An off-the-beaten-track favourite for more adventurous types, Odisha (Orissa) rewards those who make the effort with an intricate patchwork of history, fascinating tribal culture and natural beauty, along with an old-fashioned sprinkling of sun and sand. The top destinations of the state should not be missed.
Hindu pilgrims, Bengali holidaymakers and foreign travellers all make their way to Puri. For Hindus, Puri is one of the holiest pilgrimage places in India, with religious life revolving around the great Jagannath Temple and its famous Rath Yatra. The town’s other attraction is its long, sandy beach – better for strolling than swimming. Travellers come to chill out and visit the Sun Temple in nearby Konark.
Conceived as the cosmic chariot of the sun god Surya, this massive, breathtakingly splendid temple was constructed in the mid-13th century, probably by Odishan king Narashimhadev I to celebrate his military victory over the Muslims. Seven rearing horses (representing the days of the week) move this stone leviathan on 24 stone cartwheels (representing the hours of the day) around the base. The presiding deity may have been moved to Jagannath Temple in Puri in the 17th century – the interior of the temple was filled in with stone in 1903 on the orders of Sir James Austin Bourdillon, the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal.
Up in the cool, forested hills, the small market town of Koraput is by far the nicest of places from which to launch yourself into this region’s tribal country. There’s a hill-station feel to it, a weekly tribal market, and the main temple here is fascinating, especially for non-Hindus, who can’t enter the Jagannath Temple in Puri.
Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary
Spanning mangrove forests, vast wetlands, and three rivers flowing into the Bay of Bengal, Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary, India’s second-largest mangrove region, is an immensely wildlife-rich ecosystem, home to crocodiles, diverse birdlife and endangered turtles. The only way to get around most of the sanctuary is by boat, and the main reason to come is for spotting crocodiles and birds (particularly at the Bagagahana heronry).
Once dubbed the ‘Temple City’, Bhubaneswar is a worthwhile pit stop for a day or two as you take in the old city’s holy centre around the ceremonial tank called Bindu Sagar. Here once stood thousands of medieval stone temples; now around 50 remain. Temples aside, there are a couple of highly worthwhile museums, an ancient cave complex and the most varied dining scene in Odisha, along with a smattering of decent hotels.
In the village of Mangarajpur, an hour’s drive from Bhubaneswar, Debjit and his family welcome visitors into his ancestral home, a rambling mansion surrounded by peaceful countryside. The home-cooked food is among the best we’ve had in Odisha, and Debjit takes his guests on walks and bicycle rides through tribal villages. Visits to tribal markets and nearby temples are also arranged. The former hunting lodge of a local raj, this castle-like stone home was built in 1931 and features three well-appointed guest rooms with antique furniture and enormous bathrooms. Instead of AC, the rooms use traditional root curtains, dampened with water during the summer to cool the rooms down.
Chilika Lake is Asia’s largest brackish lagoon. Swelling from 600 sq km in April and May to 1100 sq km in the monsoon, the shallow lake is separated from the Bay of Bengal by a 60km-long sand bar called Rajhansa. The lake is noted for the million-plus migratory birds – including grey-legged geese, herons, cranes and pink flamingos – that flock here in winter (from November to mid-January) from as far away as Siberia and Iran and concentrate in a 3-sq-km area within the bird sanctuary on Nalabana Island.
Satkosia Tiger Sanctuary
Comprising the Satkosia Gorge Sanctuary and the Baisipalli Wildlife Sanctuary, 964-sqkm forested Satkosia Tiger Sanctuary, 125km northwest of Bhubaneswar, is straddled by a breath-taking gorge, cut by the mighty Mahanadi River, and is one of the most beautiful natural spots in Odisha. However, tourists are not allowed inside the park’s core zone, where most of the wildlife is found, and 4WD safaris are not on offer. The main appeal of coming here is to spend some time amid the stunning natural scenery. The sanctuary as a whole is home to significant populations of gharial and mugger crocodiles, plus 38 species of mammals, including elephants, leopards, sambar deer, wild dogs, jackals, giant squirrels and around a dozen tigers.