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The land of Splendour

Though popular for its seas and temples, Odisha has much more to offer – its fascinating marine life and exquisite native art forms invite you on a vacation less-experienced

In school geography lessons, one did a very assiduous study of the physical features of India – the most intriguing ones and the most obvious ones remain with us adults while the others are there to be retrieved periodically, as and when required. One of the first categories was, of course, the Sundarbans delta and the other was this tiny wedge of water which breaks the Eastern coast of India – the Chilka Lake, an intrinsic part of the state of Odisha.

Odisha is known as the state of temples – the famous Konark Sun Temple and Jagannath Temple in Puri to name just two of the hundreds that dot the state's landscape. But then, Odisha is also the state of many wildlife sanctuaries and a mini sea – the stunningly beautiful brackish Chilka Lake, one of the most charming sights to soothe a battered soul!

We were doing the Bhubaneshwar-Puri-Chilka-Bhubaneshwar circle in a hired cab. Barely an hour's drive away from Puri and its balmy beaches is the awesome Chilka Lake which stretches over an area of nearly 1100 sq. km. During the winter months, many migratory birds come to the lake, converting it into a delightful bird sanctuary.

Chilka is Asia's largest saltwater lagoon, separated from the sea by a couple of narrow sand bars. Its map will give you an idea of how this lake is an 'almost' sea with its sometimes fresh and sometimes salt water characteristics that encourage prawn farming and the occasional dolphins which swim close to the boats going out into the sea.

The drive to the lake took us through a very picturesque village with kids at play in their school while a few elders washed themselves in little pukurs (ponds) dotting the area. I was hoping to catch sight of at least one dolphin.

My sister and I hired a motorboat and sat down to catch the breeze while the land went by swiftly. We kept a watch on the waters, hoping to catch a glimpse of the playful dolphins, ready with my camera to get one of those classic 'dolphins in the air' shot! We were sailing for a couple of hours when we saw various birds and the prawn farmers checking their nets to ensure things are okay and settling loose ties. But we did not get to spot any dolphin.

The Shy Dolphins

Our boatman called them and they came circling around the boat, but to my despair, they stayed under the water and one could only get an odd glimpse of a rounded head and a bluish body!

Our motorboat went through the waterways, close to the sand bars where the herons, egrets and the occasional crane could be spotted. As the sun slowly began to climb down into the west, the vast expanse of waters began to shimmer like sheaths of gold. Maybe the dust in the air also coloured the sun in different shades of orange. Many of the birds took off from their sand bars to find a tree where they could spend the night. It was a sight for sore eyes as they flew off in a flurry of feathers, grey-white underbellies sailing under long graceful wings adding an elegant end to a beautiful day.

I closed my camera as the light was no longer available. It was getting dark and all those primeval fears of being out after dusk came rushing back but our boatman, bless his old heart – was the epitome of grace and courtesy. After all the flurry and excitement of spotting dolphins (we did not see them but he knew they were there because they had answered his call!), we started our way back in all earnest. Then we heard calls from our boatman to another and slowly we saw a boat coming in close to us.

Buying Pearls

The other manjhi (fisherman) came on board with two small plastic tubs with oysters in sea water. They were freshwater oysters and he claimed that there would be a pearl in each one of the fifty odd ones in his tub. The larger of the tubs had slightly larger oysters and we were told that the pearls in them were larger and, therefore, would cost more money. Anyway, to quell our curiosity, we got him to open some of the smaller ones and he knew we had caught his bait when all five oysters he opened had pearls in them, sure enough! So my sister and I ended up buying little pearls in the middle of Chilka Lake!

I was very curious about how he knew that every oyster would have a pearl – I mean, there could have been dud ones too! But my recent trip to China has made me more informed about oysters and cultured pearls. Since the whole process is so controlled, it would be easy to recognise when an oyster is ready with its pearl! If one wants a larger pearl one has to leave it to grow for anywhere up to ten years or more, when one may find a gem as large as the famous South Sea pearls!

The Artisans' Village

The next morning we started on our journey to Bhubaneshwar with a stop at Raghurajpur, the village of artisans. We had heard a lot about it and since it was so close by, we took the little detour.

Odisha government has made this dedicated arrangement for all local crafts to be available under one head. It gives the craftspersons and buyers the opportunity to showcase their craft – what pattachitra and palm leaf paintings are all about!

Raghurajpur is a tiny village dotted with pools and an array of fruit trees. There are hundreds of little temples while the outer walls of most of the houses are decorated with murals of scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharat.

Although the main art of Odisha is pattachitra, this village has a community of artists and craftspersons who produce varieties of handcrafted treasures such as palm leaf engravings, stone carvings, papier mache toys and masks, wood carvings, wooden toys, and much more!

I have to mention here the young man Ajit Swain who is an accountant and has now dedicated himself entirely to the promotion of Odisha's arts and crafts. His NGO "Dedicated to People" has been recognised for its remarkable contribution to promoting rural tourism. He showed us the different stages of a patta being readied. When we look at a pattachitra we only see the fine brushwork and the story told on the panel – we do not pay attention to the months of hard work that go into getting the base material ready to take on natural colors. Old cotton saris are layered with a thin paste of tamarind water over a period of at least five to six days. One layer is dried in the sun and then another is put on to make it like a canvas.

It was worth appreciating that this young man has his pulse on the demands of the market. The newest innovation is the pattachitra on glass bottles which is all the rage in uptown markets. Very fine etching on palm leaves gets converted into lamp shades in different sizes while the dasavataras in a great takeaway gift.

A common saying goes: "At Raghurajpur, every villager is an artist and every house is an artist's studio". We did not have the time to visit more than three shops/studios but it was a pleasure interacting with the artisans some of whom are National Awardees.

Apparently, art is a way of life here and not just a profession.

Shyamola Khanna

Shyamola Khanna

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