In this local’s guide to Bhubaneswar, we reveal where you can go to discover the city’s better-kept secrets
WORDS AMRITA LALL
PHOTOGRAPHS VINOBHA NATHAN
There’s a lot more to Odisha’s charming capital city than its 600-odd temples. Give the legendary Lingaraja Temple a miss, strike the Khandagiri Caves off your itinerary, and pass up the chance to drive down to the Jagannath temple at Puri. Or do all these, if you must, and then follow us as we go tramping across Bhubaneswar in search of 50-year-old bookstores, no-frills South Indian breakfast institutions, new-age cafés that double up as exhibition spaces for emerging artists, and much, much more.
Be it the vibrant applique work found in Pipli, the intricate brass dhokra craft of Dhenkanal or the silver filigree work of Cuttack, Odisha is home to a vast repository of arts and handicrafts. Almost every region of the state functions as keeper of distinct art and craft legacies and, since it’s nearly impossible to go check out each handicraft tradition in its home ground, do the next best thing – stop by an Utkalika showroom. An initiative of the State Co-operative Handicrafts Corporation, these emporiums have two major purposes – to promote the rich crafts heritage of the state and to work in direct association with artisans, therefore providing them a much-needed platform to showcase their skills. Take your time as you choose from a wide range of palm-leaf etchings and paintings, dainty brass dhokra figurines sourced from Dhenkanal, and much more. Our favourites are miniature versions of something you’ll find in every Odia home – statuettes of the famous Jagannath trio: Krishna, Balabhadra and sister Subhadra.
Rainy evenings in Odisha are almost synonymous with power cuts that can sometimes last up to four hours. A popular choice of snack on such evenings is jhal mudhi or mudhi mixture (it’s the same snack that Bengalis refer to as jhal muri and which Mumbai knows as dry bhel). This snack is prepared by mixing puffed rice with a wide range of fried savoury tid-bits, chopped onion, diced potatoes and a generous drizzle of mustard oil. The USP of this snack is the namkeen mix or mixture or baroh maja, which literally translates to 12 different types of snacks thrown in and mixed together. It is imperative that the mixture in the jhal mudhi be of the highest quality, and, when the question of the city’s best mixture destination comes up, tiny little Mukharuchi in Shahid Nagar has the last say. The rule here is that you need to be loud, pushy and persistent to get what you want. Though you can choose from the wide range of pre-mixed mixtures, we recommend you choose to customise yours. Make sure you buy a packet of pedas as well – the thick, semi-soft milk fudges are just the right kind of sweet, best enjoyed post a generous helping of jhal mudhi.
The special upma is the exact same shade of yellow I remember from the last time I was here – at least 10 years ago. As I dig my slightly bendy spoon into the mildly gloppy upma and scoop up some of the thick coconut chutney on the side, memories from childhood come rushing to mind. Growing up, Sundays meant a South Indian family breakfast ritual at Priya. Irrespective of who ordered what, my father always asked for the special upma and I was always allowed to dig in first. As I glance around, I realise everything’s pretty much the same – the same small, rickety tables, the smell of fresh filter coffee in the air, the sound of the fans whirring overhead, the waiters barking orders into the kitchen, and, always, people scampering to find a seat at any table. Vinobha, meanwhile, has approved of the filter coffee and the sambar that came with the sada dosa, which is just the right degree of crispy.
It’s a balmy afternoon and Satabdi’s filling me in on all that has been happening in the city in the last couple of years that I have been away (apparently, there has been a mad spate of new glitzy cafés and no new bookstores) when I spot a butterfly come to rest upon a stack of Roald Dahls. She sees it, too, and tells me how she’s noticed plenty more butterflies come in and that, occasionally, she finds some of them lifeless next to the bookshelves. “Maybe they believe it’s a good way to go,” she says, “spending your last moments in the company of all these books.”
Akshaya and Satabdi started Walking Bookfairs in 2014 with the decision that, if people wouldn’t come to bookshops, they would take a bookshop to them. It all started in Semiliguda, a small town in Koraput, where they arrived with books in their backpacks and then went walking to villages and towns where people didn’t have access to reading material. When the idea further developed, they purchased a second-hand van, filled it with books and went to the remotest corners of all the 30 districts of the state. In 2016, they set out on an even bigger road trip – one that took them across the country. They came back home to Odisha, pleasantly surprised that a large chunk of the country was still interested in stories, and thus brought into being their small independent bookstore that’s always packed to the rafters with a wildly diverse collection of titles that range from a great collection of Odia literature (ask for Akshaya’s book of poetry – he writes excellently) to books as rare as Manto’s accounts of the goings-on in 1940s Bollywood.