The river Mahanadi starts splitting into distributaries west of Cuttack and meets the sea at several points with Puri at the southern end and Paradip at the northern. This forms a huge delta perhaps as big as the Godavari basin but smaller than the Sundarbans.
In terms of economic activity and the consequent prosperity however the two northern deltas are far behind their southern cousin. The road distance between Puri and Cuttack is currently 160 Kms. A direct coastal road would reduce the distance by about 40% but will entail considerable expenditure to bridge the various distributaries of the great Mahanadi. After travelling through the region extensively I strongly felt that this huge region could be developed much faster with better road connectivity. Right now, the entire region appears to be grossly underdeveloped.
Paradip or Paradeep is an artificial harbour and has considerable importance in bulk cargo trade, especially in iron or from the India’s eastern region and the petroleum products imports. Coal and Fertilizers are other important items. The dust of the imported coal lying around in the town is processed in pallets by the locals and used as cooking fuel. This is certainly a take on our age-old cow dung. People have merely substituted the coal dust for the cow dung.
There being no significant historical or religious places the commercial activity dominates the town. But there is always something if you look for it. Not ancient but from the recent past is found. A romantic place housing a famous lighthouse called FALSE POINT LIGHTHOUSE built by the British and a cemetery for the Englishmen who worked there. This lighthouse seems to have been an institution by itself. Upon inquiry, you will come to know that this place was equipped with even a small hospital for the inhabitants who were employed in connection with the lighthouse. I will not be surprised if someone tells me that they had a priest to preside over the frequent funerals.
The major question is: how to reach the place. The place is shrouded in mystery and there being no Tourism Industry in Paradip, is seldom explored. An attempt has been made by an employee of the Lighthouse administration to throw some light on the history of the place. One can easily access it here:
It is difficult to locate this place on the Google map. One can see a place called Batigraha- lighthouse which is quite far from the sea and the map does not show a connecting waterway. The lighthouse may be (now, after silting for more than 150 years) far from the sea but the access is by boat through a navigable channel which you don’t see on the map. During this coastal drive we have had several problems with the Google map.
There are three sources to reach the place:
1 There is a boat service to and from the villages around which runs a ferry- looks quite dangerous. It is a schedule service and is dependent on the tide timings. And if you enlarge the picture you will see more motorcycles being carried.
2 The Lighthouse has contracted a boat for supplies which makes a trip every day. You (and me) are not entitled to this service but I guess one can talk to ‘right people’
3 Look for a private operator who can hire a motorboat.
We get up very early in the morning. Our objective is to prove the manager at the OTDC Resort wrong. He has told us that it is impossible to go to False Point and return alive the same day. We wander around on extremely bad roads, damaged by the very heavy vehicles plying in the port area and reach a beach from which the boats are supposed to be plying. There is nobody around here. We return towards the town and, on the way, take a diversion to the Fishing Harbour.
All fishing harbours in this country look alike. The difference may be in the numbers.
We make inquiries at the fishing harbour.
‘How do we go to False Point from here?’
‘No, this is not the place from which you can reach your destination. The fishing boats do not offer that kind of service’
‘What’s the alternative?’
After a brief thought the man suggested that we should perhaps hire a private boat.
‘Where do we find one?’
‘There are not many but there is one owned by Sahoo. Go across the fishing harbour, drive on the road along the waterside and look for a Restaurant visited by the fishing-trawler operators. We follow the instructions and reach the place.
Pradipto Kumar Sahoo is more helpful than expected. He opens up even more when we describe to him our mission of the coastal travel. Pradipto is in his middle age, owns a few businesses- a restaurant, a motorboat, perhaps a fishing trawler and a distribution business in Chemicals and hardware.
Yes, he has an 8- seat motorboat but has no other customers for the day. He is trying to develop a tourism business in the Mahanadi estuary. He has problems created by the port authorities who do not want traffic in the approach channels in the port crossing the river. And then there are private parties operating dedicated private jetty operations in the area who might not like the disturbance in the channels. He has plans for ‘Kerala-style’ houseboat operations in the Mahanadi. Ambitious, to say the least but a very practical and forward-looking person. We don’t find many of them easily.
The private boat tour works out quite expensive as there is none to share the cost of the 8-seater. We discuss and Pradipta is very understanding and considerate. We agree on a mutually acceptable figure for the boat ride of nearly four hours excluding the waiting time. We agree to come back and have lunch at his restaurant for which we select a bunch of fresh Blue Crabs at the harbour.
The licensed boat operator takes his own time to arrive. He has just returned from his native place in Andhra Pradesh last night and reported for work late and then had to go to the jetty with a plastic can to bring the diesel. In the event the boat was very efficient. We were comfortable despite the fact that we were sailing upstream.
To the left above is the storage facility for the imported Phosphates. Right Up is a barge in the estuary and at the bottom is one of the industrial establishments upstream on Mahanadi.
It is a great experience to go upstream through inhabited channel banks although they are not anywhere near the population density of the Kerala backwaters. The construction of the large huts needs to be studied if not already done. They look very sturdy. Unfortunately we did not have an opportunity to land and have a look.
The scenes from the backwaters look pretty at this time. Life should be much more difficult in the wet monsoon days.
The picture at the bottom with the hanging pots is still a mystery for me. I showed to to several people on the mainland and nobody could explain what it is all about.
We miss the way (waterway) once and have to return back and take the correct route, losing half an hour in the process. We manage to reach the landing site which is about 200 meters from the Lighthouse.
The lighthouse is a massive structure like no other we have seen in India so far. The huge plinth and the bottom, the painting and the surroundings are like no other we have seen.
The area surrounding the lighthouse is huge. The In-charge of the lighthouse is a very helpful gentleman who has grown up here when his father was working at the lighthouse. We are offered a climb up the lighthouse. This is unlike at other lighthouses where the suggestion would have been resisted. The people at most of the Indian lighthouses consider the visitors a nuisance. Here it was different. We turn down the offer as we have been given a total time frame by Pradipta and we need to return to the mainland in time for the lunch. The Blue Crabs are calling. In the process, we miss out on some views from the top of the lighthouse.
The area surrounding the lighthouse have many monuments of the past including the old utility and the residential buildings and the cemetery. Here are some of the structures in the compound.
Top Right is the cemetery, bottom left is the hospital and the right is the drinking water well.
The return journey is quite frightening and takes much longer. There is high tide now, water is rising and there is heavy wind in the opposite direction. We sail quite a distance upstream to make it to the fishing harbour at Paradip.
After feasting on the crabs, we move on to the resort and after some rest move to see another Lighthouse, the one serving Paradip. Yesterday we had been sent off from the gate of this lighthouse as were about 90 seconds late for the schedule timings. They try to send us off again today. The people at this lighthouse do not want visitors. The person in charge at this place in Mid-March 2017 is a particularly vicious, extremely arrogant and unfriendly bureaucrat who thinks the lighthouse and the surrounding property is his private preserve. They try to persuade us not to climb up the lighthouse despite the fact that it is officially permitted on payment of a prescribed fee.
Despite all the efforts made by the keeper to keep us away, we decide to climb. The person assigned to us inform us that we do not have a right to visit. We can be denied an entry without assigning any reason. This is downright insulting and the motive is by now clear. That prompts us to be adamant.
As a last attempt, the man tells us that we are too old to climb. We insist that we can and do.
It turns out to be worth the effort, climbing and fighting the petty officialdom.
Here are the scenes from the top of the Lighthouse.
The grazing grounds for cattle:
The harbour side:
The residential part of the town which is very neat and clean- the modern town:
A little out of the town is this Shani temple with the ferocious ‘Shani’ right on the gate.
We are done with Paradip and have to move to the next place which happens to be Bhitarkanika. We now need to cross the distributary of Mahanadi which we crossed yesterday the previous day to reach the False Point but much upstream. This part of the river is used for massive sand-mining operations, highly mechanized.
We stop on the way fro breakfast at a junction off the highway and come across a Musical Instruments shop:
The Mrudang and a wide variety of Indian percussion instruments are here to see and buy, mostly for the religious functions.
We do not find our daily dose of green coconut here and settle down for a nice watermelon:
This is not an easy ride. We drive along the narrow country roads connecting villages and small towns to reach the mangrove forests which is called Bhitarkanika. ‘Kanika’ is a largely inaccessible island on the mouth of one of the distributaries of Mahanadi and the portion of the mangrove-infested estuary upstream is known as Bhitarkanika- Inner Kanika.
We take the Pattamundai-Aul-Rajkanika route to reach the place called Khola Gate in the Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary.
We have booked our stay at an expensive lodge as there are not many places to stay available in the area. W arrive in the late afternoon and take a short walk around the village and the riverside. The shape of the huts here is peculiar. The roof comes right up to the ground.
The place is promising as far as birds are concerned. We are instantly rewarded with the sighting of a Lesser Adjutant Stork.
The real fun begins the next day morning. We get very early and get on to a motorboat with a well-trained guide and boatman. In the first 15 minutes of the early morning ride we spot five species of Kingfishers, a record of sorts, at least for us.
The first one to make his appearance is the Brown-Winged Kingfisher.
The Black-Capped Kingfisher followed:
A pair of Collared Kingfisher came along:
And then there was the Pied Kingfisher:
And then there was the Common Kingfisher and the White-breasted Kingfisher.
Bhitarkanika is mini Sundarbans. In fact, it has crocodiles in more abundance than the Sundarbans. Even birdlife is much more profuse. The only thing absent here is the Tiger and the huge Bengali crowd. In my understanding tigers don’t like noisy people and that is the reason they have become man-eaters in the Sundarbans.
And also the other bird species like the White-breasted Waterhen which is quite common all over the country but here in the mangroves she looks very bright, clean and fresh:
And here is the father of all chicken we eat- the Red Junglefowl- Gallus gallus. (apologies for a bad picture)
The Mudskippers are a delight to watch at the low tide when they dominate the mud between the water and the dry land:
And here is an eagle and the photographer taking rest after the early morning efforts:
This estuary extends further upstream up to Chandbali and beyond. In fact, there is a tourist boat service run by OTDC from Chandbali to the sanctuary. The boat service would take about two hours but reaching Chandbali by the road takes considerable effort and time.
We take the Pattamundai-Aul-Rajkanika road to reach the banks of Baitarana river and cross the bridge into Chandbali.
At Aul we stop to buy some fruits and we are told by the locals that Aul used to have a palace which is now not accessible as we should proceed to Rajkanika and visit the palace there. When you say (or I say) ‘palace’ it implies kings have stayed in this little hut. And this one is highly rated.The Telegraph, the prestigious newspaper on Saturday 9th April 2011 said that this palace is ‘ poised to become a major hub for overseas tourists’ Six years down the line the palace is closed and waiting for the overseas tourists to come and open it. This palace is said to be housing the ‘largest crocodile skull’. Does this imply that it is the skull belonged to the largest crocodile? I doubt. In any case this palace looks pretty with open grounds inside and outside the gates. There were tell-tale empty ice-cream cups on the outer grounds (from where the pictures below were taken) to indicate a recent evening of festivities.
One need to cross this bridge on Baitarna river to reach Chandbali from the south side.
Chandbali was an important riverine port in the early part of the last century. It connected the agricultural hinterland of this part of Odisha with Calcutta by the river and the sea. Hardly any signs of the past glory of the port are visible to-day. The town is used by the people who intend visiting Bhitarkanika and those visiting the temple at Aardi. The Aardi shrine is easier to visit by boat from here rather than by road from the north. Chandbali has an OTDC Aranyanivas. The term Aranyanivas is used for the hotels and resorts which were earlier Forest Department guest houses.
As we not find anything interesting around and we decide to take a boat upstream on the Baitarana to a place called Aaradi. This place is famous for its temple of Akhandalamani. It is a Shaivate temple and has a legend about its origins. It is too long a story to be dealt with here.
What assaults your senses here is this crass depiction of sexual acts on the walls of the temple. This appears to be a peculiarity of Odisha temples. I am not sure if anyone has an explanation for this feature which is not found in other Shiva temples or at least not found in such explicit manner.
The Baitarana upstream from Chandbali is otherwise an interesting boat ride. The major economic activity perhaps is sand-mining.
The mode of transportation around the area is the country boat.
Coastal Odisha journey will continue in the next post.
Text by Suryakiran Naik
Photographs by Suryakiran Naik & Veena Naik