Sunday, February 26, 2017


“Odisha”! “We are doing it”!

“Yes. Done”!

“No .. Seriously...”

“Ya! Of course”!

How DID we end up with this plan?! It’s still not very clear. I had always wanted to visit Konark. I guess my love for the place began after watching  the Malayalam movie “Neelakasham Pachakadal Chevvanabhoomi” (NPCB). But this was happening. This was September 2016.

So we had booked the flight tickets. But the package was not confirmed yet. We had been in touch with OTDC- Odisha Tourism Development Corporation. As soon as we received the mail from them- confirming the itinerary- it became real! We were going to Odisha!

Our first stop was Bhubaneshwar. But actually it was this very short stop. We had our lunch at “Panthanivas, Bhubaneshwar” and we were off to Dhauli.

 By the way- food at Panthanivas, Bhubaneshwar was awesome. After visiting the “Shanti Stupa” at Dhauligiri, we saw the Ashokan rock edicts. Though it was dark (the driver was almost in tears each time we weren’t on time!) the caretaker was kind enough to open the place especially for us and show us around. We were pretty tired and wished we had reached the place sooner.  But to think that the Kalinga war actually happened on that very ground where we stood- kind of felt surreal. My paatti (grandmother) had told me a story about her elder sister who had once wandered into this jungle when they were young. Turned out the jungle used to be this place where the conquerors executed their enemies. The story went on about the “tantric” rites to revive her elder sister from her “state of trance”! Fact or fiction! I have no idea! With my paatti- it was always this way. All her stories spun around the plausible. The people were real. Themes were usually “Tantric”- “Chozhi”, “maandreegam”, “bhagavati”- poojas . The way she said them- everything in “first person”. What can I say! They are real to me!

We drove through the Peepili markets. Colours everywhere! En route Puri- I had wanted to visit this temple called “Sakshi Gopal” temple. The story of Sakshi Gopal was the second story I had read in my life- in Amar Chitra Katha- all by myself! The story goes something like this- A poor young man is in love with a village chief’s daughter. But the father of the girl refuses to accept his offer of marriage. All the villagers travel to the “Rath yathra”. On their way back, the village chief falls ill. All the villagers leave him behind. But the poor young man- stays and helps the village chief. Pleased with this, the chief promises that once they return, he will get his daughter married to the young man. But once they are back in the village, the chief goes back on his words. When the young man insists, the chief asks him to produce a witness to the promise he supposedly made. When the young man says- “Only Jagannath is my witness”- the chief mocks him and asks him to produce “Jagannath” as witness. The young man prays to the Lord and the Lord consents to appear as his witness. But He says- throughout the journey, as the Lord would follow the young man- he mustn’t turn back to look. Halfway through the journey- when the Lord is walking on grass- the young man doesn’t hear Jagannath’s footsteps. So he turns back. And the Lord becomes a statue there. He runs to the village and tells them about this incident. The villagers see the statue and accept the young man’s version of the story. Jagannath becomes “Sakshi (witness) Gopal” ! Chief realises his mistake and marries off his daughter to the young man.

It was almost 8 pm and the driver said that the temple usually closes around 5 pm and the detour was 2 kms into the town and the traffic could be unpredictable. So we couldn’t visit. We reached Panthanivas, Puri that night.

We started at 7 am from Puri to Chilika Lake. Nothing like “Roshogolla” in the morning. There were hardly any big buildings in sight. “Quaint”- couldn’t think of any other word to describe the place. Not just Puri or Dhauli. But Odisha was “quaint”! It grows on you- the people, the places! We happened to pass by this Government Law College somewhere along the way. I was truly stricken by the state of the college. Felt almost guilty even! We here in Tamil Nadu- are building colleges after colleges every few miles down the road. Every one of them spread over several acres of land. The sheer display of wealth! And here- even the Government colleges were in such dire state- in need of immediate renovation! Economic disparity between different regions in India- ceased to be a “theoretical” concept to me.

Through the 1.5 hours boat ride- I could only say it was “Dolphin chasing”. I had read about the “revival of the Chilika Lake” and the Irrawaddy Dolphins in the Lake. But seeing the dolphins was something else. It was pure joy watching them swim. But after a while, we felt like intruders in their home. We drove off to the sea mouth. Just us, the beach, the sand, the sky! Nothing else! Not another soul in sight! This was India minus the crowd. It was probably the best hour we have spent ever on a beach.

We returned to Puri and got ready to visit the famous Jagannath Temple. We took a “toto” (kind of like a battery auto) and got off quite far from the temple so that we could enjoy the streets of Puri on foot. We had arranged for a “Panda” (A pandit) to act as our guide. We thought it would take say half hour to finish our dharshan. But thanks to our wonderful guide- it took us two hours and it was worth every second! The panda explained that every 19- 20 years the main deities of the temple- Jagannath, Subhadra and Balram are put to rest and new idols replace them. This symbolises that even Gods “die” in the mortal world. After performing certain rites, appropriate trees with certain markings (like “chakra”- for Jagannath, “yoni” for Subhadra, etc) are selected and new idols are made. The “soul” of the “Gods” are transferred from the old to the new idols. I had never heard of something like this before! Every day- 56 course meal is prepared for the deity in Puri. The Panda explained that the belief was that the Lord visited Puri- to eat- just like he visited Rameshwaram to bathe, Dwaraka to sleep and Badrinath to meditate. Everyday- the flag on top of the shrine is changed by two pandas. There are no safety features and two people just climb up the shrine and change the flag! This was India- with all her myths and colours! I am a rational being and not religious. But I love the stories of beliefs people have. Having spent a major part of my life in Srirangam- I have not found any other place in India so far that treats the Lord as a real being. People here in Srirangam feel that Ranganatha is a being- say things like “He looked so handsome today”! I can say that Puri managed to come second! Stuffed with all the street food from Puri, we returned back to Panthanivas.

The next morning, we started off early. The roads were just beautiful! The driver was absolutely brilliant and very patient with us. Our car stopped and we were off to a beach.
Time had stopped! The green sea was here. Her beauty flowed into the horizon. The sky gained a tint of her green. The sun was trying to mix his own colours to her waters. But she was too strong even for the sun! She stayed green! This was the place, this memory- that would stay with me for all my life. This was the Chandrabhaga beach!

Konark was here.

This was the India from the time she was more inclusive. The country that gave a place to eroticism on the walls of her shrines! What beauty! What precision! Who had thought the statues could one day tell these stories for all to hear. Those walls had withstood years of tyranny, whispering their secrets.

Then there was the Lingaraja temple and Mukteshwar. It was little clusters of temples. Then there was Raja Rani temple. Most of them were very similar to the Jagannath temple. But each had its own flavour and beauty.

We were off to Nandankanan zoo that afternoon visiting the white tigers. It was a long day. And that night, we reached Barkul.

We were once again on the Chilika Lake, the next day, and off to the Nalabana Bird sanctuary. Though no one is allowed inside the sanctuary, we had hoped to catch sight of some of the birds at least from a distance. But it was a beautiful, misty day and the boat man informed us that the birds usually came out on a sunnier day. We did see a group of beautiful Flamingos, Brahminny kite, sea gulls, and few other birds.

The boatman was full of stories. He said there were twenty one islands in the Chilika Lake and all the islands had one MLA. Until a few years ago- the islands had kings who handled the affairs. All the issues were resolved by the kings.

 Only when the king was unable to sort an issue- the villagers went to the police! Still, the son of the old king of the island was well respected member of the community. The boatman said that, of the twenty one islands, 11 of them had people staying in them. Ten of the islands were used for other activities like farming, etc. In one of those ten islands was the bird sanctuary. Then there was Kalijai temple in another. The story of the Kalijai temple was this. Mainlanders never married their daughters to the boys from the islands. But after must persistence, one such marriage was fixed between a main land girl and an island boy. But on the day of the marriage, there was a storm and the boat in which the bride was arriving to the island crashed. The marriage never takes place. The bride is lost in the lake. After a few days, a couple of fishermen hear sounds of a girl crying from one of the islands and inform their king about it. The island is searched but found deserted. The king gets a dream, in which the “lost bride”- named Jai, appears before the king and asks for a temple to be built for her. The king obliges and adds Kali to the girl’s name and she becomes the Kalijai deity who guards all the fishermen. It is believed that, after her temple is built, not a single accident has taken place on the lake. There was an occasion when an enemy clan declares war on the King. Though the king doesn’t have the numbers, Kalijai appears in his dream and instructs him to prepare for the battle and he prepares to fight. On the day of the “war”, the enemy clan see and find many soldiers, all wearing white and around 5 feet tall- and standing around the island, protecting the king’s land. The enemy clan retreat. In fact, it were not soldiers but flamingos who suddenly appear that morning and flock surrounding the king’s island. Since that incident- the flamingos are called the “King’s soldiers”!

What are holidays without such folk tales!

The Kalijai temple was preparing for a “mela”. The boatman asked us to buy “mixture packets”. Not sure of what we were doing, we bought them any way. Then he asked us to throw the “mixture” into the lake. We did. Suddenly, these sea gulls stated following our boat. It was so funny. But I felt a little sorry for those sea gulls too! All for those bits of mixture! Had we known- we could have bought a whole bunch more! I couldn’t explain what we felt. Funny, with a tinge of pity, perhaps!

That afternoon, we arrived at Gopalpur on sea! The Panthanivas at Gopalpur was fantastic! If you ever feel that you need a holiday- just plain simple holiday- this is where you must go! Beach. Just Beach. Nothing else! And what a beach!

The next day, we visited a hill station called Taptapani. There was not much to see or do in Taptapani. But I did have my first bonfire experience thanks to the Panthanivas people who had organised it. The bonfire came at the most welcome moment for we were almost freezing! The next morning, we visited a Tibetan village nearby and a Buddhist monastery there at Jirang. The place was beautiful and serene.

We had to rush back to Bhubaneshwar for our return tickets did not get confirmed. After spending a few hectic hours on trying to work out some kind of “Jugaad”- we settled down and ended up booking flight tickets! That evening, we visited the Udhayagiri caves and went shopping. Back in Chennai next evening, I couldn’t help but say this- people were a little more considerate in Odisha than our Chennai. Then again- this was home! Still- I would suggest Odisha to anyone who wishes to have a great holiday but are on a budget!

 Odisha will always remain as one of my most favourite places for these reasons- the food, the people but most of all- the beaches... The emerald sea- or the Pachakadal! 

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