Monday, May 6, 2013

Lesser Known India - Pious Puri, and, Captivating Chilka

  Fishermen at Sunrise, Chilka.
Jagannath Temple at Dusk.
As mentioned in the previous Blog-post, a meeting in Bhubaneswar, resulted in the Author and Gurmeet combining work and pleasure, planning a getaway to Chilka, Asia's largest brackish water lake,  about  100 km away from Orissa's capital city. 
Konark and Bhubaneshwar experiences indulged and enjoyed, we proceeded to Chilka via Puri, home to The Jagganath Temple, one of India's holiest shrines.

Jagannath Puri

One Coconut for the Road!
The route to Puri was scenic, green fields, plantations, streams, ponds, villages et all. The best part, however, was the tender green coconut sellers camped along the road. The coconuts of this area are particularly sweet and we indulged a couple of times, even during our relatively short 60 Km hop to Puri.
Jagganath Temple, Puri.

The  Jagannath temple at Puri on the eastern coast of India, is one of the four Dhamas, that is the  main Hindu pilgrim centres, the other three being Dwaraka in the west, Badrinath in north and Rameswaram in the south.  
Krishna, Balaram and Subhadra.
The Rath Yatra (File Photo).
This 192 feet high, 11th century temple is dedicated to Lord Krishna, who is worshiped as Krishana Bhadra, along with his brother, Balaram also known Balabhadra and sister Subhadra, ostensibly a manifestation of 'Shakti'
The surprising fact is, that Subhadra is not even a minor deity in the Hindu pantheon of Gods, and, the reasons for her to be worshiped here, at one of Hinduism's holiest shrines, and, nowhere else, are  shrouded in mystery.

In the sanctum sanctorum are the idols of Balabhadra (white), Subhadra (yellow), and Jagannath (black). They are placed on a Chlorite stone platform. The Idols are made from Wood and are incomplete, having no hands. The story goes that the Divine Sculptor had asked to be left undisturbed while carving the Idols. After two weeks, the impatient King peeped in and the Craftsman vanished, leaving the Idols incomplete. 

The famous Car Festival or Rathayatra is observed in summer, every year, and attracts many hundreds of thousands  pilgrims and visitors from all over India and abroad.
Lord Jagganath's Chariot (FP).
Chariot Wheels.

Lord Jagannath’s Chariot is called Nandighosa. Forty-five feet high with sixteen wheels, each of seven-foot diameter, it is covered with a decorated red and yellow cloth. 
Lord Balaram's Chariot, called the Taladhwaja, is the one with the Palm Tree on its flag. Forty-four feet high, with fourteen wheels and is covered with a red and blue cloth. 
Subhadra's twelve wheeled forty-three feet high Chariot, known as Dwarpadalana, literally "trampler of pride," is decked in red and black. 
Idols on Chariots (FP).
These wooden Chariots are made anew every year by hereditary craftsmen. Drawn by thousands of devotees hauling on ropes. On many occasions these have got away, trampling pride and more, often crushing everyone in their path; not exactly the the acts of a benevolent God, thereby providing the entomological root of the English word Juggernaut.

Mahalaxhmi Temple.
There are many subsidiary shrines and points of interest in the main temple courtyard, an old Kalpa Bata Briksha (mystical banyan tree), legend has it that the tree fulfills wishes if one ties a strand of sacred thread on the boughs of the tree, as a result the poor tree is being strangled under a canopy of thread!
The Kanchi Ganesha, the black stone idol of Lord Ganesha placed in this temple was reportedly brought from Kanchi. 
The Maha Laxmi Mandir. It's the only place within the premises of the Jagannath Temple where the sound of the sea is heard. Folklore has it that since Goddess Laxmi is the daughter the ocean; there is a strong bond between the two, which results in the sea being heard only at this point of the complex.

Ananda Bazzar.
The temple's kitchen is humongous  The food cooked here is known as Mahaprasad, literally 'grand offerings'. All food is cooked only in earthen pots, with water drawn from two special wells near the kitchen called Ganges and Yamuna, and, is mostly steamed. The 'prasad' after being offered to Lord Jagannath is distributed and sold to devotees at the Ananda Bazar, inside the temple complex.

A Panda at Puja.
There is, however, a fly in the ointment; the author, a Hindu Brahamin, is almost always appalled at the hygienic standards prevailing in most Hindu shrines. Here, too, the complex is dirty, with the Ananda Bazzar area being particularly filthy. Agreed that there are a lot of pilgrims, but a rich temple can surely maintain better cleanliness standards.

Sand Sculpture, Puri Beach.

Moreover, the 'Pandas', the minor priests, at the Jagannath Temple are particularly aggressive and rapacious, and prey on poor superstitious pilgrims. It just gives the Hindu religion a bad name and undercuts peoples' piety.

The Policy of allowing entry only to 'Devout Hindus', whatever that means, the author is in no way 'Devout', is regrettable as it is against the tenets of Hinduism.This diktat has often come in for attack and condemnation, rightly so.

The Crowded, Popular Puri Beach.

Leaving the Temple, one ventured forth on to the Beach, one of Puri's best features. This Beach is generally crowded with Pilgrims and Holidaymakers, as Puri is the most popular Beach Destination on the East Coast of India.
Fishermen and Turtle.

At most times Puri Beach a microcosm of of Indian life, what with family groups, mendicants, vendors, street food stalls, animals, fishermen's communities et all. going about their business. Quite frenetic!. 
Life is a B**ch -- No Bull!

The Beach itself is golden sands and the slope into the sea is very gradual, making it safe; except during the monsoons when there are strong undercurrents.
Puri, Shallow Safe Seas.
The teeming multitudes, however, can get on ones nerves. 

Solitude and Shells at Dawn, Puri Beach.
Those wanting to get away from the madding crowd will have to walk afar, away from the main drag.

Sand Sculpted Santas.
Puri is home to the famous Sand Sculptor Sudarshan Patnaik, who uses the Beach as his canvas. Patnaik's sculpting has won him many international competitions and earned him worldwide publicity and renown.

'Pani Puri' in Puri.
Fresh Fried Seafood .
Puri is not exactly known for the excellence of its culinary offerings, with most hotels offering indifferent fare, probably with the exception of the Mayfair, which has tolerable food. Adventurous travelers, however, will find a wide variety of Street Food, both Vegetarian and Non Vegetarian. Deep fried fresh caught fish is excellent and reasonable. Sweet lovers will find Rossogollas to be  excellent.

Chilka Lake and Enviorns

Panthaniwas Rambha.
Our Cottage.
We left Puri for Chilka, the road though green and scenic, is bad in parts till we touch National Highway 5. Thereon, we press on to Rambha, where we have booked a cottage at The OTDC's Panthaniwas, the best choice for a stay at Rambha. We arrived at the Hotel which is beautifully located but shabbily maintained. Our Lake facing cottage had spacious rooms, a big bathroom and a lovely verandah sit out, but the housekeeping left much to be desired.

View from our Cottage.
View from cottage at Sunset.
Politely expressed displeasure and judicious tipping resulted in a gang of four descending on us, and under the stern gaze and supervision of Gurmeet, scrubbing the premises thoroughly. This effect lasted for the duration of our three day stay, with all staff providing smiling, quick and efficient service.
Lesser Indian Kingfisher.
Siberian Crane in Flight. 
So a word to the wise, tip at the beginning of your stay and for service thereafter, you will be much more comfortable; most tip amounts are small, ranging from 20 to 100 Rupees.

The Lake plays host to an extensive variety of bird life, both native and migrant. This makes Chilka one of the best places in India for bird-watching. It is the largest wintering ground for migratory birds in India. Over 150 varieties of birds can be viewed here, including the endangered Siberian Crane.

Greater Flamingos, Chilka.
Siberian Crane.
 It is also an important breeding ground for Flamingoes. The Nalaban Island within the lagoon, is classified as a Bird Sanctuary, with former poachers of Mangalajodi now acting as wildlife protectors.

Siberian Crane and Egrets.
The lake is also home to an extremely diverse range of aquatic life, including 225 species of fish and also the highly endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin. The lake plays an important part in the economy of the local area, with thousands of fishermen depending upon catches of fish, prawns and crab. Chika prawns are highly prized and command premium prices.
Rare Fishing Eagle.

Chilka Shrimps.
Travelers are advised to use the services of local boatmen for most excursions, as the author did; or the motorboats of Odisha Tourism Development Corporation, to visit the outer islands or the sand bar. The Lake is shallow, averaging 4 - 6 feet so boatmen punt their boats with long bamboo poles, walking up and down along the full length of the boat. This has the advantage of being silent and you can approach birds without disturbing them. It is surprising how two men punting the boat can cover large distances quite fast. 
Fishermen Punting a Boat at Dusk.
Boats are, anyway, not allowed to use outboard motors near the Nalaban bird sanctuary, so use local boats. 
The prices are reasonable, both for punted boats and boats from the tourism department.
Dolphins, Chilka.
The OTDC operates  tour boats  between Barkul and Kalijai, and also from Satpada towards the Lake's mouth for spotting Dolphins. A boat journey from Rambha to Satpada takes about 2 hours.
Morning Light, Chilka.

The best time to be on the lake are Dawn and Dusk, the Morning and Evening hours offer peace, tranquility and good light for photography. In fact, on the final day of our stay, in a hurry to get to the jetty so as to not miss sunrise; the author tried climbing over a locked gate at the resort, forgetting that advancing years and good living have no longer left the body as limber as it used to be. The inevitable slip and fall resulted in many contusions and injuries on the shin. Adrenalin and 'natural intrepidity' ensured that the three hour boat ride was successful and enjoyable, but later, pain and stiffness resulted in a diagnosis of a depressed fracture back in Delhi.

Babla Majhi (L) and Friend.
Chilka Shrimp with Chilies.
The author hired local fisherman and honorary game warden, Babla Majhi and his team of boatmen for excursions, bird watching and photo ops, it was a worthwhile investment, as they were dependable and knowledgeable and knew the best spots as well as light conditions and had good advice on photographic situations. 
Highly recommended, but please do not ask them to sing.....! Maybe inspired by the Bollywood cliche that fishermen sing well, one requested a folk song; the resulting cacophony severely lacerated musical sensibilities and frightened away the birds. Avoidable.

Fish and Veg, in Mustard.
That being said, they were great at organising an impromptu cook out with fresh fish, crabs and shrimp. Shrimp and Crab stir fried with Chilies and Tomatoes and Fish simmered in Mustard with Vegetables. Delicious!.
Godess Kalijai Temple.
Apart from the various quaintly named islands on the lake, like Christmas Island, Beacon Island, Bird Island, Picnic Island etc., there are various other excursions on or in the vicinity of Chilka, quite a few of which can be clubbed and covered in a day.  The more interesting ones are, 
Kalijai Temple - Located on Kalijai Island, The Goddess is the presiding deity of Chilika. Fisherman in Chilika pray to Kalijai before they go fishing. 
Satapada - One of the two confluence points of the lake with the ocean, near Puri. It is the best place to spot dolphins. 
Tara Tarini Temple.
Narayani - About 22 Km from Rambha, has natural springs and the temple of Goddess Narayani.
Tara Tarini Temple - On  Kumari hills on the bank of Rushikulya, about 30 Km from Rambha. One of The Shakti Sthals in Orissa.
Nirmaljhar Temple and Spring.
Nirmaljhar - About 20 Km from Rambha, is a shrine dedicated to Lord Vishnu and other deities.  Ihas a perennial spring, water channel and pools,  A lovely uncrowded, serene place at the edge of a forest.
Banpur - The former capital of the Sailodvaba dynasty, houses the shrine of Goddess Bhagwati. The temple of "Dakshya Prajapati" is a fine example of Orissan temple architecture.
Ashoka's Edicts, Jaugad.
Stick Insect, at Jaugad.
Jaugad - Located about 40 Km from Rambha,  Jaugad is known for The Rock Edicts of Emperor Ashoka. 
Eleven of Ashoka's Fourteen Edicts are inscribed on Rocks here, in the Pali Script. We also saw a stick insect here, which resembles a twig. Natural camouflage. 
Lightouse, Gopalpur, 
Gopalpur-on-Sea - 60 km from Rambha, Gopalpur-on-sea is one of the ancient ports of Orissa. It is a nice, quiet sea-side resort. Gopalpur has some nice hotels, probably the best ones after Bhubaneshwar. An Old Lighthouse on the beach is open to visitors and the view from the top is nice. If you intend covering Gopalpur from any points on Chilka Lake, it is best to make a full day excursion out of it. Better still, go and stay a couple of days to unwind.

Fish at Panthaniwas.
Fisherman laying nets.
Just sitting on the Verandah of our Cottage watching the Boats and Fishermen on Chilka was a great way to unwind. 
The hotel cooks were very good about cooking the fresh fish and shrimps that we would buy from our fishermen friends. These went down very well with Chilled Beer, which was very reasonably priced at Panthaniwas.

All good things come to a end, however, and we had come to the 'finis' of our stay. 
Eight 'Bulleteers'
While checking out, we met a group of eight 'Bulleteers', a name given to those who ride the cult Royal Enfield 'Bullet' Motorcycles. A Pre Second World War design, still being manufactured in India, with very few mod cons. 
A 'Bulleteer's Typical Stance!.
Memories of Chilka.
It is said that a Bullet rider spends far more time tinkering with his troublesome steed than riding it!. This group was riding from Chennai to Shillong, a distance of over 2300 Km. They had had many breakdowns along the way and were expecting many more en-route!. Truly dedicated!.

We drove down to Bhubaneshwar, checked into the Trident, a day of meetings, some last minute shopping for Gurmeet, and, a flight back to Delhi. 
We stored away memories of Chilka, into our subconscious beings. These would have to suffice till our next visit. Hopefully soon!.

Sunset on Chilka Lake.