Cuttack, Odisha’s second city in the north of the state, straddles the Mahanadi River. Devoid of attractions, it detains few travellers on the long journey to or from Kolkata. Once clear of Cuttack’s polluted outskirts, however, you soon find yourself amid the flat paddy fields, palm groves and mud-walled villages of the Mahanadi Delta. Twisting through it is one of India’s busiest transport arteries; the main railway line and NH-5 follow the path of the famous pilgrim trail, the Jagannath Sadak, which once led from Kolkata to Puri.
The area’s biggest attraction is Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary, 130km northeast of Bhubaneswar, which has outstanding natural scenery, an abundance of fauna and flora and is visited by the endangered Olive Ridley turtles. Similipal National Park, close to the state border with West Bengal, is also impressive.Read More
Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary
Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary
Covering 672 square kilometres overlying the Brahmani-Baitarani delta, the mangrove forests and wetlands of the BHITARKANIKA WILDLIFE SANCTUARY constitute one of the richest ecosystems of its type in India. As well as more than two hundred species of birds, it’s a refuge for saltwater crocodiles, monitor lizards, rhesus monkeys and a host of other reptiles and mammals, and incorporates the Olive Ridley turtle nesting beaches at Gahirmatha, Rushikulya and Devi. The best time to visit is between November and March, when most of the migratory birds that flock to the sanctuary are in situ, although the nesting season for the herons usually ends around the middle of November. If you’re hoping to witness the arrival of Olive Ridley turtles, check first at the tourist office in Bhubaneswar to find out exactly when – or indeed if – they are expected. Other highlights include the crocodile conservation programme at Dangmar Island and the heronry at Bagagahana.
As the home of Lord Jagannath and his siblings, PURI ranks among Hindu India’s most important sacred sites, visited by a vast number of pilgrims each year. The crowds peak during the monsoons for Rath Yatra, the famous “Car Festival”, when millions pour in to watch three giant, multicoloured chariots being drawn up the main thoroughfare. At the centre of the maelstrom, the Jagannath temple soars above the town’s medieval heart and colonial suburbs like some kind of misplaced space rocket. Non-Hindus aren’t allowed inside its bustling precincts, but don’t let this deter you; Puri’s streets and beach remain the focus of intense devotional activity year round, while its bazaars are crammed with collectable religious souvenirs associated with Lord Jagannath.
Three distinct types of visitor come to Puri: middle-class Bengalis lured by the combined pleasures of puja and promenade; young Western and Japanese backpackers enjoying the low-key traveller scene; and thousands of pilgrims, mainly from rural eastern India, who flock in to pay their respects to Lord Jagannath. Over the years the three have staked out their respective ends of town and stuck to them. It all makes for a rather bizarre and intoxicating atmosphere, where you can be transported from the intensity of Hindu India to the sea and back to the relative calm of your hotel veranda at the turn of a bicycle wheel.
Until the seventh and eighth centuries, Puri was little more than a provincial outpost along the coastal trade route linking eastern India with the south. Then, thanks to its association with the Hindu reformer Shankaracharya (Shankara), the town began to feature on the religious map. Shankara made Puri one of his four mathas, or centres for the practice of a radically new, and more ascetic form of Hinduism. Holy men from across the whole Subcontinent came here to debate the new philosophies – a tradition carried on in the town’s temple courtyards to this day. With the arrival of the Gangas at the beginning of the twelfth century, this religious and political importance was further consolidated. In 1135, Anantavarman Chodaganga founded the great temple in Puri, and dedicated it to Purushottama, one of the thousand names of Vishnu – an ambitious attempt to integrate the many feudal kingdoms recently conquered by the Gangas. Under the Gajapati dynasty in the fifteenth century Purushottama’s name changed to Jagannath (“Lord of the Universe”). Henceforth Vaishnavism and the devotional worship of Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, was to hold sway as the predominant religious influence in the temple. Puri is nowadays one of the four most auspicious pilgrimage centres, or dhams, in India.
Western-style leisure tourism, centred on the town’s long sandy beach, is a comparatively new phenomenon. The British were the first to spot Puri’s potential as a resort. When they left, the Bengalis took over their bungalows, only to find themselves sharing the beach with an annual migration of young, chillum-smoking Westerners attracted to the town by its abundant hashish. Today, few vestiges of this era remain. Thanks to a concerted campaign by the municipality to clean up Puri’s image, the “scene” has dwindled to little more than a handful of cafés, and is a far cry from the swinging hippie paradise some still arrive here hoping to find.
Konark and around
Konark and around
Time runs like a horse with seven reins,
Thousand-eyed, unageing, possessing much seed. Him the poets mount; His wheels are all beings.
– The Artharva Veda
If you see only one temple in Odisha, it should be KONARK, 35km north of Puri and one of India’s most visited ancient monuments. Standing imperiously in its compound of lawns and casuarina trees, this majestic pile of oxidizing sandstone is considered to be the apogee of Odishan architecture and one of the finest religious buildings anywhere in the world.
The temple is all the more remarkable for having languished under a huge mound of sand since it fell into neglect around three hundred years ago. Not until the dune and heaps of collapsed masonry were cleared away from the sides, early in the twentieth century, did the full extent of its ambitious design become apparent. In 1924, the Earl of Ronaldshay described the newly revealed temple as “one of the most stupendous buildings in India which rears itself aloft, a pile of overwhelming grandeur even in its decay”. A team of seven galloping horses and 24 exquisitely carved wheels found lining the flanks of a raised platform showed that the temple had been conceived in the form of a colossal chariot for the sun god Surya, its presiding deity.
Equally sensational was the rediscovery among the ruins of some extraordinary erotic sculpture. Konark, like Khajuraho, is plastered with loving couples locked in ingenious amatory postures drawn from the Kama Sutra – a feature that may well explain the comment made by one of Akbar’s emissaries, Abul Fazl, in the sixteenth century: “Even those who are difficult to please,” he enthused, “stand astonished at its sight.”
Apart from the temple, a small museum and a fishing beach, Konark village has little going for it. Sundays and public holidays are particularly busy here: aim to stay until sunset after most of the tour groups have left, when the rich evening light works wonders on the natural colours in the khondalite sandstone.