Update – The Puri Rath will begin on July 14 in 2018. The music and dance festivals in Odisha were all held in January and February 2017 except for the Konark Dance & Music Festival for which dates are yet to be announced.
Odisha, or Orissa as we know it, is a relatively undiscovered tourist destination in Eastern India. While most Indians visit for religious (foremost being Jagannath Temple in Puri) or historical/architectural (the Sun Temple in Konark) reasons, there is much more to the state.
What struck me during my visit was the astonishing natural beauty Orissa is blessed with – lily ponds, mountains and beaches dot the landscape of Eastern Orissa. It could give Kerala a run for its money over the title ‘Land of the Gods’.
This post was chosen as one of the top 10 photography blog posts from India- find the link here
By the developmental yardstick, Orissa definitely falls behind most other states. But the fact that 22 % of its people – tribals – live off the land (fishing, growing crops and hunting) seems to have worked in favor of keeping its ecosystems intact and the countryside pristine.
So, here is my take on the 10 reasons to visit Orissa/Odisha
1. DOLPHIN WATCHING – Chilika Lake, the world’s second largest brackish water lake in the world, itself is worth experiencing.
An added attraction is the Irrawaddy dolphin, a funny stub nosed playful thing, related to the Killer whale. Found in rivers and lagoons of Asia, their numbers are rapidly falling. Catch a glimpse of these rare creatures in the Chilika lake.
To know how to reach Chilika, how to hire a boat, where to stay and more tips, click here
- Rent OTDC (Orissa Tourism Development Corporation) boats, not the private ones – these are covered, spacious and quieter (you can get closer to the dolphins if you stay quiet too)
- It’s a long ride – carry a few snacks and water for kids
Dolphin picture from www.thehindu.com Photo by Vasanth Asokan
2. BIRD WATCHING – Incidentally, the Chilika Lake is also a favourite with migratory birds – it hosts over 160 bird species during the peak migratory season.
The Nalabana Bird Sanctuary, in the middle of the lake, gets completely submerged in the monsoon and reveals itself in winter to guests like the Dalmatian Pelican, Spoon Billed Sandpiper, Asiatic Dowitcher, Flamingos, White Bellied Sea Eagle, Goliath Heron etc.
- The best time to visit is November to February.
3. NANDANKANAN ZOO – I agree that keeping animals in a zoo is cruel. But compared to other zoos in India, creatures at the Nandankanan Zoo seem to be in better hands.
Among the 126 species of animals it claims to house, the Royal Bengal White Tiger is its most prized inhabitant.
- The park is closed every Monday and remains open from 8 till 5 on other days.
- Parents with little kids needn’t worry – battery operated vehicles take you around the zoo.
- You can skip the safari – unless you reach during feeding times. We went during the afternoon and the animals were asleep
Here’s a link to a video of cute little elephants playing at the zoo.
4. BHITAR KANIKA WETLAND – Gahirmatha Beach, part of the Bhitar Kanika Wetland, is the world’s most important nesting site for the Olive Ridley Sea Turtle. In 1991, over 600,000 turtles nested along the coast of Orissa in a week alone (source – Wikipedia).
With one of the largest Indian mangrove ecosystems, the wetland also houses one of the largest populations of saltwater crocodiles in India.
- You can stay overnight at Sand Pebbles Jungles Resort inside the National Park
5. SUN TEMPLE, KONARK – Built as a chariot of the Sun god, it is a glorious display of Indian architecture. It’s difficult to describe the beauty and intricacy of the stone work – you just have to see it.
- Since this is not a functioning temple, everyone (foreign tourists included) is allowed entry
- Open from 6 am to 8 pm.
- Extensive repairs were on when we visited in November 2014
- A word of warning – quite a few sculptures display sexual acts. So, if you’re the prudish parent that most Indians are, you might not want to take children along.
- Keep a day aside for Konark and visit the Chandrabhaga beach close by – just sit and watch the waves – it’s too rough to take a swim
6. LINGARAJ TEMPLE, BHUBANESHWAR – The Lingaraj Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva is the most iconic and one of the oldest temples of Bhubaneshwar. Apart from its religious significance, the temple is worth taking a look at for its stupendous stonework. With a 180 feet tall spire and over 60 smaller shrines in the temple complex, it offers a lot to absorb.
- Non-Hindus are not allowed inside the temple. A viewing platform to the right of the main entrance offers a distant view.
- It’s not easy for Hindus too – local priests or Pandas, hassle you, telling you to perform some puja or the other. Don’t get into an argument – just smile and walk away.
- Photography is not allowed inside Lingaraj and Jagannath Temple
7. JAGANNATH TEMPLE, PURI – Images of the Rath Yatra (chariot procession) at this temple in Puri are now beamed across the world.
For Hindus, the temple is a must visit as it is one of the ‘char dhams’ (four most sacred sites). This is also why the temple is so crowded. While the temple itself is impressive and exudes a certain serenity, the Pandas (priests) kind of take away from the experience.
- In 2015, the rath yatra begins on July 18 and ends on July 26
- Again, non-Hindus are not allowed inside, but can see it from outside (Singha Dwar)
- Beware of pickpockets
- The Pandas are very aggressive. Don’t accept anything at all from them – they take money even for holy water.
- If you want to engage a Panda for a puja etc., negotiate a rate early on and ask which services and what kind of Prasad is included
8. RATNAGIRI – If you haven’t visited too many Buddhist sites, this is an interesting one. Spread over a largish area, the main monastery houses a sizeable stone carved Buddha seated in the ‘Bhumi Sparsha mudra’ – a pose showing the state when he attained enlightenment. The numerous votive stupas/plaques (left behind by visitors to commemorate visits or gain spiritual benefits) are intricately carved and interesting for their detail.
- Visit the Archaeological Museum nearby before you go to the site – it’ll help you understand things better.
- It’s a good idea to reach there early morning since the precinct is open to the sky and it gets quite hot
9. RAGHURAJPUR – What better way to remember a place than to return with a few mementoes. Raghurajpur, the village of artisans, has on display the traditional arts and crafts of Orissa.
You can buy paintings on cloth (pattachitra), palm leaves (talapattachitra), silk (on traditional tusser silk), stonework items like statuettes, paper weights, side tables etc., toys and masks made of papier mache, wood carvings and toys…
- If you don’t have time to visit Raghurajpur, you can visit the state run handicrafts emporium in Bhubaneshwar
Orissa is also known for its weaves/handloom – Bomkai and Sambalpuri saris in Ikat print are treasured possessions of Indian women. You could buy a dupatta/odhni and use it as a stole. Else just buy fabric and stitch it into a garment of your choice.
- Swarga Dwar market on the Puri beach offers good prices and variety
Click here for an article from Nat Geo Traveller India on more artisan villages in Odisha and what you can shop for over there.
10. ODISSI DANCE PERFORMANCES – Odissi, in my opinion, is the most graceful Indian dance form. If you visit during December-February, you will be able to watch a performance at one of the dance festivals.
- The cultural festivals scheduled every year are Konark Festival, Konark Dance and Music Festival, Rajarani Music Festival, Mukteswar Dance Festival and Dhauli-Kalinga Mahotsav
Watch a clip of Odissi and other Indian classical dances by clicking here
UPDATE – In 2016, the festival dates out so far are –
Rajarani Music Festival – January 18 to 20
Mukteshwar Dance Festival – January 14 to 16
Konark Dance and Music Festival – February 19 to 23
- For other festivals, check this link
- You could also watch a performance of Gotipua, an earlier form of Odissi, at Raghurajpur Artisans Village
So, do I see you packing your bags? I know this list is not exhaustive – it’s not meant to be. What about sharing your thoughts on why you think Orissa makes an ideal travel destination. Let’s hear it.