Odisha: SPELLBINDING SERENITY
Odisha is a surprise, like a long forgotten book in the corner book of a library, that page by page takes you on a journey through centuries; carved in the ancient temples an estimated 80,000 in the state, the majority dedicated to Shiva and some of the most renowned Vishnu shrines. The charming simplicity and the minimalistic carvings at the second century BC Jain caves, tells of a life of penance, while the site of the Kalinga war, speaks of the transformation of the soul at large and Ashoka’s in particular. Then there are the pristine beaches; the thick forests and camouflaged in the sanctuary of the thick forested cover; creatures of earth and sky.
Intertwined in the landscape are the indigenous tribes that are almost one with nature. The abundance of the lands weaves itself onto the threads of rich handloom tradition. Odisha is the soul not only of India but the world, abundant with everything that the world seems to be losing in its quest for ‘modernisation.’
Odisha has the most ancient Hindu temples in the world. The state hosts Jagannath Puri temple, one of the four dhams of the Hindu religion. The Konark Sun temple which is a world heritage site, the 64 yogini temple dedicated to Durga in the form of 64 demi-goddesses —one of the very few in the country. The land is home to ancient Jain and eminent Buddhist sites, such as one where Emporer Ashoka had a change of heart. However Shiva is abundant in Odisha, with most temples dedicated to him and his consort. Standing models of early architecture and divinely preserved, the temples are a study in architecture, history and faith. In many temples such as the Jagannath Puri temple and Ananta Basudev Temple Kitchen; the living kitchens still preserve old recipes and methodologies; making them living museums.
Ekamra walks conducted early morning, every Sunday, in association with Odisha tourism are a wonderful way of discovering some of the biggest and finest temples in Bhubaneswar including the Mukteshwar, Parsurameshwar and Lingaraj temples and other relics. A walk through the old city, which reminds one of a purer, un-touristy Varanasi in many ways, is fascinating.
Time moves differently with men and women going about life in a slow, time warped manner; bare torso-ed men anointed with chandan paste, women selling flowers outside a temple, Dharamshala —a heritage building where, to date, families come and camp especially during religious ceremonies, the Bindusagar lake that lies at the centre of it all, holding many a story in its still, moss-lined waters. The walk ends at the residence cum studio of the renowned Italian-born Odissi dancer, Ileana Citaristi, who introduces you to the dance form and showcases an enthralling performance by her students.
Chilika means child in the local language and the lake, like a child, is attached to The Bay of Bengal during the monsoons, making it the biggest brackish water lake in Asia. The waters turn from sweet to salty flows in to meet the waters of the lake. It is home to Irrawaddy dolphins, a variety of fish and thousands of birds —resident and migratory. The lake also cradles a number of islands, some like the Kalijai which has faith and local lore linked with it and others such as the Breakfast Island which does not offer any breakfast, but does offer wonderful views.
There are the much coveted for beaches in Puri which are a study in life as throngs of people live off and pass by them. Then there are the popular but not so busy beaches such as those in Gopalpur on Sea and many a dozen snuck between groves of coconut palms — quite and untrodden. The Chandrabhaga beach with long stretches of golden sands washed by blue of the Bay of Bengal is said to have mystical powers that go beyond putting one under a trance of its beauty. The key is just to follow the coastline and find ones personal spot to have long uninterrupted conversations with the sea and all that it holds.
Odisha is one of the blessed lands where life as God intended it, is preserved in the thick forests that still cover a third of the state. The 18 sanctuaries and two national parks, allow one to meet with the wild, its inhabitants and discover himself in some way. Encased by river on three sides and sea on the fourth lies the Bhitarkanika National Park —a criss-cross of canals and creeks. Widely acclaimed for its biodiversity, it is the second largest compact mangrove ecosystem in India. It hosts saltwater crocodiles as well as the the rare white crocodile.The adjoining Gahirmatha Marine Wildlife Sanctuary is a favourite nesting place of Olive Ridley Sea Turtles. Nestled on Khurdha uplands of ‘North -Eastern Ghats’ biotic region lies the Chandakala Sanctuary.
Perhaps the most scenic of all is the Simplipal Tiger Sanctuary. Under a thick green cover, waterfalls throw themselves off peaks, rivers run their courses as tigers and tuskers fight the battle of supremacy. Oblivious to it all the peacoks dance to the tune of bird songs and an audience of antelopes. It is a dramatic occurrence in a dramatic setting— one of many in the state.
Like most coastal cuisines, rice is abundant in an Odia meal, be it sun-dried, par boiled or cooked rice soaked the night through. A minimum of oils and spices lets the natural flavour of ingredients shine through. Both mustard, which is a part of panch phutana Odisha’s special blend of five spices, as well as mustard oil have a seat of prominence in the cuisine. However ghee is what the Lord prefers and hence used in temple cooking.
Brahmin cooks of Jagannath Puri are highly solicited in other regions as they are acclaimed for their ‘true to Hindu scriptures‘ cooking. The Brahmin cuisine is largely influenced by what is cooked for the Lord and dishes such as khechidi, dalma, khaja among various others. The coastal regions are abundant in sea food and delighters such as chungdi malai (creamy prawn curry) and macha ghanta (fried fish-head curry). Other specialties include street foods like gupchup and dahi vada-aloo dum. Not to be forgotten are the sweets with wood burnt cheesecake chenna poda quite literally taking the cake.
HANDLOOM AND HANDICRAFTS
That Odisha was once called Utkala —the land of art — speaks volumes about the artistic manifestations of this abundant culture. There is the appliqué works of Pipili and Pattachitras — the picture stories on cloth. Papier Mache masks of Raghurajpur are a myraid stories in themselves. The silver filigree jewellery tugs at memory strings and adornments of incricately carved maidens on temple walls flash upon that inward eye. World renowned Ikkat sarees talk of ancient sea-links to South East Asia but Odisha’s poetry on loom and Sambhalpuri weaves are like none other.
Dhokra cast sculptures speak tales of the land that inspires the hand. Lacquer work of Nawangapur, horn work of Parlakhemundi flexible brass fish of Ganjam, art and craft is as abundant as the rich monsoon rains.