Odisha: Culture on the Coast

Odisha: Culture on the Coast
A crab scavenges on a dead fish at the sea Mouth Island, Photo Credit: Sumeet Keswani

A solitary stroll on Odisha's shores reveals a few gems, literal and otherwise

Sumeet Keswani
December 13 , 2017
15 Min Read

There is a charm to travelling alone that cannot be understood by those forever in company. It gives you time to brood over the birds, the brook and the babble of a foreign tongue. And what better place to be cast away alone than on an alien seashore?

Miniature idols on sale at the Puri market

While I was born and brought up near the west coast of India, the east coast had always been an unknown quantity to me. Until this month, when I decided to take a solitary sojourn through Odisha. I started my journey with a day in Puri. Now I’m not into organised religion, let alone idol worship, but when you’re in the land of Jagannath, you cannot pass over a visit to one of the char dham. The main market street of the town was flanked by street vendors on both sides hawking everything from fruits and shells to miniature Jagannath idols that looked like bobble heads and even T-shirts with his face imprinted on them. Near the eastern Singhadwara gate (one of four gates) of the temple, throngs of religious tourists in the narrow street disoriented me. That is when a young man in his mid-twenties, well groomed but dressed in old, multi-coloured robes, came to my rescue. I had expected guides here, but he was nothing I could have imagined. Laxmikanta Pratihari, 25, was a self-proclaimed pandit-cum-guide who spoke lucidly on history and faith in the same breath. His double role seemed almost oxymoronic when passers-by bent down and touched his feet as he led me on a guided tour of the temple complex, indifferent to the display of reverence. In turn, the locals didn’t stop for his acknowledgement or blessing.

The first site of darshan at Jagannath Temple is the Aruna Stambha (sun pillar), a monolithic shaft erected right in front of the eastern gate. With a height of over 25m, its top supposedly aligns with the placement of the idols within the inner sanctum of the temple. Jagannath Temple has four chambers, but before we could go in, I was asked to buy an offering for the gods. Each of the char dham is believed to serve a purpose for the gods; this site is their eating place. “The world’s biggest kitchen is here,” stated my priest-guide emphatically. “Every day six meals are prepared, and every meal has 56 dishes. Once they are blessed by god, they are distributed among the needy.”

Inside the temple, blue walls portray Krishna Leela. Amidst these stone carvings, pigeons have found sites for their own leela. The crowd is overpowering at any given time and you get a momentary darshan of the three residing deities placed high in the inner sanctum–Lord Jaganath, Subhadra and Balabhadra–from afar in the nata mandira. Devotees raise both their hands, as if reaching for the gods, and ululate. Laxmikanta made me recite a two-line verse holding the bhoga in my hands and then proceeded inside to “offer” it. It eventually came back to me as blessed prasad, along with a teeka–the gods had approved of my righteousness. All those people who had been hugging stambhas inside and craning their necks for a sight of the higher powers were now rushing out of the temple in delirium. I was virtually carried out by this mass of faith.

Once outside, I spent some time gawking at the meticulously detailed stone carvings on the walls of the temple. The main structure occupies the prime position in a 10.7-acre complex that has 30 other temples. Monkeys had found refuge on the façade, navigating the tiers of the 65m-high pyramidal tower with panache. There was ample bhoga to go around for everyone–man, animal and bird. As I parted with my priest-guide, I paid him ₹100 for his services and he, in turn, warned me not to interact with any of the “thousands of priests” lest they try to fleece me.

Wanting to get away from the crowds, I took an autorickshaw to Golden Beach, barely two kilometres from the temple, to get my thoughts together by the sea. But the famous beach of Puri was yet another bustling hub of activity. Rainbow umbrellas sold chaat over an area of two football fields. By the sea, scores of families had sat down to gaze at the ebb and tide. Muzzled camels trod the sand carrying ecstatic kids on humpback. I wondered what the Bedouins would think of this repurposing of the camel.

I was trying to get away from the swarms of beachgoers when I heard the now familiar ululating. A cordoned-off area was hosting another puja, one dedicated to the sea god. The waves were expected to reach the havan kund as the priests chanted their mantras, and everyone ululated as if to summon the sea. Unfortunately, nature does not pay heed to human faith. At the end, the priests walked up to the waterline.

At Chilika Lake--a couple of Irrawaddy dolphins emerge out of the water

The next day, I found myself at Satapada, 50 kilometres from Puri. The area is best known for its boating activities on Chilika Lake, a brackish water lagoon that is home to around 134 Irrawaddy dolphins. I hired a boat, not knowing what to expect. I did know that the Irrawady dolphin, listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, did not usually leap out of the water, just emerging a few inches to gulp air. Barely 15 minutes into the ride, the boatman started gesturing urgently in different directions. It took me a few attempts to catch sight of fleeting blue-grey dolphin parts–the triangular pectoral fin, the bulging forehead with a peculiar U-shaped blowhole, and the small dorsal fin. Gradually, I started anticipating their appearances by keeping track of their trajectories and speed. Soon, we were gliding alongside a pod of dolphins keen to get away from the hum of the boats. Unlike the bottlenose dolphin that I had met in the Maldives, the Irrawaddy dolphin was a recluse.

A boatman steers away from the shore

When I had had my fill of dolphins, we headed to Sea Mouth Island, which sits at the meeting point of Chilika Lake and Bay of Bengal. The boat was first anchored a few metres before the beach for a slew of fishermen to sell their catch. One Ashish Kumar Jena approached me carrying big plastic baskets. I was ready to wave him off when he held out a basket full of anxious red crabs. A speciality of the region, the red crabs weren’t supposed to be eaten but displayed and eventually let loose into the sea. In Odisha, the red crab is called Dashrath (after the father of Lord Ram) and worshipped. But the second and third baskets were what really intrigued me–they were full of shelled molluscs. Jena started picking oysters first and slamming them open on the wood of the boat. Averagely one in five revealed a pearl–all different in size, shape and shine but sold at the uniform price of ₹450.

Pearls obtained from oysters

The second set of shells, fewer in number and coarser to touch, had been acquired from quicksand, I was told. Jena said they yielded navratna gems on a good day. One of the three in his possession did reveal a stone unlike anything I’d ever seen before. The almost transparent, kidney-shaped gem radiated iridescent light under the blazing sun. Jena bowed his head to the“rare find” and priced it at ₹1,500.

At the Sea Mouth beach, a few shops sold snacks, tea, coconut water and fresh seafood. Live mud crabs and fish awaited hungry tourists in buckets. I walked across the slim island to find the gushing waves of Bay of Bengal on the other side. Here, a solitary snack shop overlooked a deserted beach. In retrospect, this was my best beach experience in Odisha. Not a single human insight, just a bunch of golden crabs scavenging on a dead fish by the sea. If it wasn’t for the blistering October sun, I would have laid down on the glimmering sand with a book and a cup of tea.

A monitor lizard tried to blend into the forest floor at Bhitarkanika

While beaches and crabs are found on every coast, saltwater crocodiles aren’t quite that common. A 5.5-hour drive from Satapada took me to Bhitarkanika National Park. A core area of 145 sq km of the Bhitarkanika Wild Sanctuary in the Kendrapara district was designated as a National Park in September 1998. Flooded by Brahmani and Baitarani rivers, Bhitarkanika is the second-largest mangrove ecosystem in India. It plays host to a variety of wild denizens including spotted deer, wild boar, monitor lizard, jackal, otter, etc. But the prime predator in its muddy creeks is the estuarine crocodile. The biggest specimen here is reported to measure 23 feet and is called Kalia for his dark skin.

A saltwater crocodile takes shade under the mangroves at Bhitarkanika National Park

On the other end of the croc skin shade is Gori, a white crocodile in captivity at a breeding centre in Dangmal. Born in a hatchery from the first batch of eggs collected from nature, Gori fought off potential mates and lost her right eye in the tiffs. After two failed attempts at pairing, the officials have given up and Gori now lives alone. When I reached her fenced enclosure, the legendary white croc was submerged in the muddy water, just her watchful eye peeking out. The heat had forced the reptiles to take shelter underwater. Back in the wild creeks too, cruising on a local boat, I spotted just two big crocodiles, both taking shade under mangrove bushes on the banks. There was also a smattering of baby crocs in the water, yet untrained in matters of survival and evasive procedures. When the temperature dips in winter, the estuarine crocodiles come out on the banks to bask in the sun.

A brahminy kite scouts for prey at Chilika Lake

The mangrove forest also offers a walking trail of about five kilometres. Followed by my able guide Krishna, I wandered in the virgin woods, walking into cobwebs and dodging huge arachnids. A pond here is a safe haven for nesting openbill storks, ibises, cormorants and stilts among other avifauna. But the sightings that really stood out were those of huge monitor lizards. The spotted deer and wild boar had been pushed into hiding by the scorching sun. After an hour, we too decided to retreat into shade.

Intricate stone carvings on the walls of the Sun Temple in Konark depict everything from giraffes to polyamory

My last day in Odisha had been earmarked for Konark. Having heard so much about the Kalinga architecture of the 13th-century Sun Temple, I had to go see the chariot-shaped structure myself. But it seems I had missed the most important memo on this ancient Hindu temple. Among the figurine carvings of women dancers, menial labour and royal hunts on its stonewalls, is a lot of erotica.

My guide, a middle-aged man called Sukand Kumar Pathi, took great pleasure in introducing a slack-jawed me to erotic sculptures of maithunas that depicted lesbian intercourse, and polygamy by both genders, among other liberal scenes. In fact, one of the famed 24 chariot wheels (each of which is a sundial that tells time accurately to the minute) of the temple has a sex position on each of its eight spokes. Another depicts everyday activities by their hourly association; three of these involved pleasure. Pathi told me the temple walls portray a sum of 84 sex positions. Pathi and I lamented the death of this sexual liberation in modern India as groups of young girls passed by, pointing and giggling.

When it was built by King Narasimhadeva I in 1255 CE, the sun temple was situated at the mouth of the river Chandrabhaga. The waters have since receded and today, Chandrabhaga beach is around 3km away from the Unesco World Heritage Site. The original chariot temple, sprawled over 760 sqm, had a sanctum sanctorum or vimana (70m tall) which collapsed in1837. The audience hall or jagamohana (39m tall) is now the main structure in the 11-acre complex apart from the dance hall or nata mandira and the dining hall or bhoga mandapa.

A jungle trek involves dodging plenty of colourful spiders

After a dazzling walk around the temple ruins, I drove down to Chandrabhaga, a beach populated by no more than a dozen tourists. Litter marked the visited areas, leaving the extreme left end of the beach to fishermen squatting in the open and the extreme right to the solitary traveller who, after days of vermillion foreheads and the clamour of souvenir markets, sat down with a book by the sea. Company is overrated.

The Information

Getting There
Bhubaneswar (Biju Patnaik International Airport) is connected with metro cities by multiple carriers. You can take a bus from Bhubaneswar to Puri from Master Canteen bus stand or Kalpana bus stand (1.5hr; ₹45 non-AC, ₹100 AC bus). A taxi costs ₹500. Bus services are available to Konark as well.

A return taxi can be booked from Puri to Satapada (1.5hr, ₹1,800). An hour-long dolphin boat ride in Satapada costs ₹700. If you include Sea Mouth Island, that’s an additional ₹600. The recommended way to reach Bhitarkanika National Park is to hire a private taxi from Bhubaneswar (160km, ₹5,600 return including overnight stop).

Where to Stay
For an economic stay in the capital, Ginger Bhubaneswar in Jayadev Vihar is 8km from the airport (from ₹2,422 plus taxes; gingerhotels.com). In Puri, Chanakya BNR Hotel retains the charm of a vintage railway property (from ₹3,000 plus taxes; therailhotel.com). In Bhitarkanika, Sand Pebbles Bhitarkanika Jungle Resort has 14 non-AC tents and power backup. (from ₹6,600 doubles for a 1N stay including meals, from ₹3,000 for boat safari; +91-9937047574, bhitarkanikanationalpark.com).

What to See & Do

Bhubaneswar: Make time for the Khandagiri and Udayagiri caves. Also visit the Dhauli stupa for a light and sound show (7pm,7.45pm) that narrates the story of the Kalinga war.

Konark: The Sun Temple is a no-brainer. Get a certified guide outside the premises to get interesting insight into the stone carvings. Also visit Chandrabhaga beach and Ramachandi backwaters. At the latter, there is a temple dedicated to Maa Ramachandi which has a skull of a whale shark that people have come to worship. You can also ride a jet ski (from ₹200) or take a boat ride (₹650).

Puri: Jagannath Temple is a must-go. Visit the Golden Beach and hop on a camel.

Bhitarkanika: A boat ride in the muddy creeks will introduce you to the estuarine crocodile but you must go in winter (November-February) to ensure sightings. Also visit the breeding centre and hatchery at Dangmal. Ask the boatman about a jungle trek.

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