114. WEST BENGAL. (3) SUNDARBANS & KOLKATA.

We have returned to Diamond Harbour from Bakkhali and want to explore the Sundarbans in the last leg of this coastal journey which started in Kutch in Gujarat more six months back.

As we explore the options for visiting the Sundarbans we realize that driving into the Sundarbans would not be possible using a car. TheBlueDrive has been a journey by car but for this last part of it we need to change tracks. One can drive up to a place called Godkhali which has parking facilities. From there travel would be mostly by boats. Of course, the purely local transport is taken care of by the three-wheeled vehicles even in the remotest villages.

We also decide not to experiment our travelling skills in this treacherous terrain and engage the services of a tour operator for transport and a two-night stay at a place called Sajnekhali inside the Sundarbans National Park.

We are picked up at the Science City at Kolkata for the road journey to Godkhali. On the way we pass through places called Canning, Sonakhali and Basanti and get a good view of life in the areas surrounding the Sundarbans.

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Canning has an interesting history. It is named after Lord Canning, the British Governor General and later Viceroy (1856 to 1862). The town was established in the year 1864 to be developed as a port. The intention was to create a port on Matla river as an ‘alternative to Kolkata and rival to Singapore’. The planners however did not take into the consideration the unreliability of the terrain of the place. The places of this delta are at the mercy of the mighty rivers draining into the sea. They can make entire villages disappear in a flash flood and bring others into existence at another place.

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Eventually the plan to ‘reclaim’ the Sundarbans failed and caused loss to many investors.

Canning continues to a busy small town, if not a grand port city appears to have considerable trade in Timber.

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Sonakhali and Basanti are the other towns before reaching the ferry point at Godkhali. The only bridge in the area is between Sonakhali and Basanti on river Matla, a distributary of the mighty Ganga.

The crossing of river Bidyadhari from Godkhali to Gosaba in a country craft is an experience one should not miss. We are in early April dry season. Things should be pretty worse in the monsoons. The boat takes many bicycles, a few motorcycles and an unlimited number of human beings.

Food is available even here:

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We land at Gosaba on the other side of Bidyadhari and drag our bags through a long marketplace to reach a auto rickshaw stand to take a three-wheeler ride to another ferry crossing point which will take us into the parts of Sundarbans demarcated as National park. Indian tour operators excel in making life difficult to their customers. Whilst at the market, the guide informs us that this point is the end of civilization. Hereafter your cell phones will not work. (what a relief!!). You will not find any beer or wine shops (what a disappointment!!) and many other things. Buy all that you need for the next two days.

If you want to learn the difference between one zero and two, this is the place.

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The auto ride is fantastic on the narrow mud roads. It is difficult to describe how the drivers avoid collision with the oncoming vehicles. It is here that one gets to view some village life in the Sundarbans:

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This rise is longer and gives us some more views of the life in the Sundarbans. Most of the people visiting the Sundarbans do so with the intention and hope of sighting a Royal Bengal Tiger who inhabits these mangrove forests. The mangroves are also the habitat for a number of other species of mammals and birds. The chances of your sighting tiger are extremely good when you book a tour. Yes, of course you can see him. Why not? Why do you think people come here? By the time you reach Gosaba and engage people in conversation you come to know that sighting a tiger was never easy. By the time you are in Sanjelkhali you are told that only one in ten boat riders are blessed with a tiger sighting. By the time you are on the boat the guide looks askance at you:  tiger? who?.  For most part, the tiger is nocturnal. Yes, he does kill people when he is hungry and cannot find better meat.Of course we are not among the luckiest people on the earth to beat such heavy odds. We don’t get to see the RBT. As a consolation, we get to see the Lesser Adjutant Stork and the King Cobra swimming in the river.

 

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The bird life in the Sundarbans can be better viewed from the land. Boating is not suitable for this purpose. The next day morning we get to see these beauties around the resort we stayed:

The village life in the Sundarbans is not touched with modernity. People live quite a few decades behind their compatriots in the cities. Electricity is solar.

People are dependent on the muddy rivers for their livelihood. One can see people struggling in the mud on the banks of the river for catching fish or collecting the prawns hatch-lings:

Even for tourists the life in the Sundarbans is not easy. One has to approach a boat with great difficulty at low tide.

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The man-eating tigers inspire fear among the inhabitants of this land. The tiger is a strong swimmer and uses the rivers to dominate the territory.

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The deity worshiped in the region is the Banbibi and is supposed to protect the people from calamities.

Flower decorations in water pots is a part of the tradition:

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Here is a religious ceremony in progress on the bank of the river:

In the evening we are treated to some local music by the resort, created by two artists:

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Among the instruments used by the duo is a small drum which can double up as a string instrument:

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The next day we leave the Sundarbans and return to Kolkata,ending a 192 days of travel on the coast of India, covering all the districts of 9 states and 2 Union Territories (split into 5 different units).

Kolkota is not a coastal place but we make a halt for the rest before we drive 2100 kilometers to Pune.  Among the places we see at the great city of Kolkata is the Mullick Ghat flower market on the Hoogli under the Howrah Bridge.

The great flower bazaar brings together a wide variety of flowers for the trade as well as the retail buyers. It offers  flowers in bulk as well as the garlands, bouquets, wreathes etc.

Flowers put together for a possible wedding:

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and being made for a certain death:

 

Text by Suryakiran Naik

Pictures by Veena Naik & Suryakiran Naik

113. WEST BENGAL. (2) South 24 Parganas

South 24 Parganas is the largest district of the State of West Bengal. It is also among the most difficult to travel in. The river Hoogli is everywhere crisscrossing the district and forming innumerable islands. We decide to visit the southern-most town located on the Bay of Bengal called Bakkhali.
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We drive easily from Diamond Harbour up to a place called Namkhana. Our ordeal starts here. It is a river crossing and there is no bridge. Construction of a bridge has just started. The traffic is heavy and to make things difficult for us, one of the two ferries have broken down. They have to manage with one ferry. The que is endless. Calculating the number of vehicles in front of us and the number carried per trip in the ferry and the time taken by the ferry for the round trip I make an estimate of around 3 hours to get to the other side of Hoogly. In the event, my calculations are way off the mark. I had not considered the time taken by the crew for the lunch and the large number of ‘priority’ vehicles like those of the Government departments and the VIPs who are allowed to jump the que. The actual time taken was five and half hours.

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Namkhana is the only place where the crossing to the southern part of the district is possible unless you use a boat. The name applies to the land on the both banks of the river. Namkahana Post Office is on the north bank and Namkhana Police Station is on the south side.  The place services, by ferries and country boats, not only the Bakkhali but also several other islands including the large Sagar island which is approached from here as well as Kakdwip.

Fishing appears to be a major occupation. We could see some large fishes being hauled from the river.

The ferry crossing points on both sides have sizable local markets. The views are interesting and keep our cameras busy whilst crossing to and from Bakkhali. Here is a selection:

This ancient musical instrument is still in use in this part of the world:

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This variety of potato is not required to be cooked. One can eat it raw. It is sweet but is not the Sweet Potato.

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These fans are still in use to beat the heat:

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So are the earthen cooking pots:

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So are the locally made kitchen tools:

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Mishti Doi, the sweet curd, sold in the traditional way:

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The passenger transport system to and from the river crossing:

Here is a load of stems of Jute plants probably meant for use in the Paan plantation.

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Amidst the chaos of the town on both sides of the river, Karl Marx is remembered.

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To reach Bakkhali one has to pass through Frasergunj. This town has been named after Andrew Fraser who was the Lt. Governor of Bengal from 1903 to 1908. The beach, among the few in West Bengal stretches from Frasergunj to Bakkhali.

Bakkhali beach is quite popular, being the beach nearest to Kolkata city although not connected by railway like Digha. The beach is extensive and has a forested area not far away.

The Kingfishers feeding on varieties of crabs on the beach is interesting to watch.

This crab species has evolved a colour to match that of the sand on the beach to beat the predating kingfishers.

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One can see several islands off the coast in the Bay of Bengal. Inquiries reveal that a few of them can be visited by boat. The boats start from the fishing jetty. It is a well-organized operation and the island most visited is called Jambudwip.

After we reach the island we realize that the deal does not include landing on the island. One can ‘view’ the island from on board the boat and take pictures. Landing, we are informed, is not allowed as the island was found in the past to be harboring a Terrorist training camp.

The visit to the Jambudwip turns out to be a non-event. The boat ride to and fro the island however gives some idea of the hardships faced by the people living by the riversides.

Whilst at Bakkhali we get to see, for the first time for us, the plant called Sundari. This is the plant which gives the name to Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest shared by India and Bangladesh. The plant it true to its name.

We return to the shore after the island ride and try to explore the areas around Frasergunj. One of the occupations practiced in the area is Prawn Culture. One can see the ponds everywhere. And then there are the local people looking the prawn eggs in the seawater.

It is time for us to return to the mainland and start our journey to the great Sundarbans which is last part of this coastal drive. We then realize that we had missed on something which was part of our ‘things-to-see’ list. It is an old abandoned lighthouse on the banks of Hoogli at a place called Kulpi. Located about 10 Kms from Diamond Harbour. Kulpi was a port during the British rule. Not much is known about the place and much less has survived. The only prominent surviving landmark is the old lighthouse which now is quite far from the river but was probably located closer  when built. The area along the river and the parallel road called ‘Military road’ is quite interesting. It probably had some military establishments which explains the name. The stretch is used extensively by brick kilns. One can see a number of them along the river.

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One can also see the industrial units across the river, closer to Haldia.

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And here is the antique Lighthouse.

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Text by Suryakiran Naik

Pictures by Suryakiran Naik & Veena Naik

 

112. WEST BENGAL. (1) Digha, Haldia & Diamond Harbour, Sagar Island.

The last state of our coastal journey also turned out to be the most difficult. The taste of the things to come is received at the Mahanadi delta in northern Odisha. The same terrain type continues and becomes more muddy and hostile as we proceed to the deltas formed by the Hoogli which meets the sea at various places all along the coastline of the state. Our journey is road based and self-driven. This does not suit the coast of this State. It could better be done using a boat.

Our first stop is Digha, probably the only full-fledged beach holiday location in West Bengal. It is just across the Odisha border and the locals do not seem to be making any distinction between the two states.

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Digha is connected to Kolkata by a railway line and that largely explains the large number of tourists flocking here. The 190 Kms rail distance is covered in less than four hours from Howrah Junction. It also explains the presence of large number of hotels and lodges.

We pass this last temple on the Odisha side and cross into the West Bengal. This is the ‘Garuda’, bird ‘vahan’ of Lord Vishnu carrying his master on his wing. This species has now become extinct, in case you are wondering why we are not using this mode of transport now.

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There is nothing special about the town and the beach except that they give you a taste of Kolkata. The seashore especially at the Old Digha beach seems to be shored up by pouring concrete. It is being attacked by the sea and would have been eroded without this effort.

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The beach is otherwise well maintained and clean and has a lot of monuments:

After a night’s halt and moving around the resort town, we decide to continue into West Bengal. The next town for us to visit is the port city of Haldia. There is no ‘coastal’ road to reach the place. It is 108 Kms. away by the typically narrow roads of West Bengal. It could be shorter if you use a route with a ferry crossing which we avoid. The reasons will be clearer as we proceed with this post. Here is the road out of Digha.

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Raising arches seems to be a Bengali obsession as much as raising statues is a Andhraite vice.

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Haldia is out and out a commercial town, typical of the new port towns with the numerous heavy industries which have come up because of the port facilities. It was only after we left the place that we realized that we had not taken any pictures at Haldia. It is mid-march and it is getting hotter by the day and tiring.

From Haldia we are heading for Diamond Harbour, across the Hooghli, 62 Kms away but through very dense traffic of what are the outlying areas of the great city of Kolkata. Before we reach Diamond Harbour we have two historical places to visit on the way, neither is very far from the highway leading to Kolkata.

The first one is called Mahishadal Rajbari. Mahishadal is name of a place. Rajbari, I presume with good reason, is a palace or a place occupied by a ruler. This particular Rajbari’s available history states that it is an estate established by a North Indian Businessman with a view to establish a ‘Zamindari’.  The businessman, presumably a merchant, with 16th century antiquity is known by the name of Janardhan Upadhyay Garg. What strikes me here is the realization that a ‘Zamindari’ could be ‘established’ by whoever had the means to do so. It was not an evolved, hereditary institution. If true, I don’t blame the English in colonizing India. They just enlarged the concept of the Zamindari into a larger Zamindari.

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History apart, this is a beautiful place. I wonder who owns it now. There are two palaces and many other smaller structures on the grounds and beyond is a place where the boys are training themselves to be cricketers. The one attended to and for which one has to pay an admission fee is in the front and has a nice view. It has some old furniture and some stuffed animals which will rot in the near future. Some old guns used in hunting the animals are hanging on the walls. Photography is not allowed inside.

Here are the grounds facing the palace:

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The Zamindar:

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The old Rajbari at the backside of the one above is not maintained the same way as the new one.

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Done with the Rajbari we drive in the opposite direction along a canal and reach the highway at some distance where we had entered and continue north to see another Rajbari, much more interesting than the one we just left. The past of Tamluk Rajbari is not as modest as that of Mahishadal Rajbari.

We pass through very narrow streets of an old town and at one point decide to stop somewhere and take a autorikshaw.  Driving through narrow lanes is scary.

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Before, during and after the visit to this place I tried desperately to find out something credible about it on the internet . What I have come across is incredible, unbelievable and insulting to intelligence.

The Wikipedia article informs me that this place has been referred to in Puranas and Mahabharata. It is an ancient port, now silted.

‘archaeological remains show continuous settlement from about 3rd century BC’

It is silent on the subject of the Rajbari which is the only major surviving monument. Is the place or the ruins of the building are 2500 years old?

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A brilliant piece of information is provided by Holidayfy.com :

‘ …… these ancient ruins of the Tamluk Palace are a brilliant spectacle of architectural brilliance. The temple is believed to be 2500 years old and was inhabited by a West Bengal King’.

This is absolutely brilliant. To my knowledge Palace and temple are two different things. The writer for the website does not make such silly distinctions.  West Bengal came into existence with the partition of Bengal by the British and no kings were allowed to exist here (except of course the British monarchs) by them or by the later Communist rulers of the state.  Even now the place does not have a King. Having a Queen is a different matter altogether.

We move on to Haldiatourism.gov.in. This is a website maintained at the taxpayers’ cost. It is a government website which states that this place is :

‘……a quiet witness to a glorious history of over 2500 years. Tamluk Rajbari houses rich culture, heritage and legacy’

The only thing this place houses is stray cows and goats. Auto rickshaws drive through it. It does not even have a compound.

The writer continues (and I am sure he has never visited the place. He is sitting somewhere in Kolkata in an air-conditioned room):

‘Believed to be built in the 5th century (BC) by the Mayuradha dynasty, the then king was believed to be present in the Swayambhar Sabha of Draupadi of Mahabharata’

‘the magnificent palace leaves the visitors spellbound’,

perhaps by the smell of urine and cow dung’.

It continues:

‘during Freedom Struggle Mahatma Gandhi and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose visited the place’

Agreeing to visit this place appears to be among the very few things these two great men agreed upon. Even then, I am sure they visited the place at two different times.

The website Holidayiq.com has reworded the above information by someone perhaps sitting in Mumbai or Delhi. The major and exceptionally brilliant change made in the text is to refer to Draupadi  as ‘Lady Draupadi’, stopping just short of calling her Mademoiselle  Draupadi or ‘Draupadi Didi’ to keep in line with the  more recent political climate.

I am frustrated. I am aware of Indians’ disregard and apathy to history and I am shocked that the British sources do not throw much light on this either. They were here. The White Man was very much in this area. The clergy was here, in fact it is said that this place, Midnapore district , is where the Christian conversions started on the sub-continent outside of the Portuguese influence.

I am no Historian or archaeologist by any stretch of  imagination but when I see an arch and when I see a brick I can very well decide if those items are 2500 years old or not. The brickwork and the arches suggest European influence.

Assuming that this ‘Rajbari’ is 2500 old, why are the not ASI here. They are guarding places much younger. What happens to the state Archaeology department. If they don’t do much else they should at least object to the articles on the internet which are misguiding the public.

Not satisfied with what I saw and what I read, I am sceptical. I start talking to the people, including the guy who brought us here in an autorickshaw as we could not locate the place on the narrow road.

‘is this the Rajbari?’

‘Yes’

‘is this the only Rajbari here?’

‘yes, this is the only rajbari’

‘is there any other old, historical place around here?’

‘No, there is none.’

This guy looked educated and could speak Hindi (which is not to be taken for granted in Bengal) and even a smattering of English. He was very sure. I spoke to another person in the town for confirmation. And if you check on the images available on the internet, they are the same as I have posted. I want to rule out the possibility that I drove into a wrong place which my wife always say I do.

My conclusion: This  is a fraud caused by ignorance.There is no significant commercial activity suggesting an attempt to divert tourist traffic here.

The Tamluk Rajbari will remain a mystery to me until I find better sources of information about it. The seeds of doubt about what appears on the internet has been sown in my mind very firmly now.

We drive through the urban areas surrounding Kolkata city with a view to stop at Diamond Harbour, avoiding the inner city.  Our next stop is to be the islands in the Bay of Bengal which are on the western side of the Sundarbans.

Views of the Hooghli from the riverside hotel we stayed at Diamond Harbour:

Diamond Harbour was only a technical halt to reach Sagar Island and places beyond to the southernmost areas facing the Bay of Bengal. I think I decided on Diamond Harbour because the name was ingrained on my mind.In my childhood I used to follow politics and elections. The name ‘Diamond Harbour’ came up every once in a while as the constituency from where Jyoti Basu won with a such and such huge margin of votes.

We actually tried for the Sagar Island on our way back from Bakkali but for the sake of geographical continuity let me take that up first.

The 80 Kms. drive from Diamond Harbour to Bakhali through the lovely Bengali villages is something one should not miss. I heard you saying it would take about 2 hours. Did I?  It could take about 5 times as much. But that is for the next post. Right now we are at a place called Kakdwip which is the gateway to the Sagar island. You can see these places on the map below:

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The red circle in the map above is where you are required to cross a ferry. It will appear in the next blog post.

Our objective is to visit the western side of the Sagar Island so that we sort of connect to Haldia on the other side of the river where we have already been.

Kakdwip is a difficult place, believe me. I have seen many of them on this coastal tour. Finding a place to stay is only a minor problem. When it comes to visiting Sagar, the problems just multiply. There are only two crossing points. One ferry takes only passengers and the other one takes vehicles. The latter one makes only one trip a day. It carries the food supply lorries and one might have to wait in the Q for up to a week.

We park our car in the compound of the lodge where we have put up and go around the town exploring the ways and means of visiting Sagar Island. The obvious places to go to are the ferry points.

We first go to the place from where the passenger ferry operates. There has been some problem. One trip was cancelled and it has resulted in a large number of passengers stranded on the jetty. It is late afternoon and the people have to get across to their homes on the island.

From this point one reaches a place called Kakuberia and then make a road journey of 32 Kms. to reach the main town in the island called Gangasagar.

The main religious attraction of the island is the Kapilmuni Temple. This pilgrimage centre is visited by large number of Hindu pilgrims on the 14th of January every year. This is the day they bathe in the waters of the Holy Ganges ( Hoogli here) at it’s confluence with the Bay of Bengal. In fact this is considered as the end-point of the great and holy Ganga. To think of it, all the sins dissolved in the waters of the Holy river by the Hindus living upstream come up to here to be dumped into the Bay of Bengal and make the river free to bring in more sins in the next season from the northern and eastern India. The waters of the Bay of Bengal further east have a high concentration of sins on which the Royal Bengal Tiger feeds.

It was later afternoon when we reached the jetty where the passengers were waiting for the ferry. There was no possibility of visiting the island and returning that day. We decide to try to cross by the car ferry the next day and go to the car ferry point which is at a different place.

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The ferry operations are possible only at high tide and hence there can be only two trips to and from the island. We roughly calculate the number of vehicles the ferry can take and the number of vehicles queued up for the next trip. We might have to stay in the queue around two days if we park the car in the queue at that point in time. We are not able to calculate the time needed to return.  After considering all aspects we drop the idea of visiting the island. We just enjoy the sunset and return to the lodge for the night halt.

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Text by Suryakiran Naik

Pictures by Suryakiran Naik & Veena Naik.

112.ODISHA. (6) Chandipur, Bichitrapur & Chandrabali

Our last stop was at Chandbali and the next one is Chandipur separated by a road distance of 130 Kms. via the town of Bhadrak. Chandbali is not connected to Chandipur by a coastal road. Consequently, we travel by a road which is under repair or reconstruction from Chandbali to Bhadrak. A difficult and tiring drive through a number of villages. On the way, we attend to a tyre ‘pumcher’ before we reach Bhadrak.

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Bhadrak is a sizable town, a District Headquarters. What attracts one’s attention is a Dargah on the road as one approaches from the Chandbali side. The Dargah is the final resting place of two Sufi saint brothers.

This place is called Gulshan-e-Ghouspak and consist of a Mosque reportedly built by Allaudin Khilji and the Mazaars of the two saints. The Saints do not claim any antiquity. They came to Bhadrak in the ‘dark days’ (according to the shrine’s website) of 1960s and spread light and relentlessly performed miracles mostly on the medical side. The younger brother who appears to have been more popular died in the year 2013 in Delhi, followed by the elder brother next year. The magnificent edifice of the Dargah came up thereafter.

The importance of these saints lies in the claim that their lineage is through Shaikh Abdul Qadri Jeelani of Baghdad (who was a direct descendant of Prophet Mohammad) and hence they belong to the Sufi order of Quadriyya.

Outside the shrine one can see various shops selling the offering to be made at the shrine as well as the take-aways. The business appears to be brisk on both departments.

We continue through the town of Bhadrak and move towards our Chandipur. I will remember Bhadrak forever for one simple reason : at a fuel station they put diesel in my petrol tank and then started suggesting that I am a fool to buy a petrol driven car when diesel is cheaper. I realized my mistake and continued driving with about 6% diesel in the tank.

Chandipur is also known as Chandipur on Sea. It is known for two things: firstly, it is a major military establishment involved in the missile testing facility of the defence department and therefore out of bounds for the general public. The other claim to fame is that the beach here has the longest inter-tidal zone. The sea recedes five kilometers at low tide. This allows the visitors to walk up into the sea as much as they can during the low tide.

It is said that this feature allows a wide range of marine organism to live in this range, especially the shellfish and crabs. One can find a few varieties in the food stalls on the beach and around the village.

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There is not much else at the place to be seen. There is a Lighthouse but it is located in the military area and cannot be visited. This one on seen from the beach was initially mistaken by us for a lighthouse but turned out to be a watch tower or a radar.

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The most convenient place to stay the night at Chandipur is the Panthnivas, the OTDC facility. The tourism department has built a large visitors area with an amphitheatre overlooking the beach which is always crowded by the day visitors brought in by various tour operators. Our Late President presides over the place gracefully with his rocket station not far away.

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As we were looking at the fishing harbours, we are directed to another village called Balaramgadh which is on the banks of the river Budhabalanga, a few kilometres north of Chandipur. The river which meets the sea here has spurred a boat-building industry, perhaps the only one in Odisha.

We visited the place at low tide and hence did not witness any fishing related activity.

We stay the night at the beach and proceed the next day to another seaside place called Chandrabali, again hosted by the OTDC Panthnivas overlooking the ocean and a river. This resort has made the best use of the empty egg shells.

As we approached Chandbali from the Highway to the west, we could, for the first time, see this tall grass being carried around and wondered what it was and the purpose for which it would be used. Upon enquiry it was explained to us that these are the stems of the Jute plant. After removing the fibre for making the gunny bags and other jute products, the stems are sold. The main users are apparently the growers of ‘paan’ who use the steam to make the covering for the paan growing areas as we had shown in an earlier post.

Chandrabali is near to a border place called Chandaneshwar where the state of Odisha ends and West Bengal starts. Chandrabali is on the bank of river Subarnarekha where she meets the Bay of Bengal. The meeting point of the river has created a huge sand bar and a longish lagoon which can be crossed on foot during low tide but needs a boat at high tide. Most tourists prefer to cross the bar and approach the sea. It is worth doing it for the sake of witnessing one amazing creature.

The beach hosts a large number of shy red Ghost Crabs which dot the landscape until you approach them up to about 10 meters when they disappear in their nests under the sand. This is not the only place where this crab can be seen but among all places we saw it, this beach has the highest concentration of numbers.

Here is a short video of the crab at lunch:

The beach looks beautiful at sunset. This place deserves better attention than it gets.

The little forest between the river and the OTDC Panthnivas where we stayed attracts several bird species.  Look at this Indian Roller:

And this Green Barbet:

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Chandrabali village has a Shiva temple and substantial number of pilgrim visitors but despite its beach has not developed as a tourist place. This is largely because the town in West Bengal just across the border called Digha offers much better facilities and connectivity from Bengal side.

The only other place one can visit with Chandrabali as the base is the Bichitrapur Mangroves which the Odisha Forest Department is trying to develop as a sanctuary. The sanctuary area is a depleted mangrove forest facing the Bay of Bengal which hosts numerous mangrove-oriented  species of marine life and birds. The Forest Department hires boats. The people who accompany you were not trained in wildlife viewing and understood only Oriya language, seriously affecting our purpose in visiting the place.

We still manage to see a few crabs and birds.

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Fiddler Crab in display.

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Horse-Shoe Crab (dead)

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Hermit Crab  with a rock growing Barnacles.

The Red Ghost-Crabs are found here as well.

 

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Stork-billed Kingfisher.

The locals use the mangrove forests as their firewood which perhaps lead to the depletion of the mangroves. However, the efforts the people are making to haul the dead (killed?) trees through the muddy waters is indicative of extreme poverty of the people.

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Apart from the firewood, the locals also depend for their livelihood on the other products of the mangroves. Among them would be the edible crabs and shellfishes.

The Bichitrapur Mangroves are approachable and may afford opportunities to study the ecosystem closely from the nearby villages.

 

With this our coastal travel in Odisha comes to an end. Tomorrow morning we make an entry into the state of West Bengal.

Text : Suryakiran Naik

Photographs: Surayakiran Naik & Veena Naik

Videos: Veena Naik

 

 

 

111.ODISHA. (5) Paradip, Bhitarkanika & Chandbali

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.

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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.

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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:

http://www.dgll.nic.in/WriteReadData/Publication/Publication_Pdf_File/FalsepointLightHouse(2).pdf

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 beach:

The grazing grounds for cattle:

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The harbour side:

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The residential part of the town which is very neat and clean- the modern town:

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A little out of the town is this Shani temple with the ferocious ‘Shani’ right on the gate.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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The place is promising as far as birds are concerned. We are instantly rewarded with the sighting of a Lesser Adjutant Stork.

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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.

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The Black-Capped Kingfisher followed:

A pair of  Collared Kingfisher came along:

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And then there was the Pied Kingfisher:

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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:

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And here is the father of all chicken we eat- the Red Junglefowl- Gallus gallus. (apologies for a bad picture)

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The Mudskippers are a delight to watch at the low tide when they dominate the mud between the water and the dry land:

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

110. ODISHA. (4) Konark & Around.

In the last post, we had stopped at Chandrabhaga, on the outskirts of Konark. It is now the time to enter Konark town. In fact, Konark is a small village. Despite the large number of visitors there are not many hotels here. Most of the people stay at Puri (36 kms) or the state capital Bhubaneshwar 65 Kms. away. We stayed at the OTDC property very close to the temple. Whilst in Odisha we used the Odisha Tourism Development Authority’s lodgings wherever possible. They were very helpful, despite being a government organization, in making us comfortable. They accommodated our requests for change of booking dates and last-minute bookings from their office at Bhubaneshwar.

The highlight of the place is of course the Sun Temple or what remains of a glorious 13th century structure. The ruins do not appear to represent more than quarter of the original complex.

This temple dedicated to the Sun God was constructed by Narasimha Deva of Eastern Ganga dynasty. Eastern Ganga dynasty was not in the league of the richest dynasties of Indian history but it created this grand monument disproportionate to its power. It is unfortunate that it did not survive longer.

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The temple was constructed in the shape of a huge chariot with 12 pairs of wheels, three meters in diameter. The main sanctum of the temple 70 meters in height crashed in 1837 about 500 years after its completion.

What distinguishes this temple from the innumerable others in India is the carvings all around its exteriors depicting explicit sexual acts. This feature attracts all kinds of travelers – scholars, artists etc. There have been numerous interpretations about these carvings and there are numerous theories about the collapse of the main temple but no firm knowledge of the cause of the former and the reason for the latter.

The temple complex used Khondalite stone and iron. The stones perhaps from the collapsed portion of the temple are seen everywhere in the compound. Some of them have been moved to a museum compound behind the temple.

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The local guides sometimes inform you that these explicit sexual scenes were intended at promoting sexuality with a view to increase population which had been decimated by the notorious Kalinga war. This is blatant misinformation. The great Kalinga war was fought in 261 BC, about 1500 years before the temple was constructed.All in all, this is a beautiful piece of architecture even the quarter of it which survives and has the unique (with some others) feature of the erotic scenes being carved on the wall. It would make things simpler if we accept this.

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Here are some more erotic sculptures:

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From Konark as per the original plan we need to move in the northerly direction to the port city of Paradip. However, we decide on a detour to visit two small villages on the western side to have a look at two different art forms being practiced there.

The first one is called Raghurajpur. This village of 100+ houses seems to be inhabited entirely by artists – painters, sculptors, engravers, dancers etc. But what brings fame to the village is the ancient art of ‘Pattachitra’. Patta in this context means the leaf of the fond of the Borassic palm, flattened and dried. Chitra means picture. The artisans have been creating paintings on single palm leaves or more commonly on a combined set of leaves, using organic colours of vegetable origins. It is said that this has been going on for more than 2000 years.

This art form has also inspired another form wherein multiple leaves stuck over one another are used to cut designs and pictures using knives.

Painting on Tussar silk is also practiced in the village apart from carving stone idols in the locally available stone.

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The themes in all the three art forms is either the members of Hindu pantheon, the scenes from the ancient texts and, on the secular side, the immediate environment or a combination of these three.

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In the year 2000 the village was declared a Heritage Village and perhaps at this time the village received a fresh coat of paint or rather (mural) paintings which continues till now.

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A short 27 Kms. north of Raghurajpur is located another village or a small town called Pipili.. This small place has carved an admirable niche for itself in a commercial art form. The town specializes in applique art on fabric. The streets are a riot of attractive colours and designs.

This art form is supposed to have started in the 12th century mainly for decorating the ‘Raths’ or chariots and the ceremonial umbrellas for the annual ‘yatra’ of Lord Jagannath at Puri. This tradition continues but the art form has spread to other applications like pillow covers, decorative wall hangings etc.

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Traditionally the motives of Peacocks and Elephants are the dominant themes. Other themes are also seen. Also seen is the use of mirrors which is a variation on the traditional cloth and stitch regimen.

Here are some more of the creations:

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We return to OTDC Konark for the night halt and prepare ourselves for the next leg of the journey. On the way back we come across this procession of a deity being carried in a palanquins and are reminded that tomorrow is the festival of Holi, the festival of colours.

We also found these fresh mushrooms being sold on the roadside. They are in a different and colour and shape from what we get as Button Mushrooms in the cities. Perhaps they are a wild variety.

We start the next day with a visit to the Archaeological Museum located next to the OTDC complex and just behind the Sun Temple. The museum appears to have been set up to preserve the ancient artifacts of Odisha with particular emphasis on the Sun Temple. Many of the stones forming part of the temple are stored in the compound of the museum.

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The drive from Konark to Paradip is 105 Kms long and is not along the coast. The coastline here appears to be undeveloped. The only place worth visiting appears to be the Jagatsinghpur Reserve Forest. We decide to skip this because of concerns about availability of accommodation.

We choose the road which passes through a number of villages and plantations. Among the crops grown in the area is the famous paan- the betel leaf. This crop is grown fully covered on all sides to protect is from sunlight which appears to be detrimental to its grown.

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The stems of the Jute plant are used extensively in making these structures. the variety of Paan grown in western India is a climber which prefers the tall trees to cling on. Here the variety grown ( generally called Calcutta Paan) is a vine growing about 2 meters tall.

 

The place where we make a stopover is the shrine of Maa Sarala at Sarala Peeth, Kanakpur. This is a major shrine in the area and is close to the junction where the small country road joins the Cuttack- Paradip Highway.

Goddess Sarala is also known as Vak Devi, the goddess of knowledge and wisdom in which case she competes with Goddess Saraswati for the honour.

Another version places her as a Vaishnavite icon in the form of an aunt to Lord Krishna.

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Another version depicted at several places within the temple complex is the Mahishasurmardini,  the Maata in the  Shakti or Shakta traditions.

The iconography gets more confusing when you see a depiction of the Goddess as a consort of Lord Shiva, thus spanning the Shiva-Vishnu divide. This is almost sacrilegious.  We are told that both Bilva Patra and the Tulsi Patra are used in the temple.

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Sarala Maa is represented in the temple complex in two, four and eight armed versions and is also claimed by the Tantrik traditions. It does not make any difference to the Feral Rock Dove who is equally comfortable with Shaivite (above) and Vaishnavite (below) incarnations of the goddess.

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A massive dose of confusion is added with the suggestion that Sarala Maa represents a Mahayana Buddhist deity. This claim is supported by the fact that in the 8-arm version the goddess holds three unmistakable items associated with tantrik Mahayana Buddhism – Book, Veena and Bell.

We leave Sarala Ma to her destiny or destinies and make our way out of the town and towards the road to Paradip. On joining the highway, we stop at a small roadside eatery for lunch.

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We have rice and fish and then the owner insists that we should some of his delicious sweets made of milk and sugar.

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Before we reach Paradip we come across this beautiful sculpture in water by the side of the highway. We  have not been able to ascertain its significance until now. Hope to be enlightened soon.

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Text by Suryakiran Naik

Pictures by Suryakiran Naik & Veena Naik

For more pictures please visit the Facebook page- The Blue Drive.

109.ODISHA. (3) Jagannath Puri & Around.

With the objective to write an integral post on the Chilka Lake we had bypassed the important town of Puri between western and eastern part of the great lagoon. We have now returned to Puri, one of the four most important ‘dhams’, the holy places of Hindus. The pilgrimage to Puri along with the other three ‘dhams’ ensures that all your sins are ‘washed’. By implication if you visit Puri you have been pardoned for at least 25% of your crimes in your life so far. I am not sure if this is part-washing is officially sanctioned. This applies only if you are a Hindu, of course. Such facilities are available in the Middle East and Europe for other kind of Believers. Hinduism is probably the only religion which has made the facility available at four different convenient locations in the country. Countrywide marketing and distribution of services practiced of late has its origins here, not in Philip Kotler. Marketing boys, please note.

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The hotel that we booked online is very close to the main temple. So close that cars are not allowed up to the hotel. Not knowing what to do we call the hotel and they send us a man on motorcycle to pilot us to the hotel past the traffic policeman.

As we walk the main street surrounding the temple we find large wooden logs on one side and large smooth wooden logs on the other. This certainly demands and inquiry. I go for it. The explanation comes forth effortlessly.

You must surely be aware of the English word juggernaut. Its origin is in these pieces of wood. Lord Jagannath is taken out of and into the temple once in a year in a chariot made of wood. Juggernaut is the corruption of Jagannath and refers to this huge wooden contraption in which the Lord travels. Now why two sets of logs?

On the one side are the logs for making the chariot for the current year. They are therefore raw logs, unprocessed.

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What we see on the other side are the logs dismantled from the last year’s chariot which is not reused. The wood is used for cooking the ‘prasad’ in the temple.They are not allowed for any other use.

This ancient temple took its final shape in the later part of the 12th century. In the 17th century the Mogul emperor Aurangzeb ordered it to be demolished. It is said that the soldiers who arrived for this task were bribed and sent away and the temple merely ‘closed’, not demolished and reopened after the death of Aurangzeb. This is probably an important aspect of our history which the historians have ignored. It suggests that the foreign invaders to this country could have been kept away by bribing if the local rulers did not have the strength to fight them.

The temple by itself is not very impressive. The design particularly of the ‘Vimana’ part of it looks very original and uncommon but that view can be had only form a distance and the only convenient place for that purpose without being airborne is the lighthouse at the beach.

Here is the temple as seen from the top of the lighthouse.

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All the important religious places in this world are also important commercial centres. Religion is at it’s most useful here: to create employment. And that is the only useful purpose of God and religion. Here is a small sample of goods and services.

Going by the environment in and around Puri it is very difficult to say if this place owes its existence to religion or to tourism. The names support the latter-Hotel Sea palace, Hotel Gandhara, H. Samudra, H. New Rock Bay, H. Sukanya, H Swanapuri, Oyo Rooms Sand Bay, Reba Beach Resort, Sonar Tori, H Sagarika-.  I am inclined to believe that this place is about 70% beach resort and 30% temple town. This proportion might change during the ‘Rath Yatra’, the time of the year when the ‘presiding deities’ of the temple are taken out in a procession to and from to another temple where they go for the summer vacation.

The beach as seen from the top of the lighthouse is a beautiful site.

And here is the lighthouse. This lighthouse must be among the most visited lighthouses in India as access to it is very easy and a large number of tourists visit the town throughout the year.

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Visiting major temples is India is and probably has always been difficult. The first things and the most ancient issue is of the dress-code. The devotees come dressed for the occasion. The other kind of visitors do not have these requirement in mind. The second issue is of the cameras and mobile phones. Mobile phones are a nuisance. Cameras appears to be banned for commercial reasons. The photographs of the deities are copyrighted and the local shops who sell the pictures need to be supported. This theory does not hold good against the advanced copying techniques and very slim smartphones that could be smuggled in. Anyway, this prevents people like me from visiting the insides of the temples although I am entitled to enter by virtue of my birth as a Hindu and not converted to any other religion.

Among the highlights of the temple ceremonies is the changing of the flag on the top of the temple. This is a daily routine watched by many devotees.

The Jagannath temple has four entrances but only one is used on regular basis for the public and it always has ques in front of it.

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And here is another gate:

The temple has engravings almost everywhere on its walls depicting among other things acts of lovemaking, a theme that is found in most of the temple art in Odisha.

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The pilgrims come to Puri  from far and wide and by all means of transport. This man has traveled considerable distance on his bicycle to reach the place.

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We are seeing the battery-run autorikshaw for the first time. It has been brought here to be blessed by the Lord Jagannath.

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When pilgrims visit the temple, they take away the ‘prasad’, sweets cooked in the temple for the near and dear ones. It is sold in these boxes made of leaves of the Tada palm- another use for this widely used plant.

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The priests at the Puri temple have developed a new style of carrying mobile phones which is not known to the outside world.

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Apart from the prasad, the other important takeaway is the sweet called ‘Khaja’, sold everywhere around the temple. It is made of gram flour and sugar.

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Jagannath Puri temple is a rich institution and a major source of the income is the donations made by the devotees. The temple has made elaborate arrangements to collect the donations- on site as well as off-site.

Most of Puri is around the two main temples located a short distance from each other and to the north are the roads connecting Bhubaneshwar, the state capital and Konark famous for its temple and its erotic art. To the south is the road to the eastern part of  Chilka lake. There is a stretch of  land to the south which is on the seashore and is being developed as a tourist area, with new hotels and resorts coming up. We decided to spend some time here away from the crowded city. This is where the Dhaudia river meets the sea. Dhaudia is a small  river meanders through the south west and meets the sea here. The place where a river meets the sea is called ‘Mohana’ in Oriya. This makes for a beautiful site.

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The is inter-tidal making its water brackish and suitable for the habitation of several species of fish. The locals mainly use nets in the shallow waters at low ride to catch fish.

And the catch is here:

We leave Puri passing by the Gundicha temple, move northwards for what appears as Balukhand-Konark Wildlife Sanctuary on the Google map. Before we reach the sanctuary we find a place where vehicles have stopped. It is another temple – Maa Ramachandi Temple.

The stretch between Puri and Konark is called Puri-Konark Marine Drive and here between the land and the sea flow three rivulets meeting the sea after running parallel the road and the seashore.

Our first stop is Baleshwar beach and temple for which we drive 6 kms off the highway to the seashore. We find a pretty little temple but not on the seashore. There is no crowd here. It is not a part of the Puri-Konark tourist circuit.

The environs of the temple support quite a few bird species, the Hoopoe being the most prominent among them.

The beach is quite good, woody and clean.

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And quite good for meditation.

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Maa Ramchandi temple is located between the road and the Kusabhadra river. It is a part of the Puri-Konark tourist circuit and draws a large number of tourists.

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The main draw here appears to be the boating facilities in the shallow brackish waters of Kusabhadra.

Balukhand-Konark Sanctuary exists only on the map. We approach the gate and the forest guard informs us that there is nothing inside, no animals. There is no point in our going in. Either he is telling the truth or he simply does not want to take the trouble of allowing us in. I have not seen anything written about this sanctuary either. We let it pass and make a halt at a resort on the northern end of the Kusabhadra river, just across the road from the ‘sanctuary’.

The last spot on the Puri-Konark Marine Drive is the Konark beach. From here one turns left for Konark which is a short distance away. Chandrabhaga Temple is the major tourist attraction apart from the beach.  The river Chandrabhaga used to drain into the ocean here but it no longer does. It has dried out. A pond is constructed as if to commemorate the river.

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The lighthouse at the corner is the last item we can see before we go to Konark for the overnight stay. It is called Chandrabhaga lighthouse.

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We keep Konark for the next post.

 

Text by Suryakiran Naik

Pictures by Suryakiran Naik & Veena Naik

 

 

108.ODISHA. (2) AROUND CHILKA LAKE

Chilka ( also written as Chilika)  Lake is actually a brackish water lagoon formed on the Bay of Bengal. At 1100 square kilometres it is the world’s second largest water body of this type. Theoretically all the various parts of the lake can be visited from the land side but there are only three major locations from where lodging and boating facilities are available. Two of them are on the west side of the road and one on the eastern side facing the sea. We decide to explore the lake from all three spots- Rambha, Barkul/ Balugaon  & Satapada.

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The southernmost of such spots is the facility provided by OTDC at Rambha. We are greeted at the entrance to the town by this religious procession associated with Veerabhadra, a form of Lord Shiva.

The OTDC complex provides large cottages as well as rooms, with fabulous views right on the lakeside.

Exploring the lake is possible only by a boat and there are plenty of them available. We have those operated by the OTDC and also those owned by the private operators. The first place we are taken to is called Breakfast Island. The story is that the British colonials used to visit this rock on weekends for their breakfast and the structure was built for the purpose. It has survived well.

The next stop is at the Bird Island. A smallish island which hosts a large number of migratory birds during the season. We are well into March and cannot expect the migratory birds at this time of the year.

We have to make do with the sighting of the local deity with whose blessings the migratory birds make a safe passage back to their respective places in the north.

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The lake hosts a large number of other animal species. The endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin is one. We could see a few but the photographs did not come off well.

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There is a small bivalve mollusc resembling the Green Mussel growing on the lake. At first glance, it looked like the young of the Green Mussels but the boatmen clarified that this is the maximum size this species grows up to and they are not edible. I guess this would be the food for some of the birds visiting the lake.

There is another place on the eastern shore of the lake near Rambha which houses a shrine to a Goddess and one has to crawl through a tunnel in the rocks to reach it. We decide against this adventure and return to have a meal with fresh lake fish at the resort.

Our next stop is Barkul. Barkul with it’s neighbouring  Balugam has been a tourist place for quite some time. We had stayed here about 20 years back. Barkul is busy the year round, birds or no birds. It has a naval establishment very close by and there is an island with a famous temple which is accessible economically from this place. The Goddess Kalijai has a huge following in this part of Odisha and visitors keep coming continuously. Add to this the birding season and you have a perfect commercial place. To make things more attractive the OTDC has developed a Water Sports Complex on the lakeside.

We reach Barkul late and decide against a boat ride and stick to the sunset.

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After some early morning birding the next day, we proceed towards Puri, passing Balugam on the way.

Whilst at Rambha we had contemplated visiting Satapada from the eastern side, the seacoast side. As we were driving the people at the resort discouraged us from the journey. There are a number of  water crossings on the way and the roads are not good. There might be work going on a bridge. Nobody was certain if we could make by that route. The other option was to go to Puri and then drive southwards to reach Satapada, only place having accommodation on the eastern shores of  the lake. We decide on the Puri option.

The road to Puri is through several villages and an enjoyable ride. We stop at many places as we go to look around.

We stop for a drink of the tadi, the sap of the palm thinking that it is the Borassus palm sap. It happened to be the sap of the Date palm. This is the first time we had an occasion to drink the sap of the date palm and it predictably tastes sweet.

Here is a house at the village Pattajoshipur with masonry walls with elaborate decoration but with roofs of the palm fronds.

This temple on the side of a small lake has sunk on one side and appears tilting to its right.

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This arch looks incongruous in the village. Perhaps it belongs to another era when this was a rich town.

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This method of lifting water for irrigation is still being practiced not far from the capital city of Odisha.

The drive from Barkul to Puri is more than 143 Kms. Puri to Satapada is 48 Kms and Puri is also a place we need to visit as it is a coastal town, we decide to halt at Puri. For the sake of continuity, allow me to skip Puri for the time being and jump on to Satapada.

This part of the drive is through another set of villages and small towns and through an area which is more densely populated. A few kilometers from Puri we are greeted with a huge flock of Glossy Ibis foraging in the wet fields.

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A wild growing tree in the region grows seeds of large size. They are dried for extracting oil. Edible? No. They make soap out of the oil.

Cashew trees are in flower. It appears a bit late for the first flowers. I call up my brother in Goa to check up on the status of the tree on the west coast. I get the information is that the fruit came up on the west coast more than a month ago. Now it is the time for the ‘Hurrak’, a liquor made out of the fruit juice. Here in Odisha it is just flowering.

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We come across a traditional method of fishing in shallow waters of paddyfields- very interesting and probably very efficient.

This video shows the action:

( Link is at the end of the post.)

 

We reach Satapada in good time to check in at OTDC  and take a late morning boat ride to one of the islands towards the sea and there are many of them. The boatman offers to take seven ‘points’. In all tourist places in India they have ‘point’- five, seven, nine, eleven etc. The price differs with the number of ‘points’ done. One of the points offered by this boatman is ‘dolphins’, as if they were a tree.

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What one can see all along in the lake is the fishing nets. The water is low with the right amount of salinity and the bamboo sticks planted in the lake basin allows the nets to be spread in wide areas.

And here is the fabrication work going on :

The boatman has started showing us the seven ‘spots’. Here are two:

Which two?

‘the island is one.’

‘and the other?’

‘the small temple under the tree’.

For the third ‘spot’ we are taken a bit towards the east to show us some water which is supposed to be seawater entering the lake.

For the next ‘spot’, we have to scan the lake for the dolphins. We then move on to another island. This one is formed with the soil dredged from the lake bed. And it is here that we can have our lunch. It is another matter that it is counted as another ‘spot’.

The lunch with fish and fresh crabs is delicious even when served in aluminium foil.

We return to the resort and wait for another glorious sunset on the lake.

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On our way back to Puri the next day we visit the famous Alarnath Temple.

In many parts of Odisha a house is painted on the occasion of a marriage ceremony and this fact is duly recorded in paint. Now, this paint and the fact of the wedding ceremony will remain intact until a fresh coat of paint is given which probably will come at the time of the next marriage ceremony.

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Next we meet at Jagannath Puri.

 

Text by Suryakiran Naik

Photographs by Suryakiran Naik & Veena Naik

Video by Veena Naik

March 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

107.ODISHA.(1) AROUND GOPALPUR-ON-SEA

We leave Somepeta and get on the National Highway to cross the Andhra Pradesh border into Odisha. It is not that simple. The highway takes you into Odisha and back into Andhra at least at two places before finally leaving Andhra behind.

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Normally in India one does not feel that one is crossing one state into another. There are a number of overlapping factors in the border areas- language, food, culture etc. The places where the division into states (or the Federal nature of Indian Union) come into sharp focus are the points where the state governments have their Border Check Posts. At most of these check-posts one can see ques of trucks running into miles, waiting for their turn to cross the check-posts, making a border look like a huge traffic jam which it partly is. The reason is that the ques are formed on the road. There is no separate lane for the border check posts. This results in the passenger vehicles not requiring a check also to be stuck in the traffic. This also results in two adjoining states of the Union of India looking like two different countries.

Gopalpur is a village on the Odisha coast and has a passably good beach. Why this place is called ‘Gopalpur On Sea’ is a mystery. I guess this is the creation of some idle Englishman who did not find a better thing to do when in the service of the Honourable Company. The history buffs will tell you that Gopalpur was a big port during the days of the East India Company and was rich and what not. They may also tell you that the EAC used to import rice from Burma through this port. The import part could be true but not the claim of being a big port. Further, Gopalpur that we see now, the resort village could not have been a port at all. It is a flat, straight beach where no ships can be berthed. The possibility is that the area several kilometres to the north of the village had a port in the sheltered waters of the creek. Not Gopalpur on Sea, sir. Even the new port which is being developed is some miles north of the creek, further away from the beach town. Incidentally and surprisingly the new port is on the shore without any protection.

Probably because of the romantic name- Gopalpur-On-Sea, I had great expectation of the place. It turned out to be a damp squib, as the Englishman who christened it would most likely describe it today.

The beach is quite good, long and straight, used by holiday makers, tourists, fishermen and defecators at the same time without any conflict of interest.

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We are put up at a hotel just behind the Gopalpur Lighthouse, right on the seashore. We do not make an attempt to climb the lighthouse.

Forts, the sea forts, happen to be one of the landmarks along with the Lighthouses that we have decided to visit on this journey. The rationale is that we will be able to cover the maximum part of the coast without missing much. Not far from G-O-S there is a fort.

Potagarh is a sizable fort and looks more like a combination of two or three forts or fortresses, on the banks of the Rushikulya river or at the point where the river meets the sea. In Andhra they call it ‘mixing’. I am not sure what they call it in Oriya.

It is a sad reflection on Indians’ lack of sense of history that we are still not sure when this fort was constructed and by whom. And this is not about ancient history, it is about a 17th century  masonry structure which is largely intact. One theory or speculation is that it was built in the 17th Century by a Muslim Faujdar of the Kutubshahi sultans. The reason given in support of this is that there exists a Mosque within the fort complex. The second claim is on behalf of Monsieur De Bussy, a Frenchman. The evidence? Existence of two graves of Frenchmen in the fort. Date? 1753. And then the claim on behalf of the Honourable East India Company represented by Edward Costford, Resident of Ganjam. When? He was the Resident from 1768 onwards.

And here is the graffiti on the walls and the arches, something I deeply hate.

We return to our base just before sunset and on the way, could see a few industrial complexes including one of Indian Rare Earths.

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More interesting is the government built elaborate ‘shelters’ for the people who might be affected by cyclones. It is very interesting. I would have liked to study how it works and the extent of the area is covers.

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Reviewing our progress at the end of the day we realize that as we drove we missed an important geographical formation between Andhra and Odisha. A creek- pure creek without any major freshwater flowing into it – is formed between the two states and the state boundary runs through this creek. This is an interesting phenomenon and we decide to explore it although we have to drive back south on the highway with all the trucks blocking our way and making life difficult. In the event the place is found to be worth visiting. If there was an ancient port in this area, probably this should have been the place. It has everything that a good harbour would need.

If you look at the map of the area, you will see the lagoon-like formation through which the borderline of the two states pass. You see these names of the places on either side of the border: SONPUR, SONPUR BEACH,KEUTA SONPUR & PATA SONPUR. The lagoon is named Bahuda Muhana Sagar.

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A bridge has just been constructed and is named after the first Chief Minister of the State. The approach road to the north is not ready. No, you can’t cross this creek. You can try but…………… We decide not to try to drive through the mud excavated by the construction equipment to the other end. We had crossed the bridge but then decide not to go further.

Just at the beginning of the approach road to the new bridge we find a small lake and the birders in us woke up to spend an hour along the lakeside.

And here are the lakeside Gods.

We return back to the highway and make our way to two places, not very far from each other, which have historical and religious significance. One is a Buddhist politico-religious site at Jaugada where Emperor Ashoka had placed an edict after his conversion to the Buddhist way of life and the other is the famous temple of Taran Tarini, both in Ganjam district.

First we drive to Jaugada and find that the road to the site is blocked by the farmers who are drying their produce on the approach road. The only option we have is to walk about a couple of kilometres through hot sun. the farmers are protected by the very efficient equipment that have designed which provides the shade without depriving their heads of the cool breeze.

 

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The farmer and his cool hat.

 

JAUGADA is worth visiting. It is quite a sizable area covered with granite boulders ideal for inscribing edict in the pre-paper days. The 3rd Century BC edict is in Prakrit language and is written in Mauryan Brahmi script. Of course, so I have been told. The other thing that I have been told is that the edict, among other things, speaks about protection of animals and wildlife. In short non-violence and love of all living things, particularly the animals. I am sure it does not extend to plant life.

What is commendable about the edict is that the way it has been protected by Archaeological Survey of India. Full marks to them for the maintenance of the site.

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Located 32 Kms from Brahmapur, on a hill is the shrine of Maa Tara Tarini. This is a very complex Puranic deity. The shrine is one of four major ones of the Shakti Cult and one of the four ‘Shakti Peeths’. Out of the four two are in Odisha, one in Bengal and one in Assam. I would like to excuse myself from the religious aspects of this phenomena (which is too complex to be discussed here) and stick myself to things like the gate to the town where the temple is located. ( Here are some pictures).

And the efficiency of the cable car that takes the pilgrims to the top of the hill without any effort on their part. Of course, there is a road driving option also available to get on to the top.

The view of the Rushikulya river from here would be much better in the morning and at the sunset. We happened to be at the place in the mid-afternoon. And this is how it looked.

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The temple or the combination of various places which together makes the shrine attract a large number of pilgrims from all over the region and even from far away places.

The farmers at the foot of the hill are not blessed by the Maa with any comforts. They have to live with their drudgery although a few among them are making good money off the visitors selling them various things- refreshments and charms.

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Text: Suryakiran Naik

Pictures : Suryakiran Naik & Veena Naik

March 2017.

106.ANDHRA PRADESH. (10) Vizianagaram, Srikakulam, Baruva.

The two northernmost districts of Andhra Pradesh, Vizianagaram and Srikakulam are bordered by Odisha state on the western side and the history of these two districts intermingle with that of adjoining districts of Odisha, meaning they have had common ruling dynasties in history. This is quite common among the modern Indian States.

Vizianagaram is not to be confused with Vijayanagar empire although the empire ruled over this place briefly. Vizianagaram is not exactly a seaside town but is 18 kms form the seashore and qualify to be visited by TheBlueDrive which has a 30 Kms range from the seashore permitted.

As we drive towards Vizianagaram, my mind is trying to recollect why this place sounds familiar to me. Vizianagaram………. Late that night I remember it. Rajah of Vizianagaram Vs Commissioner of Income-tax, a landmark case related to the principal of Heads of Income being not interchangeable. That was in 1980, 37 years ago (not the case, my reading of it), when I was in the second year of my law degree.

It is small town. We reach late in the afternoon and intend to spend only one night. The town is typical of the erstwhile principalities ruled by the princes who succeeded to smaller geographies at the demise of the larger empires and ruled till the White Man appeared at their doorsteps and fleeced them. The rulers of this small principality are known to have erected a fountain in the middle of London, England.

This is not a spectacular place and hence there are no spectacular pictures and then there is the short time allocated to this place. We decide on two places to visit. One is the Fort, a modest one which happens to be in the middle of the town, and a temple to Goddess Sarasvati, a rare thing. We do a round of the fort on the day of our arrival and the temple the next day morning before we proceed to Srikakulam.

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The fort and the modest palace within it are now flush with educational institutions of various kinds. Hats off to the Rajus, the erstwhile rulers who have donated a huge amount of space to these institutions. The fort has among it’s deities the Goddess Sarasvati. The rulers seem to have given her the due importance. The last ruler is duly honoured within the precincts of the fort.

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Statue of Shri P V G Raju

 

The Goddess of learning is honoured in the fort precincts.

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Sarasvati carved in stone, Vizianagaram Fort.

 

The flag of the erstwhile principality is still raised in the fort.

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Vizianagaram State Standard

 

The next morning stopover before we proceed to Srikakulam is the Gyan Sarasvati temple. It is not easy to find. It is not very old and temples to Sarasvati are not common either. People have been building temples to all kinds of Gods and Goddesses from the Hindu pantheon but very few of them have found it necessary to similarly honour the Goddess of Knowledge. This temple is perhaps a fallout of the dedication to the Goddess by the erstwhile rules of the principality.

 

From the perspective of an atheist who considers the attainment of knowledge as the supreme human endeavour, paying obeisance to the symbolic manifestation of knowledge does not surely amount to idolatry. Consequently, I enter and fold my hands at the temple with conviction and without remorse.

 

The new students who start their schooling are given a sanctified slate before they start attending the school. With great difficulty I convince the temple trustee to part with one for me. Yes, I am willing to make a small donation. I will preserve this.

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Off we go after a roadside breakfast towards Srikakulam, through the farmland on both sides of the road, greenery all over even at the onset of the summer.

We stop at the sight of this man to make enquiries about what he is carrying and where. He is carrying food for the farm workers who have been working there since the morning. Going by the timings the people may have been working in the fields since the first hints of light.

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Carrying lunch to the farm.

 

And here is a type of small umbrella the farmers in coastal Andhra use to protect themselves from the scorching sun. It reminds one of Vietnam and neighbouring places where such equipment is in use. Here the raw material seems to be the leaves of the ubiquitous Tada palm.

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The Sunshield, Andhra style.

 

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Three rivers flowing down from the Eastern Ghats meet the Bay of Bengal in Srikakulam district, the northernmost of the Andhra Pradesh districts. River Nagavali hosts Srikakulam town on it’s banks. Vamsadhara forms a sandy beach at Kalingapatnam and Mahindra Tanaya forms a spectacular land & seascape at Baruva. This is coastal region in its truest sense.

We find a hotel overlooking the Nagavali in the old part of the town and begin with the Kalingapatnam area. Kalingaptnam is an ancient city and a major port through which the east coast of India was trading with the countries of the south-east Asia. There are no remnants of it to be seen. Incidentally Kalingapatnam is not related to Kalinga kingdom or the Kalinga war. That place is located in present day Odisha near Bhubaneshwar.

Kalingapatnam is a huge sandy beach and here we discover a culinary invention- Bamboo Chicken. Spiced chicken pieces are cooked in a Bamboo on open fire. The bamboo piece is a single use item. We are tempted to taste it but that was the last order he was delivering as he had run out of chicken. The boys who bought the last order are also carrying Tadi, the sap of the palm tree which when heated would turn into a liquor or perhaps that is what they are carrying. It goes well with the Bamboo Chicken, they tell us. We don’t get to taste either.

Beyond Vamsadhara one can see an old Lighthouse. Can we go and see it? ‘ Yes, but not from here as there is no bridge on the river. You will have to go to Srikakulam and comeback from the other side’. We drop the idea and make do with pictures from a distance.

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The current operational lighthouse is closer to the village and far off from the seashore. Perhaps the sand has accumulated since the lighthouse was constructed increasing its distance from the sea.

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The area along the river is a major sand mining area. One can see the tractor trolleys collecting sand, a sight repeated on a large scale on Mahanadi in Odisha.

Apart from rice the farmers here grow a black lentil like Moong but not exactly like the popular green moong.

Salihundan is a hill overlooking Vamsadhara from the south and on which are found relics of a Buddhist monastery. Not much is known about the place except that it would have been active from the 2nd century BC to 12th Century AD. This could have used for the spreading Buddhism to the South East Asia through the Kalingapatnam port. The site is accessible by a good road up to about half a kilometre to the top of the hill. A place worth visiting even if you are as ignorant about the Buddhist architecture as I am.

The view of the river is spectacular from the top of the hill.

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On the way back we come across this temple to the Kurma avatar of Lord Vishnu.

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Srikakulam is more famous for it’s Suryanarayan Temple. No photography is allowed inside and we satisfy ourselves with the outsides.

Srikakulam makes its ladders from the round poles.

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Our last stop in the state of Andhra Pradesh is at Baruva on the banks of river Rushikulya, 105 Kms. from Srikakulam. We drive along the coastal road which goes through a major salt manufacturing area and picturesque countryside. One gets to witness this only if one sticks to the coastal road and avoid the temptation to take the highway which is further west, away from the sea.

We have booked a room at the APTDC’s Haritha Beach Resort. The APTDC has found the most beautiful locations for their properties but they appear to be grossly underutilized and poorly maintained. The areas along the northern coast of the sea does not have any major population centre and that explains the fact there are not many visitors to these beautiful beaches. This is the view of the Mahendra Tanaya river as it meets the see , as seen from the top of the lighthouse.

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Here is a tower which one can see from the Lighthouse at Baruva. We could not find any information about it. Is it an abandoned Lighthouse?

Here is the landside view. The little road is the one leading to the Haritha resort.

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The lighthouse is next door to Haritha resort and we climb up to see the surroundings. Worth the climb.

The life on the beach is very active in the absence of many visitors. One can see a number of live seashells.

In Baruva village we make a discovery. The village has a lake just on the outskirts and a pond near the Hanuman statue on the road leading to Somepeta. Between them these water bodies hold a large number of bird species. They are not just the ordinary species. We could find a rare Baillon’s Crake here!!

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Baillon’s Crake

And here are the lesser avian mortals.

 

Somepeta is the small town, bigger than Baruva where we had breakfast on two consecutive mornings. The roadside eatery serves delicious and fresh south Indian snacks at unbelievable prices. The two of us could eat Idlis and Vadas and Dosas and were asked to pay only Rs. 35/-. We felt guilty. Tea however is not served at the same place. We had to cross the road to find the teamaker.

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The cinema poster between these two eateries is alluring.

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With Somepeta we end our journey through Andhra Pradesh and make our way to Odisha.

Text by Suryakiran Naik

Pictures by Suryakiran Naik & Veena Naik