Odisha Diary: The Chilika non-starter

Chilika, India’s largest lagoon and the second-largest of its kind in the world, offers a tepid reception to Jennifer Nandi, who retreats from it experiencing a strange emotion between disappointment and happiness

India’s largest Lake, Chilika, famed for its birdlife, is our next destination. We pore over the map that shows a short and direct road from Puri to the Lake but both driver and guide advise us that we’d be better off taking the longer but better road via the capital, Bhubaneshwar. The drive takes longer than expected. Impatience gets the better of us as we ask ourselves what would we expect to see in the mid-morning glare. 

The sight that meets us is not good. Like all lakes in India it is a tourist attraction. There are no birds anywhere just throngs of people enjoying the sunshine, the water, feeding themselves at a clutter of stalls – a loud chaos so inimical to what we were looking forward to! Hurriedly we engage what appears to be a ‘speedboat’. 

We are 45 minutes on the water with not a bird in sight when the boat breaks down. The boatman offers to get us another to take us back. I refuse to listen to any deviation from our plan of watching birds. I resolutely hold my ground and coerce our Guide to call his contact on shore to send us another boat for which we would happily pay. This done, we wait on the water for roughly 20 minutes till our second boat arrives. We zoom off much faster and for once feel that we’re getting somewhere! But a thrilling anguish awaits us…..

As we approach flotillas of duck, seagulls and both Greater and Lesser Flamingos in the distance, we are cautioned by a ‘forest’ guard boat not to venture any closer than we had already done! It is a protected area and off-limits to us. I feel within me a secret tension between disappointment and happiness that the birds are under such secure guard. We head back for a quick lunch and a long drive to Raygada, the heart of Orissa’s tribal belt.

The late afternoon sunshine shining through Orissa’s jungle fast approaches us. It is interesting to note that the word ‘jungle’ comes from India. In its Hindi form of jangal, it denotes any area of uncultivated land. Indian jungles are not necessarily forested, and today less so than ever. But well away from centres of population there do still survive a few extensive and well-wooded jungle tracts, especially in eastern and central India. This is despite the fact that the government has acquired forest land with a voracious indifference to forest dwellers both human and animal.

Just before dusk we halt a circumspect distance away from a small, very relaxed village of the Sauras. Noticeable signs of cultural assimilation into mainstream India are very evident. The people are calm and smile shyly. But time is catching up with us and we leave in a hurry. Hours later we hit a roadblock just an eyelash away from our hotel. It’s back to urbanisation with its attendant problems. A van has hit a cyclist provoking the villagers to burn a tyre and blockade traffic. It costs us an hour. We check in to our hotel at Raygada at 10 pm.

Previously in Jennifer Nandi’s Odisha Diary:

Text and photos: Jennifer Nandi
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