Despite being one of India’s poorest states, Odisha – formerly known as Orissa (many road signs and web addresses still carry the old name), boasts a rich and distinctive cultural heritage. The state’s coastal plains have the highest concentration of historical and religious monuments – Odisha’s principal tourist attractions. Puri, site of the famous Jagannath temple and one of the world’s most spectacular devotional processions, the Rath Yatra, combines the heady intensity of a Hindu pilgrimage centre with the hedonistic pleasures of the beach. Just a short hop off the main Kolkata–Chennai road and railway, the town is a popular destination for backpackers. Konark, a short way up the coast, has the ruins of Odisha’s most ambitious medieval temple, whose surfaces writhe with exquisitely preserved sculpture, including some eyebrow-raising erotica. The ancient rock-cut caves and ornate temples of Bhubaneswar, the state capital, hark back to an era when it ruled a kingdom stretching from the Ganges delta to the mouth of the River Godavari.
Away from the central “golden triangle” of sights, foreign travellers are few and far between, though you’ll see plenty of Bengali tourists travelling throughout coastal Odisha. In the winter, the small islands dotted around Chilika Lake, a huge saltwater lagoon south of Bhubaneswar, is good for birdwatchers. Further north, in the Bhitarkanika Sanctuary, a remote stretch of beach is the nesting site for rare Olive Ridley turtles.
From the number of temples in Odisha, you’d be forgiven for thinking Brahmanical Hinduism was its sole religion. In fact, almost a quarter of the population are adivasi, or “tribal” (literally “first”) people, thought to have descended from the area’s pre-Aryan aboriginal inhabitants. In the more inaccessible corners of the state many of these groups have retained unique cultural traditions and languages, though dam builders, missionaries, “advancement programmes” initiated by the state government, and the activities of Maoist rebels continue to threaten their way of life.