Odisha Diary: Onward to Bhitarkanika

Jennifer Nandi‘s sojourn in Odisha begins with a ride through the Buddhist ruins at Udayagiri and Ratnagiri 

Some serious packing after dinner
leaves the night in tatters – yet, we are ready to leave the hotel
at 5.30 in the morning to catch our flight to Bhubaneshwar. Sushanto,
the epitome of courtesy, is our guide for the Orissa (officially renamed Odisha in November 2010) segment of our
journey. He meets us at the airport, with welcoming gestures and
smiles, brimming with keen anticipation and excitement at the next 10
days that we must all spend together. We settle in for the long drive
to Bhitarkanika Marine Sanctuary, our final destination.

Our route winds around the Buddhist
ruins of Udayagiri and Ratnagiri in the district of Jajpur. In fact, 
the Chinese traveller Huien T’sang noted that the three hills –
Ratnagiri, Lalitgiri and Udayagiri — which housed a Buddhist complex,
was the seat of a flourishing Buddhist University called Pushpagiri.
In the northern part of Langudi Hill of the Udayagiri village there
is an archaeological site with several Jain and Buddhist rock-cut
caves. One of these is a double-storied cave with ranges of cells cut
into three sides of an open courtyard. Inscriptions from the caves
date from the 2nd century BCE to the 10th century CE. Ratnagiri was
established during the reign of the Gupta king Narasimha Baladitya in
the first half of the 6th century CE, and flourished until the 12th

The archaeological site at Udayagiri is
not to be confused with that found in the twin hills of Khandagiri
and Udayagiri, 8 km to the west of Bhubaneshwar, which had become
strong centres of the Jain faith under the Chedi king, Kharavela.

We wander at will around some
magnificent sculptural ruins – few people notice us. Foreigners are
an extreme rarity in these parts but Ken is left well alone, apart
from some surreptitious sidelong glances.

A cloud of Rose-ringed Parakeets swarms over the fields of grain

The drive onwards to the sanctuary
takes us through sleepy villages. Each village has its own
scrupulously clean temple courtyard. In the nearby fields where
peanuts have just been harvested, troops of langurs complete the
day’s pickings. Hundreds of Rose-ringed Parakeets swarm over grain
fields. No villager makes any attempt at chasing them away.

In the fields, Hanuman Langurs complete the day’s picking of peanuts

As we near the estuary of the Brahmani
river, the land gets wetter. In the ditches by the side of the roads are children, both boys and girls, sometimes accompanied by men —
they are all knee-deep in slush, looking for clams and suchlike.
Beyond, in the quiet of a village hut, women work at the charkha, the
spinning wheel of Mahatma Gandhi’s time. Others paint their outside
walls with white rice powder; still others prepare the day’s cowdung using a broad-bladed hoe to combine the dung with the mud and
their feet to flatten any hardnesses that might have escaped their
careful attention. Finally, hands are used to precision-shape the
perfect cow dung cakes that are left to dry adorning every village
courtyard, wall and dry open space. Unused dried cakes are stored
under hay. Any threshing to be done is duly taken to the highway.
Cars drive over the grain, thus obviating the need for expensive
threshing machines. In fact, the villages use the nearest road as
their very own drying shed – all comestibles that require drying end up along the edges of the road.

Preparing dung cakes for fuel is cheerful work

Our car drives through a maze of
embankments until just before dusk. We throw luggage into our rooms
and hurriedly set out to maximise the last rays of the dying sun. We
walk along the canal right next to our very basic lodge. Our last-ditch effort at birding pays off — we see three different species of
woodpecker. What a wonderful end to a long day!

Text and photos by Jennifer Nandi
All rights reserved

Previously by Jennifer Nandi:
The Andamans Diary
The Sundarbans Diary


  • Jennifer Nandi

    Jennifer Nandi thrives as a guide, turning her passion for travel and natural history into a career filled with excitement and the embrace of uncertainty. She enriches her tours with knowledge and the courage to explore, transforming each journey into an adventure of beauty and mystery. She is the author of No Half Measures, a travelogue set in Northeast India.

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