From Kolkata our journey took us down India’s east coast to the state of Odisha, which is off most traveller’s itineraries – perfect for those of us who like to avoid the tourist hot spots and crowds! Odisha is a state that offers a bit of everything – history, culture and even a bit of sea and sand. With new regional flavours to try too, Ollie and I eagerly boarded our train from Kolkata to Bhubaneswar.
Bhubaneswar is the state capital of Odisha and has been dubbed the ‘Temple City’. There are two parts to the city – the old city, where around 50 medieval stone temples still stand, and the new city – a busy bustling Indian city.
We were very lucky to stay with a wonderful Couch Surfing host in the newer part of Bhubaneswar; our experience with her and her husband really made our stay in the city all the more special and memorable. She also gave us lots of local advice that enabled us to get the most out of Bhubaneswar.
One of our favourite things about the city was the local all-you-can-eat lunchtime thalis. For just Rs 40 we enjoyed sampling the new flavours of Odisha at really local hole-in-the-wall eateries. We found ourselves eating two, three, four servings of rice, dal, curries and pickles; the guys kept coming back and asking if we wanted more! That’s one of our favourite travel experiences – eating local food in local places surrounded by local people.
There is enough to do in and around Bhubaneswar to warrant a 3-or-4-night stay. Here’s what you can do in the city:
Day 1: Temple Day
The best way to discover the temples of Bhubaneswar is on foot; that way you can stumble across some of the smaller temples that line the way. Non-Hindu’s cannot enter the main temple (Lingaraj Mandir) but it is possible to see into the compound from a viewing platform outside.
The temples are all intricately carved, some quite erotically. The old city is quaint and quiet compared to its bustling modern cousin and a walk through the traditional streets and back lanes, stopping to explore the temples on route, makes for a compelling day. All the main temples are within easy walking distance from one another, so there’s no need to rush!
Day 2: Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves
With the new city at the centre, the Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves are on the opposite side to the old city, located a 15 minute auto ride down the national highway. They are certainly worth a visit!
Situated on two opposite hills, the rock-cut shelters are ornately carved and are thought to have originally been used by Jain ascetics in the 1st Century BC. A trip out to the caves makes for a great half-day excursion from Bhubaneswar; moreover, the views over the city from atop Khandagiri are pretty awesome!
Day 3: Dhauli
It is possible to combine a trip to Dhauli with one of the two days mentioned above. However, we didn’t rush Bhubaneswar and enjoyed taking things a little slower. We relished the time that we spent with a local family and enjoyed lingering over lunch in the afternoon heat!
Dhauli lies 8km south of Bhubaneswar and is home to the Ashokan Rock Edicts and a huge white Shanti Stupa. 11 of Ashoka’s 14 famous edicts are carved onto a large rock at the small site; English translations are available for each edict.
What we really came to see, however, was the Shanti Stupa. It seems to have turned into an unusual mission for us to see as many of these stupas as possible; the Japanese monks who built them created quite a few across the world! Dhauli would be our fourth and the one in Darjeeling our fifth. From the Peace Pagoda there are some amazing views over the surrounding countryside; it’s also a peaceful spot to spend some time.
Our next stop in Odisha was Puri, on India’s east coast. For Hindus, Puri is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in India; the main focus is the Jagannath Mandir. Puri is also a major draw for Indian domestic tourists, who enjoy the holiday vibe on the long sandy beach. Bhang is legal in Shiva’s Puri; it’s what drew hippies here in the 1970’s and it’s definitely still around today.
There’s a summer-holiday vibe along Model Beach, with plenty of Indians playing in the water and pony rides on offer. We enjoyed a few sunset walks along the beach, which is by no means a tropical paradise, but was pleasant nonetheless.
Non-Hindus are not allowed inside Puri’s holy Jagannath Mandir but good views are available from the roof of the opposite Raghunandan Library.
The other sacred Hindu site in Puri is Swargdwar, which is the final stop of choice for many Hindus in this part of India. About 40 bodies are cremated here daily; the atmosphere is obviously solemn but it’s certainly a huge cultural insight.
At this point in our trip Ollie and I had yet to visit Varanasi (India’s holiest city), so we weren’t at all prepared to see the cloth covered bodies and the open air cremations that anyone can watch. Stumbling upon Swargdwar was certainly a bit of a shock. Needless to say, we didn’t linger longer and stood a respectful distance away from the main action.
We visited two places from Puri – Konark Sun Temple and Chilika Lake.
Konark Sun Temple
Konark Sun Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was constructed in the mid-13th Century as the cosmic chariot of Surya, the sun god. It’s an impressive architectural triumph; the sculptures and carvings are so detailed and are incredibly well-preserved. Konark makes for a wonderful half-day trip from Puri; indeed, no trip to Odisha would be complete without a visit to this iconic site.
Chilika Lake is Asia’s largest brackish lagoon, a haven for migratory birds during the winter months. Ollie and I visited Chilika on a group tour from Puri, which leave three times a week. We would NOT recommend doing this; in hindsight, we would have visited independently on one of the group tour off-days!
There were about 40 of us on the tour bus; when we arrived at the lake we were horrified to find 10 or 15 more buses bringing similar numbers of people for trips on the lake. Getting this amount of people organised and into the waiting boats was just a nightmare. When we were finally on the lake all we could see around us was what seemed like hundreds of tourist-filled boats, all doing exactly the same circuit.
Chilika Lake itself is very pretty; we saw lots of bird species and even a few of the somewhat rare Irrawaddy dolphins. The boat drivers were not, however, ecologically aware or responsible; they attempted to get far too close to the dolphins. In fact, it felt more like the boats were chasing the poor creatures. Ollie and I were very relieved when we started to head back.
The tour itself was a bit of a nightmare to be honest, not a good experience for our first (and last) group tour in India! Chilika Lake is, however, worth the trip if you go it alone on one of its quieter days!
Koraput is located in Odisha’s forested hills in a tribal (Adivasi) area in the south-west, an area in which foreigners mostly need permits and a guide to visit. The main draw for travellers are the weekly tribal markets that are held in a different village on each day of the week.
Koraput itself is a small friendly town, home to the fascinating Jagannath Temple, which non-Hindus can visit. Jagannath is the deity of Odisha and is painted on homes across the state. From the temple, at the top of a small hill, there are some lovely views over Koraput and the surrounding countryside.
Ollie and I were lucky enough to arrive in Koraput on Sunday morning, the day in which the town holds its big weekly market. The market is strung along several streets with produce laid out on sheets on the sides of the roads. It’s a whole day affair; tribespeople from the surrounding villages and local traders all buy and sell food produce and other goods.
We decided not to worry about visiting any of the other tribal markets; Koraput’s is one of the biggest, so we were content having seen the one. For us one night was enough in Koraput but, if you intend to hire a guide and explore more of the area, you’ll need a few extra days.
Heading to Odisha? You might also be interested in reading about Kolkata: India’s Cultural Capital!