If it was not for the stern eye of our BNHS birding expert, I might have ended up patting a Godwit or two sitting so temptingly close to our boat. As the boat skimmed through the reed-lined narrow channel, flocks of Godwits welled up before our eyes. In between we spied a couple of purple moorhens, open-billed storks, snipes, black-winged stilts and our journey had just begun. Somewhere in the background, I could hear the photographers hurriedly replacing their long-distance lenses. We were at Mangalajodi, a birding hotspot, on the north-eastern end of Odisha’s famous Chilika Lake.
Although called a ‘lake’, Chilika is a brackish water lagoon with estuarine characteristics. While local people live off fishing in the lake, it is also one of the most delicate biodiversity hotspots of India and home to a large number of species listed in the IUCN Red List. In winter, a large number of migratory birds visit the lake.
Mangalajodi (about 80km from state capital Bhubaneswar) is one of the places where you can spot them so close. But it was not like this earlier, our guide from Mangalajodi Ecotourism explained. The local people would kill the birds without much ado, until some local bird-lovers, the Chilika Development Authority and a few private agencies stepped in with messages of conservation. Slowly, the villagers turned from poachers to conservationists and Mangalajodi Ecotourism was born. Now they provide simple accommodation, boating facilities and guides for exploring the channels. There is also a watch tower near the boat jetty where we spent quite a rewarding afternoon.
While birding is one of the key attractions of Chilika Lake, you can also go dolphin watching, especially from Satapada, about 50km away by road from the beach and pilgrim town of Puri. Although catching a sight of the Irrawaddy dolphins is a matter of luck, usually they can be seen during early morning and late afternoon, when the sun’s rays are relatively mild. The boats (choose one that offers adequate protection from the sun) will take you on a sweeping ride through the lake and anchor at a sand bar near the sea mouth in between. A popular picnic point, there are shacks here that will fry for you some of the fresh catch from the lake, at a nominal price.
Sprawling over 1,100 square kilometre along the eastern coast of India, Chilika Lake spreads over Puri, Khurda and Ganjam districts of Odisha. Barkul and Rambha in the Ganjam district have been popular entry points for visitors, largely because of the Odisha Tourism Development Corporation tourist bungalows located here and the boating facilities provided by them. One of the most popular attractions from Barkul is a ride to the Goddess Kalijai Temple located on an island hillock. The goddess is much revered by the local people, especially the fisher folk community. On the day of Makar Sankranti, a huge fair is held here.
You may also take a boat ride around Nalban, one of the largest islands in the lake and a bird sanctuary. The Breakfast Island has ruins of an old palace. You can spot the Beacon Island from a distance marked by its obelisk and a small building, said to be built by a District Collector during the British period to warn the boats about the submerged rocks in the area. The Honeymoon Island (nobody knows why it was thus named) is said to harbour the endangered Barakudia limbless skunk.
There are also chances of seeing dolphins during your boat ride.
Despite its scenic beauty and importance, Chilika Lake is still far from the global tourist map. One of the main reasons being lack of international standard of accommodation. To address this problem, one of the key business houses of Odisha, the Swosti Group, has come up with a modern resort, the Swosti Chilika Resort (about 111km from Bhubaneswar), located at Odia Alapur in Ganjam district. Far removed from the beaten tourist path, the sprawling resort sits in the middle of a landscaped verdant plot. Set back from the shore, it offers a panoramic view of the lake. Some of the facilities on offer are a spa, gaming centres for both adults and children, and a swimming pool. Odisha is known for its cuisine, especially seafood. Savour the specialities of the region, especially those made with the fresh catch from the lake, at the two restaurants here. Apart from local cuisine, they also offer international cuisine. Swosti Chilika Resort can also arrange for boating in the Chilika Lake and local sightseeing.
The best time to visit Chilika is in winter, when the weather is mild and the migratory birds arrive. Even in winter, it can be very hot by day. So carry adequate water and sun protection gear when you go boating in the lake.
Odisha Tourism Development Corporation (OTDC) runs tourist lodges at Satapada, Barkul and Rambha. Facilities are basic and fancy free.
Bhubaneswar is the nearest airport for all destinations on the Chilika. Apart from being connected to the rest of the country through domestic airlines companies, Bhubaneswar is also directly connected with Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) through Air Asia. Located on the Howrah (West Bengal) — Chennai (Tamil Nadu) railway route, some of the most convenient rail stations are Bhubaneswar, Puri and Balugaon.
From Bhubaneswar and Puri, there are day tours to Chilika during tourist season. Unless you are lodging in Swosti Chilika Resort, be prepared to encounter a noisy crowd, especially day visitors and picnickers, at the OTDC lodges and the boat jetties.