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Hey guys, hope you are doing great 🙂

I’m back with my five-part travel series covering my exciting nine-day journey through three beautiful states in eastern India: Odisha (formerly Orissa), Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. It’s been more than six months since the first part so finally…here’s the continuation.

East India trip map

For those of you who may have missed my previous posts on the internationally-famous tourist destinations in Odisha, here are the links:

East India Travel -1: Bhubaneswar

The Heritage Crafts Village of Raghurajpur in Odisha

The Sun Temple of Konark

The World-Famous Jagannath Temple of Puri

odisha map

From the ancient Hindu temple city of Bhubaneswar, I now continue the story to Puri, another ancient Hindu temple city in the state of Odisha. In my subsequent posts, I’ll take you further down to the serene seaside town of Gopalpur-on-Sea in Odisha; the colourful tribal district of Bastar in Chhattisgarh; and the lovely port city of Vishakhapatnam (or Vizag) in Andhra Pradesh.

Please excuse the poor quality of some of the pictures as at times my camera failed me. Happy reading 🙂

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

 

In Puri, I’m staying at Nayak Beach Resort. It’s on Chakratirtha Road near Model Beach, just opposite one of the city’s best resorts, Mayfair Heritage. The hotel that I had planned to stay at was the government-run beach hotel Panthanivas, also on Chakratirtha Road, which is a quiet area having high-budget hotels with private beaches. But they did not have any single or double room available so I had to spend about forty minutes or so hotel-hunting. And that was a miserable exercise in the intensely hot and humid weather although I was travelling in an air-conditioned car. It was a family crowd at each hotel. A little away from Panthanivas, I found the Chanakya BNR hotel to be very charming. It’s a railway heritage property and like one of its hotels which I have visited in Ranchi, it has an old world charm. The beach lies across the road. Too bad that their room tariff was above my budget even after their generous 15% discount offer.

At Nayak Beach Resort, the rooms start from 2500 rupees plus taxes. The rooms shown to me in the upper floors were okay, but I was looking for a tariff of around 1500 rupees. Of course being an upscale area, the hotel rooms are bound to be on a higher side. But the girl at the desk was nice and friendly and eager to help me. After consulting the hotel manager, she said that if I liked the rooms on the ground floor, I could have one for 1800 rupees including taxes. The rooms were more or less similar to the ones shown to me on the upper floors. So I settled for a nice room on the ground floor. Still, I wonder why they added “beach resort” to the name when it’s an ordinary hotel. The beach is a short distance away.

It’s going to be just a one night stay in Puri as I’m leaving tomorrow for Gopalpur-on-Sea, an ancient seaport and a popular seaside resort. After a delicious meal of succulent prawns with steamed rice, I make my travel plans for the next 24 hours which include a visit to two world-famous ancient temples – Jagannath Temple of Puri and Sun Temple of Konark – and the country’s largest coastal lagoon, Chilika Lake. The hotel has booked a tourist car for Chilika Lake and Konark and also arranged a temple tour with a panda (temple guide or priest) associated with the hotel for tomorrow early in the morning when there is less crowd.

Sprawled over an area of 1,100 sq km, Chilika Lake is the second largest lagoon in the world and the largest brackish water estuarine lake in Asia. Among other things, the lake is renowned for boating, bird-watching and sighting dolphins. It is dotted with numerous beautiful islands, inhabited as well as uninhabited. I decide to do boating in the Chilika Lake today and visit the Sun Temple tomorrow. This way I can watch the sunset in the lake.

I start out at 2:30pm. It’s a 45km drive to Satapada, one of the three entry points to the vast lake. The tourist car driver races the AC Ambassador. He tells me that boating closes at 4pm. Half an hour later, another driver on the way tells him that it will get closed by the time we reach there and suggests another place. When we reach this other place, I see only country boats, no OTDC motor launches. The guy issuing tickets assures me that it is a government-authorized company. He shows me the display and the rate card. It says “A Govt. of Odisha Youth Concern organized by Dolphin Motor Boat Association in Satapada, Brahmgiri, Puri”. The ticket says that the boat ride of 160 km costing 1900 rupees covers dolphin watching, Little Birds, Sea Mouth, Red Crab, Tridev temple, Nalaban Bird Sanctuary, Kalijai temple, Barkul drop. And he takes 200 rupees extra from me. Barkul is at a three hours’ boat journey. I realize that the guy is making money at my expense.  I hope someone does the same to him.

(Later I read somewhere that OTDC boating at Satapada starts at 10am and costs a hundred rupees or so per person and 1000 rupees per boat. They also offer an organized tour of the lake starting from Puri at 7am and returning at 4pm. Private operators at another beach near Satapada charge around 1900 rupees per boat for a three hour ride. They give 200 rupees as commission to the vehicle driver who brings the tourists to them. Cheats!)

I have been looking forward to a sunset cruise and dolphin watching. So I set aside the cost and focus on enjoying the ride in the country boat.

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In ancient times, Chilika Lake was an important commercial and trading centre as well as a major harbour for ships sailing to Far-East Asia. Today it is one of the state’s major tourist attractions for bird-watchers and nature-lovers. It is the largest wintering ground for migratory birds on the Indian sub-continent hosting over 160 species of birds in the peak migratory season. That’s the time when thousands of indigenous birds and migratory birds including flamingos from as far as Siberia, Iran, Caspian Sea, Aral Sea, Mongolia, Central and South-East Asia make this place their home. The rich bio-diversity and socio-economic importance of this vast lake has earned it the status of a Ramsar site.

The main attraction of Chilika Lake is the Irrawaddy dolphin which is found only in these waters. The boat starts in the direction of the area frequented by the dolphins. The boatman speaks neither English nor Hindi but he shouts excitedly whenever he spots a dolphin taking an upward dive. I spot a few of them but they don’t jump completely out of the water. And they disappear into the water within a blink so I’m unable to capture them on camera.

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Watch my video:  Sighting Irrawady Dolphins at Chilika Lake 

After dolphin watching, the next place is Tridev temple. It’s a small structure alongside the beach. Hah, there’s no idol inside. A Bollywood film was shot here, hence it is famous.

Yours truly in the country boat…
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It’s a quiet and secluded place…

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The beach is pockmarked by crabs’ air holes. The tiny orange sea crabs vanish into sand within half a second on sensing my slightest movement. I manage to catch one in this picture.

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Watch my video: Crab spotting on the beach 

The Sea Mouth is where Chilika meets the sea. The boatman points towards it in the distance and tries to tell me about it in a few Hindi words. The boat ride lasts for an hour and a half. Besides enjoying the scenic beauty of the lagoon and spotting a few birds, I have been able to watch the sunset too. Here are a few pictures…

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It’s dark by the time I reach the famous public beach at Swargadwar. It’s known as the “golden beach”. Puri is not only a popular beach resort but also unique because both sunrise and sunset can be viewed from the beach. It is said that normally during daytime, air comes from sea to land and vice-versa during evening, but in Puri, it is the opposite.

Swargadwar is a very popular area, so the entire stretch facing the sea is lined with hotels of all categories. Being a market area, it is very noisy and crowded. But when you’re travelling alone such areas are good to frequent to get a feel of the city. So now I wish I had chosen to stay here. Food and shopping and everything else is available here. The narrow roads are overcrowded with tourists taking a leisurely stroll or shopping. Puri is famous for arts and crafts. Saris like Sambalpur, Bomkai, Katki, Ikkat, Tussar are extremely popular, as also Chandua or applique work from Pipli village, and leaf paintings and Pattachitras from Raghurajpur village. Wood and stone carvings are special too. The numerous shops are packed with tourists. So also the various kinds of fast food joints and eateries lining the beach road.

One of the many roadside stalls selling made-to-order fried fish…

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By the time I return to my hotel it is 8:30pm. Dinner is light. Prawn chowmein. For tomorrow’s Jagannath temple visit, the panda is going to be at the hotel at 6am. So I’m off to bed by 10pm.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

 

At 6am sharp, I’m in the hotel lobby. The panda is yet to arrive.  It’s a good that every hotel in Puri has a panda (temple guide or priest) associated with it. I had read stories about greedy temple priests harassing devotees to avail of their services in conducting prayers for their well-being inside the temple. So I’m relieved to have a panda accompany me. Since non-Hindus are forbidden to enter the temple, it makes it easier to know that the hotel guests they are taking to the temple are Hindus only.

Jagannath temple in Puri is one of the four Char Dhams the four important pilgrimage spots for Hindus. The three presiding deities – Jagannath, Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra – are devoutly worshipped throughout the state. The temple is internationally-renowned for its annual ten-day Rath Yatra (Chariot or Car Festival) which attracts more than a million visitors from across the country, and the world. Festive seasons see tremendous crowds but even during the rest of the year, the temple draws thousands of devotees each day. I have visited two other Char Dhams during my travels through the country, so I’m looking forward to visiting this third Char Dham, which is unique.

Standing near the hotel doorway, I see two pandas, colourfully dressed in traditional dhoti-gamcha, on a motorcycle. Both appear to be in their mid-20s. The pillion rider is stylishly dressed in a beautiful ceremonial attire so I assume that he is the hotel’s panda. It turns out that he has an unexpected commitment so his friend is going to take me to the temple instead.  The younger panda dressed in saffron asks me whether I mind travelling by motorcycle. Do I mind? I would absolutely love it! It’s so much fun. We zoom along empty roads and reach the temple within ten minutes.

Read my blog: The World-Famous Jagannath Temple of Puri 

The temple entrance at Simhadwara (Lion Gate) …

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In front of it stands an eleven-metre tall monolithic pillar known as Aruna Stambha, dedicated to Aruna the charioteer of Surya, the Sun-god. It used to be part of the Sun Temple in Konark till the last quarter of the 18th century.

Bags, mobile phones and cameras are not allowed inside. Visitors have to deposit them along with footwear at a facility near the temple entrance. Being aware of the restriction, I’m carrying only my camera (which I hand to the panda for safe-keeping) and some cash in my pockets.

Despite the early morning hour, the temple has many visitors, and priests. From what I have read in the past, hard-selling pandas or priests approach in groups. Greedy and ruthless, they demand excessive amounts of money from devotees. Maybe things have changed over the years because the pandas that I’m seeing here are quietly going about their duties. Perhaps seeing that I’m accompanied by a panda, they do not get into my way or maybe at this early hour they are too busy to bother visitors. My guide tells me that the temple has thousands of priests, and different kinds of them. He, and others like him, do not conduct rituals. Their duty is to create a welcoming atmosphere for visitors by giving them a tour of temple and a darshan (glimpse or worship) of the deities.

The temple opens at 5am with a Mangal Aarati (Early Morning Prayer). With a paid ticket, one can enter the sanctum sanctorum and get close to the deities but this is only at specified hours. Without a ticket, one can see the deities from a distance. During public darshan hour in the morning, no ticket is required to get close to the deities.

There are fewer people around at this early hour, so I get a clear view from a distance. I’m satisfied. To get a close view of the deities would mean having to wait for half an hour or more. Moreover, it is 6:45am and I have asked for an AC tourist car to Konark at 7:30am. My guide has given me a nice tour of the temple complex, explaining everything well. On my way out, I make a small contribution to the temple. The roads are empty on the return ride too. The breezy fresh air feels great. The young panda has been good company and very easy to talk to. The temple tour is a free service but guests can make a voluntary payment to the panda if they want to. I do so.

Soon, I learn that the tourist car is delayed. When it arrives, after an hour or so at 8:30am, the driver coolly tells me that he thought I would be at the temple waiting to get the close view of the deities, as most guests usually do so.

My plan is to visit the Sun Temple and then take a bus from Konark bus stand to Bhubaneswar. But the driver advises me that it would be best to take an AC bus from Puri to Bhubaneswar. The bus frequency is good, unlike the one or two rickety and crowded non-AC buses leaving from Konark. Today’s driver is smart unlike the one yesterday. He snorts in disgust when I tell him about my expensive boat ride in Chilika.

There are three entry points to Chillika Lake: Satapada, Barkul and Rambha. Both Barkul and Rambha lie on the way to Berhampur (or Brahmapur), the nearest town to Gopalpur-on-Sea.  Bhubaneswar to Barkul is 105km and to Rambha 130km. Gopalpur-on-Sea is 75 km from Barkul and 50km from Rambha. The nearest railway station for Barkul is at Balugaon (5km). For me, the most convenient route would have been a three-hour boat ride to Barkul from Satapada and then a bus for Berhampur, around 50 km away. I have been advised not to do so because it is risky for an unaccompanied tourist to wait (for Lord knows how long!) alongside the desolate road. Both Barkul and Rambha are very small places and chances of expecting a bus (most of them are packed) to halt are low. I’m going to take a long route by returning to Bhubaneswar. The Chennai-bound NH No.5 linking Bhubaneswar-Balugaon-Barkul-Rambha-Berhampur and Visakhapatnam runs along the lake. So it would be an enjoyable long drive. The driver too agrees that this is best for me. He appears to be in mid-30s, but having taken tourists around the region for a decade or so, he is quite knowledgeable about the tourist destinations that I bring up while going through the detailed travel brochure that I’m carrying. I would have loved to witness the magnificent sight of an arribada, the mass nesting phenomenon of the Olive Ridley sea turtles at Gahirmatha Beach, not far from Puri. It is the world’s greatest nesting habitat for Olive Ridley sea turtles. The arribada takes place in February and March each year.

Nearing Konark, the road runs along the Bay of Bengal. I make a brief halt at Ramachandi Beach, one of the best beaches in Odisha.

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Watch my video: Ramachandi Beach  

The world-famous Sun Temple is just a few kilometres away from here.

Read my blog: The Sun Temple of Konark 

After visiting Konark, I reach Puri Bus Stand by 11:30am. There is an AC bus leaving for Bhubaneswar at 12pm. A Puri-Konark round trip by a small AC car costs 1100 rupees, single way it is 900 rupees. I’m aware of it so I’m glad that the driver doesn’t overcharge me. I have to reach Gopalpur-on-Sea before dusk so I’m hoping that the bus leaves on time. Mercifully, it does. The ticket costs 90 rupees.

Half an hour later on the way, I get to see the “holy wood” out of which the idol of Lord Jagannath is to be carved ahead of the Nabakalebara festival to be held at the Jagannath Temple in Puri next month. The last Nabakalebara festival took place in 1996. Security personnel have been deployed at the place to control the crowd and ensure free flow of traffic.

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The bus reaches Bhubaneswar at 2:30pm. It passes through some of the areas that I haven’t seen so it’s more like a city tour. The roads in Station Square or Master Canteen are wide and tree-lined. And I see many modern administrative buildings. Quite a different scene from the areas that I frequented two days ago. The bus conductor is a very kind and helpful person. On learning that I have to go to the bus stand to catch a bus for Berhampur, he tells the driver to halt for a while. Without my asking, he takes hold of my heavy bag and carries it across to the other side of the busy main road. Not only that, he also looks around for an autorickshaw to the bus stand. There are two bus stands. The one that I have to go to is a private bus stand and is out of the way for all the autorickshaws that the kindly person stops. After a ten-minute wait under the scorching hot sun, he finally gets me a shared autorickshaw going that way. He places my bag in the vehicle and sees to it that I’m comfortably seated before running off to his bus. So sweet!

The place from where the private buses depart looks miserable and I’m disappointed. Still, there is a non-AC bus leaving soon for Berhampur. The bus ticket costs 140 rupees. The bus gets filled immediately…with people and luggage. In fact, the front two rows are carrying stacks of heavy boxes. Sigh, it’s bad. I prepare myself for a rough journey of three hours or more…

Coming next: East India Travel – 3: Gopalpur-On-Sea & Visakhapatnam

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