It was while I was in Odisha – a state in the east of India, below Kolkata on the Bay of Bengal – that the Odisha Tourist Development Corporation (http://www.otdc.in) won the South Asia award for the “Best Emerging Tourist Destination”. And although this may be very good news for the people and industries of Odisha, for us in the west it is a sign that this fascinating and rarely visited state is not going to remain undiscovered for long. So, if difference and authenticity are what you crave, you would be well advised to book soon, rather than wait a couple of years, by which time the OTDC may well have won a few more awards and some of what makes Odisha so distinctive could have disappeared into a homogenous mush of mass tourism and interchangeable hotels.
This is not to say that there is currently no modern and comfortable accommodation in Odisha, there is – some; a great luxury Trident hotel in the capital city, Bhubaneshwar and the Garh Dhenkanal Palace at Dhenkanal, in particular – but the Lonely Planet Magazine in 2012 described Odisha as “raw”, and went on to say; “Odisha is not a regular destination. It will test your mental and physical strength”. I think that’s an exaggeration, but it is true that Odisha is not exactly on the western tourist map yet; it’s about as far from Goa as it’s possible to go. In fact I was one of the very, very few white faces to be seen for the entire length of my trip.
Puri, the seaside town where I stayed in the fab, retro Mahodhodi Palace Hotel on the sea-front, is a very important place in the Hindu calendar, being the eastern one of the four ‘Dhams’ and the place was full of families from Kolkata on their holidays. The beach is packed, but with food and market stalls, not with water-sports and loungers.
Puri is home to the three Gods of the Jagannath religion, one of the stranger manifestations of Hinduism. Three doll-like gods in a row, with massive, staring owl-like eyes and no bodies nor legs. There are shrines to Jagannath all over Odisha, the large eyes of the trio appear on lorries, window ledges and in shop fronts. Once a year there is a ‘car festival’, the ‘Sath Yatra’, when enormous tented temples are erected – two or three stories high – put on wheels and rolled through the streets with hundreds of people clambering all over them as they travel through the sea of people in the main street. This is where the word “Juggernaut” comes from.
It is difficult, I think, to visit India without becoming aware, in some way, of its religious life. Every couple of miles on the roadside north of Puri – where impossibly green rice paddy-fields stretch to either horizon – there are enormous statues of the monkey-faced God Hanuman; fifteen foot tall and brightly painted in garish colours. As ever in India, any water’s edge will be filled with people doing their daily “puja” observance, washing, dipping and submerging their faces. In the OTDC’s lakeside office at Chilika lake, there were some Jagannath figures to which the manager had to perform obeisance several times before he could okay the paperwork for me to go out on any of the boats; he repeatedly touched his forehead then his desk, and then the vouchers I had given him for the trip that would take me out onto the largest brackish lake in Asia to see the Irrawaddy Dolphins. His prayers did not exactly fill me with confidence about the safety of his boats.
Chilika is one of only two places in the world still to have an Irrawaddy dolphin population, the other being Songkla lake in Thailand. I saw eight of the one hundred and fifty three that are there, according to the most recent census. They are quite ugly, not having the cute beak of sea dolphins or of the Ganges dolphin. Actually, they look more like a large grey sock filled with sand. Nevertheless, spotting the squat, Irrawaddys was thrilling, as was discovering the bird life in the nearby wetland ofMangala Jodi. This is a truly world-class spot for observing wetland birds; I saw upwards of 30 species in under half an hour, some of them quite rare. Completely secluded, there are no motor craft to put up the birds at Mangala Jodi. In fact there is no development at all there, and permission to enter the site has to be obtained from a gentleman who was to be found working in the office of the local school.
So there’s no question that Odisha deserves its ‘Best Emerging Tourism Destination’ award. And all this is before even mentioning the wealth of ancient archaeological sites there. Not enough space to go into them all here – the caves carved from the rock at Kandagiri, the Buddhist Stupas at Ratnagiri and Udayagiri, the first of King Ashok’s edicts carved into the rock at Dhauli in the third century BC – any one of them alone making Odisha a worthwhile destination. And most importantly, the magnificent Konark, temple of the sun – a world heritage site covered all over in stone carvings of the most explicit erotic images I have ever seen
However the OTDC should not be content to sit on its hands and watch the tourist dollars roll in. The one place I stayed in which is run by them left a fair bit to be desired – Barkul; potentially a beautiful resort on Chilika lake, seemed left to rot in layers of government bureaucracy; broken beds, insect-ridden, not very clean, nowhere to sit outside and the supposedly wonderful bird-sanctuary, closed. By order of the OTDC.
So perhaps Odisha does have a little bit further to go before it is overwhelmed by slick, tourist development, and hopefully will remain as exciting and interesting a place as it is for a few years yet.
More about Nigel Planer in Odisha and other places in India at Travellers Round Table;