By Kamalini Natesan
We, as a family, debated between travelling to monsoon-filled Assam, or Odisha. We sought guidance from both the Internet and friends alike, and Odisha won hands down.
Landslides in Assam are not uncommon during the month of August, and rain comes down in thick sheets when it does. Much as we love Indian monsoons, we chose wisely.
I have dreamt of visiting Odisha, this eastern Indian region of temples, and green pastures since my last visit in 1989, with an Oriya friend. It left a deep impact, and I was keen to share this experience with my own family, my kids, and my spouse. I had then been a young, impressionable girl. Would I be able to relive the magic that had invaded my spirit then?
Odisha welcomed us with swaying Coconut palms in torrential rains. Roadside tea-stalls beckoned enticingly with their thick milky chaa (tea), all along our 8-day sojourn, from Bhubaneswar to Satkosia Ghat to Puri to Chilika Lake to Konark.
While the Lingaraj temple disallows any cameras or mobiles, its pandas (priests) swirl into action on spying the quintessential tourist. One very handsome and young panda regales us with its history and folklore, and we listen dumbstruck.
The weather: it is dusk, and still fairly humid, but we are in the grips of the account, our beings swap with the kindly kings and courtesans of lore.
We are back in the present when Prasad is distributed, and crunch our way back to ground reality, our teeth biting into the crackling sweetened puffed rice, caramelized to perfection.
Khandagiri-Udayagiri Caves, 1st century BC.
The stone caves do not disappoint, although the sun is fairly strong, and we wrestle for space with monkeys and sadhu-sanyasis. There are far too many locals in this area, for this time of the year. We are off-season travellers, and stand out, as we clamber up and down the solid historical markings.
Dhauli Shanti Stupa, a peace Pagoda, built in 1972 by the Japan Buddha Sangh and the Kalinga Nippon Buddha Sangh.
The Buddhist stupa atop a hill, inspires worship. We circumnavigate it, and watch, as the mellow lights of dusk come on. We are drunk on peace. This is followed by a stupendous Sound and Light Show, a real audio-visual treat to end the day with. We are now ready to return to our spacious air B&B, deeply satisfied by our first encounter with Odisha’s historical marvels.
We are completely blown away as we undertake the journey to the Mahanadi River, Satkosia ghats await our arrival: the unending stretches of Odisha’s greens, its innocent villages, and kindly folk smile at us as we drive on. Infinite lush walls run along with us – hemming us in, and then freeing up our path, a will of its own. We ride along, unfettered, unquestioning. The driver, Kakoo, knows the area, and drives dexterously. Once in a while he breaks into Oriya when his mobile rings, adding a sweet allure to the journey. Rain comes down in patches, and torrential rains too. We are quiet, absorbent.
The accommodation, we note on arrival at Satkosia Sands, is quaint: a camp-like feel has been created and constructed, with an overhead tent, which extends behind into a proper washroom. The ‘tent’ is equipped with a portable air-conditioner as well. It’s all quite delightful, including the staff of ladies who serve us proper Oriya food night and day, simple and delicious fare.
The silted river, Mahanadi, in spate flows along this ‘campsite’, and the surrounding hills. The quiet this sanctuary offers is what we sought from this segment of our trip, completely disconnected, as our mobiles comply by staying offline.
A boat ride is undertaken as soon as we’ve offloaded. The undulating ride, the muddied waters, and the surrounding hills, have us in their hold. Given that it is monsoon, the Mahanadi riverbed has raked up a lot of silt, and the waters are also a bit choppy. A Gharial sits on one bank, in the hope of catching some sunlight, which is playing hide and seek. We are happy to be where we are.
Two days of bliss: a cock crows every few hours, two strays (adopted) whine playfully, and bark occasionally. Guests come and go. Evening brings on a cultural performance, which entertains us in rib-tickling fashion, and we are quite taken, as we are offered onion bhajjis, which are devoured in a trice.
We are flowing. It is humid, but dusk arrives on a strong note of winds and colours. We stand in abeyance on the slim jetty, which goes all the way down to the river – one that generously overflows the banks and wets our feet cajolingly. The yonder hills, now mellifluous-blushing pinks, violets and crimson dusk weave upon this scenario, a certain prayer-like quality, and we fold our hands to its Divinity, as we lean in and hear the prayer chants of the forest area that both brings us to the camp, and takes us away from it. We are bewitched.
After two soulful days, we bid farewell and ride to Puri.
We barely touch Puri, only to continue en route to Lake Chilika. The best time to visit is winter, but we couldn’t leave Odisha without a glimpse of this wonder of nature.
We arrive without much ado, and find ourselves in a gorgeous resort, next to the quiet lake, offering us large, well-appointed rooms, five-star quality food and a pool to wade in after dark. We have come to expect genteel and honest folk, and waving greens everywhere, and are rewarded with both here as well.
Two days by the Lake: a boat ride across to an island that houses a Kali temple, and some bird life, we relax, availing of every facility the resort offers. Being off-season, its gushing bird sightings are uncommon. We only espy a few cormorants, kingfishers and herons. It rains a lot, and we enjoy the sounds and smells that the earth generously offers. We will return for the birds, we promise ourselves.
We park ourselves in the Mahodadhi Palace Hotel on the beachfront, a glorious hotel, with an unmistakable old world charm.
Evening is about to descend, so we hasten to Konark, at a 35 km distance from Puri, along its glorious coastline. Konark of the Sun Chariot Temple with 12 different wheels, carved distinctly with symbols of lore. Some carvings are intact, some have been worked upon, and restored, much like a large part of the temple; disappointed that it has degraded over the years, with signs of repair are at large.
We are regaled by an expert tour-guide, who recites stories related to its construction, and its journey to the current state of disrepair. He is all-words, and again, we are taken, travelling back in time as he speaks in a language all his own – a mixture of Hindi, with touches of Bangla and Oriya diction – charming all right! All he charges us for his 2 hours of time is a mere Rs. 150/-. That’s Odisha for you!
Later that night, Puri’s Jagannath temple beckons, one of the four important sacred shrines – ‘Dhams’ – to be visited by Hindus. We leave our shoes and mobiles at a small outlet designed to help visitors.
Inside, even at 9 pm, the temple is bursting with people. We are among many. We are eager to get the ‘darshan’ of Lord Jagannath and enter the main precincts, that lead to the Sanctum Sanctorum but the doors are shut, as the Lord is being readied for his night Darshan (sighting of the Holy Image). There is a hush inside, even as it throngs and pulsates feverishly, with worshippers from all over Odisha and beyond. The sensation that permeates is one of intense heat and a loud desire to look Lord Jagannath in the eyes, demand from Him.
The passions of the longing are kindled by the passage of every passing minute. Four of us are squished, and every once in a while a loud slogan rents the air, in praise of the Lord. It washes over the crowd, and everyone responds, frenzied. The wait is agonizing, but once the doors open, we witness a kind of stampede. My heart is in my mouth: our instinct is to protect our children, and we are shoved along the tide of hungry worshippers, and only my tall husband gets a glimpse of the doe-eyed Lord. We pop out into fresh air, like peanuts from a vacuum-sealed container and manage to emerge unscathed. The experience is both frightening as it is uplifting.
We leave Odisha, satisfied, and full. The rain gods have splattered us forever, and Odisha will remain embedded, as a verdant memory of temples, coconut palms and a very kind people, who make excellent food. We repeatedly tasted the baked cottage cheese-like sweet, called Chhena Pod Pitha, which literally means burnt and baked cottage cheese. Its melt-in-the-mouth experience, very lightly sweetened, is much like Odisha itself.
Kamalini Natesan is a teacher of French and Spanish. She is a trained singer (Hindustani), and regularly jams with a group of musicians. She has been blogging since 2013. Travelogues, book reviews, and poetry are her favorite genres. Her short stories and articles have been published in magazines such as Life Positive, New Woman and Parenting. Recently, her essay about her son, entitled ‘Probing the Dermis,’ was published in a book, Twilight’s Children: Chronicles of an Uncommon Life (Readomania).
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
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