The India You Do Not Know: ODISHA

The India You Do Not Know: ODISHA
Manoj Das

The temple cities of Puri, Bhubaneswar and Konarka may be topmost in the itinerary of the visitor to Odisha; but it is the quiet waterfalls, the rock caves, the Buddhist and Jain relics, the beach resorts and the lesser known temples which offer seeluded, unspoilt beauty to the traveller weary of civilisation.

It was on a cloudy day, 20 years ago, that I suddenly felt as if I had been shot into a remote planet, alien but wonderful, although I stood on my native soil of Odisha.

It was hardly 128 km from Cuttack, the chief city of the State, but literally blockaded by a ring of cliffs and miles of forests, the hamlet lay lulled, goodness knows for how long, her handful of tribal inhabitants not caring a bit about all the hullabaloo of the world beyond the ring. After a leisurely exploration of the forests for birds, beasts, roots and fruits, the men folk returned in the evening-from time to time one of them did not-to relax around the fires their women had lit, to cook and eat what they had procured and to drink the wine made of palm juice. Then they sang and danced till they slumped into a stupor.

Once a year a couple of clever traders from “civilisation” penetrated the ring and bartered a bag or two of salt and a few yards of coarse linen for large quantities of ivory, deer and tiger skin and the latter’s whiskers(essential for some folk medicine) and peacock feathers.

But the situation must have changed now. The men and women from this hamlet have crossed over to the nearest town and started buying soaps and nylon ribbons.

But I doubt if things have changed much tribal village on a hill about 72 km from Jeypore (a small sleepy town of Koraput district), where up till 1968, when I visited it, women ,remained unclad but for some intricate ornaments on the lower part of their body.

The weekly market where the barter system was still used was held at noon so people could return to their villages before dark, to avoid encountering dangerous animals.

The women moved about freely in the crowd. Their innocence charmed me. With a bit of the same innocence, I raised my camera. Instantly three or four young men of the tribe confronted me.

“What will you do with the pictures?” they demanded. The question was translated to me.

I mumbled: ”Well, I don’t know.”

“Don’t sell them, don’t put them in the papers!” they advised.

“I will not,” I promised. And I have been faithful to my promise.

I soon as I got away from the crowd, I was accosted by two men with half a dozen cameras hanging from their shoulders.

“Bhai Saab, we have travelled a long way for a few snaps. But they won’t let us. Would you mind pleading with them on our behalf?”

My companion carried their request to the tribal youths but retuned glum as a mummy.”They didn’t reply to me. But among themselves they are talking of destroying your jeep and smashing your cameras and, pardon me, your heads too!”

The young men jumped into their jeep and disappeared.

Although I had inexplicable good luck, I won’t suggest a trip to that place to my readers. But, by all means, take a little detour and reach Malkangiri, 65 miles from Jeypore, by bus or car. By the way, a tour of Jeypore from the Vijayanagaram railway station on the Madras-Howrah route can be a thrilling experience, the bus negotiating a 3,300-ft-high ghat road for about 30 miles of the 106-mile drive, with dangerous precipices to your left. If it is festival time, the driver might stop the bus several times in from of frolicking squads of tribal girls who could coax you to part with a coin or two.

Although the headquarters of a newly formed sub-division, Malkangiri,641 feet above sea-level, is still a village sporting a travelers’ bungalow in a luxuriant grove of teak trees. It is on the fringe of the Dandakaranya. Maklangiri is believed to be the Malyavantaagiri of the Ramayana, the resort of Rama from where the Vanaras were launched in search of Sita. And not far from Malkangiri flows the shy Tamasa, entrancingly on her bed of pebbles, as she did thousands of years ago when Valmiki composed the first ever verse on her bank and where with Lava and Kusha, Sita, forsaken by Rama, bathed.

One of the numerous mountains skirting Mlkangiri bears the name Ramagiri.Some believe that it was this Ramagiri which had sheltered the Yaksha of Kalidasa’s Meghadoot.

Long ago,this region was ruled by a young king Dandaka. There was then no river, but a lake. One evening the king saw a beautiful damsel emerging from its waters. He tried to take her away, but the girl escaped to her father, none other than the sage Sukracharya, and told him of her humiliation. The furious sage left the region with his daughter and cursed the place. At once a million flames reduced the kingdom of Dandaka to a vast expanse of ash.

Mighty Forest

By and by the wind swept away the ash. The monsoons stretched the little lake and turned it into the river Tamasa . On its banks grew a forest (aranya). What was once Dandaka’s kingdom became a forest bearing his name-Dandakarnya.

It was an eerie night, pitch-black and rain-soaked, when we rushed through the forest back to Jeypore, scaring away rabbits and just avoiding hitting a petrified dear.

Once at Jeypore, you should not miss the Bagra falls, only 9 miles away. You can stretch out on the large smooth slabs of stone-there is a rest house too –and listen to the Kolab cascading from a height of 100 feet. For a change, you can go to Koraput, another cute little town of sylvan tranquility, though the headquarters of the district, 14 miles away from Jeypore. In the fifties, when my uncle was the District Magistrate and Collector there, it was not unusual for a tiger (alone or with its family) to rest for an hour, while on a nocturnal stroll, in front of the majestic official bungalow on a hillock.

But speaking of falls, there is nothing of beat the 250-ft-high Pradhanpat falls in a nook of Deogarh, erstwhile capital of Bamra, one of the 26 feudal states of pre-independence Odisha. The waters seem to

descend in a leisurely rhythm, reminding you of the unhurriedness of time here. The place shaded by rooks and tall trees is steeped in a fascinating melancholy. From the foot of the fall, one can see a cave higher up, with the blurred statues of a tiger and a snake, perpetuating the memory of a tragedy: a young Raja of Bamra shot down a tiger that lived in the cave, but as he reached his trophy, he was bitten to death by a stake, the tiger’s cave-mate.

An imaginatively located bungalow— once the ruler’s property and now available to the visitor—its broad stairs descending into a large orchard, overlooks the fall. The two hours’’ drive to Deogarh from Sambalpur, the major town of Western Odisha, is a wonderful experience, through forests flowing green and quiet villages flanked by golden fields.

The magnificent Barheipani Waterfalls in the Similipal Hills of Mayurbhanj is relatively better known, for around it has been ; developed National Park.

The Unknown in The Known

But there are places in Odisha .which, even though well-known, contain wonders in them that have evaded the traveller. The foremost of them is Chilka, India’s largest brackish water lake—480 square miles. Millions marvel at its silver ripples while they travel by train between Madras and Calcutta. But few outside Odisha know that the lake is dotted with isles of fairytale enchantment. Yet access to them is so easy! One could get down at Balugaon railway station (bungalows available) or can drive there from any major town in Odisha and can hire an in expensive motor launch from the Fisheries Department

Yet another convenient spot to approach the islands, by the even more exciting means of country boats, is Rambha, another railway station. Two miles inside the lake from Sambha is Breakfast Island, a submerged rock with a bungalow built on it by the Raja of Khallikote. Barkuda Island is populated by spotted deer.

A little farther is the isle of Kaljjai, named after a legendary girl who was being taken by a boat, against her wishes, to be given away in marriage. A terrible storm burst forth while the boat was off the island. When it subsided, Kalijai was missing. But her spirit dwells on the island—in a temple erected for her later—and protects those in distress on the lake.

Fifty miles from Chilka is Gopalpur-on-Sea, a quiet sea resort only ten miles from Berhampur, the major town of Southern Odisha, approachable by bus. It is equipped with private lodges and tourist bungalows, including two Western-style hotels.

Few know of Taptapani, a hot spring, 42 miles from Gopalpur, continuously gorging out bubbling sulphur water. The elegant P.W.D. bungalow constructed nearby has a bathroom with a connection to the spring.

Too often the tourist-allows the twin temple cities of Puri and Bhubaneswar and the exquisite Konarak to claim the major part of his itinerary. In the process he skips several significant spots—Sakshigopal, for example.

If not the temple, the legend of Sakshigopal is widely known. In a certain village, in the remote past, lived a youth who loved the daughter of an old neighbour. Once the youth and the neighbour joined a party of villagers on a pilgrimage. The old man fell seriously ill and it was only the youth’s care that saved him. He promised, while inside Krishna’s temple, to give his daughter in marriage to the youth. But back in the village he .disowned his promise. The heart broken youth travelled back to the temple and entreated the deity, who alone had heard the promise, to come and testify in his favour.

The deity agreed, but on condition that the youth would not look back. The youth began his homeward journey, satisfied with the tinkling sound of the deity’s anklets following him. But on the outskirts of the village, because of sand, the anklets ceased tinkling. The youth looked back. The deity at once turned into stone. However, the deity’s gesture, needless to say, was sufficient for the boy to get his desire fulfilled.

The temple for this beautiful deity, Sakshigopal (Gopal who came to give evidence), is only 12 miles from Puri, on the road to Bhubaneswar, which can be reached by train, bus or taxi. Bur few ever stop there to rest under its coconut and bokul groves.

While at Bhutaneewar, visit the Khandagiri and Udaygiri caves on the city’s outskirts,with sculptures and inscriptions dating back to Emperor Kharavela’s time, many centuries before Christ, speaking of a glorious Jain era. Touching Bhubeaneswar there is another spot of tremendous historic significance. It is Mount Dhauli, around which the historic Kalinga war took place and where Chandashoka, Asoka the Terrible, turned to Dharmashaka, Asoka the Pious.

Tranquility Destroyed

In 1950 I had found it difficult even to locate the famous rock edict of Asoka there— deserted area. But today it is crowded. Under the auspices of a Japanese Buddhist mission, a huge stupa has been erected over the hillock, chiselling and whittling it down to shape. A temple has sprung up on an adjacent hillock too and drums and gongs and the din and bustle from both keep the place continuously festive. But with apologies to the makers of these monuments, I must say that the sublime silence and tranquility that once marked the spot conveyed the spirit of Asoka’s transformation much better.

The three seats of Buddhist relics that made up the Fushpagiri Vihara of Huen Tsang’s account, and which have hardly received any publicity, are Lalitgiri, Ratanagiri and Udayagiri, 30, 32 and 38 miles respectively from Cuttack. The magnificent images and sculptures discovered and taken care of by the Archaeological Department introduce the place as an affluent university of Mahayana scholarship of the 7th century. This, according to the late Charles Fabri, should “rank with Nalanda and Taxila as among the largest Buddhist establishments anywhere in India”.

The face of Odisha is changing, as a whole slowly, but abruptly at places. Sometimes the sudden metamorphosis of a place which once had an age-old rhythm of lifestyle peculiar to itself gives a jolt to the mind when revisited. That is what Paradip did to me. It was a village, almost an island, with the sea and a dense forest on one side, the estuary of the Mahanadi on another and one of its offshoots embracing it on the other two sides.

When I had first visited it in 1954, events supernatural were looked upon, as most natural and the villagers heard mysterious incantations and the sound of conch-shells from the-interior of the ancient forest. Less than a decade later the entire forest had disappeared, multi-storeyed buildings blinded the horizon, trees looked stupefied smeared with thick dust continuously sprayed by roaring trucks. The pretty little branch of the Mahanadi that girdled the village had been choked to death.

A big port was coming up on its outskirts. A majestic bungalow, named after Nehru who had laid the foundation for the port (the foundation has been swallowed up by the sea though),invites visitors with its wide balconies and airy rooms. But if you go there—there are always buses, mini-buses and taxis plying from Cuttack and Bhubaneswar—do not forget to step into the still quiet village for a while. Behind the thatched house of the scions of “Bull” dynasty who once ruled a small state, Kujang, with this village as their capital, there is a temple with a strange and perhaps unique shape—that of an elephant.

The serene and beautiful deity is worshipped as Lokanatha. Behind the temple stands a neem tree.And twenty years ago an old villager had confided to me that at night the gigantic elephant came to life and chewed a trunkful of of neem leaves, I am sure, despite the port, that the elephant and the old man are still there.

About six miles from Paradip is a small island, Hukitola. The British had built a house and had stationed an officer there, probably to assist a ship in case it came to anchor there. During the tide, the island is totally submerged but for the house. Today the Government seems to have forgotten all about it, except sending the hereditary officer his paltry allowance and the man hardly knows why he is there. Till a few years ago the descendant of the original officer, a melancholy Anglo-Indian, lived a sort of enchanted life in the solitary house, crossing over to the nearest village once a week to buy his rations. And believe it or not, his chief source of non-saline water was a tank on the roof which opened up to sky for rain.

I do not know if the officer is still there, but the eerie lure of the island could not have diminished.

There are spots galore, little known, of remarkable scenic beauty or archaeological significance, such as the Nirmala Jhara, a spring emerging at the base of a temple on a hill there miles from the Khallikote railway station in Ganjam district; Damayanti Sagar, a lake at Kotpad associated with King Nala and his wife Damayanti, 46 miles V.MU, K or a put; the Patudi Waterfall, 10 lies from Phulbani, a district town; Gudaliandi hill in Kalahandi district, 50 miles from Bhawanipatna town, with caverns showing prehistoric paintings which are yet to be fully interpreted; the Khandadhara Waterfall, 10 miles from Bonaigarh town of Sundargarh district; Koshaleswar at Baidyanath on the Tel in Bolangir district, 7 miles from Sonepur town, with magnificent ruins of a 7th-century temple.

There are also the Harisankar and Narasinghanath temples on the southern and northern slopes of the Gandhamardan mountain; the Ranipur-Jharial temples in the same district; Kapilas, a place of pilgrimige in Dhenkanal district on a mountain ,200 feet high, with a spring containing health-restoring properties; Sita Banji in Keonjhar district, 16 miles from Keonjhargarh town, with beautiful frescoes; Chandipur , a modern health resort on the sea, 9 miles from Balasore, a district town; and Khiching, a storehouse of Nagara architecture, 01 miles from Baripada in the Mayurhanj district.

All these places can be reached by bus or car, not by train, from the nearest towns mentioned and all these towns are linked with, the main cities, Cuttack and Bhubaneswar, either by train or by bus. (Bhubaneswar is the main airport for Odisha.) They have tourist accommodation, not too fancy, but suitable for the simplicity of the place

But many beautiful areas of Odisha are yet inaccessible. Touching the border of Odisha, the Bengal Government set up a sea resort at a place named Digha not long ago. It proved immensely popular in no time, busloads of tourists pouring into it from Kharaghpur and Calcutta.

Only five miles from Digha, inside Odisha, there is an even more beautiful resort with an important temple, Chandaaeswar, where devotees performed hairraising feats during the festival around the Visuv Sankranti in May, drawing tens of thousands of visitors from Odisha and Bengal.

Between my village and the sea, there were two natural lakes, one bursting with red lotuses and the other abounding in white ones, and rows of palm-trees along a long meadow with tiny lily-ponds, separated from the sea by mounds of flittering sands constantly changing their shape at the whim of the whistling winds. Since independence, the major item in the manifesto of each candidate to the Assembly had been a promise to try build a road to this area. But, in the meanwhile, those wonderful lakes have almost disappeared.

(Courtesy: “The Illustrated Weekly of India”, September 14, 1975)

"Legends of Sri Jagannath": A Talk by Prof Manoj Das

About Manoj Das

For thousands of men, women and children of the past two or three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of light and delight, whose writings in Odia and English inspire in his countless readers faith in the purpose of life and also open up concealed horizons of confidence and compassion in humanity a dire need today.