It was a warm October afternoon when our flight landed in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha. As we waited to collect our luggage, my eyes fell on rows of huge colourful lanterns dangling from the high ceiling inside the airport lounge. Diwali was around the corner, and I recognised the gently swaying lanterns as those made by the famous Pipli craftsmen of Odisha. The vibrant colours lifted our sombre mood on a sultry day as we drove to our hotel in a tourist cab. After settling into our rooms and a quick lunch of rice and spicy fish curry made in Odisha style, we headed for the Nandankanan Zoological Park, a short distance from the hotel.
Nandankanan – the celestial garden
The zoological park spread over 400 hectares, is home to a large variety of mammals, birds and reptiles, some of them endangered species, but its most famous occupant is the white tiger. Nandankanan had shot to fame some years ago, when a pair of normal coloured tigers gave birth to a white tiger. Tigers have always eluded me on my visits to some of the famous wildlife sanctuaries in India; so the thought of seeing a white tiger — a rare species, even if it was in captivity, excited me. At least, I was sure of ‘sighting’ one, I chuckled to myself, as we began the walk inside the park.
The afternoon sun was beating down on our faces, and the non-stop chatter of visitors inside the park was loud enough to scare away some of the simians, swinging merrily, from the trees. However, the huge canopy of trees in the park provided relief to our scalding heads, and made the walk somewhat pleasant. After admiring herds of spotted deer, antlers, and watching the antics of a bear, we came to a large enclosure that housed a pair of the Royal Asiatic Lions. Oblivious to the throng of visitors trying to find vantage points to watch them, the pair sat far from the madding crowd, playfully licking and nudging each other, displaying none of their wild side. As cameras went click, click, trying to capture the romantic felines, the male, let out a big yawn right into our cameras. As if it wanted to give the visitors their tickets’ worth, he then got up to patrol, halting briefly close to the barricade, shaking his head to show off his shiny golden mane, inviting loud gasps from the crowd. Satisfied, the lion strode off coolly, without throwing a second glance at the visitors.
A few metres ahead was another large enclosure with the signboard and picture of the famed white tiger. But the occupant was nowhere in sight for a long time, and my heart sank a bit, thinking that I was going to leave the park without “sighting” the tiger. Just then, far away, on the other side of the enclosure near a heap of dry leaves, there was a slight movement, and as a white form rose to walk towards the cage, there was pin drop silence in the crowd. It was the white tiger! But before the visitors could have a glimpse, it had disappeared into a cage, only to come out within minutes holding fresh red meat between his jaws. The sight of the tiger striding unhurriedly towards us was thrilling enough to compensate for all the unsuccessful tiger trails I had so far. Spotting a shady, secluded place far from the din, it settled itself comfortably, to enjoy an early dinner.
As the sun was beginning to mellow, we proceeded to enjoy the other inmates of the zoo, and also the natural beauty of the park. Nandankanan is the only zoo in India, which has some rare species of animals and birds like the Patas monkey, Eastern Rosella Open-billed Stork, Indian Pangolin, Orangutan, Burmese Python, Green-winged macaws, Cinereous Vulture, and Nicobar Pigeon. The park had shot into limelight in 1980 for the successful captive breeding of the endangered gharials, which are now found in large numbers in the zoo. The Malayan Giant Squirrel, mouse deer, sloth bear, brow-antlered deer, zebra, giraffe, siamese crocodile, Indian porcupine, swamp deer, grey heron are the other residents of the zoo. The park has a large botanical garden with some exotic flora, and the beautiful Kanjia Lake, a wetland of national importance.
As the sun went down, a crimson, golden hue, engulfed the park, giving it an ethereal look, and it was not difficult to guess why this park is called Nandankanan, which in Indian mythology means the ‘celestial garden’. It was getting dark and cooler inside the park, as our feathered friends made their way home twittering loudly. As we gazed at the sky to look at the winged creatures, a large numbers of bats could be seen hanging from the branches of the tall trees, looking at the world upside down. There were also a number of giant spider webs, some bridging two trees and a few hanging loose, just a little over our heads. As the zoo attendants were getting ready to close the gates of the park, we hurried towards the exit and made our way to the nearby stalls for some refreshments.
The Konark Temple
Early next morning, we set out to visit the famed Sun Temple of Konark, a 65 km drive from Bhubaneswar, declared as a world heritage site by UNESCO in the year 1984. However, we missed the glorious sight of the first rays of the sun falling on the temple. Konark gets its name from kona (corner) and arka (sun), and is situated in the north-east corner of the temple town of Puri. The structure which stands today is actually the entrance to the main temple. The main temple which enshrined the presiding deity has broken down, and only the remains can be seen. Even from a distance, this architectural marvel built in the middle of the 13th century, by the great ruler King Narsimhadeva I of the Ganga dynasty, looks striking. It is said that the king was so captivated by the beauty of the sunrise and the roaring sea that he decided to build this temple at this site, on the bank of the Bay of Bengal. The sea has now receded, and is far from the temple. It took twelve years and nearly 1,200 artisans led by the king`s chief architect Bishu Maharana, to build this temple dedicated to the Sun God.
The temple is designed in the form of a celestial chariot mounted on 24 giant wheels, each nearly 10 ft in diameter, and drawn by seven galloping horses. We were spellbound by the detailed carvings on the temple walls. It is difficult to fathom how the artisans of the time could have filled out every inch of space on the structure with such intricate carvings and figurines, purely from imagination. On the south, west and north walls of the temple are images of the Sun God, positioned to catch the sun rays at dawn, noon and sunset, the three prahars (traditional Indian time).
The entrance to the temple is from Nata Mandir or the dancing hall on the eastern gateway. It is a big pillared hall built on high plinth and is roofless. The floor has beautiful motifs and was used for offering dances by the Devadasis during the worship of the Sun God. Its basement pillars are carved with dancing figurines playing different musical instruments. The base of the temple has figures of lions, elephants, horses, crocodiles, birds, warriors, musicians, dancers, Hindu deities, and events during that time. The wheels of the chariot elaborately carved with figures of animals, foliage and women, among other things, represent the ‘Wheel of Life’.
The monument is surrounded by a beautifully landscaped garden. Every year, in December, tourists from India and abroad visit this heritage site to attend the popular Konark dance festival, where celebrated Indian classical dancers, gracefully perform against the backdrop of the temple. Though, I could not time my visit to attend the festival, I could visualise, how magical the place must be getting transformed into. I could imagine the stone figures of the dancing women on the temple walls come to life to enthrall the audience. As I left the temple premises, I was reminded of the great poet Rabindranath Tagore`s description of Konark: “Here the language of the stone surpasses the language of the man”.
The legend of Chandrabhaga
Just three kilometers from Konark, on our way to the temple town of Puri, we passed by the picturesque Chandrabhaga beach. Once upon a time, the flowing sea ran all the distance to touch the base of the Konark Temple. But now the sea has receded. Our driver Kailash, a young local lad, coaxed us to visit the beach. But it was too hot to leave the cool comforts of the car and venture out onto the burning sands, so we briefly stopped by to take a few pictures and proceeded to Puri. On our way, Kailash told us that the water of Chandrabhaga has medicinal properties, and people with physical ailments come here for healing. A good storyteller, he regaled us with the mythological story of Sambha, the son of Lord Krishna, who is said to have been cured of leprosy after carrying out a penance on the banks of the river.
He narrated another interesting story about Chandrabhaga, who was the daughter of a sage. It seems, she was so beautiful that the Sun God descended on Earth, and proposed marriage to her. But the damsel declined. Humiliated, the Sun God chased her, and a frightened Chandrabhaga ran and jumped into the river and ended her life. Chandrabhaga is revered by the locals even today. At the annual Chandrabhaga Fair held in the month of Magha, lakhs of people visit the beach to pay homage to her by taking a dip in the waters, and offer prayers to the Sun God.
Kailash, who spoke fluent Hindi, told us about his stay in Mumbai, where he worked at a Bhiwandi powerloom for five years before returning to his home in Bhubaneswar. Whenever he missed the sea in Mumbai, he visited the Chowpatty and Juhu beaches. He recalled, how he was once literally taken for a ride by a cabbie, who promised to show him India`s superstar Amitabh Bachchan from close quarters. “We waited outside in our cab at a distance, for more than an hour, and all he showed me was the actor`s bungalow and then overcharged me”, he smiles, emptying a sachet of flavoured tobacco into his mouth.
The temples of Puri
We soon reached Puri. After parking the car at a distance, we walked on the main road leading to the famous Jagannath Temple. It is the road where the famous ratha yatra ( chariot procession) is held annually. Among the existing temples of Odisha, the Jagannath Temple built in the 12th century is the highest, and the temple spires could be seen from a distance. As our visit to the temple coincided with an auspicious day of the Diwali festival, there was a long wait for the darshan of Lord Jagannath (Lord Vishnu) also known in Hindu mythology as the Lord of the Universe.
Unlike most Hindu temples, where the icons of deities are carved out of stone or metal, here the idol of Lord Jagannath is made of wood. Like some of the famous temples of India, this temple too has become a victim of commercialisation. After a quick darshan, as we made our exit, our senses were overpowered by the rich aroma of flavours emanating from the sprawling temple kitchen, where prasad bhojan was being cooked in pure ghee, in large earthen pots.
We visited the smaller, but equally beautiful temples in the neighbourhood, and after lunch, left for an excursion at the famous saltwater Chilika Lake.
Cruising the Chilika Lake
After negotiating the fare, we hired a small boat from Satapada to cruise Asia’s largest brackish lagoon, dotted with small islands, the more popular ones being Nalaban, Kalijal, Parikud and Satapada. Satapada ( meaning a group of seven villages) is closer to Puri, lies to the south of Chilika Lake, and is home to the critically endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin.
Our boatman promised us a sighting of the dolphin, as we cruised the lake for two hours to reach the Dolphin Point, in the hope of seeing one. Everytime there was a small movement in the calm waters, there was a wave of excitement in the boat, and we would squint our eyes in the afternoon sun, to look for the dolphins in the shimmering lake. We were, finally, lucky to spot one, but it disappeared in one quick splash, making us wonder if it was a mirage.
On our way back, we saw a few birds, mostly herons, and egrets, watching dispassionately at the passing boats. It was too early for migratory birds to visit Chilika, we were told. We then cruised towards the Sea Mouth Island, another famous spot, where Chilika Lake meets the Bay of Bengal. The meeting point was an enchanting sight from the Rajahansa Island, where we had disembarked to watch this phenomenon.
The Rajahansa Island itself was a small getaway that had a few nondescript shops serving tea and savouries made from the fresh catch of the day – fried fish, shrimps and crabs, to the island visitors. The beach was just a short walk from there, where one could see thousands of little red crabs crowding the shore, scurrying their way into the sandy holes. The island offered a spectacular view of the sunset, and as evening descended, we got into our boat. The rest of the journey was pleasant, as cool breeze blew on our tired faces, as we sailed away from the island to the jetty from where we had boarded.