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 century.

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