What to see on a holiday to Odisha, one of India’s lesser-visited states
Along with the princely state of Gujarat in the west of the country, Odisha (formerly known as Orissa) is one of India’s less-visited regions. But, and again like Gujarat, this compact state on the Bay of Bengal has everything you need for a genuine off-the-beaten-track Indian adventure.
For starters, Odisha has 485 kilometres of coastline, much of which is still in pristine condition. Indeed, going back centuries, the region was once an important seafaring empire that had trading routes that went as far as what is now the Indonesia archipelago. Then there’s the unique temple architecture that is dotted throughout the state but most prevalent in Bhubaneswar, the region’s affable capital. Tribal culture, archaeological heritage and diverse flora and fauna are also compelling reasons to come here and when you add in the fact that Odisha sees a fraction of the visitors that say Rajasthan or Kerala does, for example, you know you are onto a winner if, like us, you have a passion for exploring some of India’s undiscovered corners.
Odisha is well connected with the rest of the country. There are regular flights from many major Indian cities and, similar to the rest of India, the rail network in and out of the state is comprehensive and reliable. Once there, driving in your own private, chauffeur-driven vehicle is the best way to travel around. Even though Odisha is the 9th (out of 29) largest state by area in India, most places of interest are easily accessible and travelling by road presents a rewarding opportunity to discover what this little-visited state has to offer.
Why visit Odisha as your next India holiday?
Bhubaneswar is the best place to kickstart a holiday to Odisha. Over the years, Odisha’s largest city has gained a reputation for information technology(IT). Yet, the city is also dubbed Ekamra Kshetra, the Temple City, and for visitors, it is the wealth of ancient monuments and intricate sandstone temples that are the real reason to spend time here. Of the thousand or so temples that once existed, only approximately fifty remain but they are significant enough that UNESCO has placed them on their tentative list of World Heritage sites and although the interior of some of the temples are off-limits to non-Hindus, spending the day admiring and discovering the history behind some of these beautiful places of worship is an enthralling experience.
The exceptional Museum of Tribal Arts and Artefacts is also one of the city’s must-see sights plus it is the perfect place to visit before setting off to discover some of Odisha’s Adivasi (tribal) villages for yourself. There are over sixty different indigenous groups in Odisha and it is possible to visit several tribal villages either as a comfortable day trip out of Bhubaneswar or as part of a journey further afield.
Raghurajpur is one such settlement. Here the people of the village specialise in Pattachitra, an intricate style of painting that is produced on cloth. Predominantly depicting mythological narratives and folktales, it is an amazing skill that is absorbing to witness firsthand and there are equally as talented tribal artisans in other parts of the state as well, including those that specialise in art forms such as stone carving, metalwork and producing trinkets and other decorative jewellery. Always welcoming, the local villagers are often dressed in their traditional tribal clothing and for many, a day exploring a handful of these picturesque settlements is the highlight of their time in the state.
Journeying southeast of Bhubaneswar and hitting the Bay of Bengal is where you will find two of Odisha’s most remarkable sights. With a hotchpotch of Bengali holidaymakers, Hindu pilgrims and overseas backpackers (a hangover from the 1970s and the legendary Hippie Trail), the coastal town of Puri is one of India’s holiest pilgrimage sites. Once again, non-Hindus are not allowed inside the town’s mighty temple which is dedicated to Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe and reincarnation of Vishnu. But, there is a nearby vantage point from where visitors can look down upon it and, because of the great number of pilgrims that come here, there is always an electrifying atmosphere on the streets that makes Puri one of the most beguiling places in the state. Puri is also a great spot in which to dip your toes in the Indian Ocean: paddling fully clothed and frolicking on the wide sandy beach is a de rigour activity when on holiday in Puri and it would be rude not to join in, at least for a short while!
If there is a symbol of Kalinga, the ancient name for Odisha, then it is the sun and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Sun Temple at Konark, 33 kilometres northeast from Puri, is a breathtaking piece of artistic magnificence. Originally constructed nearer the coastline (the sea has since receded by a couple of kilometres) in the middle of the 13th century, the temple is accredited to Narasingha Deva I, the powerful monarch and warrior of the Eastern Ganga dynasty who commissioned it to celebrate his military victory over the Muslims forces of Bengal. The temple is dedicated to the sun god Surya and was positioned in such a way that the dawn light would enter the temple’s sanctuary and illuminate the deity of Surya within it. The twenty-four intricately-carved chariot wheels represent the hours of the day, while seven rearing horses symbolise the days of the week. It truly is a work of art and most certainly on a par with some of India’s other majestic temples of antiquity such as those at Khajuraho and Hampi (ADD LINK), for example. For lovers of dance, the Konark Dance Festival, which takes place every year from 19th to 23rd February, is a beautiful, fairytale-like spectacle of traditional Odishan dance, music and costume, which is performed in front of the subtlety-illuminated temples themselves. If your schedule permits, incorporating one, possibly two, evening performances into your Odisha itinerary would make for a wonderfully memorable experience.
Wildlife is also on the agenda in Odisha. Chilika Lake is Asia’s largest brackish water lagoon and during the winter months (November to mid-January) it becomes home to a million-plus migratory birds, making it the greatest wintering ground for relocating aves on the entire Indian subcontinent. Over 150 species of birds call the lagoon home during this period, birds such as herons, cranes and pink flamingos and they come from as far afield as the Caspian Sea, Siberia and the Kirghiz steppes of Central Asia. It’s quite a spectacle and slowly meandering along the tranquil waters of the lagoon in the early morning or late afternoon, which are the best times to spot wildlife, is a peaceful experience and a paradise for ornithologists and the casual observer alike.
There are some atmospheric accommodation options in Odisha as well. The simple, yet delightful Dhenkanal Palace, which is a couple of hours drive northwest of Bhubaneswar, is a nostalgic, heritage-style property that has been lovingly restored by the original Raja of Dhenkanal’s great-grandchildren. Dhenkanal Palace is the ideal base for exploring some of Odisha’s tribal villages, including Nuapatna, which specialises in weaving, and the metal casting settlement of Dokra.
What’s more, because of excellent flight connections, Odisha can easily be combined with other states in India. A short hop between Bhubaneswar and Kolkata, as an example, opens up Western Bengal, another of the country’s undeservedly lesser-visited regions. And then there’s Kolkata itself, which, in our opinion, is probably India’s most captivating metropolis and always worthy of a day or two of exploration.
The more you travel in India, the harder it becomes to not compare one state with another. The ecosystem of Chilika Lake will remind regular visitors to the country of parts of Kerala, for example, while the glorious temples in and around Bhubaneswar are reminiscent of some of those found in Uttar Pradesh. But, there is something about Odisha that makes it stand out from the crowd. It has a unique flavour all of its own and, for the time being, it is one of the best-kept secrets on the Indian subcontinent. Our advice would be to go now and see this wonderful corner of India before the word gets out!
We can put together a tailor-made holiday to Odisha (Orissa) but our 12 days / 11 nights Classic Odisha private tour includes all of Odisha’s highlights and is a good starting point. Prices start from £3195 per person and the holiday includes visits to Bhubaneshwar, Puri, Chilika Lake and Dhenkanal.
Additional images courtesy of Kathmandu & Beyond.