We were in Odisha for a 1week trip, organized and curated by former colleague Jitu Mishra, an archaeologist by training from Pune’s Deccan College and founder of Sarna Journeys based in Bhubaneswar. He is ably supported by a very enterprising team of: Rosalin Dash, Dr Sushree Mohanty and Safiulah Muhamad. Jitu and I were colleagues at Educational Initiatives, where I was a day one investor, director and also became part of the management team in 2014 until we sold our stakes to Gaja Capital in 2018. Around the same time Jitu moved to Odisha, to package his home state to India and the rest of the world. If you really want a profound understanding of Odisha: the geography, the various districts, the history, the culture, or build a customized itinerary based on your interests, it will be difficult to find someone better than Jitu.
If you are on a business trip to Bhubaneswar and squeezed for time, I strongly recommend you register for Odisha Tourism’s ‘Odisha Walks’, a 2 hour guided walk, from 7am to 9am, every Fri, Sat and Sun operated by Sarna Journeys.
Myths and Misconceptions
I knew so little about Odisha, before this trip. The rare occasion Odisha was discussed, the only attributes that came to mind were: it was one of India’s backward states, cyclone prone, most of the sate dominated by tribals, Naveen Patnaik, Konark temple and the Rath Yatra in Puri. It is very unlikely I would have ever visited Odisha had it not been for Jitu. I was also of the view that the culture was very similar to Bengal and what the people spoke was very close to Bengali.
On our ride from the airport to the hotel, I asked Jitu Mishra whether Odia was similar to Bengali and if the cultures were very similar. He vehemently corrected me, saying that India has 6 classical languages and Odia was one of them, others being Sanskrit, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil and Malayalam. Most of us, who think of Odisha as an extension of Bengal are so damn wrong.
Development and Politics
After suffering the traffic and bad roads in Pune, Mumbai and Bangalore where I spend most of my time, I was impressed with the infrastructure in Bhubaneswar with three lane roads, moving traffic and well planned new developments. After various conversations with locals, it is easy to explain why the folks of Odisha have elected Naveen Patnaik for the 5th consecutive term. His work in the areas of disaster management, poverty alleviation, education, sports and health are widely appreciated. He is extremely popular with women and the only concern is his fragile health. We discovered that he does not even speak a word of Odia!
Jitu recalls that as early as 2000, Bhubaneshwar and Odisha were fairly under-developed. Jitu recalls after 6 pm, one could hardly see a couple of autos, few people on the roads and one could traverse any part of town in a cycle rickshaw. In the 90s, 80% of the people were extremely poor. The media generally reported about starvation deaths, mothers selling children to make a living, no roads, no infrastructure, cyclones, etc. In 1999, Odisha was devastated by a super cyclone, with speeds of 300 kms per hour, killed thousands, ruined the infrastructure, and destroyed the flora and fauna.
In 25 years, a lot has changed for the better. Today, every coastal village has a multipurpose cyclone shelter and an advance planning process for disaster management. The PDS system was continuously improved over 10 -15 years. Due to these efforts, today a starvation death is extremely rare. Pre 2000, minerals mined in Odisha were processed outside the state. Big industrial houses such as Tatas, Jindals, Birla etc. were incentivized to setup plants in Odisha. Industrial parks for apparel, food processing, aluminium and IT were developed, supported by three to four new ports. GDP has been growing above national average over the last 15 years, poverty reduction the best in the country, women empowerment got a boost through Mission Shakti, excellent sports infrastructure around Kalinga stadium, with India’s largest hockey stadium in Rourkela. When there is change of such significance, it is always the drive and sensibility of one man, and in the case of Odisha that man is Naveen Patnaik.
Like to share some of the must-have experiences if you plan to visit Odisha
We experienced the unique ritual of leaving a boat with a lamp in Bindu Sagar lake, in the old town surrounded by about 300 temples, in the olden days there were more than 1000 of them.
Boita Bandana is a significant part of the Kartik Purnima celebrations in Bhubaneswar. A similar tradition exists in Thailand called Loy Krathong signifying the maritime connections between India and South East Asia that existed over the centuries. The ritual celebrates the coming home of the seafarers. To witness this spectacle one has to be in Odisha on Kartika Purnima which comes 15 days after Diwali.
Visit to a Weaver’s Village
Odisha has a long tradition of weaving fabrics. The various types are Ikkat, Bomkai, Sambalpuri, Khandua among others. We visited the village of Nuapatna which is a village of 300 weavers following the traditional methods of silk and cotton weaving. The process of dyeing and weaving one saree can take up to a month and the support of the entire family.
Sarna Journeys works closely with these weavers to implement modern designs, create awareness of the traditional methods and thereby create a market for their works. These sarees are present in the collections of many saree collectors. One of Indira Gandhi’s favorite sarees was the Sambalpuri.
Gurukul that is conserving the Gotipua Tradition.
On the way to Puri we stopped at a Gurukul in Raghurajpur that is preserving the traditional Gotipua dance form. For many centuries young boys dressed as girls and trained to express feminine emotions, perform the Gotipua dance to praise the supreme God Lord Jagannath.
In Oriya ‘goti’ means single and ‘pua’ means boy. The boys perform the dance laced with many difficult acrobatic moves and poses inspired by the life of Radha and Krishna. The boys join the Gurukul at an early age and remain there until adolescence. The life at the Gurukul is intense with long days starting at 4am and practice sessions until midnight.
Puri – Shri Jagannath Temple
The road leading to the temple is a visual marvel. 130 meters wide and 3 km long, thronged with shops selling sweets, flowers, and temple offerings on either sides. There are several legends around the construction of the temple, as mentioned in the Mahabharat and the Puranas, but the temple was rebuilt by the Ganga dynasty in the 12th Century. An architectural marvel, it houses Lord Jagannath and his siblings – Balabhadra and Subhadra.
The idols are made of sacred neem logs and are worshipped as living deities, adorned with clothing and jewellery according to the season. Several festivals are celebrated each year, the most spectacular one being in June/July – the Rath Yatra attended by millions, when the Lord and his siblings are taken out in decorated chariots out on the main road. Small claim to fame the day we took darshan, the President of India, Draupadi Murmu, who hails from Odisha, also took darshan – her first after becoming president.
Puri – Beaches and Sea Food
The marine drive in Puri is bustling with hotels and bars on one side, and with beaches and shacks selling all kinds of sea food, on the other. Puri is one of those rare towns where you can worship with devotion in the morning and party hard at night!
The beach you should visit is the Blue Flag beach, the cleanest I have been to in India. The beach is part of the larger Golden Beach in Puri, Govt-owned and has paid entry of a mere Rs 20!
Konark – The Sun Temple
It is a UNESCO world heritage monument, built in the 13th century, dedicated to the Sun God Surya, an architectural, engineering and aesthetic marvel that is a must-visit if you are touring Odisha. The interpretation center and the Light and Sound show in the voice of Kabir Bedi every evening are not to be missed.
Museums – Kalabhoomi and the Orissa State Museum
If one needs a sneak preview of the various crafts in Odisha the Kalabhoomi museum is a good start. Each gallery has an expert who will explain if you have any specific question. We were accompanied by Rosalin who ensured we saw all the important aspects of the museum and enlightened us with many legends and stories. She is extremely passionate about the fabrics that are woven in Odisha for 1000s of years.
Odisha State Museum has the rarest specimens of archaeological objects and palm leaf manuscripts. The number of palm leaf manuscripts is the highest in the country.
Interestingly after Sanskrit, Odia has over 2,13,000 documented manuscripts, Sanskrit has 11,64,000. It has also a good collection of Pattachitra paintings, ancient inscriptions and coins.
The Must-Try Foods and Desserts
This is one area where there is an overlap with Bengal in the use of ingredients such as mustard oil, mustard paste, coconut, dried peas and freshwater fish. There is a lot to try in Odisha but the few I really enjoyed or tried for the first time is what I would like to share.
We landed in Bhubaneshwar a day before Kartik Purnima to realise that it was the last day of Panchuka, the 5 days before Kartik Purnima when non-vegetarian food is abstained from. The restaurant we went to, Odisha Hotel, had different veg menus for each of the Panchuka days.
The day after Kartik Purnima is called ‘Chhadakhai’ which is full of festivities and meat and fish is indulged in, almost with a vengeance! We even saw meat being sold extensively on the highways. Traditionally, the entire month of Kartik is to be observed with conditional (vegetarian) food habits. But for those who want to follow tradition but cannot give up their love for meat, Panchuka comes to the rescue! Historically, this time of the year marks the start of winter; the winds change direction and fish move to the coast. It is the time when the quality of fish and meat even is the best. Hence, Chhadakhai was celebrated as a festival of indulgence.
This is not the Dahi Wada found in the rest of India. The wadas (similar to Medhu wadas) are soaked in a spicy buttermilk, you can say similar to chaas allowing all the flavours to seep in. Another set of wadas is soaked in water infused with sugar. The wadas are served in a ratio of 3 from the chaas and one from sweet water topped with a dum aloo curry and/or ghugni (dried white peas curry) topped with some sev and raw onions. The combination is a real delicacy and a wholesome breakfast for those who do hard manual work. After you finish the wadas, you are served buttermilk to slurp it off the same leafy bowl!
Chenna Poda is a dessert I tasted for the first time. It is cottage cheese baked with flavors infused via caramelization of sugar. One of the few Indian desserts, probably the only one that uses caramelization to infuse flavor.
The texture, taste and mouthfeel beat any cheese cake hands down. Chenna Poda is believed to have originated in Daspalla, Nayagarh district in the 1st half of 20th century when a sweetmeat maker decided to experiment by adding sugar& seasonings to left over cottage cheese & left it over a warm chulha from earlier use. Nothing beats the Chenna Poda from Nayagarh district.
And finally, the Odisha Rasgolla. In Pahalla, on the Bhubaneshwar Cuttack highway, for 3 kms sweet shops on both sides of the road serving fresh hot Rasgollas. Simply the best I have eaten. My vote goes to the Odisha Rasgolla. Sorry Bengal!
In Odisha vegetables, milk, rice, mushrooms, fish – both fresh and seawater – are found in plenty. Thanks to the grand Mahanadi river there is a delta with very fertile soil and abundant water. The fish I really enjoyed was Hongue from the brackish waters of Chilika Lake.
On the way to Chilika Lake from Bhubaneswar a must-visit museum is the privately owned Purvasa folk art and tribal museum. Here one can see the various art forms that the tribals and local artisans have developed.
Chilika Lake is the largest brackish water lagoon in Asia. With an area of approx. 1100 sq kms / 2.7 lakh acres, maximum length of approx. 63 kms, fed by 52 rivers and rivulets, more than a million birds of 190 species visit the lake every winter,
Chilika was one of the major harbors for maritime trade in ancient Odisha. Jitu took us to one such port Gourangpatna, which was also the topic of his Ph.D. thesis. He shared the topography of the port and described what it looked like to what little remains today.
The Houseboat on the Chilika Lake. At noon we took a cruise on the Garuda House boat run by Vikash Eco resorts. There is an option to stay overnight also. The sad part is that we have 1 boat for the whole lake that covers 1100 sq kms with over 200 islands and 300 villages surrounding the lakes. Over 4 lakhs people mostly fishermen, inhabit the islands and villages.
In the vicinity of the lake, we also visited the dried fish market at Huma which was spectacular!
Gopalpur Beach and the Food in Behrampur
The beach is one of the most beautiful ones along the Bay of Bengal. The waters are pristine and blue, and not so crowded.
Behrampur / Brahmpur is the food capital of Odisha, you see food carts everywhere. We had this amazing lunch at Girija, a restaurant that serves gourmet quality vegetarian and fish dishes. There is definitely some Andhra influence with Behrampur’s proximity to the state.
The state that deserves more ……
If you share the same myths and misconceptions as I did, first erase them from your mind. Over the last 25 years the state has made tremendous progress on all fronts including infrastructure. The roads are far superior to what I experience in my home state of Maharashtra and Bengaluru. It is one of the few places in India where true Hinduism remains unblemished.
Here I could share only 50% of what we saw. Jitu on the trip repeatedly reminded us that there is more to Odisha beyond the golden triangle of Puri, Bhubaneshwar and Konark. He strongly recommends that there is so much more to explore and enjoy at the coffee estates of Koraput, the tribal villages of Kandhamal and Koraput, dense forest of Similipal National Park and the mangroves of Bhitarkanika National Park.
Odisha is a state that deserves more attention. I strongly urge all to visit this beautiful state that has so much to offer on all fronts: temples, beaches, history, food, architecture, culture and finally the people. As I travelled across the state, I experienced a certain kind of peace and tranquility. Even if you don’t make it to Odisha in the near future, you have learnt something new about this culturally rich and beautiful state. I tried my best to dispel some wrong notions. I hope I have succeeded.
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