Of spice and sun: Travel tales in Odisha

sunset on the beach in Odisha India

Sunset from my cabin at the Lotus Eco Resort, looking out over the Bay of Bengal

On the beach in Odisha from sunrise to sunset

I feel like The Little Prince sitting here, watching the sunset from the beach on the Bay of Bengal in Odisha; and tomorrow morning I will be able to see the sunrise from the same beach. It’s a strange twist of geography that you can see the sun rise and set on the same beach in Odisha.

I am back at the Lotus Eco Resort in Konark after about 10 days in Odisha, relaxing before I move on (read my first Odisha blog: Here comes the sun.). When I was here last week, it was for the Konark Festival. I went three nights and then moved on to Puri. That was a mistake. I should have stayed for the entire festival, not just three days; and I hope to come back another year for the entire festival. But luckily there is lots more to do and see than just this world-class festival!

sunrise on the beach in Odisha India

Sunrise from my cabin at the Lotus Eco Resort, looking out over the Bay of Bengal

From Konark, it’s a short drive along, or near, the coast to Puri. On the way we stopped at the Hariharananda Ashram. I didn’t know anything about this place until I arrived, and was given a tour by an ashramite, a woman of Indian origin named Bibi, who lives In Australia. Turns out it’s a kriya yoga ashram — Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the spectacular Autobiography of a Yogi, is in this lineage — and this ashram is the primary campus in India. I was really thrilled to see his picture in the yoga hall, as I love that book.

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The ashram is spread out over extensive grounds, deep in the jungle. “In the monsoon, many snakes and turtles appear,” Bibi said. Presumably she meant cobras, though she didn’t say it. My favourite part of the ashram was the nature walk past memorials to all the world’s “great” religions, among them Hindu, Christian, Muslin, Jain, Sikh, Jewish, etc. I saw several foreigners and met one Canadian (from a city near Toronto), who is there taking a course.

Kriya Yoga Hariharananda Ashram India Paramahansa Yogananda

The tank, surrounded by lush jungle, in the centre of the Hariharananda Ashram

I didn’t stay long, just long enough to ascertain that although I loved the grounds, and appreciate the work they do, the ashram was not for me. I didn’t like the way they treat the guru: everyone stops, in silence, while he walks by, as if he is royalty. I much prefer my gurus to be more down-to-earth, like Yogi Vishvektu of Anand Prakash Yoga Ashram, Rishikesh and Swami Brahmdev of Aurovalley Ashram, Rishidwar. They wouldn’t let you put them on a pedestal, no matter how hard you tried.

Kriya Yoga Hariharananda Ashram India Paramahansa Yogananda

Happy to see Yogananda’s name at the ashram!

I respect my teachers of course, but I think it’s the teachings that deserve extreme reverence; not the humans. Humans are fallible. And it is my inner guru, my consciousness, that deserves the most respect; the part of me that is divine in nature.

Then we drove into Puri, and it was a long drive through town, along the seaside, to get to my hotel. Puri reminds me of Niagara Falls, but with an ocean and Hindu temples. The beach is long and wide — but shadeless and dirty. The hotels that line the coastal road are garish and shabby. And right in the middle is Swargdwar — a very active cremation grounds, across the street from the night market. Apparently about 40 bodies are cremated here every day, out in the open, and anyone can walk in, as long as you are respectful and don’t take photos. Even with my extensive Indian travel experience, it was jarring to see families dressed up in sparkly synthetic clothes, eating ice cream, and walking past the cremation grounds — which do smell, as you can imagine. Unsettling is the word that comes to mind. But that’s India for you. “All life is here.”

Jagganath Temple Odisha India

The mighty Jagganath Temple as seen from the top floor of a library across the street.

By far, the highlight of my stay in Puri was taking photos from the roof of the library across the street from Jagganath Temple. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Jagganath is the creator of the universe, and his mighty temple in Puri is a major pilgrimage centre. Each summer, during the car festival, a massive chariot bearing Jagganath’s image is hauled out of the temple by hundreds of pilgrims and paraded down the very wide street in front. In times past, some in the frenzied mob would throw themselves in front of the gigantic, unstoppable wheels — much to the horror of the British Raj, who coined the term “juggernaut.”

Jagganath Temple Odisha India

A view of VIP Road outside Jagganath Temple from the library roof.

Jagganath Temple does not allow anyone who is not born Hindu to enter, so I had to make a 200 rupee donation to ascend a crumbling library across the street, to take photos from about four stories above. Rather than resent this exclusion (which seems counter to the Vedantic ideology of “oneness” upon which Hinduism rests), I loved watching the unfolding scenes below, and shooting them with my telephoto lens. I thought of the Canterbury Tales as I watched the passing parade of pilgrims.

Jagganath Temple Odisha India

A funeral procession wending past Jagganath Temple.

On the street below, I saw a marriage procession with live musicians sitting in a train-like vehicle, a musician in each small box-like coach. I saw two funeral processions walk past, the bodies wrapped in colourful shrouds and lying on stretchers, held aloft on the shoulders of mourners. I saw families dressed in finery, buying sweet pastries (up close, I knew the sweets were swarming with flies). I saw beggars pouncing like panthers on passing targets.

Jagganath Temple Odisha India

A view inside the Jagganath Temple.

And in the temple itself, I could see a swarm of workers, men in white lungis (loin cloths), carrying earthenware vessels. In the first courtyard, in front of the huge entry doors, I could see families assembling to go inside the temple, and pandits greeting them, no doubt to encourage donations. The temple employs 6,000 people — a lot of mouths to feed. It was a fascinating spectacle and just about worth the trip to Puri.

But aside from lunch at the Mayfair Hotel, my day-and-a-half in Puri was a let down. I stopped at the Mayfair because I know this small hotel chain — I toured their lovely property in Darjeeling, and also when I was in Bhubeneswar I toured their flagship Mayfair Lagoon, a very special (and very unique) hotel. I was surprised to learn Mayfair is a local company, and obviously very reputable. And I was right. My lunch at the Mayfair in Puri was probably the best food I have had in Odisha.

I met the chef, his name is Michael though he is a native of the state, and he made me a traditional thali lunch consisting of regional specialties: bekti (ocean fish) grilled in mustard and spices; vegetables like eggplant / brinjal cooked in sauce; roasted lentils — it was all light, flavourful, fresh and delicious.

artist Raghurajpur village rural Odisha India palm leaf

Two generations of Baral family artists in Raghurajpur Village

From Puri I drove back to Bhubaneswar stopping at Raghurajpur, an artists’ village; Pipli, a town known for handicrafts; and the very powerful Temple of 64 Yoginis in Haripur. I enjoyed sipping tea at the home of the Baral family — everyone in the family seem to be artists; and I bought a small painting. It’s a peaceful place, a little bit like a story book; and part of a community of three villages that house 1,000 artists and artisans, making palm leaves and etching palm leaves; and making the paints and supplies for a distinctive type of painting.

I don’t know the truth of what it’s like to live there, but for a casual person, a creative professional, I was very impressed with the amount of support these artists seem to have — mind you, I have no illusions about how hard they work. It takes months to make one of the larger palm leaf etchings and the work is painstaking. It requires great patience as well as skill, and good eyesight.

Temple of 64 Yoginis, Odisha, India

Inside the circular Temple of 64 Yoginis.

Finally, our last stop was the Temple of 64 Yoginis, a small and ancient shrine that sits in the middle of nowhere, at the end of a dirt road, beside a farmer’s field, a pond and a few modest houses. But wow, what a place! It’s small and very, very old-looking. The black chlorite statues of the yoginis (goddesses) are only about two feet in height, and they line the inner wall of the circular, roofless chamber. Each is beautiful, completely unique, representing a different goddess with a different animal “vehicle” — like Lakshmi and her swan, or Durga and her tiger. It has a bit of a Celtic feel to it, I thought as I ducked to enter the dark, rough-hewn stone entrance.

Temple of 64 Yoginis, Odisha, India

One of the 64 unique yoginis.

Inside, I asked the guide and the pandit to let me meditate alone. Then they proceeded to sit right outside the entrance and chat loudly until I asked them to please let me have five minutes of silence — an eternity in noisy in India!. Immediately when I entered the chamber I felt the top of my head vibrating, about two inches back of my hairline. It was the strangest feeling, not at all subtle, and I didn’t know what to make of it until a friend on Facebook told me it was shakti energy. It continued to throb gently until the next day.

Back to Bhubaneswar where I was scheduled to leave the next day for Satkosia wildlife reserve — but I didn’t go because I found out about the Think Literature Festival happening right at my hotel, the Swosti Premium. Instead of elephants and tigers, I saw writer Manoj Das, and actresses Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi; and I met short story writer Annie Zaidi and bought her book “The Good Indian Girl” — which I am enjoying immensely. Annie impressed me on stage by not taking any bunk from the moderator of her session, who seemed to equate bullying with moderating; and because she said she didn’t agree with the tendency of Indian women to see themselves as victims.

Manoj Das, who is a disciple of Sri Aurobindo’s teachings, gave the most entertaining and enlightening key note speech I have ever heard. He told stories — stories that held within them a crystal of uplifting wisdom. I felt my consciousness expand as he talked! And Shabana Azmi was also inspiring, in a different way. It’s just so great to see strong, confident Indian women who take their power. She is a social activist and politician as well as an actress; and in spite of all, has retained her femininity and innate sweetness. A great role model, if you ask me.

Mayfair Hotel Bhubaneswar Odisha India

View from my suite of the Mayfair Lagoon, and a Shiva Temple.

Also in Bhubaneswar I stayed one night at the Mayfair Lagoon — but it is such a special and unique hotel, it deserves it’s own blog post. Also getting it’s own blog post is my interview with Odissi dancer Meera Das — whose company, the Gunjan Dance Academy, impressed me so much at the Konark Festival. And a blog about the temples of Bhubaneswar — lots of blogs to come from my two weeks in Odisha!

More thanks to Mr and Mrs Mohanty of Swosti Travels who hosted me in Odisha; the entire staff of the Swosti Premium Hotel, who worked hard to make my stay as comfortable as possible and who put up with my demands for the quietest room in the hotel; Sailaxmi, who arranged everything and has graciously put up with my whims and changes to the itinerary; and my driver Manas, an elegant, refined and good-natured man — who I would like to heap praise upon, but he is dignified and modest and wouldn’t like it. So instead I will say that his little daughter Rani is lucky indeed. And finally, Manisha, who showed up like an angel when I needed you.

Swosti Travels are Odisha specialists and I highly recommend them to help make your travel plans in this state (and elsewhere).

artist  Raghurajpur  village rural Odisha India palm leaf

A typical artist’s house in Raghurajpur, the artist’s village

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7 Responses to Of spice and sun: Travel tales in Odisha

  1. Sudhagee December 14, 2012 at 1:25 am #

    The artists’ houses are so breathtakingly colourful ! I have never been to Odisha and hope to visit it sometime soon, especially after reading your account. And am now looking forward to reading more post about your visit to this state.
    Sudhagee recently posted..Mumbai Lens: The war memorial at Ballard EstateMy Profile

  2. Sansiddha Pani December 14, 2012 at 1:56 am #

    A small correction, the photo “VIP Road” is not VIP Road. The road that is shown is “Bada Danda”, or Grand Road in English. VIP Road is another road which leads from Grand Road towards the Puri Beach.

    Grand Road leads from the Sri Mandir, popularly called Jagannath Temple, to Gundicha Mandir. The Rath Yatra, or Chariot Festival, takes the deities from Sri Mandir to Gundicha Mandir. I hope you make it to Puri sometime to witness this spectacle. The Rath Yatra is sure to give you an experience like the one you had at the Maha Kumbh Mela in Haridwar a few years back.

    I am sorry about you not being able to visit Jagannath Temple. Just like the trains of India, change in age old traditions is slow to come. A century or so ago, even most Hindus would not have been able to enter India. So hopefully sometime in the near future non-Hindus will be allowed to enter the Jagannath Temple.

    But at least for a few days a year, Lord Jagannath and his siblings Balabhadra and Subhadra do come out of the temple and give everybody a chance for their darshan.

    Other than the Jagannath Temple though, Puri is one of those “touristy” towns which even I no longer enjoy. It has become so touristy that, most of the time when I go for Darshan the priests of the temple heckle me speaking in Hindi.

    I am glad you travelled to the 64 Yogini temple of Hirapur, which is a very rare kind of temple in India as there are only 4 or 5 other such temples. Though it is still not on the oft beaten tourist path, I remember the time, about 15 years ago, I along with my father and his colleagues had to ride motorbikes between paddy fields and finally cross a canal on a bamboo bridge to get to the temple.

    I hope you get to spend more time in Odisha, where there are many many more such quaint but great places to visit.

  3. Raquel December 14, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

    I don´t remember when I started to be fascinated about all of things vinculated to India, I think that It was since a teacher started to tell us things about this culture, and then because of some books that I read. Now I have on my mind an idea: travel to India. I´m only 20 and two things stop me: the money, and a bit of fear for travel alone. Blogs like yours show me that I can´t refuse the idea of travelling to India, and I must keep on saving money for this reason and trying to be less shy….India is so beautiful and different!! Thanks for your posts!!

    Please excuse my bad english,

    kisses from Spain!!! 🙂

  4. Priyank December 18, 2012 at 6:52 am #

    Hi Mariellen, Lovely to read your posts on Orissa, I’ve never travelled there, it always looked very exotic to me. (May I also add that your pictures look better and better!)

  5. kapil December 21, 2012 at 10:49 pm #


    Your blog is really great. It gives helpful information about Odisha a beautiful travel destination of India. Beautiful photography.


  6. John @ Aircraft Charter December 24, 2012 at 1:10 am #

    These places look very exotic and spiritualistic. Great blog, thank you for sharing this.

  7. Amrita February 3, 2014 at 10:58 am #

    Must say U have a wonderful blog! What a coincidence! I was also there at the Konark Dance Festival in 2012 & at the Think Literature Festival during Shabana Azmi’s session & visited the exquisite 64 Yoginis Temple in Hirapur (not Haripur as written in ur post above!) in 2012 only! Now, those are a LOT of coincidences! 😀
    Didn’t U visit the International Sand Art Festival at Chandrabhaga Beach, near Konark?! It was going on simultaneously with the Konark Dance Fest! Infact, first we visited the Sand art Festival & then we went to the mind-blowing Konark Dance Festival! I even met a number of English women & talked to them there! Wonder if U were amongst them! 😀

    Do visit my blog: http://www.amritasabat.blogspot.com for sure! Thanks!:D
    Amrita recently posted..My First Top Post at IndiBlogger!My Profile

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