It was a holiday in the making for some time.
My work life had been quite hectic over the past few months and everyone in the family including our son, Siddharth, and our daughter-in-law, Prerana, had been encouraging me to take a break.
My wife, Jyothi, is highly capable and willing – as my late father used to remark about her. I knew that she could manage the affairs at home with great aplomb…even better than me!
It was meant to be a solo trip. Given the altered circumstances at my home – my 88-year-old mother cannot be left behind to manage alone – both Jyothi and I have now decided to do solo trips. We now celebrate such solo trips.
I chose the state of Odisha for a few reasons.
I had never been there and had always wanted to visit Odisha.
My dear Odia friend of 20 years, Saurav Mohanty, had extended an invitation to me many years ago for an Odisha visit and renewed it several times over the years. He had always mentioned to me to choose January as this is the best time of the year to visit Odisha. Saurav is now based in Cuttack.
In every sense, this was the most appropriate time to visit Odisha.
I took the Indigo flight to Bhubaneswar.
Indigo had canceled my original direct flight from Bangalore to Bhubaneswar due to ‘operational reasons’, which is perfect Greek for a passenger.
Anyway, I availed of their Plan B and took a flight to Prayagraj and then onwards to Bhubaneswar landing at my destination by 1:50 pm.
Solo to Duo! A welcome change!
A very welcome change was that, while my Odisha trip was originally planned as a solo trip, Saurav was kind enough to offer to join me in my travels. My joy multiplied exponentially. What better fellow traveler than a local genius and a friend who is also like-minded? I felt blessed.
Saurav had created a 10-day detailed itinerary but flexible enough to accommodate any preferences or changes. As I was to realize later, many of Saurav’s friends – some of them in high places – had actively worked towards making my travel and stay comfortable. Through this post, I offer my gratitude to Saurav, his family…and his friends.
Saurav was waiting for me at the exit gate of the airport. Both of us were overjoyed when we met…and it showed.
We headed to lunch. When asked for my preference, I indicated to Saurav that I would love to have some Odia food.
I have always considered tasting local food as an integral part of travel. Of course, given that I am a vegetarian, there are constraints but then, even within the range of vegetarian food, there is enough to savor. Like in Life, if we keep insisting on enjoying only those experiences that are familiar to us and avoid getting out of our comfort zone, Life can be tough as and when Change hits us. Travel teaches us to be nimble and flexible making us more and more accepting of the unknown and the unfamiliar. In a way, Travel mimics Life.
Thanks to Saurav, I had my first Odia Thali at the authentic Odia restaurant, Dalema. The flavors were different and so was the taste. However, I did get a taste of Puzhukku – a Palakkad Iyer dish – in some of the items served at Dalema.
We were in Saurav’s car. As I was to realize later, the car was not just a means of transport for us but a place to have very enriching and stimulating ‘carversations’. Well, I will explain ‘carversations’ to you in a future post. Watch the space…
We headed straight to Puri, a distance of about 60 km.
Once at Puri, we checked into a Guest House, arranged by one of Saurav’s friends – a high-ranking official. We were allotted VIP rooms. That he was such a dear friend of Saurav and very keen that we have a great time was proven by the number of times he called Saurav to ensure our wellbeing. That was also his way of checking if all the promised arrangements had been done.
We were attended to by Satya, a young lad, who stood in a slightly bowing pose as he listened to our needs and requirements.
The Jagannath Puri Temple was the first site to be visited.
Jagannath, Balabhadra, and Subhadra are a trio of deities worshipped at the temple. The inner sanctum of the temple contains the deities carved from sacred wooden logs.
The temple is famous for its annual Rath Yatra, or chariot festival, in which the three principal deities are pulled on huge and elaborately-decorated temple cars.
We were to meet Bapi Nonna at the temple entrance. His role was to escort us into the temple for the darshan. In order to save time, we were advised not to carry our phones or our footwear. There is an arrangement to deposit these at the temple entrance area but given the rush at these counters, we were advised against it.
Bapi Nonna was a tall and athletic man dressed in a kurta-pajama and sporting a prominent red tilak on his forehead. That he was an expert at this job was evident in the way he proceeded with alacrity and speed within the temple premises. He was clearly a man on a mission. Both Saurav and I were following him. I had locked in his image – I mean, the image of how he looked from behind – which my eyes were now trained to hold on to. We whooshed along in a blur against oncoming human traffic. Once in a while, he peered over his shoulder to check if we were still following him.
Bapi Nonna stopped only when we were inside the sanctum sanctorum. As I raised both my hands in the Jai-Jagannath pose, I felt blessed. This darshan was one of the top priorities as I left Bangalore and it had been accomplished on Day 1 itself.
Bapi Nonna also took us to the Prasad Center and he got us tiny matkas (earthen pots) in which Mahaprasad (offering to the Lord) is prepared. We were to have these different items for dinner.
I also got some Dry Mahaprasad to take home to Bangalore. This Mahaprasad would last a long time.
Once the darshan was done, we hung around in the temple precinct. Numerous devotees crisscrossed in all directions. Some devotees were seated in groups and others were praising the Lord, loudly uttering His name, and raising their arms in the Jai-Jagannath pose regularly. Priests were stationed at various points. Some were holding religious paraphernalia while others could be seen instructing or advising the devotees who stood before them in reverence. The temple staff was navigating the crowds, requesting them, exhorting them, and, if warranted, pushing them.
By then, I had realized that the Jagannath Temple was not just a temple. It was a vibrant ecosystem. There was so much to observe and experience.
We realized that the fast-forward darshan was not enough to experience the temple fully. As the principal objective of the darshan had been already accomplished, we decided to come back again the next day and amble within the temple while living the experience.
We returned to the Guest House and retired for the night.
We left very early in the morning without a shave or bath.
Satapada is 49 km from Puri. It takes about 90 minutes to reach there. We were heading to Chilika Lake for the Irrawaddy Dolphin sighting. Chilika Lake is a brackish water lagoon covering a vast area of over 1,100 square kilometers.
We were told to reach Satapada early as the sooner we head out into the lake, the better would be the chances to sight the dolphins. As more tourists come, more boats begin plying on the water and with all that noise, the dolphins could stay underwater.
We reached the Dolphin Center at Satapada sooner than we thought. On the way, we stopped at a roadside ‘teafee’ shop. Actually, we stopped for tea there but we noticed that as the vendor made tea, towards the end of the process, he added some coffee powder to the boiling tea – such is the practice in these parts, I am told. Well, the ‘teafee’ tasted great.
At the Dolphin Center, we decided to have breakfast. We were served fresh and hot Pooris with Ghuguni – delicious!
Sighting the Irrawady Dolphins
We met the boyish Notto who was to be our ‘boatman’ – not sure if it is appropriate to call him a ‘boatman’ given that it was an electric boat. The familiar image of a boatman from old Indian movies is of one who wields the oars and also sings a ballad or a song with some deep meaning. Notto did neither.
Anyway, we began our ‘voyage’ into Chilika Lake. The weather was extremely pleasant and as we got far into the lake, it turned quite cold. Fortunately, I had my jacket on and Saurav offered me a woolen scarf that I tied around my head covering my ears. He wore a cap that covered his ears. You can spot him in the picture.
We kept bobbing along – I have never seen this kind of ‘turbulence’ in a lake. I had always seen lakes as idyllic spots where the placid water just shimmers. But here, the boat was hitting these waves that kept coming at us.
There were numerous seagulls including baby seagulls that were flying overhead. The seagulls were following boats having been spoilt by people who offered them food regularly. They kept following us overhead but unfortunately we had nothing to offer them. They were clearly disappointed. However, they were polite enough not to betray their emotions.
I spotted people on other such boats. Some were not tourists. They were going about their lives with their two-wheelers loaded onto the boat as they went from one village to another via the Chilika Lake.
Our boat had been going around the lake for quite some time but there was no sign of the dolphins. Only Saurav and I were in the boat and beyond a point, I could see Notto clearly getting worried. He was murmuring – more to himself – that it had never taken so much time to spot them. However, both Saurav and I were patiently looking out in all directions for the sight. We were told that if the seagulls circle around a particular location in the water, that’s a giveaway to spot the dolphins.
And then we spotted them!
They appeared in small groups, swimming along, briefly showing up above the water, and disappearing under. Soon, we were seeing many such small schools of dolphins around us intermittently. Sometimes, a relieved Notto would point them out to us, and sometimes it would be Saurav or me.
It was so difficult to capture them on video as they would appear above the water for a fraction of a second before diving back in. But our eyes caught them all.
I had seen trained dolphins performing tricks during my visits to Southeast Asia and the US but this one was a unique experience for me.
Having spotted the dolphins, we were relieved. You can see the sense of relief…and a sense of achievement on my face here.
We returned to the base for some eats. We had hot Singaada (Samosa) served with Ghuguni and Chutney. It was quite a different combination compared to how I have enjoyed Samosas in the North served with Tamarind Chutney, Mint Chutney, and sometimes with Chole. As I was to realize later, the Singaada is a very popular snack and can work as breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I also tasted some local Halwa served like a piece of cake.
We returned to the Guest House. We weren’t tired and the weather was just great.
We decided to head out to Niladri Beach – a Blue Flag beach – at a walking distance from the Guest House.
The Puri district administration has named a portion of the seashore Niladri Beach. The administration has also engaged a private agency for the operation and maintenance of the 500-meter beach located between Bankimuhan and Hotel Mayfair Heritage.
I have never seen a beach so clean in India. While there is a narrow stretch of private beach attached to Hotel Mayfair Heritage, this public stretch of the beach has a mini manicured lawn at its entrance. A turtle made of plastic bottles at the entrance told the alarming story of Man’s continuing tryst with plastic…and its consequences.
I sat on a blue deck chair under a blue beach umbrella, leaned back, and relaxed for a long time. Saurav did likewise.
These pictures seem to suggest that I have a template pose for full relaxation. The picture on the left was taken in Sydney in Dec 2017 and the one on the right was taken at Niladri Beach at Puri, Odisha, during this trip.
In my view, full relaxation happens when one lives in the present moment – no regrets of the past and no anxiety about the future. We must touch this ‘zone’ as many times as possible in a day even in normal circumstances. A vacation is meant to create many such opportunities to be in this zone. Well, if this isn’t what a vacation is meant to be, what is?
We headed to the 2 States Restaurant at Hotel Mayfair Heritage Hotel next to Niladri Beach. The restaurant’s ambiance somehow reminded me of a Goan property – can’t remember which one though!
We ordered North Indian food – Aloo Methi Dry Subji, Dal Makhani, and Naan. The food was delicious.
After resting for a while at the Guest House, we headed to the Jagannath Temple again. This time around, we wanted to take our time as the darshan part had been accomplished on the prior day. Having learned from experience, we left our footwear and the phones in the car, took the battery bus, and walked up to the temple.
Flag-changing ritual! What a sight!
Before we could enter the temple, we were treated to a beautiful sight – the flag-changing ritual.
It is said that the flag atop the Jagannath temple strangely always floats in the opposite direction of the wind. There are many such legends and observations associated with the temple.
Every day a priest climbs on top of the temple to change the colorful cloth banners flowing from the dome of the temple and the fluttering flag.
Like an expert mountaineer, the priest makes his way briskly to the top with a bundle of colorful cloths – cloth banners and flag – on his shoulder. Once he reaches the top of the Shikharaa, he carefully removes the colorful cloth banners of the prior day and replaces them with that day’s cloth banners. Later, he climbs further up to reach the very top and replaces the fluttering flag.
Watching this activity is considered auspicious. While many people inside the temple precinct and outside watched it, there was a teeming crowd of people on the main road facing the temple watching this ritual while raising the Jai-Jagannath slogan off and on.
Not just a temple! A vibrant ecosystem!
Having watched the flag-changing ritual to our heart’s content, we entered the temple. This time around, we were not planning to visit the main sanctum sanctorum having accomplished that on the prior day.
Once inside the temple, we were in no particular hurry. I wanted to use all my senses for the experience.
One special feature was the Prasad Center where divine offerings from the temple were available for sale. It is a huge area like the traditional vegetable market that one finds in Indian towns – vendors selling their stock while encouraging passersby to buy from them. I saw earthen pots of various sizes containing the Prasad. I gathered that people order such Prasad in bulk quantities – as we were leaving the temple, we saw large earthen pots being loaded onto a mini truck. On inquiry, we got to know that they were loading Prasad for 7000 people and heading to a village nearby.
I could have easily spent a few hours just being there. There was so much happening. Of course, having left our mobile phones in the car, no pictures could be taken.
We returned to the Guest House and ordered some Chinese food from Chung Wah, a much-sought-after eatery in Puri.
Day 2 was over.
Featured image courtesy: Pavan Gupta – Unsplash
Coming up next: A visit to the heritage crafts village of Raghurajpur and interacting with a 4th generation Pattachitra & Talapatra artist, a visit to the Konark Sun Temple and Dhauli where Emperor Ashoka transformed from Chanda Ashoka to Dharma Ashoka.