Were it not for its glass-like surface, CHILIKA LAKE, Asia’s largest lagoon, could easily be mistaken for the sea; from its mud-fringed foreshore you can barely make out the narrow strip of marshy islands and sand-flats that separate the 1100-square-kilometre expanse of brackish water from the Bay of Bengal. Come here between December and February, and you’ll see a variety of birds, from flamingos, pelicans and painted storks to fish eagles, ospreys and kites, many of them migrants from Siberia, Iran and the Himalayas. Chilika is also one of the few places in India where the Irrawaddy dolphin can be spotted.
The best way to see the lake and the birdlife is on a boat trip. Unfortunately, tourists are currently banned from visiting Nalabana Island, a designated bird sanctuary, which has dramatically reduced the chances of seeing the migratory birds at close quarters. The state authorities claim this is to protect the birds from the disruption caused by visitors, but the move has been criticized by local travel agencies and boat operators, who are hopeful the policy will be overturned. In the meantime, it’s still possible to see the migratory birds by taking a boat cruise or by visiting some of Chilika’s other islands, which offer decent birdwatching opportunities, though not as good as those on Nalabana.
By and large, the fishing villages and fabled island “kingdom” of Parikud on the eastern side of the lake are passed up in favour of the boat ride to the devi shrine on Kalijai island. Legend has it that a local girl once drowned here on the way to her wedding across the lake, and that her voice was subsequently heard calling from under the water. Believing the bride-to-be had become a goddess, local villagers inaugurated a shrine to her that over the years became associated with Kali (Shiva’s consort Durga in her terrifying aspect). Each year at Makar Sankranti, after the harvest, pilgrims flock to the tiny island from all over Odisha and West Bengal to leave votive offerings in the sacred cave where the deity was enshrined.
Satapada, on the coastal side 45km from Puri, is the best place to stay on the lake; the surrounding waters offer the best chance of seeing dolphins. The scenery surrounding Barkul is less impressive than at Satapada, and you’re further from most of the islands, but it does have the best accommodation around the lake. Rambha, 135km from Bhubaneswar, is well placed for walks around the more scenic southern corner of the lake and for boat rides to Parikud.