Travel between Temples, Villages and Tribal Markets in Orissa

Finally, I have a holiday vacation in Indian style, that is, totally without a plan, or booking, or anything. I got the tickets at the last moment to travel to Orissa. The train came not from the Howrah Station, like most, but from a small station south of Howrah, from Shalimar. It is an almost empty train station, with only a measly tea shop. For me, it was the first time I traveled by train. So it was very exciting.

I am used to long bus trips, but also to their stops every four hours, to stretch my legs and have a tea or eat something. In something the train and the bus are similar. It takes more or less the same (although the train is much cheaper if one travels in Sleeper Class), and the beds are equally uncomfortable. The jumps, rattles, and noises, are similar too. Maybe it's more interesting to go by train because you can talk to more people and that, although as we travel at night we basically spend the night.

Sometimes I was awakened by the passengers who got on the train, the men snoring, the children crying or talking, the chaiwala walking by the train shouting Chai! Chai! Around 5 the children who were next to me wake up and did not go back to sleep, and neither did I.

At 6.30 I arrived at Puri, which turned out to be a village by the sea, overflowing with people. I decided that I would not spend the night in Puri, but would go directly to Konark, which is about an hour away. It has a temple dedicated to the Sun, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site. So with the backpack on my back, I toured all of Puri on foot. First I went down to the CT Road to have some breakfast.

I had a tea when I arrived but I needed something for my stomach. I found a hotel with a very nice restaurant, which was the only one that was open at that time, and with a very friendly waiter. He recommended me a paratha (because it was the easiest thing to do, not because it was better), so I did not have to wait long. The parathas of the east are a flat round bread fried in a lot of oil, instead of being baked, and is quite thick.

They are usually filled with a thin layer of potato or paneer (fresh cheese), and taken with something spicy or yogurt. To have breakfast is too much for my stomach (in fact, at any time they are too heavy for me). In the south, on the other hand, the paratha is made on a griddle, with less oil than here. It opens in different layers in a way that looks like a spiral bread with three dimensions and is crunchy.

In Calcutta, I have found it like that in restaurants. In others places, it is horrible. So I decided on the vegetable sandwich, and I was not wrong. It was one of the best vegetable sandwiches I've tried in India so far.

After breakfast and a couple of cafes, I continue walking to the end of CT Road and turn to go to Puri beach, which is very famous. The city is close to the sea, and they have an important fishing industry, especially of dry sardines. In the street, I had seen more or less decent buildings, two or three story high. But when entering the beach I found a village of mud houses, some bricks with one story and probably one room, at the most two. Here the fishermen and their families lived.

The animals were let loose in the yards that shared the different houses with roosters, chickens, dogs, goats, ducks, and cats. The women prepared food in the courtyards (or in the "street", if that is how you can call the small sandy path that wound between the groups of houses to go to the beach), cutting fish or doing some preparation with dried sardines. The children played with the spinning top, and the men bathed and brushed their teeth.

Many came to ask me where I came from. At one point I was surrounded by four or five children and their mothers and fathers, who wanted to invite me to their houses to take fish or tea. They told me that they were Telugu, from Andhra Pradesh, who had come for work in Orissa. Towards the end of the beach, which was getting cleaner and clearer as I left the fishing village, I began to see tourists.

And next to the tourists, are food stalls and people with horses where people could ride and walk on the beach. There were also some men with big tires that were tied with a thick rope. As the currents in Puri are dangerous, people hardly bathe. Those who dare to get in the water often do it inside those tires, as if they were floats. If a dangerous wave comes the men would pull the rope to return the swimmer to the beach. It does not seem very safe anyway, so there are also a few coastguards, easy to identify by the funny little hat they wear.

At the end of the beach, I also saw the place where the Christmas sand sculptures are made. Before leaving for Orissa, I had seen photos, and I was very curious. But the sculptures that were on the page were no longer on the beach. Instead, there was another, pretty too, painted in colors and with an environmental theme:

I leave the beach to walk to the most famous temple of Puri, Jagannath Mandir. It is a temple dedicated to one of the many forms of Vishnu, and some seem to relate to Buddha. He is worshiped along with his brothers Balabhadra and Subhadra. The images of the gods are usually made of wood, and the three of them always go together.

I go around the walls (it's a huge temple complex), observing people buying things for offerings before entering the temple, and going up to a temple. I visit a small library from whose window I can see the square and a bit of the temple. It is a very busy and very lively place, and we were not in festival time. I don't even want to imagine how Puri should be during Ratha Yatra.

In the library, you can go up one more floor to see better, but in my guide, it says that simply giving 10 rupees is enough. However, the librarian asked me, without asking, for 100 rupees, with the excuse that it was for the maintenance of the library. But precisely what this library did not have was maintenance. The books, tucked inside old cabinets, were covered with mountains of dust.

They had a couple of newspapers of the day (which cost one rupee and a half). When I asked him how the money was spent exactly in the maintenance of the library, he dodged the question and ended up saying that it was to buy newspapers and magazines of the day.

I left the library to find somewhere to eat something and find the bus station, which was at the end of the large avenue. I ate a thali with dal fry (yellow lentils sautéed with vegetables), some vegetables in a spicy sauce, and a lot of rice. Tired of not sleeping and with the backpack on the back, and the heat in Puri, I arrived exhausted at the train station.

There I sat in the shade a little bit to enjoy a tea. At the Puri bus station people, cows, and flies accumulated in a true medley. There were many stalls selling jalebis and rasgullas. I try each of them and they were really delicious.

Before going to Konark, I wanted to visit a village recommended on my guide as the ideal place to buy handicrafts and artistic objects typical of the area. It is Raghurajpur. I thought about going by bus but it was very crowded. So, in the end, I negotiated with an autorickshaw driver a round trip for 150 rupees. It is 14 kilometers away, a bit far, so I was convinced by the price. I saved myself from standing on a crowded bus. The place where I was going was actually a little outside, passing a train line.

It was no more than a street full of houses in which the artisans (some were and others did not) sold and exhibited their materials. It is a tourist trap, with all the letters. There was no one there except a French woman with a surreal look, an Australian backpacker, and me too. It was a strange situation.

Some of the artisans spoke English quite well but in spite of everything they immediately adorned their speeches and explanations with words in Oriya, Bengali, and Hindi. The funny thing is that sometimes they looked at me saying "you understand, don't you? Just because I started talking to them in Bengali when I entered.

Some had works of art. But as works of art, they exceeded my budget. Although it was not that they were expensive even so, too much for me. And too much for the trip. The sheets were going to ruin my backpack. In the end, I bought a coconut painted with the Jagannath trio as a souvenir. I returned to Puri and finally took a bus to Konark. The first one was already overflowing with people. When I say to overflow, I say to overflow literally as people clung to the bus bars as they could and went outside.

So I went up to the second, in which there was still some free seats. It was 20 rupees per person for one hour of travel. This bus like the previous one ended with people overflowing through the doors, with some upstairs with their suitcases. I was so tired after the whole day kicking with the suitcase, without rest, that as soon as the bus started rattling my eyes were closed. I opened them to the voice of the conductor, calling me from among the dreams, to tell me that I had already arrived at Konark.

When I arrived it was getting dark. They left me on the main road where there were only restaurants and souvenir shops. Actually, Konark is not a village town. It is a road that surrounds the temple in which there are hotels, shops, restaurants, a small shopping center, and some houses scattered in very good to dilapidated states. It looked like a battle video game in which you enter a desolate village. But with souvenir shops.

I was greeted by a nice old man who immediately asked me my name and where I came from. The old man turned out to be an official Konark guide and guided me to the hotel and the way to the important places. He made me promise that the next morning I would look for him at the door of the temple and enter with him. I tried a couple of hotels but they turned out to be very expensive for the quality of the rooms.

I was just looking for a clean bathroom, hot water, and a little cleaning. But it turned out that looking for those three things was very complicated in Konark. The rooms without anything of that cost were about 400 rupees, and the truth is that they were not worth it. That's worth in Kolkata with all the comforts I was looking for.

So I kept the backpack on my shoulder walking through Konark in the dark visiting all the hotels mentioned in my guide, and a few more. In the end, I reached the entrance of the temple, which was lit and looked beautiful, and I met again with the old guide.

In one of them, I was when the light went out. It turns out that in Konark at about 8 o'clock the electricity goes out and even after two hours, it does not return this way every day. I guess once you know it, nothing happens. In a way, it is a privilege. Looking at the sky I can appreciate all the stars. It's the first time I've seen the stars in this part of India, and it's an unforgettable show.

The room I was seeing with the light of my cell phone and some candles was the dirtiest I had seen, but also the cheapest one with 250 rupees. For one night, maybe for one night, I could have endured, but I convinced myself to see some more and return when there was light. No one was going to come at that time to take away an empty room. So I continue walking until I return to the same place where the bus left me, and I tried the last hotel in the city.

The lodge had nothing majestic, but it was the cleanest. There was no hot water (neither here nor anywhere), but at least the bathroom was good, although it was outside the room and was tiny. I bargained with the innkeeper and in the end, I stayed for 350 rupees. The truth is that the room was large and the bed was huge, and not too hard. I unfolded my sleeping bag and leave my backpack finally and went out for dinner.

I found a restaurant that had a generator, and I ordered dosa. They are the effects of having lived in the south. I am passionate about southern food, especially the dosas, although what really deprives me is the vada sambhar. It is a kind of salty donuts made with rice flour, boiled and then fried, with a crunchy layer, which is taken with a soup of tamarind, vegetables, and lentils (the sambhar).

The hotel had the chhena poda, a sweet that seems to be the specialty of Orissa. I wanted to try it, so I ordered a piece, but they gave me two. It looks like a kind of cheesecake. It is made with paneer, the Indian fresh cheese. The little gold on the outside is very attractive, but inside it is a bit too wet. I do not like the syrup of roses which sweetens much of the Indian sweets. I had to eat the two pieces myself. With that and the dosa I was full, so I went for a walk looking for a tea shop to do the digestion.

Strolling, I end up again in front of the temple (Konark is very very small), and the owner of a restaurant approached me. He asked me where I came from, and I told him that from Kolkata. And it turned out that he was also from Kolkata, so we started talking in Bengali. He was very happy and requested me to have dinner for the second time in his restaurant.

But as he saw that I was not going to eat twice, he invited me to have tea in his restaurant. I was looking for some candy and the man, like a good Bengali, said that he would bring me a great candy. I enter. It was all dark, with candles on the tables, and there was hardly anyone inside, so it was very cozy and pleasant. The tea tasted great, but the sweets turned out to be two warm rasgullas.

The owner of the restaurant told me to take the chairs outside, which was very good, and brought more tea. I was talking for a good time, almost two hours, in Bengali. I told him that I had been studying in Calcutta for two years. Talking about talking we ended up talking about motorcycles, which were a good way to go to the Chandrabhaga beach near Konark. He told me that he would give me his motorcycle if I knew how to drive.

He went to bring it through the alley of the temple, while I stayed drinking my tea and watching the stars until he returned. When he returned, the light returned. I said goodbye, who invited me to everything and did not let me pay anything. I went back to the hotel to sleep, finally, in a bed, and to rest after so many things in a single day.

I woke up in Konark a little late, around 9 o'clock, when I wanted to get up early, but I found it impossible with how tired I was. Although during the day it was quite hot in Orissa, at night and in the morning it was so cool that it seemed like real winter (which it was). So showering with cold water was not too appetizing, but there was no other choice. Actually, after a while, the water did not seem so cold anymore.

The worst thing was the icy little breeze that was coming in through the door. I've already said that the bathroom was not in the room, but right next to it in a minimum cabin, and I could feel the temperature outside. I went out for breakfast for tea and some patties and a little fruit.

I expected to see the old guide around, but he should have already entered with some other group because I did not see him anywhere. The temple had a lot of life in the morning compared to the afternoon. It seemed incredible that so many people could meet in such a small town to see a ruined temple where no religious ceremony is taking place.

The owner of the restaurant where I had gone to have tea the night before, had told about me that at the ticket counter that I was a friend of his. I get inside for free. What I did was explain in Bengali to the ticket seller that I was not a tourist, but that I worked in Kolkata and show my credentials. In many monuments and tourist places there is a rate for Indians and another for foreigners, although when I went to Hampi, I saw you can bargain.

I entered, without a local guide, although the travel guide had several explanations about the temple. It is quite ruined, and the truth is only the part seen from the door is restored. The back is a jumble of smooth stones, to contain the structure, rusty scaffolding, and other remains. A bit disappointing, really. I wonder if so much reconstruction is worth it. Although the front part looks real, from behind with so much smooth stone that obviously was not there originally, one wonders if the temple was like that or not when they built it.

The Konark Sun Temple is designed as a carriage that carries the God Surya (the sun) inside. That's why the horses, which originally had more, I think there were seven, meaning the days of the week. The wheels, which simulate those of the car, are 24, one for each hour of the day. Each wheel has eight spokes, which indicate 8 moments of the day and in which a different image related to that part of the day is sculpted.

Konark was full of tourists who had come to see the Sun Temple. However, within half an hour I was doubtful about it. Had they come to see the temple, or take pictures only? And this was done by families, girls, teenagers, young boys and girls and even retired couples. At one point I was trying to take a picture of the temple, wrestling with my camera, and I could not get it out because there were so many people and I had to give up.

For me, it was the first time, and it was a real shock. The experience was repeated for the rest of our vacation, but it was never as intense as in Konark. I went out, finally, just as a group of retired Japanese people entered with their photo cameras. I wonder if they could take pictures.

I left the temple and decided that it was time to approach the Chandrabhaga beach. In the end, I did not dare to go with the bike of my new friend, and I got on a shared auto rickshaw for 10 rupees. I was going with a group of women from Orissa who were talking to each other and pointing me out, having a great time at my expense. I wonder what they would say. The beach is close, 3 kilometers away, and it is a huge and quiet place. There I relax a little at last, after the burden of the temple and the photos, and I take a coconut. Only the sun was missing, the sky was cloudy that day.

It was time to eat and I went to my old friend's restaurant to have a thali. The food was passable. It was cheap as a thali cost 40 rupees, and was repeated as many times as I would like. In addition, papad was served (a kind of fried or roasted cake that is super crunchy) free while I waited. Even while I ate, people would come to me to say hello, to ask where I was from, if I liked the food, etc.

After the meal, I take a paan, leaves of a plant filled with various spices, seeds, and sugars that are good for digestion. The little man of the paan shop made us a spectacular one, but he ripped me off as he wanted. An error here is not asking the price of a thing before taking/eating/traveling. Always ask. The guy charged me 20 rupees when they should have been 10 at most but I was tired and did not want to argue.

Again with the backpack on the shoulders, I went to the bus station, that is, to the esplanade of the buses, ready to go to Bhubaneshwar. The bus looked like a toy, small and red, and you could tell it had suffered on the roads. I found a place to sit in the back, that was not broken (it seemed like a miracle on that bus). What had been broken was the window next to me, and they had fixed it with two wooden planks. At least there was something that covered me with the wind, but I could not see the landscape. I had to look over the shoulder of the man traveling in front.

However, the two-hour trip did not take too long. Between the sounds and the music, it seemed that I was like in a novel. The towns were passed one after another, full of tea and food shops, gift shops for tourists and people walking by them. At last, I arrive at Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Orissa. I was going to spend two days there.

The next day I had a plan to visit some caves west of Bhubaneswar at Udayagiri and Khandagiri. They were built by the Jains, supposedly in the 1st century BC, for the ascetics of this religion. Apparently, one of the Kalinga kings (the empire that was formerly in Orissa) built them for them. So in addition to religious symbols, in some caves, there are drawings about kings, battles, etc.

In reality, these "caves" are not caves, but hollows dug in the stones of a hill. When I heard "cave", I imagined something under the earth or at least very deep inside, but nothing like it. Some are very very small and none is too deep. It is best to walk and climb to the top of the hill to see the views of Bhubaneshwar in the distance. From Udayagiri the views are the best, and the temple of Khandagiri, opposite, looks beautiful.

But be careful if you go up to Khandagiri. It is full of monkeys wishing to eat all the food you carry, and priests asking for money in exchange for flowers. If you want to enter the temple you have to pay for it separately. So I do not enter. I did not think it was worth it, and I was not going to understand anything either, so I did not care. Udayagiri is what one cannot miss. Again, I spoke in Bangla to explain that I worked in Kolkata and get inside free.

After that, it was already midday and I called the booked car driver to go to Pipli. I returned to Bhubaneshwar and there I waited for him. He arrived in a dusty car that he should not have used in years. There I went to Pipli, which is not far away, while the driver asked me what I had seen in Orissa and how much I had paid to see it. When I told him that I had paid nothing, he laughed a lot. The car left me for shopping.

There were lots of little shops with little glass lamps, bags, toiletry bags, clothes to hang on the wall with images of gods, bookmarks, purses, and cloth filing cabinets. Above all, there were fabrics with mirrors and embroideries of Jannagath. In an hour I just bought some souvenirs and presents, and I went back to the car. The plan was to go to Koraput to visit the tribes.

To visit the bonda women and the other tribes, I had two options. The first and most trite is to take a tourist bus, which is the one offered by all travel agencies, with stops and overnight stays in the same places. You can visit some villages that have been receiving tourists for many years and that have lost much of their authenticity. The other option is which is the one I have chosen.

Finally, I arrive at my destination to the community center, which consists of three buildings, built by the local tribes and with the same materials they use in their buildings. Two of the buildings have three rooms each for accommodation, and the other for the kitchen and dining room. My room is spacious, clean, and with bathroom. Yes, there is neither wifi nor any internet. During the four days that I am going to be here, I will live practically incommunicado since, although there is a telephone connection.

In the mornings it is cool to the point of needing a warm garment until the sun rises since we are in winter and in a mountainous area. The breakfast is excellent, with an omelet, fruit, jam, and toast, among other things. There is also coffee, which as in many cases in these parts, is instant. The third day of my stay is the one that I have scheduled the visit to the weekly market of a village where bonda women go. The bonda people live in remote villages and come down to this town to sell in the weekly market a kind of wine extracted from coconut trees and rice.

When we are approaching the village the guide warns me that photos are prohibited. The best thing I can do to avoid problems with the surveillance is to leave the camera in the car or keep it in a bag to keep it out of sight. At the entrance of the village, I see the first bonda woman with her striking attire and I have to resist not trying to shoot the camera from inside the car.

I have seen numerous tribes all over the world, but the clothing of bonda women is one of the most original. They have their heads shaved, covering their chest with large necklaces of brightly colored beads. The part of the abdomen is covered with a coarse cloth garment, a sort of loincloth, although some have already adopted a conventional dress. The outfit is topped by a small cape, as well as necklaces made of thick aluminum tubes and hoop earrings with pendants. Many of them also have a third slope on the right side of the nose. Being there and not being able to capture images seems like a real torture.

The village is crowded with street vendors so we left the vehicle at the entrance and opted to go down with the camera but stored in a bag. I barely take a few steps and a young man who says he is the controller of the visits, reiterates the prohibition of photos. But in response to my requests, he tells me that if I wait for the influx in the market to reduce, he can give me some photos himself. It was what I was afraid of, and that is that some taking advantage of the circumstances, to get a bonus for allowing visitors to obtain some images.

I decide to take a tour to see the market and test the land and I see that bonda women are a small minority, who do not reach 50. They sell their alcoholic beverages among a multitude of stalls selling all kinds of fruits and vegetables, as well as trinkets and kitchen utensils. Then I learn that bonda men are very fond of raising their elbows to the point that there are quite a few cases of alcohol addiction.

Walking through the market, a bonda woman comes to me, who wears her best clothes, and without further ado, asks me for a photograph in exchange for a tip. Without thinking twice I take the camera and shoot in a hurry, a tenth of a second before a guard comes. I explain to him that she has asked me for the photo but he does not allow. I continue my journey and I stumble with a group of four more tourists, who will be the only ones I will see all morning. I see that they are accompanied by a guide and half a dozen bonda women and I follow them at a distance.

As soon as I leave the market circuit, I see that they start taking photos at their discretion without any restrictions on the part of guards or guides. So I wait for them to finish and when the women go back to the market I call them to do the same. They pose graciously and I take advantage of the fact that there are no intruders to shoot the camera. When I finish they ask me for a tip that I give them and they thank me with wide smiles.

Almost at noon, the influx to the market is reduced and even the vigilantes seem to have tired. In this situation, I approach a large lot at one end of the market, which is the area where alcohol is sold and where the vast majority of bonda locals are concentrated. I manage to find a discreet corner from where I can take images with the telephoto lens without being noticed. They are the only ones I get without authorization from the women themselves. It is time to eat so, not without some sorrow for leaving such a beautiful show, I head to the makeshift parking lot outside the village, where the driver waits for me to return.

When we arrive, the table is set on a covered terrace. The cooks are all women of the local tribes who have been properly instructed. They prepare traditional dishes of the area with very good taste and, also, without spices, which is the first thing I said when I arrived to questions about my gastronomic tastes. Today's meal consists of vegetable soup, cauliflower, chicken curry, rice, and dessert, accompanied by beer. I am not exaggerating when I say that this meal, like all the others during my four days of stay is very tasty.

Throughout the remaining three days other I visit weekly markets of different tribes such as parijan, haraja, mali and others. They are also very striking. Although they are not as spectacular as the bonda, they offer a great spectacle of life and color with their colorful dresses and varied costume jewelry. In the markets, I immerse myself in the tunnel of time, with systems of weights and ancestral measures that have been relegated to museums.

I finally returned to the hotel. At the hotel, I collected my things and left for the train station. After a long journey, I was looking for somewhere to dine and found a southern food restaurant (again dosa, yes). Then I went for tea and sat on the edge of a sidewalk on the street. While I went for tea, I became friendly with a chap from Mumbai who lived in Orissa. He was very innocent and shy, who was waiting for a friend of his who was arriving in an hour. While we were speaking, another man approached us, chewing paan offering to carry my luggage.

At the station, it was very uncomfortable because it was overflowing with people and there was hardly any place to sit. Outside on the platforms, the temperature was cool, but there was no place to sit. In the waiting rooms, it was hot, but it was the only place where there was some space. I managed to sit down. I left the asphyxiating waiting room and went back for a walk on the platform. I went out to the station door, walked, sat on the floor and killed time as badly as I could.

One of the things that caught my attention a lot at the Bhubaneswar station is that every time I went, there were many people sleeping on the floor of the entrance. Anywhere, but especially in the center of the entrance. At any other, noon, afternoon or evening, there were groups of people on sheets and wrapped in blankets up to their heads, sleeping. I had never seen anything like it, yet. In Howrah, you see much less.

At last the train came and we tried again to sleep between the rattle of the train, the cold that entered through the window that does not close, the horrible smell of the bathroom and the screams of the tea vendor. Chai! Chai! I have it engraved in my mind. I arrived in Howrah at 7 o'clock in the morning or so, and dead as I was, I crossed the Ganges on a ferry (the first time I did it), on a morning with a cloudy but wonderful sky.

There were hardly any people on the ferry, some young people who went to work, some older women, and several sadhus, ascetics or, well, older men who have renounced the world to follow their religion or spirituality, usually covered with ashes, orange powders, and very long hairs. Some will be genuine, no doubt, but as there is everything (and here more than anywhere else).

I finally arrived in Calcutta and after a quick tea, I caught the first taxi we saw. But it turned out that the man was not from Calcutta and if he really was a taxi driver, he had just started. He asked other taxi drivers several times along the way, and that my house is in a well-known and easy to reach place.

He did not understand my indications neither in Bangla nor in Hindi, mainly because he did not know the names of the places that I indicated him as a point of reference. In the end, I arrived, to collapse in the room. The first thing I did was to take a hot shower, a real shower.
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  • The Write Girl
    The Write Girl August 11, 2011 at 9:03 PM

    Gorgeous sunrise from Tiger Hill

  • Kim, USA
    Kim, USA August 11, 2011 at 9:17 PM

    This is gorgeous!!


  • forgetmenot
    forgetmenot August 11, 2011 at 11:19 PM

    That is beautiful--nice shot. Mickie ;)

  • Laloofah
    Laloofah August 13, 2011 at 5:25 AM

    What a wonderful vantage point for watching the sunrise! I am so glad I clicked on your photo to see the larger version, because not only did I then see Mt. Everest, I was also able to see the two rows of prayer flags silhouetted against the dawn sky. Such a magical photo from such a wonderous place. Thanks for making the 8,500 foot climb to capture and share it with the rest of us! :-)

  • Tatjana Parkacheva
    Tatjana Parkacheva August 15, 2011 at 2:21 AM

    Wonderful scene.


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