With its featureless 1950s architecture, Bhubaneswar may initially strike you as surprisingly dull for a city with a population of almost a million and a history of settlement stretching back more than two thousand years. However, the southern suburbs harbour the remnants of some of India’s finest medieval temples, which are made all the more atmospheric by the animated religious life that continues to revolve around them, particularly at festival times.
While the better-class hotels are spread out all over the city, the budget places – which are generally fairly poor – are mainly grouped around the railway station or near the busy Kalpana Square junction at the bottom of Cuttack Rd, a 5min auto-rickshaw ride away.
The few restaurants that specialize in traditional Odishan cuisine, or include some Odishan dishes on their menus are well worth seeking out. Look out for chenna poda (cheesecake stuffed with almonds), raswadi (thickened milk with balls of curd) and gajar ka halwa (a rich sweet made from grated carrots).
Of the five hundred or so temples that remain in Bhubaneswar only a handful are of interest to anyone but the most ardent temple-phile. They are quite spread out, but it’s possible to see the highlights in a day by auto-rickshaw. The majority are active places of worship, so dress appropriately, remove your shoes (and any leather items) at the entrance and seek permission before taking photographs, particularly inside the buildings. The resident priest will expect a donation if he’s shown you around, but don’t believe the astronomical amounts recorded in the ledgers you’ll be shown. Entry is free to all temples except the Rajarani.
Several places around Bhubaneswar can be easily visited as a day-trip. Fifteen minutes by auto-rickshaw out of the centre, the second-century BC caves at Khandagiri and Udaigiri offer a glimpse of the region’s history prior to the rise of Hinduism. Dhauli, just off the main road to Puri, boasts an even older monument: a rock edict dating from the Mauryan era, commemorating the battle of c.260 BC that gave emperor Ashoka control of the eastern seaports, and thus enabled his missionaries to export the state religion across Asia. Pipli, 20km south, is famous for its appliqué work and colourful lampshades.
The Nandankanan Zoological Park, one of India’s better zoos, is a good place for families to spend a few hours. Its animal collection includes rhinos, giraffes, Asiatic lions and some white tigers, there’s a botanical garden and you can rent paddle boats.
More than two thousand years ago, caves chiselled out of the malleable yellow sandstone of a pair of low hills 6km west of Bhubaneswar were home to a community of Jain monks. Nowadays, they’re clambered over by langur monkeys and occasional parties of tourists. Though by no means in the same league as the caves of the Deccan, Udaigiri and Khandagiri rank among Odisha’s foremost historical monuments.
Inscriptions show that the Chedi dynasty, which ruled ancient Kalinga from the first century BC, was responsible for the bulk of the work. There are simple monk’s cells, as well as royal chambers where the hallways, verandas and facades are encrusted with sculpture depicting court scenes, lavish processions, hunting expeditions, battles and dances. The later additions (from medieval times, when Jainism no longer enjoyed royal patronage in the region) are more austere, showing the 24 heroic Jain prophet-teachers, or tirthankaras.
From Bhubaneswar, the caves are approached via a road that follows the route of an ancient pilgrimage path. As you face the hills with the highway behind you, Khandagiri (“Broken Hill”) is on your left and Udaigiri (“Sunrise Hill”) is on your right.
Spanning almost a thousand square kilometres in central Odisha, some 125km northwest of Bhubaneswar, the Satkosia Tiger Reserve is a beautiful, forested riverine landscape, with the Mahanadi River and the stunning Satkosia gorge at its heart.
Few foreign travellers make it out to the reserve, which encompasses the Satkosia Gorge Wildlife Sanctuary and the Baisipalli Wildlife Sanctuary, and tourism is in its infancy. However, if you make it here you’ll be amply rewarded: the reserve has large communities of gharial and mugger crocodiles, and 164 species of bird, as well as a handful of elusive tigers. Boat trips, hikes and jeep safaris are all on offer.
Top image: Mukteshvara Temple at Bhubaneswar, known as the Hindu holy city or the temple city, Odisha, India © Kali Justine/Shutterstock