Every region in India is unique and each has its own wonders, secrets and allure, but perhaps none more so than the unspoilt tropical eastern state of Odisha, which is steeped in spirituality, history and culture, as well as being home to the most diverse and exciting topography in the world.
The discerning traveller is rewarded with a side of India that is no less awe-inspiring than the country’s most-visited destinations. In Odisha, the soul of Incredible India is reflected in the mighty Sun Temple at Konark, an edifice so extraordinary that the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) said of it, “Here the language of stone surpasses the language of man”.
Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism have flourished in Odisha. It is a truly holy place. Unrivalled archaeological treasures range from the musty Jain caves of Udayagiri and Khandagiri with their ancient crumbling inscriptions to the sprawling architectural wonders of Ratnagiri. The Jagannath temple, (with its four, intricately carved entrance gates guarded by crouching lions, prancing horses, regal elephants and tigers) is one of the most revered sites in Hinduism. Hundreds (once thousands) of intricately carved, medieval, beehive-shaped temples are dotted around the state capital, Bhubaneswar, which is affectionately known as the “Temple City”.
Odisha lays claim to some of the most wonderful beaches in India – 480km of unbroken, golden coastline with sands lapped by the limpid, turquoise sea of the largest bay in the world. Tiny bustling markets selling freshly caught fish are set up on the white sands, and a smattering of pilgrims who have come to visit the holy sites along the coast bathe in the calm waters. Odisha’s serene beaches are far removed from the hectic, stressful annoyances of everyday life. People come here to slow down, listen and observe. Tranquillity, beauty and long uninterrupted silences seem to belong here, on these untouched shores.
Moving inland from the pristine coast, the natural beauty that Odisha has to offer becomes even more breathtaking. Odisha’s unique topography means that its biodiversity is second to none, and much of her land is protected. Densely forested hills, verdant, lush valleys and tropical trees are home to a superb variety of wildlife. Wild orchids and rare plants blanket the high ground, while elusive animals including the white tiger, elephants, king cobras and samba can be seen in Odisha’s sanctuaries (Kotagarh, Chandaka and Nandankanan). There are extensive conservation programmes for endangered species like the Asiatic lion, the Nilgiri langur and the saltwater crocodile. The Gahirmatha Turtle Sanctuary, fringed by Bhitarkanika mangroves (wetlands of international importance), is one of the world’s most important nesting beaches for the rare, heart-shaped Olive ridley turtles, which return each year to bury their eggs in the soft sands where they themselves were hatched. The brackish Lake Chilika is home to the vulnerable stubby-nosed Irrawaddy dolphin, fishing cat and limbless skink, as well as over 300 other indigenous and rare species. Migrating birds from the north begin to arrive during the winter months, millions of them, across hundreds of species, including flamingos, herons, egrets, storks, ibis and spoonbills. These astonishing natural wonders cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.
Tribal and indigenous people: incredible India’s ancient past
Odisha has a rich tribal culture that is upheld in the precious heritage of its indigenous communities (which make up about a quarter of its overall population). The eminent Odia novelist Gopinath Mohanty described the people of these 62 distinct communities as the “offspring of immortals”, referring to their simple and unspoilt ways of life. These tribal societies have been protected from mainstream tourism by the geography of their homes, set deep within the undulating hills and jungles of southwest Odisha, but their ancient legacies and patchwork of traditions have also long been encouraged by the state of Odisha, which champions their local markets, festivals, agricultural methods and ancient ways of life.
Inquisitive travellers can have an entirely authentic cultural experience by visiting one of the colourful tribal markets or villages. At the spectacular, two-week Adivasi Mela festival, held every January, the arts, crafts and customs of the region’s tribal people are superbly showcased and really come to life. Fantastic examples of traditional artistry including carving, sculpture, tool-making, textile weaving (with vibrant yarns coloured with natural vegetable dyes) basket making and painting are laid out in eye-catching displays. This wonderful cultural programme, in which every tribe is joyously represented, highlights ethnic music, dancing, drumming and traditional folk songs that capture the ethos, history and rich culture of these vibrant and unique communities.