikramkhol. The caves are said to contain pictographic inscriptions that could be as old as 1,500 B.C. This sounds fascinating, which is why one is willing to spend the better part of the day driving around in circles spelling out Vikramkhol in Hindi and English to every Sambalpuri person in sight. Two hours later nothing changed and I finally gave up on Vikramkhol. But if you’re interested, the place is (supposedly) 26km west of the Jharsuguda Railway Station and 90km from Sambalpur. Despite this latest lost and found debacle there’s still one place that must be checked out. And Ushakothi Sanctuary is surprisingly easy to find. It’s 45km from the city and you need to stop at Badrama Police Station to get permission to visit the sanctuary. Because the sanctuary is so tiny an underling is likely to hop into the car and drive with you to the sanctuary with a key to unlock the chain link that blocks vehicles from the park. The aforementioned underling is likely to claim that there are all manner of animals in the sanctuary. “Sher, bhalu, tiger, haathi sab animals hain,” he gravely informs us. As it turns out, all we see are three chickens in a coop, some dogs and a few emaciated cows grazing on the edges of the sanctuary. The watchtower is about two storeys tall and isn’t much of a vantage point. To complicate things, the dramatic mention of wild animals puts the fear of God in the driver who immediately rolls up his window. The guide recommends that we come back later in the night with flashlights. I’m a tad confused (a recurring theme as promised). Won’t that disturb the animals? “Janvar to dekhne ke liye hain to phir disturb kyon honge.” While that idea is easily rejected, Sambalpur isn’t. It may need a slightly more savvy tourism approach but too much savvy may even take away from it’s decidedly eccentric charms.