Visiting Odisha: Here comes the sun

Konark Sun Temple Konark Festival - Odissi Dance Odisha India

Konark Sun Temple, Odisha

Sunny skies, sun-baked beaches and the Sun Temple

The sun is a constant motif in Odisha, a laid-back, sun-drenched state that runs along the coast of eastern India, well off the tourist trail. From the golden beaches of Odisha (formerly Orissa) you can watch both the sunrise and the sunset. At Konark, the UNESCO World Heritage Sun Temple was built to catch the rays of sunrise and light up a figure of Surya, the sun god. Odisha Tourism’s symbol is a colourful and childlike drawing of the sun.

I came to Odisha (my 15th Indian state) for the annual Konark Festival — a celebration of Indian classical dance. Odisha is the home state of Odissi dancing, my favourite form of Indian dance; and the Konark Festival is a showcase for Odissi — as well as a showcase for the state.

Konark Sun Temple Konark Festival - Odissi Dance Odisha India

Gandharva Mohavidyalaya dancers at Konark Festival

I long wanted to experience the Konark Festival and I was not disappointed. The venue is a beautiful open-air auditorium with the spot-lit pagoda of the Sun Temple as the dramatic backdrop. Colourful lights and lanterns filled the trees and lined the pathways, and the entire place was a fairy-tale like spectacle, beautifully decorated and the technical aspects of the festival were, overall, very well executed too.

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This year, the festival ran for five nights, from December 1st to 5th, and I attended the first three nights. All the dancing I witnessed was excellent, but I was particularly entranced on the second night, when I suddenly felt swept up in an Incredible!India moment.

Konark Sun Temple Konark Festival - Odissi Dance Odisha India

Gunjan Dance Academy at Konark Festival

The Odissi dancers moved together in perfect rhythm on the stage, bathed in multicoloured lights and accompanied by live musicians and singers. The music stirred and soared and the dancers reverently, passionately poured their energy into their devotion. Behind them, the 12th century Konark Sun Temple was lit up against the night sky, and overhead colourful lanterns filled the trees encircling the outdoor auditorium. I reclined on a padded settee, like a maharani of old, and allowed the warm tropical night air, the Indian classical sights and sounds and the magnificence of the setting to completely envelope me. I was living the Incredible!India ad campaign, and even I could barely believe it.

With all my amazing Indian experiences over the past seven years — meditating at sunrise on the Ganga, seeing the morning sun glint off the Taj Mahal, sleeping on the sand dunes of Jaisalmer — seeing Meera Das and the Gunjan Dance Academy of Cuttack perform at the Konark Dance Festival still gave me an unexpected magic moment. This renowned dance festival honestly surpassed all my expectations.

Konark Sun Temple Konark Festival - Odissi Dance Odisha India

Darpana with Mallika Sarabhai at Konark Festival

And I owe it all to the gracious and generous Mohanty family and their company Swosti Travels. Mr and Mrs Mohanty came to Canada last year to present their home state, Odisha, to a room full of travel agents and writers. The dinner was co-presented with India Tourism — and together, they did a very good job of enticing me to a less touristy corner of India. Odisha, which is situated on the eastern coast of Indian, between Kolkata and Chennai, is known for beautiful beaches, ancient temples and a relaxed pace of life. The pride of Odisha is the Konark Sun Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of India’s truly great temples.

The new Kerala?

Odisha reminds me a little of Kerala, but it has its own unique flavour. It has a warm, dry climate and because there are so few tourists, it has a laid-back, pastoral atmosphere. People are friendly and not at all aggressive.

Konark Sun Temple Konark Festival - Odissi Dance Odisha India

Konark Sun Temple, Odisha

After seeing the pagoda of the Konark Sun Temple lit up as a backdrop to the Konark Dance Festival for two nights, I visited it for the first time at dusk on my third day in Konark. The 13th century Sun Temple is actually quite dark in colour — it’s known as the “Black Pagoda” — and surrounded by lush jungle. Apparently at one time it was near the beach, but now the sea is about three kilometres away. The entire, massive structure is a representation of the chariot of the sun god, Surya. Standing back, from the side, you can see the huge wheels.

Konark Sun Temple Konark Festival - Odissi Dance Odisha IndiaAside from the impressive size and shape, the Sun Temple is famous for the intricate carvings that cover its surface — an astounding number and variety. You can see people performing mundane household chores as well as, ahem, less mundane sexual acrobatics. I will be writing an entire blog about this temple and the commentary of my guide Krishna, who waxed knowledgeably and poetically as he showed me around and explained the mathematical and astronomical as well as mythological significance.

Konark is actually a small town and there is very little to be seen in this area aside from the temple, the festival and the long, wide sand beach. But the festival includes an International Sand Art Festival and other displays such as a hand-loom exhibit. Many of the international sand carvers and die-hard dance fans stayed at the same place as me: The Lotus Eco Resort. I picked it because: one, the Lonely Planet recommended it; and two, it’s the only game in town.

Though we got off to a bit of a rocky start (there were some lags in service), I slowly fell in love with the Lotus Eco Resort — in spite of its lack-lustre management and slightly ramshackle appearance. It occupies a lovely, remote spot, visited only by a few fishermen each day (who each give a portion of their catch to the resort restaurant: I ate fresh caught fish each day!). The Canadian pine cabins are small, but perfect. They are in very good condition and have every amenity you need. The grounds are nice, but not as well kept as possible; and the restaurant is a bit run-down. Some plain tables and plastic chairs are plopped down in the sand, near the beach, outside the restaurant, and this is where I usually ate.

Konark Sun Temple Konark Festival - Odissi Dance Odisha India - Lotus Eco Resort

Canadian pine cabins at the Lotus Eco Resort, Konark, Odisha

After a few false starts trying to get good, fresh food from the kitchen, one of the many wonderful resort guests I met, a man from Kolkata, introduced me to the chef Sunil — a warm man who is a very dedicated and talented cook. So once I started ordering directly from Sunil, I ate very well indeed. Crisp dosas for breakfast and fresh fish for dinner, bathed in the distinctive mustard-flavour seasonings that characterize Odiya cuisine.

I also rearranged my room slightly to put a small desk under the window from where I had a view of the ocean, The Bay of Bengal, and the wide sandbar the runs along this portion of Ramchandi Beach. So here I sit writing this, as happy as I could be. Once again I have managed to find myself a perfect spot in India — perfect for inspiration and relaxation, writing and photography — with sun and sand, good food as well as a rich cultural experience.

Konark Sun Temple Konark Festival - Odissi Dance Odisha India - Lotus Eco Resort

Fisherman plying the waters off the coast of Konark

A precious adventure

Staying at the Lotus Eco Resort also gave me the opportunity for the kind of small adventure that I love. I walked out on the deserted beach one morning about 7:30 a.m., it was already warm and sunny, and a boatman was there. I gave him 600 rupees (about $11 or $12) and he took me on a motor boat road along the coast, past gorgeous, empty beaches on one side and a long, wide sandbar on the other. In the distance I spied a mandir (Hindu temple), with the red flag flying, and I asked him to stop at the jetty.

I got out and walked up to the mandir and a small town square. The whole scene was peaceful, pastoral and completely off the tourist track. I bought a coconut for 10 rupees and sat and drank the milk; and then the man who sold it to me whacked it open so I could eat the fruit. A couple of young men stared at me, but I felt safe, accepted and left alone. After that, the boatman took me over to the sandbar and I walked on the ocean side for some time — and I was the only person, as far as I could see in each direction.

Konark Sun Temple Konark Festival - Odissi Dance Odisha India - Lotus Eco Resort

The beach, Lotus Eco Resort, Konark, Odisha

I had no camera, no guide, no one knew I was there and I felt completely free. For some reason, I felt like Sabu in the “Thief of Baghdad,” and I strolled down the beach singing, “I long to be a sailor sailing on the sea.” I felt like I had been deposited there, in this sunny place, with the surf pounding on the shore, as if by magic carpet.

I love a place that can give me this kind of adventure. Thanks Odisha!

Konark Sun Temple Konark Festival - Odissi Dance Odisha India - International Sand Art Festival

International Sand Art Festival, Konark, Odisha

Polishing a travel gem

I’ll be writing more about my adventures in Odisha and getting to know the place, and the distinctive culture, but after a week or so here, my impression is that the state has a lot to offer. In December, the climate is perfect: warm and sunny in the daytime, and a bit cool in the evening. I am sure it is perfect all winter.

There are lovely beaches, ancient temples, a rich culture of music and dance and distinctive, delicious cuisines that features really fresh fish, herbs, vegetables and fruits. And perhaps best of all, the state has a relaxed vibe and a slower pace of life.

Konark Sun Temple Konark Festival - Odissi Dance Odisha India

Gandharva Mohavidyalaya, Konark Festival

However, aside from the big cities, there are very few places to stay. Only one “eco resort” in the country, for example. And though there are some fascinating and thriving wild life sanctuaries, they are hard to get to as they are a long way from Bhubaneshwar, the capital, and there’s no where to stay when you get there. Also, as friendly as the staff are in most places, they don’t really seem to know how to do their jobs. At one place, I asked the waitress to clear the table so I could sit down and eat, and she only wiped off one section, leaving crumbs and spills all over the rest of the table — and that is typical. She just didn’t know better.

With a bigger commitment to tourism, more infrastructure and better hospitality training, I am sure Odisha could become a much more popular tourist destination for Indians and foreigners. It is the proverbial diamond in the rough; and unpolished gem.

Thank you Swosti Travels and Odisha Tourism for hosting me.

Konark Sun Temple Konark Festival - Odissi Dance Odisha India

Gunjan Dance Academy, Konark Dance Festival

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17 Responses to Visiting Odisha: Here comes the sun

  1. Shalu December 10, 2012 at 4:41 am #

    If one wants to experience the culture of India, Orissa is a must go. With temples, dances and its amazing beaches, a highly recommended place to visit in India.
    Shalu recently posted..Drinking water guide in IndiaMy Profile

  2. Bichitrananda Swain December 11, 2012 at 6:25 am #

    Thanks a ton my dear friend Mariellen Ward .I love your article which is well written.With love and respect


  3. Michel December 11, 2012 at 8:07 am #

    The sun, the sand and the dance! It doesn’t get better than the mystique of India and the grandeur of Odisha.

  4. Arnab Maity December 11, 2012 at 11:00 am #

    What a lovely article on Odisha! I landed up on your site thanks to indiblogger and I am so glad I did. You really made me emotional about my own country Mariellen, thank you! Keep writing and blogging
    Arnab Maity recently posted..The Weekly Frame – Hyderabadi BanglesMy Profile

  5. Priyanka December 12, 2012 at 7:36 am #

    I love this article. This classical dance is my favorite and temples and beaches mentioned here are really gorgeous I prefer to visit there very soon. You have very beautifully represented India with beautiful words. 🙂

  6. Sansiddha Pani December 14, 2012 at 1:35 am #

    I attended the first night of the Konark Festival with some family and friends, sitting just a couple of rows behind you. After coming back home to Bhubaneswar, I dug up your blog, and have been through almost all of it over the past couple of weeks.

    I congratulate you for being one of the very few persons who actually has understood India, at least to a certain extent. To completely understand India, in my view is not a task for a single lifetime.

    Your blog and others such books and blogs are a must read not just for a tourist/traveler who comes to India, but would even help many Indians. I sometimes think because of the the age of the Indian civilisation, the many good aspects of Indian society and culture have existed for so long that Indians like me many a time have a tough time seeing the good side of India. The good things have become so implicit that they seem to have got lost somehow. But reading about India, from a fresh perspective such as yours, helps me see all that is good about India.

    Many Indians feel that “westernisation” of Indian culture is a very bad thing, some of whom even have a very militant and violent reaction to such “westernisation”. I am not opposed to this phenomenon, simply because the assimilation of cultures has been the hallmark of India for centuries. This assimilation, this continuous evolution, is the reason why India has survived as a society for so long.

    But blogs like yours remind India and Indians, that we must not forget bring along everything that is already good while on this unending journey.

    • Amrita February 3, 2014 at 11:58 am #

      U hav commented beautifully and have rich insights. Why don’t U write a blog on Odisha especially & India as such?! Sure will be much admired!
      U must xplore the writer in U! I see strong glimpses of that here! 🙂
      ଜୟ ଜଗନ୍ନାଥ ! (That’s Jai Jagannath in Odia for all blog readers!)
      Amrita recently posted..My First Top Post at IndiBlogger!My Profile

  7. Murthy December 24, 2012 at 11:52 pm #

    I enjoyed your writing on Odisha…and its dance form….in fact it deserves more focus just like kerala….!
    Murthy recently posted..Teppostavam PerformedMy Profile

  8. hanna January 5, 2013 at 10:41 pm #

    woow… ^^ i like this article. she has 12 hand

  9. The Young Bigmouth February 6, 2013 at 7:05 am #

    I am from Orissa and have never blogged about it.
    Thanks for the wake up call, beautiful and post, rare as posts on Orissa are.

    • Mariellen Ward March 4, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

      It’s funny how we don’t think about writing about our home! But Odisha is beautiful. You should get out and explore.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Comparing travel prices onlineMy Profile

    • Amrita February 3, 2014 at 12:01 pm #

      Wow! I never knew that! And to think I’ve voted so many times for U n commented on your blog too! 😀
      Yes we must write more abt #Odisha! It is truly the undug diamond of #IncredibleIndia as Mariellen very rightly says!
      Amrita recently posted..My First Top Post at IndiBlogger!My Profile

  10. Arun April 2, 2013 at 5:11 am #

    Thanks, MARIELLEN! You have so wonderfully narrated your experiences that I, someone from Odisha staying away, feel like wandering through those beaches and enjoying those riveting dance performances. I landed up here while searching for ‘Odisha’ on google and happy that I did land here! Keep writing the way you do! May you frequent Odisha on your trips!
    Arun recently posted..Jottings during bed restMy Profile

  11. Hamari Jamatia November 5, 2013 at 5:40 am #

    Dear Mariellen,
    Your blog is very interesting, Can you please share your email id? I really wanted to get in touch with you,

  12. Amrita February 3, 2014 at 12:06 pm #

    Superb post again Mariellen! OK so here U’ve written about the Intl Sand art Festival! I have lot more fotos n planning to post them soon…thinking of it since loooooong yet not posted it! Now reading ur posts I’m totally pushing myself 2 hurry up! 😀
    Very honest views. So true- the staff hav nt been taught better. We need 2 spruce up training for the staff & build more world class infrastructure.
    Yes even I’ve gone 2 d absolutely b’ful Ramchandi beach. It’s the most serene pristine beach ever where U can’t find a soul up2 miles n miles! Will post dat soon too! Thanks a lot for Ur blog & do keep sharing more! And waiting for more #Odisha articles especially! 🙂
    Amrita recently posted..My First Top Post at IndiBlogger!My Profile

  13. Dancers of odisha August 21, 2014 at 7:18 am #

    We should feel proud as Odia. I really feel very happy after read this blog.

  14. goldenodisha September 23, 2014 at 6:40 am #

    This is a very nice post and thanks for sharing this kind of interesting information about odisha . as I belongs to odisha so i am feeling very proud of myself as odia. Thank you.

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