Odisha Travel Guide

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Despite being one of India’s poorest states, Odisha – formerly known as Orissa – boasts a rich and distinctive cultural heritage. Its 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 more hedonistic pleasures of the beach. Konark, just 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.

What to see in Odisha

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.

Brief history of Odisha

Other than scattered fragmentary remains of prehistoric settlement, Odisha’s earliest archeological find dates from the fourth century BC. The fortified city of Sisupalgarh, near modern Bhubaneswar, was the capital of the Kalinga dynasty, about which little is known. In the third century BC, the ambitious Mauryan emperor Ashoka routed the Kalingan kingdom in a battle so bloody that the carnage was supposed to have inspired his legendary conversion to Buddhism. Rock edicts erected around the empire extol the virtues of the new faith, dharma, as well as the principles that Ashoka hoped to instil in his vanquished subjects. With the demise of the Mauryans, Kalinga enjoyed something of a resurgence. Under the imperialistic Chedi Jain dynasty, vast sums were spent expanding the capital and on carving elaborate monastery caves into the nearby hills of Khandagiri and Udaigiri. During the second century BC, however, the kingdom gradually splintered into warring factions and entered a kind of dark age. The influence of Buddhism waned, Jainism all but vanished, and Brahmanism, disseminated by the teachings of the Shaivite zealot Lakulisha, started to resurface as the dominant religion.

A golden age

Odisha’s golden age, during which the region’s prosperous Hindu rulers created some of South Asia’s most sophisticated art and architecture, peaked in the twelfth century under the Eastern Gangas. Fuelled by the gains from a thriving trade network (which extended as far east as Indonesia), the Ganga kings erected magnificent temples where Shiva worship and arcane tantric practices adopted by earlier Odishan rulers were replaced by new forms of devotion to Vishnu. The shrine of the most popular royal deity of all, Lord Jagannath, at Puri, was by now one of the four most hallowed religious centres in India.

In the fifteenth century, the Afghans of Bengal swept south to annexe the region, with Man Singh’s Mughal army hot on their heels in 1592. That even a few medieval Hindu monuments escaped the excesses of the ensuing iconoclasm is miraculous, and non-Hindus have never since been allowed to enter the most holy temples in Puri and Bhubaneswar. In 1751 the Marathas from western India ousted the Mughals as the dominant regional power. The East India Company, meanwhile, was also making inroads along the coast, and 28 years after Clive’s victory at Plassey in 1765, Odisha finally came under British rule.

Post Independence

Following Independence, the state saw rapid development. Discoveries of coal, bauxite, iron ore and other minerals stimulated considerable industrial growth and improvements to infrastructure. Despite such urban progress, however, Odisha remains a poor rural state, heavily dependent on agriculture to provide for the basic needs of its inhabitants.

Events of recent years have damaged the state’s reputation. Violent Maoist (Naxalite) activity in rural areas has increased, drawing an often equally violent response from government forces. In March 2012, two Italian travellers visiting tribal areas in the Kandhamal area were kidnapped by Naxalites and held for almost a month, before being released unharmed. There have also been regular attacks on the state’s Christian minority by Hindu fundamentalists, who, in 2008, killed at least seventy people and forced tens of thousands from their homes.

An ongoing campaign by environmental and human rights groups, meanwhile, has been vociferous in its opposition to the multinational corporation Vedanta, which wants to develop a bauxite mine on Niyamgiri mountain in eastern Odisha, considered sacred by the local adivasi community.

Best time to visit Odisha

The best time to visit Odisha is the October–March period – especially November, December and January – when the weather is warm and dry. It gets uncomfortably hot in April–May, and the monsoon generally hits in June and lasts until the end of September. The first couple of months of the rainy season are also sweltering, but this is when Odisha’s most famous festival, the Rath Yatra, takes place.

Festivals in Odisha

  • Makar Mela (mid-Jan)

    Pilgrims descend on a tiny island in Chilika Lake to leave votive offerings in a cave for the goddess Kali.

  • Adivasis Mela (Jan 26–Feb 1)

    Bhubaneswar’s “tribal” fair is a disappointing cross between New York’s Coney Island and an agricultural show, though it does feature good live music and dance.

  • Magha Saptami (Jan/Feb)

    During the full-moon phase of Magha, a small pool at Chandrabhaga beach, near Konark, is swamped by thousands of worshippers in honour of Surya, the sun god and curer of skin ailments.

  • Panashankranti (early April)

    In various regions, on the first day of Vaisakha, saffron-clad penitents carrying peacock feathers enter trances and walk on hot coals.

  • Chaitra Parba (mid-April)

    Santals (the largest of Odisha’s many adivasi groups) perform Chhou dances at Baripada in Mayurbhunj district, northern Odisha.

  • Ashokastami (April/May)

    Bhubaneswar’s Car Festival (a procession of temple chariots), when the Lingaraj deity takes a dip in the Bindu Sagar tank.

  • Sitalasasthi (May/June)

    Commemorating the marriage of Shiva and Parvati, celebrated in Sambalpur and Bhubaneswar.

  • Rath Yatra (June/July)

    The biggest and grandest of Odisha’s festivals. Giant images of Lord Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra and his sister Subhadra make the sacred journey from the Jagannath temple to Gundicha Mandir in Puri.

  • Bali Yatra (Nov/Dec)

    Commemorates the voyages made by Odishan traders to Indonesia. Held at full moon on the banks of the River Mahanadi in Cuttack.

  • Konark Festival (early Dec)

    A festival of classical dance featuring Odishan and other regional dance forms in the Sun Temple at Konark.

Northeastern Odisha

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 Tiger Reserve, close to the state border with West Bengal, is also impressive.

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 bird, 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 they are expected. Other highlights include the crocodile conservation programme at Dangmar Island and the heronry at Bagagahana.

Olive ridley turtles

Every year around February or March, a strip of beach at the end of Odisha’s central river delta witnesses one of the world’s most extraordinary natural spectacles. Having swum right across the Pacific and Indian oceans, hundreds of thousands of female olive ridley marine turtles crawl onto the sand to nest. Almost as soon as the egg laying is complete, they’re off again into the surf to begin the journey back to their mating grounds on the other side of the world.

No one knows quite why they travel such distances, but for local villagers the arrival of the giant turtles was traditionally something of a boon: turtle soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and extra cash from market sales. Over the years the annual slaughter began to turn into a green gold rush, and turtle numbers plummeted drastically until the Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary on Gahirmatha beach, 130km northeast of Bhubaneswar, was set up in 1975 at the personal behest of Indira Gandhi. Weeks before the big three- or four-day invasion, coastguards monitor the shoreline and armed rangers aim to keep poachers at bay. For wildlife enthusiasts it’s a field day.

Over the last ten to fifteen years, however, environmental threats have impacted on the turtles’ habitat. Local families cultivate land within the sanctuary, while illegal prawn farms, fishing trawlers, industrial pollution, and distracting night-time light from nearby settlements are additional hazards.

However, there are some positive signs. Further fishing restrictions have been put in place, conservation organizations, including Greenpeace and the WWF, are monitoring the area, and the number of turtles nesting along the Odishan coast has risen over the last few years – some 722,000 nested here in the 2014–15 season.

Puri

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; a few young Western and Japanese backpackers enjoying the low-key traveller scene at this former hippie trail favourite; 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.

Jagannath deities and Rath Yatra

Stand on any street corner in Odisha and you’ll probably be able to spot at least one image of the black-faced Jagannath deity, with his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra; each figure is legless, with undersized arms and prominent eyes. The origins of this peculiar symbol are shrouded in legend. One version relates that the image of Lord Jagannath looks the way it does because it was never actually finished. King Indramena, a ruler of ancient Odisha, once found the god Vishnu in the form of a tree stump washed up on Puri beach. He carried the lump of wood to the temple and, following instructions from Brahma, called the court carpenter Visvakarma to carve out the image. Visvakarma agreed – on condition that no one set eyes on the deity until it was completed. The king, however, unable to contain his excitement, peeped into the workshop; Visvakarma, spotting him, downed tools and cast a spell on the deity so that no one else could finish it.

Rath Yatra

The Jagannath deities are also the chief focus of Puri’s annual Car Festival, the Rath Yatra – just one episode in a long cycle of rituals that begins in the full moon phase of the Oriya month of Djesto (June/July). In the first of these, the Chandan Yatra, special replicas of the three temple deities, are taken to the Narendra Sagar where for 21 consecutive days they are smeared with chandan (sandalwood paste) and rowed around in a ceremonial, swan-shaped boat. At the end of this period, in a ceremony known as Snana Yatra, the three go for a dip in the tank, after which they head off for fifteen days of secluded preparation for Rath Yatra.

The Car Festival proper takes place during the full moon of the following month, Asadho (July/Aug). Lord Jagannath and his brother and sister are placed in their chariots and dragged by 4200 honoured devotees through the assembled multitudes to their summer home, the Gundicha Ghar (Garden House), 1.5km away. If you can find a secure vantage point and escape the crush, it’s an amazing sight. The immense chariots are draped with brightly coloured cloth and accompanied down Grand Road by elephants, the local raja (who sweeps the chariots as a gesture of humility and equality with all castes) and a cacophony of music and percussion. Each chariot has a different name and a different-coloured cover, and is built anew every year to rigid specifications laid down in the temple’s ancient manuals. Balabhadra’s rath, the green one, leads; Subhadra is next, in black; and lastly, in the 13m-tall chariot with eighteen wheels and a vivid red and yellow drape, sits Lord Jagannath himself. It takes eight hours or more to haul the raths to their resting place. After a nine-day holiday, the sequence is performed in reverse, and the three deities return to the temple to resume their normal lives.

Conventional wisdom has it that the procession commemorates Krishna’s journey from Gokhul to Mathura; historians cite the similarity between the raths and temple towers to claim it’s a hangover from the time when temples were made of wood. Whatever the reason for the Car Festival, its devotees take it very seriously indeed. Early travellers spoke of fanatics throwing themselves under the gigantic wheels as a short cut to eternal bliss (whence the English word “juggernaut”, meaning an “irresistible, destructive force”). Contemporary enthusiasts are marginally more restrained, but like most mass gatherings in India, the whole event teeters at times on the brink of complete mayhem.

Konark

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.”

Southeastern Odisha

Along the stretch of coast between Puri and Andhra Pradesh/Telangana there are a couple of scenic detours that may tempt you to break the long journey south. Three hours south of the capital, at the foot of a barren, sea-facing spur of the Eastern Ghats, is India’s largest saltwater lake. Chilika’s main attractions are the one million or so migratory birds that nest here in winter. Seventy kilometres further on, Gopalpur-on-Sea is a decidedly low-key beach town. Brahmapur (formerly Berhampur), 16km inland, is southern Odisha’s biggest market town, and the main transport hub for the sinuous route west through the hills to the spa station of Taptapani and “tribal districts” beyond.

Chilika Lake

Were it not for its glass-like surface, Chilka 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, including flamingos, pelicans, painted storks, 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 bird sanctuary, which has dramatically reduced the chances of seeing the migratory species close up. It’s still possible to see them from further away, however, on a boat cruise or by visiting some of Chilika’s other islands.

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.

Odishan art and artists

Few regions of India retain as rich a diversity of traditional art forms as Odisha. While a browse through the bazaars and emporia in Puri and Bhubaneswar provides a good idea of local styles and techniques, a trip out to the villages where the work is actually produced is a much more memorable way to shop. Different villages specialize in different crafts – a division that harks back to the origins of the caste system in Odisha. Patronage from the nobility and wealthy temples during medieval times allowed local artisans, or shilpins, to refine their skills over generations. As the market for arts and crafts expanded, notably with the rise of Puri as a pilgrimage centre, guilds were formed to control the handing down of specialist knowledge and separate communities established to carry out the work. Today, the demand for souvenirs has given many old art forms a new lease of life.

Stone sculpture

With modern temples increasingly being built out of reinforced concrete, life for Odisha’s stone sculptors is getting tougher. To see them at work, head for Pathuria Sahi (“Stonecarvers’ Lane”) and the famous Sudarshan workshop on Station Road in Puri where mastercraftsmen and apprentices still fashion Hindu deities and other votive objects according to specifications laid down in ancient manuals.

Painting

Patta chitra, classical Odishan painting, is closely connected with the Jagannath cult. Traditionally, artists were employed to decorate the inside of the temples in Puri and to paint the deities and chariots used in the Rath Yatra. Later, the same vibrant colour schemes and motifs were transferred to lacquered cloth or palm leaves and sold as sacred souvenirs to visiting pilgrims. In the village of Raghurajpur near Puri, where the majority of the remaining artists, or chitrakaras, now live, men use paint made from the local mineral stones. Specialities include sets of ganjiffa – small round cards used to play a trick-taking game based on the struggle between Rama and the demon Ravana, as told in the Ramayana.

Palm-leaf manuscripts

Palm leaves, or chitra pothi, have been used as writing materials in Odisha for centuries. Using a sharp stylus called a lohankantaka, the artist first scratches the text or design onto the surface of palm leaves, then applies a paste of turmeric, dried leaves, oil and charcoal that, when rubbed off, emphasizes the etching. Palm-leaf flaps are often tied onto the structure so an innocent etching of an animal or deity can be lifted to reveal Kama Sutra action. The best places to see genuine antique palm-leaf books are the National Museum in New Delhi or the State Museum in Bhubaneswar.

Textiles

Distinctive textiles woven on handlooms are produced throughout Odisha. Silk saris from Brahmapur and Sambalpur are the most famous, though ikat, which originally came to Odisha via the ancient trade links with Southeast Asia, is also typical. It is created using a tie-dye-like technique known as bandha, also employed by weavers from the village of Nuapatna, 70km from Bhubaneswar, who produce silk ikats covered in verses from the scriptures for use in the Jagannath temple.

Appliqué

The village of Pipli has the monopoly on appliqué, another craft rooted in the Jagannath cult. Geometric motifs and stylized birds, animals and flowers are cut from brightly coloured cloth and sewn onto black backgrounds. Pipli artists are responsible for the chariot covers used in the Rath Yatra as well as for the small canopies, or chhatris, suspended above the presiding deity in Odishan temples.

Metalwork

Tarakashi (literally “woven wire”), or silver filigree, is Odisha’s best-known metalwork technique. Using lengths of wire made by drawing strips of silver alloy through small holes, the smiths create distinctive ornaments, jewellery and utensils for use in rituals and celebrations. The designs are thought to have come to India from Persia with the Mughals, though the existence of an identical art form in Indonesia, with whom the ancient Odishan kingdoms used to trade, suggests that the technique itself may be even older. Tarakashi is now only produced in any quantity in Cuttack and is dying as an art form.

Odishan temples

Odishan temples constitute one of the most distinctive regional styles of religious architecture in south Asia. They were built according to strict templates set down one thousand years or more ago in a body of canonical texts called the Shilpa Shastras. These specify not only every aspect of temple design, but also the overall symbolic significance of the building. Unlike Christian churches or Islamic mosques, Hindu shrines are not simply places of worship but objects of worship in themselves – re-creations of the “Divine Cosmic Creator-Being” or the particular deity enshrined within them. For a Hindu, to move through a temple is akin to entering the very body of the god glimpsed at the moment of darshan, or ritual viewing, in the shrine room. In Odisha, this concept also finds expression in the technical terms used in the Shastras to designate the different parts of the structure: the foot (pabhaga), shin (jangha), torso (gandi), neck (kantha), head (mastaka) and so forth.

The deul

Most temples are made up of two main sections. The first and most impressive of these is the deul, or sanctuary tower. A soaring, curvilinear spire with a square base and rounded top, the deul symbolizes Meru, the sacred mountain at the centre of the universe. Its intricately ribbed sides, which in later buildings were divided into rectangular projections known as raths, usually house images of the accessory deities, while its top supports a lotus-shaped, spherical amla (a motif derived from an auspicious fruit used in Ayurvedic medicine as a purifying agent). Above that, the vessel of immortality, the kalasha, is crowned by the presiding deity’s sacred weapon, a wheel (Vishnu’s chakra) or trident (Shiva’s trishul). The actual deity occupies a chamber inside the deul. Known in Oriya as the garbha griha, or inner sanctum, the shrine is shrouded in womb-like darkness, intended to focus the mind of the worshipper on the image of God.

The jagamohana

The jagamohana (“world delighter”), which adjoins the sanctuary tower, is a porch with a pyramidal roof where the congregation gathers for readings of religious texts and other important ceremonies. Larger temples, such as the Lingaraj in Bhubaneswar and the Jagannath in Puri, also have structures that were tacked on to the main porch when music and dance were more commonly performed as part of temple rituals. Like the jagamohana, the roofs of the nata mandir (the dancing hall) and bhogamandapa (the hall of offerings) are pyramidal. The whole structure, along with any smaller subsidiary shrines (often earlier temples erected on the same site), is usually enclosed with in a walled courtyard.

An evolving style

Over the centuries, Odishan temples became progressively grander and more elaborate. It’s fascinating to chart this transformation as you move from the earlier buildings in Bhubaneswar to the acme of the region’s architectural achievement, the stunning Sun Temple at Konark. Towers grow taller, roofs gain extra layers, and the sculpture, for which the temples are famous all over the world, attains a level of complexity and refinement unrivalled before or since.

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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