My better half loves cycling. I don’t know how to cycle. I am reluctant to learn, partly because I prefer lolling, partly because we live in Shimla and I don’t relish heaving and panting uphill as cars swerve recklessly around corners to run me off the hillside. But I have been keenly aware that ever since I came on the scene, the poor boy’s cycling days have been numbered and this makes me feel guilty because it is his greatest pleasure. So in a fit of madness, I suggested a trip by cycle rickshaw for our winter holiday. He would cycle, I would sit. Our favourite activities respectively; what could be better?
We roped in three friends — Raghav, Prashant and Sakshi — and opened up Google Earth. A careful examination of the east coast offered up Odisha as the perfect candidate for our adventure — none of us had been there, it seemed to have a beautiful coastline, magnificent architecture, and plenty of seafood. And last but not least, the roads looked flat. We figured we would arrive in Bhubaneswar, hire or buy some rickshaws, cycle south to Konark, then turn west along the coastal highway to Puri, on to and around Chilika Lake, and end our trip in Gopalpur-on-Sea.Happy hours were spent scrutinising maps and photos of rickshaws. We decided we’d go in for one of the new designs we’d seen in Delhi — light, flat-seated, comfy. There is a pervasive myth regarding cycle rickshaws that they always pull to one side. We thought we’d better test its veracity and did a test ride in Chandigarh.
Brainwashed, I rode the rickshaw in ever-tighter circles, until the bemused rickshaw driver and his laughing friends demonstrated riding in perfect straight lines without their hands on the handlebars. As luck would have it, my cousin Samar was going to be in Bhubaneswar prior to our trip. He enthusiastically set off to find us a rickshaw and, with the help of a two-time Guinness book record holder (for most green coconuts broken with his bare hands!), found Ishwar, who ‘assembles’ rickshaws. The old-fashioned kind.
When we arrived in Bhubaneswar, we set off with some trepidation to see our raths. Ishwar had gone all out — wet yellow and blue paint was still drying on them, bells with pink handgrips adorned the handles and the wheels had furry rainbow decor. So what if the ‘Dunlop’ seat cushions he’d promised turned out to be a micro-thin layer of foam and the passenger seats were about one foot wide and pitched at a 45-degree angle, we couldn’t back out now. Plus, his assistant eyed Sakshi and I, and gesturing towards our rolls of fat, emphatically assured us that they’d melt away. We were sold.
Riding the ricks back to the hotel, we were anxious, and here we experienced our first insight into the Oriya personality — they are immensely patient and courteous. Where we would have been mowed down accompanied by endless honking and ma-behen ki gaalis in the north, here people positioned their vehicles to shield us from oncoming traffic at turns, shook hands, waved, and never, ever, honked — no matter for how long we blocked their way. This would hold true till the end of our journey.
The next morning, we were loaded up by seven, Raghav and Prashant having ingeniously converted the storage area under one of the passenger seats into a beer chiller with thermocol lining and ice. Fully loaded, with the five of us with everything we were carrying, it was a tight squeeze on two rickshaws, but there was a cool breeze and warm sunshine, and as we made our way out of Bhubaneswar at about five kilometres an hour, we were in high spirits.
Exiting Bhubaneswar, we found the country road we had seen on the map, and decided to take that instead of the highway. Called Canal Road, it ran along a deep and wide canal and the route was bucolic, with farmland on either side. Within the fir hour of riding, we got into the rhythm of it. Rickshaws do not pull to one side; in fact they are remarkably steady, even over deep potholes and mud tracks, as we soon found out. (Passengers, however, can get bounced around like beach balls!) However, they are heavy to pull and don’t build much momentum so that it always feels as if you’re riding slightly uphill even on a flat road. Unlike the rickshaw, the human body fortunately builds momentum and we enjoyed riding, some of us so much that there were soon fights to stay in the rider’s seat!
We stopped for a picnic lunch under a huge albizia tree on the banks of the canal, which on closer inspection was full of little tortoises. The beer was deliciously cool. Bright blue kingfishers perched on every second branch. The combination of physical exertion, and the peace of the slow ride, where no detail escaped you, was magical. As we resumed our journey, people would cycle alongside and chat. Two giggling little girls on a cycle offered us a selection of sweets from their school satchel. We offered them brownies from our picnic. We had a three-wheeler race with a Mulberry ice-cream cart. (It defeated us, but we bought ice-cream as consolation.) We stopped for hot, sweet tea and fried snacks. We must have been a mighty weird sight, and people were amused and curious, but we never encountered an ounce of aggression. When either of us ladies was cycling, people would give us the thumbs up and grin widely. When one of the guys pulled us along, eyes popping with the effort, people would call out: “Hero Number 1” or “Ayehai! Ayehai! Kya lovely scene hai!”
We reached the town of Nimapara at 5 in the evening, as dusk was falling. It had looked like a big junction on the map and we had been pretty sure we would find a hotel for the night. We were wrong. Konark was another 30 kilometres away, three hours or possibly more in our exhausted state. We parked the ricks in the government compound of the obliging horticulture department and took a bus to Konark and to Orissa Tourism’s Yatri Nivas. Thrilled at having covered 50-odd kilometres, replete with fish curry and rice, we slept like logs.The next morning, we went back to Nimapara by auto, got onto the ricks and cycled back to Konark, on the wide andsmooth highway of Odisha’s golden triangle (Bhubaneswar, Konark and Puri). We covered the distance in less than three hours. The rest of the day was spent checking out the spectacular sculptures at the Konark museum, and the magnificent Sun Temple itself.
Though large parts of the temple have fallen away over the years and its interior has been filled with stone to reinforce it from within, what remains is of a majesty and splendour that would be hard to match. Surya alighted here on his heavenly chariot, and heavenly it is. Huge, prancing horses pull its giant wheels. The chariot is borne on the backs of rows of elephants and lotus flowers to denote its immense size and divine nature. Rows of musicians play instruments while sinuous dancers sway. Beautiful ladies peek out from between the balustrades. Other celestial women comb their hair, examine their perfect faces in mirrors, lean against trees. Couples (and threesomes) in intricate erotic coupling go about their business. And handsome Surya emanates from all four sides of his chariot, benignly surveying the world.
The next morning, we cycled to the Konark beach to watch the sunrise. The Chandrabhaga beach is one of the mostfamous in Odisha and it turned out that every other tourist had had the same idea. The parking lot at the beach was choc-a-block with tourist coaches, but we rode along for another 20 minutes and then we had the waterfront all to ourselves—an immense expanse of sand and crystal-clear water as far as the eye could see in either direction. We then cycled on to Phulpatan village, about seven kilometres short of Puri, where we were spending the night at a forest rest house. We were told that the beach was two-three kilometres down a shady path through the protected forest. Sakshi, ever enterprising, found out that the local dhaba owner would cook and bring us prawn and fish curry, dal, rice and eggplant cooked in yoghurt. We went to the beach, which was completely deserted barring a 95 coconut seller and a man who rented out chattais and footballs. The waves were placid, the seabed soft and sandy, and the afternoon slipped away.
Some of us spent the next morning at the Jagannath temple — I decided to give it a miss, having heard horror stories about its aggressive pandas. This was confirmed upon the temple party’s return. I spent my time hunting for Jagannath stickers for my car instead, wherein Krishna is represented by two googly eyes. The rest of the day was devoted to the beach — swimming, playing cards, making sand sculptures and playing energetic hand tennis. The dhaba owner was phoned and he delivered hot lunch and cold beer to the beach.
The next day we headed towards Satpada, the entry point for Chilika Lake. It was a long, hot day of riding and our energy flagged. Matters were aggravated because Prashant, Raghav and I had caught a viral that seemed to be reaching its peak. We decided to drop Gopalpur-on-Sea from our itinerary. I bowed out of cycling, but the other two were made of sterner stuff. As we rode, we passed acres of submerged paddy fields and herds of buffalo wandering through the water, munching. We also started seeing an increasing variety of birds — tall storks and herons and many kinds of waders we couldn’t identify. Most of the thatched village huts we passed were painted in the traditional tribal style, with spectacular, impressionistic depictions of plants and birds in white paint on mud. (Odisha has the largest number of tribes in India. At the annual Adivasi Mela in Bhubaneswar, we saw a glimpse of their rich tradition: their natural-dyed textiles, exquisite gold and silver jewellery, and a variety of folk painting styles.) We entered Satpada at dusk, accompanied by a local poet, who had chased us down on his cycle, brandishing his unpublished manuscript.
The Yatri Nivas in Satpada is its only hotel. Its staff was a little overwhelmed by the size of our party of five and Sakshi made herself at home in their kitchen to urge along their meal preparations. In return, they packed us lunch for our boat ride around the lake the next day.
Chilika is the largest coastal lagoon in India, and is famous for its rare and endangered bottle-headed Irrawaddy dolphins, as well as for being the destination for over 160 species of migratory birds in winter. The lake is massive, extending to the horizon, and criss-crossed with fishermen’s nets (Chilika’s prawns and crabs are supposed to be the largest and tastiest in India; they were delicious). We headed to the island where the largest number of birds congregate and saw huge flocks bobbing gently on the water. Dolphins are supposed to enjoy a noisy crowd, and so — much against our inclination — we hooted and hollered. They came like silent submarines, creating not a ripple in the water, until they would surface singly or in coordinated groups, drawing ridiculously close to our screams of delight and then moving on.
After a couple of days in Satpada, we crossed to the other side of the lake by ferry and cycled till the town of Rambha — a beautiful ride flanked by emerald pools — and then packed off our rick-shaws for Bhubaneswar and made our way back by taxi. Driving back, we covered the distance we had laboured over for days in a little over four hours. Indeed, the lack of hotels en route can be explained: Konark and Chilika are but day trips out of Bhubaneswar and Puri for most tourists.
As the countryside whizzed past the taxi window, I thought with horror of what we would have missed out on had we not had the rickshaws. The elegant migratory birds in the fields; the sunrise over ponds full of rohu; the sound of frogs and crickets; the bull we saw sitting on the roadside with a peeved expression, exactly like the bulldog in Tom and Jerry cartoons; the sweet-salty taste of coconut water when we were parched; the chats with people; and the beauty of the land as it unfurled at an unhurried pace and had us at its sweet mercy. And then there’s the adrenalin rush that comes with physical exertion, the joy of eating what you find along the way and always finding it tasty, and most of all, the freedom that comes from knowing that you can’t see and do it all. In our overextended lives full of ‘to-dos’ and ‘bucket lists’, this is perhaps the greatest gift, and what made the experience of riding a rickshaw in Odisha a real holiday.
Hiring a rickshaw will cost about Rs 100 per day, plus you could spend a couple of thousand rupees for re-hauling it (‘Dunlop’ seats, new tyres, and assorted bells and whistles). Ishwar (08093151537) took care of this for us. He can be found near Chandrama apartments next to Bhubaneswar’s railway station. Nimapara to Konark costs about Rs 300 by auto; buses cost a few rupees.
Where to stay
OTDC (from Rs 1,000 for doubles, 0674-2430764; panthanivas.com, visitorissa.org) had hotels in all our major stops and destinations, including Bhubaneswar, Konark, Satpada and Rambha, though in Bhubaneswar, we stayed at the Tata Group’s Ginger (from Rs 2,000; gingerhotels.com), and I assume it’s exactly like their other hotels — efficient, convenient but a bit soulless. The Yatri Nivas in Konark is beautifully located right next to the Archaeological Museum and a stone's throw from the temple. It's a charming, open-plan building, the basic rooms are simple and clean, the bathrooms likewise (with interesting Konark-inspired erotic art on the walls!). They have more upscale rooms, but I didn't get to see them. The OTDC hotel in Satpada was being renovated but the newer rooms are airy and full of light. Bathrooms and linen are clean. Toshali Sands (from Rs 3,700; 09937003223, toshalisands.com) is a resort and wedding destination with spa and swimming pool at Phulpatan, 8km outside Puri.
Day 1 Bhubaneswar to Nimapara, 60km, 9hr of riding, including getting out of the city and using country roads rather than the highway. Day 2 Nimapara to Konark, 22km, under 3hr. Day 3 Konark to Phulpatan, 30km, 3hr. Day 4 Phulpatan to Puri, 7km, 45mins with heavy city traffic of bikes, cows and other assortments. Day 5 Puri to Satpada, 50km, 8hr. Day 6 In Satpada. Day 7 Barkul (where the ferry drops you to the other side of the lake) to Rambha, 25km, 3.5hr of riding.
What to see & do
Odisha’s Golden Triangle of Bhubaneswar, Konark and Puri have much to offer the discerning traveller. Bhubaneswar, the ancient capital city of the Kalinga empire, is famous for its temple architecture and stonework, best seen at the Lingaraj, Mukteshwar, Rajarani (not ascribed to any deity and a repository of erotic art), Brahmeshwar, and 64 Yogini (15km east in Hirapur) temples. Give yourself over to the wonders of the Sun Temple in Konark; the ASI-run museum here has mesmerising sculptures. Puri is a coastal city but its beach is not recommendable; it’s best known for the Jagannath temple, and the legendary chariot festival which takes place here in July-August. You might like to visit the Raghurajpur Handicrafts Village, 15km from Puri, to see mural-painted homes, chat with friendly craftspeople, and shop for Pattachitra paintings, toys handcrafted with wood, and artefacts made with stone and palm leaf. Chilika’s 1,000 sq km of brackish water is described both as lake and lagoon. It’s an ecological wonder and habitat for a variety of birds and aquatic life including dolphins, best seen by boat.
Travel light! Remember that everything you bring will be something you will have to pull. We took a small bag each. The bulk of our luggage was water. Take a first aid kit and a basic toolkit (punctures patches, pump etc.). The advantage of rickshaws is that you can get them repaired anywhere, as Odisha is full of cycles.
Sunscreen, hats and dark glasses are a must, especially for the rider. No other special attire is required. Pulling the weight of the rickshaw and its load does take a toll, so some cardiovascular preparation is highly recommended.