Odisha Odyssey Part 1-Bhuwaneshwar

Odisha has intrigued me for a long time now. Having never been to east or west India, my only window to these places were the people who hailed from these places that I met way away from either my home or their. Oriya folks made up for significant populace in Sabarmati hostel back during my JNU days. One of them had this knee high Jagannath in a corner of her room. In a place where it was cool to defy traditions (especially the Hindu ones, rest were acceptable in the name of  being sensitive), I was surprised to see this open display of faith. I was one of the few faithfuls too, though my faith laid in the Vaikunthnath temple, with its familiar dark granite south Indian style statue of Vishu. The old Tamil priest and the familiarity of the temple soothed my soul that ached to get back home to my family. Ah! there were those days and now I am way farther than ever before still aching to get back home to my people.

The other Odiyas I knew had strange sounding names and pet names. They loved Dahi Baigan because when ever we had a Odiya Mess Secretary, Dahi Baigan would invariably get back on the menu, also the quality of food would improve. I shared their love for Dahi Baigan and that was the one recipe I took from our cooks when I left JNU. Also the Aravali mess in JNU was one place where we got great food on the campus, which was again run by Odiya people. Since then Odisha has been on my radar for good food. I always wanted to visit and try the real deal. I finally got an opportunity to visit Odisha and I cannot stop thinking of it ever since. I booked a family 5 days 4 night vacation via www.makemytrip.com. The vacation turned out to be memorable except for the accommodation in Puri. I will go back to MMT for future holidays but will be more careful selecting accommodations.

Day 1:
Our odyssey started from Namma Bengaluru on the direct Indigo flight to Bhuwaneshwar. The flight was comfortable about two hours long (or short). They did sell snacks and breakfast along with Coffee/tea on board but it is expensive. We landed on time in Bhuwaneshwar and were greeted to a charming, small airport reminiscent of old HAL airport and this sand sculpture of Budha by the renowned Sudarshan Patnaik. I regret being lazy and not taking my SLR along, the photos are not great.

Soon after our local tour operator picked us up from the airport and took us to Hotel Pushpak, our home for the next two nights. The mural of Mukteshwar temple in their lobby along with a sizable Jagannath welcomed us to a quick check in. Dumping bags in the family suit, we headed out seeking something to eat. We found a restaurant called Yum Yum attached to the hotel with patio dining and ordered 'Thali' meals (vegetarian, egg and fish thali as per individual preferences). Each Thali came with a quantity of rice that can be called enormous by a city Kannadiga standard, a small bowl of dal, vegetable, egg/fish/panner dish, salad, papad and Gulab Jamoon. My carnivorous sibling ordered a dish called Chakuli Mutton, it looked a sort of mutton curry with thick Dosa like pancakes. The food was not impressive and I learned the hard way that one Odiya Thali would not be kind on my stomach.

Shortly afterwards we were on our way to the State Museum, which is well laid out by Indian standards. I  do wish there were more description on the artifacts or better yet guided tours, the lack of which left me fumbling with jigsaw pieces from the puzzle called 'The Great Indian History'. Having never studies the history of Eastern India in detail, I was surprised to notice works from 'Chalukya' and 'Ganga' , albeit with the prefix 'Eastern'. It got me wondering if there was something distinctly Kannada that I could spot. It was not to be. I could not help but wonder at the enterprising rulers who ended up so far away from their homes in quest of glory and that things were easier then in some ways. Back then they did not have to carry passports and pass long immigration, custom lines to be able to go to another country.

I left the museum acutely feeling the paucity of time with several sections given just a cursory glance. We passed the Bharateshwar, Shatrugneshwar temples and ended up at the Parashurameshwar temple. It was charming little temple with the usual Kalinga architectural motifs -Saptamatrikas, Yakshas, a circular ribbed structure just beneath the Kalasa called 'Amla'. At the back of the temple, in the Prakara path was a big Linga with several small Lingas carved into it, making it look like a Linga wrapped in bicycle chain. I had never seen something like this before.

Walking along a pathway to a low rise compound wall on which sat several women gathered in busy gossip, we found a quick path next door to the Mukteshwar temple. It is not a very large temple but it is one of the most charming temples I have ever come across. If Tamil temples look imposing with their sheer size, temples of Karnataka stand out for their detailed ornamentation, it is sheer grace that sets Mukteshwar temple apart from the rest. It has about it an easy elegance of an Odissi dancer.  The ornate Torana at the entrance of the temple offers a warm welcome. The walls of the temple is covered with elaborate carving  including that of playful monkeys which immediately reminded me of Sunny boy. The interior of the temple was rather small. Even as we stopped to admire the elegance, the priest invited us inside the sanctum. When we stopped at the entrance, we urged us to go inside. Unlike the south Indian temples and like Kashi Vishwanath temple, we can actually go inside the sanctum and pour water over the small Linga. A few 100 rupee bills made the priest happy enough to bless us the whole world and we came out of the temple feeling liberated. He urged us to visit the Kedar Gowri temple across the main road. We could not help noticing that in this temple prayers were offered to damaged statues of gods and goddess in the other smaller shrines in front of the main temple. Back home murti/statues are abandoned at the slightest damage (called bhinna). Progressive thought, I concluded.

Heeding to the priest, we walked over to the Kedar Gowri temple next door. It is a fairly modern temple and the deity Gowri ma is beautiful, with a yellow -turmeric laden face and big eyes. There were smaller shrines that of serpent god and a few others I don't remember. What I do, was that the temple was dirty and that they could have done a better job at maintenance.

We stopped at Raja Rani temple. It is a beautifully laid out temple with a garden under works. There was funky smell as we entered the premises at dusk, which my father suspected to be the mosquito repellent that  local administration typically sprays indiscriminately. There were no deities inside and the failing light of dusk ensured us no views of the carvings on the Vimana.  Was it the mosquito repellent or something else, we were actually able to sit at the steps of the temple for a while without having to slap ourselves defensively against mosquito attack.  A couple of old men sat a few feet away from us on the platform chanting the name of Rama. It made for an enchanting evening. If only we were a week late that we could have witnessed the music festival.

Our next stop was Lingaraja temple. The most prominent temple in Bhuwaneshwar.Unfortunately cell phones and cameras were not allowed inside and I will have to rely on my failing memory to revisit the images of the temples. The temple premises was super crowded with tourists from Maharashtra. Even though it was dusk, it felt dirty. The temple is actually a complex with a huge temple in the middle and several smaller shrines around the main temple.The priests doled out pushy invitations offering their wares and services. We were able to over look most of them except a few. A  few 10 rupees and a few 100 rupee bills bailed us out. There was a long line and a great deal of pushing for the darshan inside the main temple. On our way in I noticed inscriptions in Devanagari, Oriya and what I thought looked like Kannada, which got me excited. But Amma examined it and concluded it as Telugu. I felt my heart sink a little bit. The darshan was quick, one glimpse and the crowd behind us pushed us out to the security personnel, who did not seem to think twice to physically remove those that lingered still. As we walked around the Prakara the circumambulatory path around the main temple,we noticed smaller shrines dedicated to a bunch of gods including the patron god of engineers, Kashi Vishwanath, Surya, Krishna and interestingly Yama- the god of death. Indeed no celebration of life can be complete without death. Another remarkable feature that I noticed in the thickness of the dark night sky was the Vimana. It surely was different from the Dravidian or the Nagara style. There was a huge sculpture of  lions jutting out several feet above ground somewhere in the Vimana part of the temple spire. Such heavy sculptures jutting out without much support seemed technically brilliant. After spending several minutes parked on one of the platforms watching people walk by, we decided to head out.

Mr Bubby took us to ISKCON temple next. The evening prayers were being celebrated. A monk with long curly hair danced to the beats of the celebratory drums. A woman with ample bottom started to dance at the edge of the monks with her kid with great gusto. A few minutes later the watchman walked up to her and asked her to stop dancing. That was strange. It was not clear why she was stopped, that she was dancing next to the monks or that she was a woman. After a while we decided to heed our rumbling tummies and headed out.

Our driver Mr.Bubbly  (again an unusual choice of name for an adult man) dropped us to Pushpak. Instead of heading to Yum Yum fast food on premises, we decided to try the south Indian restaurant next door. A bowl of soup was all I could care for and others in the party ordered as dictated by their appetite. Nothing remarkable, but decent south Indian vegetarian for those with a hard core south Indian palate. As we demolished our food, I could not help hearing another Kannada party seated on one of the tables near us remarking how happy they were to find Idlies this far away from home. We called it a day.

Day 2:

My jet lag had not worn out and I slept poorly those days. A light sleeper that I am I woke up to what I thought was the sound of a conch, therefore the time for the dawn pooja. We had an appointment with Mr.Bubbly at 9 AM and waking up early to get ready seemed a good idea. Lo behold my surprise that the clock struck 1 AM. It turned out to be a honking train and not a conch being blown in some temple. Having been to several temples my mind was playing tricks on me. I must have been able to catch some sleep afterwards and finally before the breakfast buffet started, we were all set. We headed down to the Golden Bird restaurant where we were in for a complimentary breakfast. It was a cozy place with a good spread. There were Idlis, very good sambar, terrible chutnies, aloo parathas, eggs, toasts as well as fruits and juice. Idlis, eggs, chickpeas, fruits and juice it was for me. Mr.Bubbly kept his time and off we set out to Lalitgiri.

The winter morning it was, the air was chilly and the city woke up late. We were very soon out of the city and on the highway to Cuttack. Most of the highways were in very good condition and I quietly thanked AB Vajpayee for the highways. Before long we were passing through sleepy Cuttack and one after the other we crossed over dry river beds. Mr.Bubbly kept naming them and that they were the tributaries of Mahanadi. All that and more could not have prepared us for how big Mahanadi was. When we encountered her, she was pretty much dry but the span was nothing like I had seen before. We passed over piers after piers and there were more. I could not stop wondering how might the river must have been and how fecund the land around before the dam was constructed upstream? She is indeed 'Great' river now that she has ceased to be the 'sorrow of Orissa'.

Very soon we got off the highway into a small winding road lined with green fields and ponds at small villages at regular intervals. People went about their business in a pace that seemed languid to my city bred eyes. Who knows, this might be their life, unhurried and hard. Soon we were following of couple of tour buses carrying school children. Lalitgiri was a major Buddist complex with Stupas, Chaityas and ruins of Monastries. The extensive ruins has remains of walls built with clay bricks several feet thick. They were well planned for their time with ruins of drains and reminded me of Indus Saraswati Civilization. Perhaps there has been a cultural continuity from then to now that historians are unable to see? who knows a better historian might be able to see that in our lifetimes.
As we entered the complex after paying the required fees, we realized we were clueless navigating the site efficiently. The walkway was paved and the climb uphill. While we tried to figure out the path to pursue when we came across a split, a gaggle of school kids passed us. Leading and yelling instructions at them was a man in faux leather jacket and shades, perhaps their teacher who was familiar with the place. Following them might help us navigate the place is what I though till I spotted a Lama.

In the ruins of one of the monasteries on the left hand side of the pathway was a maroon-yellow Buddhist monk from who was touring the ruins with his guide.  I tried to strike a conversation hoping for some more information on the site, but the duo were in a hurry. The monk paid a quick obeisance at the feet of a partial Budha and left. We loitered around and tried to understand the ruins as much as we could. We acutely felt the need for either a guide or a guided tour. Though ASI charged us for entrance and has generally done a good job of keeping the place neat, there is no brochures or information on how best to go around the place. The gaggle of school kids long ahead of us, we tried to make sense of the ruins and walk around the large number of votive stupas and the ruins of a Chaitya. The Chaitya must have been elliptical brick construction with a smooth rounded platform. What remains are various geometrical shapes around the Chaitya ruins. We could not make sense of it. The monastery ruins were pretty intuitive. They typically opened into a courtyard with rooms and either sides and a small /large Budha Shrine across the entrance in the middle in some of the monasteries. We noticed niches in the wall perhaps to be used as cupboards, drains in a few rooms and large holes which we later were told held beams that supported the roof. Walking forward we landed at the flight of stone stairs. The gaggle of school kids were now split into groups, some were getting down the stairs already. We decided to walk up. At the top of the stairs was an enormous Stupa and beautiful views. A bunch of boys had already climbed on the Stupa which was disrespectful of both the Buddha and our antiquity. A mild reprimand alerted the teacher in faux leather and they were made to dismount in an instant. After searching in vain for a few tranquil moments we decided it was best to avoid the gaggle. After a brief stop at Monastry 3 and 1 we were on our way out. A huge museum complex is under construction to house the finds of excavation, which we were later told might open in spring 2018.

Our next stop was Udayagiri. From Lalitgiri to Udayagiri Mr.Bubby decided to drive us on a local road to save some time. It was a winding bund of river on one side and ponds on the other side. Ah! the number of ponds we saw, no wonder Odiyas love their fresh water fish. The cattle were mostly small desi cow and goats, which are pretty much replaced by Jersey and Holstein cows in southern Karnataka. If village houses were any indication of prosperity, Karnataka was way prosperous than Odisha. There were still many many thatched roofs which these days is a rarity in southern Karnataka. For a second I wondered what if snakes got into the thatches.Scary! The narrow winding bund continued, one particular stretch the bund was only wide enough for our car and Mr Bubbly graciously decided to make some space for an auto coming from the other side. For a second my heart stopped. Soon we were off the bund and on a regular road and I could not thank my stars enough.

The ruins at Udayagiri were more extensive than at Lalithgiri. Thankfully we found the ASI watchman who gave us a good tour of the area for 200 rupees. There were works underway. They were laying stone and cement path to walk around the place. Currently there were just uneven gravel paths which were uncomfortable to walk around. Our guide a gaunt man who claimed to be a local, told us the sad story of the excavation where structures collapsed as they tried to excavate the mounds and how the ASI excavated a beautiful budha only to find it beheaded by treasure hunters the next morning. Since then our guide explained they keep all their finds locked up in a small shed. He was considerate enough to open the locks at these sheds and let us have a quick look. He also clicked our pictures between pointing himself and yelling 'department' at passing foreign tourists. After a 5-6 mile walk around the ruins and paying obeisance at a Bhavani mandir near the main ruins in hot mid day sun, we had had enough. Our guide was still excited enough to point us the well from where the Buddhist monks drew water and carried it uphill to their kitchens and monasteries.  The well still had water and was beautifully laid out.

We took leave shortly and passed many auspicious prints of the names of newly weds on the walls of many houses en-route. We entered Ratnagiri to a whiff of spicy curry, mutton curry said my sister. After the whiff came the sight of a group of people chatting around a communal cauldron even as the fire under the cauldron spewed copious amount of smoke.  We were hungry and could think of nothing but hot lunch. Mr Bubbly dropped us at the Toshali resort in Ratnagiri. The kitchen staff had just wound up entertaining a major conference and the kitchen was understaffed. They did offer thali and dal/rice. The young man waiting on us warned us that the kitchen needed extra time since they were understaffed. We ordered a fish Thali , half chicken curry for my carnivorous sister. Papa ordered a vegetarain Thali and me and Amma decided to share an order of rice, dal, yogurt and salad. The amount of rice in our previous Thali orders had forewarned us to the hazardous mountain of rice that came along. As it would turn out, this was our shortest wait for food ever in this trip. The fish thali looked beautiful. It came with a mountain of rice, a papad, a tiny salad, dal, a  sad mixed veg curry and the star -a fish curry. I tasted the curry and it was really good, thick, tangy with the right balance of spice. There was also a dish of crunchy deep fried sliced of potatoes and bitter gourd. It was heavenly. I was hooked and the few pieces that I stole from Papa and my sister's thali did not sooth my agitated taste buds that wanted more. Thankfully our young waiter gave us a bowl of the dish without a fuss and did not even charge for it. That guy deserved the generous tip. After the belly bursting meal, we were ready to walk another 6 miles.

Ratnagiri was more touristy than either Lalithgiri or Udayagiri. the later two seemed to attract only the serious kind while Ratnagiri  looked like it was an established tourist attraction. There were several shacks vending 'chow-mein' and assorted unidentified 'Chinise' food. Nowhere else have I seen this brutal murder a of English language. The food they sold looked off colored, wonder how they got that stuff that red and green. After paying the entrance fees we slipped though the unusual gates. The ruins did not look much from where we were and I stood there wondering if it worth the steep climb after our surprisingly satisfying meal. But decided to lumber ahead regardless. Our first stop was at a disappoint bunch of votive stupas. Then we walked ahead hoping to see something that was worthwhile. That we sure did when we came across this.

This was the ruins of a grand monastery. It had a flight of stairs and perhaps was a two storied building. The walls were 8 bricks thick and it was laid out in the fashioned in a way that was typical to the monasteries we had come across since early that morning. A grand entrance way opening into a court yard with rooms on either sides and a shrine across. Additionally there is a set of  what looks like an ornate facade. How well laid out were these monasteries and how well have they stood the test of time. Here was also an arch made entirely of clay bricks. So arches in India could be pre-Islamic.

Dodging grazing desi cows, we walked a short path uphill amidst blazing speakers belting out local pop music. Here was the ruins of a massive stupa. We do not know if it was as big as the one in Lalitgiri but not as well preserved. The main stupa was surrounded by smaller votive stupas. There was also a Hindu shrine down the hill on ahead of the stupa but it was dated to more recent times. There were more cows grazing in the path between the stupa and the temple.
On our way back we saw a lazy bunch of people laughing and teasing us in Odiya. Thankfully we did not understand them. Restrooms are a particular problem everywhere. Either there are none or they are in such bad shape that renders it unusable.
Shortly afterwards we were on our way back to Bhuwaneshwar. Traffic was heavier than that earlier in the morning. Mahanahi had me awestruck again. Cuttuck was a traffic mess.I had half the heart to stop and shop for some silver filigri jewelry but Mr.Bubbly was reluctant. I gave into his reluctance hoping that would save me some money and time. He took us to Radhika Sarees in Bhuwaneshwar for some Sambalpuri Sarees.The owner was an affable man with subtle salesmanship that caught me unaware. He claimed to have worked with KSIC as a design consultant and that the rudraksha motif so common in KSIC is actually of Sambalpuri origin. Hm... who knew what comes from where. I fianlly got a beautiful off white silk saree with an orange border as a present for my mom-in-law.

I was determined to have typically Oriya fare for dinner that evening. Mr.Bubby was already instructed accordingly and he dropped us at Dalma, a popular joint for traditional Oriya fare. Again we settled for Thalis, Amma and me sharing a single thali. The tediousness of walking severals mile or the sun or the excitement of shopping, I don't know which made me slack and I do not have a picture of the beautiful thali. Again the thali came with a mountain of rice. Dal here was dalma, a lentil preparation with assorted vegetable. It had a feeling of comfort to it, in that it was neither too spicy nor too greasy.  There was a brown chutney that had the taste of powdered vada which went amazingly well with Dalma and rice. There was aloo subzi, Khatta - the tangy curry. Carnivorous sister ordered Chicken Biriyani. It was very different from the ones we have had before. The chicken seemed to have been deep fried instead of steam cooked /sauteed. It was nothing remarkable. They did not have any dessert other than Gulab Jamoon and my wait for Chenna Poda and Channa Jilli continued.  A warm shower later that night we slept like babies.

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