Sunday, July 17, 2005

Kalinga tales

Orissa is a remarkable land. Though one of the poorest states in India, it is embarrassingly rich with history, natural resources, and the finest coastline in India. Here are some vignettes from that land, from travel a couple of years ago.


The fried prawns definitely did smell good, and almost tempted my vegetarian soul (I did resist though). I took this picture on an island near the “"new mouth"” of lake Chilika, India'’s largest lagoon. I was astounded by the vibrancy of aquatic and avian life in this lagoon (one of the last homes of the Irrawaddy dolphin and a breeding ground for flamingoes, amongst other birds), and was equally distressed at the callousness of us humans to a region of such richness. Due to reduced flow of the rivers that feed the lagoon, and closure of the mouth due to excessive silting, the lake was dying due to the altered fresh/saltwater composition. But recent efforts have revived the lake (partly by dredging the ocean to create a narrow "“new mouth"”), and the fishermen were once again reporting bumper harvests (which had been depleted due to overfishing, and this is likely to happen again, soon).

At this island, the fishermen would just throw their nets into the lagoon, and walk along the beach, dragging the net. They would then pull out the nets, and with it, a bunch of trapped tiger-prawns would emerge. You could select your favorite prawns, have them fried right in front of your very eyes, and enjoy a fabulous treat (I didn't eat any, but saw many people gorging themselves).

After finishing off this delight, you could quench your thirst with some tender coconut water (from the coconut trees in the beach, that the fishermen provide you with). After this, the plastic plate (or piece of newspaper), and plastic straw is usually carelessly discarded by the callous tourists (or the fishermen) either on the beach, or tossed in to the waters of the lagoon.

I'’m sure the birds and the dolphins appreciate the plastic.


The city of Bhubaneshwar (Bhuvan/Bhuban=earth, eshwar= lord of, Bhubaneshwar= lord of the earth, Siva) is literally overflowing with some superb examples of Orissa temple architecture from the 7th to the 14th century AD. The Lingaraja temple is one of the finest specimens, and is also an important pilgrimage center.

We were inside the temple, close to the sanctum. I was in a corner, getting away from the crowd, and observing the proceedings with great interest. I guess the camera strap hanging out of my pocket was a dead giveaway of me being a tourist. A rascal (in the form of a priest, a temple "panda") decided I was the perfect victim, and before I knew what was happening, I was clutching a bunch of petals and vermillion in my palms, with a garland of flowers around my neck, and "tilak" on my forehead.

The charlatan told me to repeat after him, and started off.....

Guru Brahmaa, guru Vishnuh, guru Devo Maheshwarah..., while I stared in utter disbelief. He finished his 2 minute chant, and then demanded a dakshina (monetary compensation for his services). I looked at him incredulously, with my mouth wide open, and then took out a five rupee coin from my trouser pocket (since I didn'’t want his services, I thought he had better accept whatever I gave him). This didn't amuse him much, and he started hurling colorful curses at me. In his words, if I didn'’t pay up (I believe the average rate there is Rs. 50- Rs. 100), I would never have kids, I would suffer from the plague, my fingers would drop off, and the curse of a devout brahmin such as himself would never go unfulfilled.

Luckily, my father (who had by then finished his prayers) spied me trembling like the proverbial leaf. He leaped to my rescue, took the garland off my neck, and thrust it (along with the flowers) right back into the charlatan's hands, yelled "“don'’t you dare say any more to my son" (looking all fiery and sadhu like, with his wispy grey hair flying around), and dragged me away from the scene, leaving the charlatan standing, chastized and shocked.

"You are a classic bakra (goat, sacrificial lamb),"” declared my dad, and I had to woefully agree with him.

The charlatan should have taken the Rs. 5 from me. At least he would have received something for his efforts.


The Sun Temple at Konark is amongst the most exquisite man made buildings I'’ve seen (as awe inspiring as the Taj Mahal, or St. Peter'’s Basilica, or the Collosseum, or the great Chola Temples). This sculpture is at the entrance to the monument, and is worn out by the elements.It is called nara-gaja-simha (man-elephant-lion).

The sculpture comprises of a frail man at the bottom, crushed by an elephant, which in turn is overwhelmed by the roaring lion. A tourist guide told me what it symbolized.

"The man represents us. We are born as free men, and roam the world. But then we acquire wealth (symbolized by the elephant). We soon obsess about the wealth, and this wealth crushes you.
Now as you get more wealth, you naturally obtain power (symbolized by the lion). This greed for power will consume your wealth, and finally crush and destroy you."”

I don't know if that is really the legend of the sculpture, or if he just made it up, but they certainly are words of great wisdom from a poor tourist guide.


I'll leave you with these two pictures. One is of sunrise (and a fisherman's boat) in Puri.

The other is of a fisherman, standing alone on the beach (I was the only other person there, and was a good 100 yards away) in the morning, untangling his nets.

The tranquility overwhelmed my senses.

postscript:The second part of my travel tales from Orissa is up here. You might also want to read Dilip's post that followed this.


Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
Beutiful pictures.
I would love to be able to take my family to Orissa someday.

Anonymous said...

Sunil, beautiful pics, and apt descriptions...
... liked your view of my home state ...

Anonymous said...

lovely! let's have more of these :)

Anonymous said...

Sunil, I have been following you blog for quite some time but this is my first comment, and let me start by saying that you write very well!

Here's a thought, maybe that rogue "priest" from the Orissa temple is your squirrel terrorist in disguise ;-)

Keep writing,


Sunil said...

Michael....Orissa will be a very satisfying holiday. There's always something to look forward to in every little corner. Ash, Charu, Uma.....thanks. Kalinga tales II will follow soon :-), there were so many interesting incidents during my time travelling there. Mangesh, haha!! Maybe you're right....the rogue priest cursed someone to be born as a squirrel who would torment me!!

Veena said...


I want to go to Orissa now! Nice post, can't wait for part 2.

gawker said...

beautiful. makes me want to stop procrastinating about booking my december tickets

Kiran said...

Your picture and description of the prawns being served - like it is some really posh restaurant where you can choose your fish live before they are cooked for you - makes Orissa sound like a delight for anyone who values good food (of the non-veg kind of course!).

Jokes apart, that Orissa is such a poor state is really ironic. That might change in the near future now that they are getting serious about doing something with the huge mineral deposits they are sitting on. But it would need much more than just mining to erase the dubious distinction earned by the Kalahandis of this world.

Patry Francis said...

From prawns to tranquility, I feel like I have been on a wonderful journey to a place I might not otherwise see.

Sunil said...

Veena, your tickets now!

Kiran....not every thing in a posh restaurant is great or desirable, and sometimes the best food can offer is at the humble stall by the roadside.

But....I'm not sure all this mining is being done in the right way. A lot of "proposed" mining spots are in water catchment areas or biodiversity hotspots, and a huge number of people are being displaced (search for Kashipur in google) without ANY compensation...not happy signs. But I was just looking at the beauty of the state, and bits of daily life.

Patry, no reason for you not to see will be an interesting experience for sure (good or bad :-))

Anonymous said...

I think the Pandas are a long-standing menace in Konark -- I remember reading about them a long time back in a school textbook.

Anonymous said...

How fun! I loved that interesting account of Orissa, especially the "rip-off" priest. The shrimp looked "yummy" too!