2024 India – Part 1 – Odisha

Completing some unfinished business…

Exactly three years and eleven months after I returned from my aborted trip in India I was ready to board an Emirates A380 to bring me back to my beloved India, I had just checked in and said goodbye to Vladi, an emotional event as we would not be seeing each other for two long months (Fortunately we can still have our daily WhatsApp calls though). 

We had discussed this solo trip for long and Vladi was supporting me in every part of it as he knows how much I love to be in India. Still it was an event of mixed feelings, I was looking forward to new adventures and experiences in India, but on the other hand I would tremendously miss the most wonderful person in my life, my buddy, my true love.

The first flight was absolutely wonderful, I had been able to secure a seat on the upper deck so I only had one person next to me. The seat was comfortable, the company pleasant and soon we arrived in Dubai where I had to wait for the 2nd leg off the journey.

That flight was not as pleasant, the 777 felt dated and the seats cramped. I was really happy that three hours later we landed safely in Mumbai. Welcome to India. 

Nothing can prepare you for arriving at whichever international airport in India you land at, managing to negotiate customs, locate your bags and bleary-eyed head out into India beyond. It is, from that very first moment, an assault on the senses, noisy, chaotic, unfathomable, frustrating, and just, well, bloody brilliant

I managed to check in for my third flight and heard that planes were swapped and no business class seats were available. I could not even be bothered to file a complaint (I needed my 25 kg luggage allowance after all), I just wanted to get to my final destination as by now I was extremely tired. 

Buying an Indian e-SIM was another chaotic and frustrating process but it worked in the end (breathe Marc, breathe). I went through security again and even had time for my first Kingfisher before I boarded the third and final flight of the journey.

On arrival in Bhubaneswar I collected my luggage and took an Uber to my hotel which was located in the middle of nowhere. I showed my reservation and passport, only to be told no foreigners were allowed. And that in spite of having entered all my details during booking and even received a confirmation. 

It won’t be the last hiccup for sure so I asked WiFi access, booked another hotel and another Uber ride, who after some failed attempts managed to find the newly booked hotel.

The hotel was adequate for one night and the manager extremely helpful. By now I only wanted a refreshing shower and a call to Vladi to see him again and inform him I made it to my destination (somehow) 

Then I went to bed, slept for a couple of hours and was right awake. Three times hurray for the infamous jet leg and the street dogs from Bhubaneswar. 

I updated my journal and then dimmed the lights again and tried to sleep a bit more. Not surprisingly I slept till the alarm woke me.

I skipped breakfast and remained in my room for a while as I was not ready to embrace the chaos just jet. Perhaps a bit too relaxing morning as by the time I arrived at the railway station my train departed. Either I was too tired to read the correct departure time or my travel skills were getting rusty.

No stress, back to my hotel (getting a ticket for a train can be very confusing in India so I needed internet connection (the SIM I bought in Mumbai is useless) and order an Uber ride for the 54km trip to Puri.

My hotel was fantastic, great clean room, and what I was looking forward to even more, a good restaurant.

After lunch I headed to the beach to finally start my adventure. In 2020 it was the last place I visited before things started to unfold with COVID and I had to abort my trip. So for me it was clear this trip had to start exactly there where the last one ended and it’s always fun to enjoy some beach time in India to see how Indian families relax.

In total I made a 5km walk but then noticed it was enough for the day as I was getting dizzy. I took a motor rickshaw back to the hotel and relaxed for the remainder of the afternoon. 

This day really marked the first day where I really started to enjoy myself and indulge in the many things India has to offer. No better way to finish my first day in Puri than having dinner at a rooftop restaurant.

From 4 floors below I could hear the constant cacophony from horns from cars, rickshaws and motorbikes, each fighting for their own little bit of space on the overcrowded roads from Puri.

A bit further on was an open air disco that was clearly competing with the loud Punjabi pop-songs that were blasting from a speaker above my head. I was so so enjoying this atmosphere!!!!

I started off with a virgin mojito (alcohol is not available in the state of Odisha), received a complimentary bite from the chef, which was followed by a kadai paneer and a vegetable biryani. I can only say it was absolutely fantastic.

It truly seems I left my culture shock light behind me and am now indulging in everything India has to offer and to enhance the atmosphere even more not much later there were even fireworks!!! What a fantastic day it had been!

Next morning, after breakfast I was ready for another trip. Travelling in India is always an adventure, my Uber did not show up so I took a rickshaw instead for the 32 km journey to the Sonark Sun Temple. 

Traffic was heavy and an accident never far away. My driver scratched a car whilst overtaking which resulted in a vivid conversation between the two drivers. 10 minutes later we were on our way again as if nothing had happened.

When we arrived there was a buzzing activity in the air. Merchants tried to grab everyone’s attention and convince them to buy something from their stall.

I queued at the ticket counter and bought my ticket, which was 15 times the price of that from the locals) and made my way to the temple. The scaffolding from 4 years ago had disappeared so I could enjoy this magic place in it’s full glory. It was simply magnificent.

The Konark Sun Temple is one of India’s great architectural marvels, this temple to the sun god, Surya, was conceived as a gigantic chariot, with 12 pairs of wheels to carry him on his daily journey across the sky. “Built in the 13th century by King Narasimhadeva of the Eastern Ganga dynasty, who ruled the Kingdom of Orissa, the temple is a remarkable feat, and testament to the cult of the sun god. The building is thought to have been constructed over 12 years.

Locals tourists where everywhere and hardly no western tourists to be seen. I even spotted a couple who just got married, they were here for the official photo series.

Tourist attractions are always a wonderful place to spot locals and photograph them, this was no exception. A true feast for the eyes.

It was warm, very warm and all spots under the trees were occupied by people looking for shade. Clearly my body had not adjusted yet and I started to get very dizzy. At the end I almost fainted and dropped my camera, fortunately from low height so it was not broken. Concerned people came from everywhere, brought me to the shade and wetted my neck and head with water. In spite of not feeling well I felt absolutely safe by the caring crowd. Once I recovered the requests for selfies came. A security guard who came to see whether I was ok said it was not allowed, but I agreed, it was the least I could do.

As I was almost done anyway I decided to abort the visit and return to the rickshaw driver, but not after I bought two bottles of water, I definitely needed those

The return trip was eventless, and whilst I was sitting in the shade I started to feel considerably better. Another great day-trip, perhaps a bit more strenuous than I had anticipated.

Back at the hotel I relaxed a bit after I returned to the rooftop restaurant for lunch. Then I visited a bank to grab some cash and a local luggage store to but a new suitcase as the zipper of my old one had given up it’s services. The rest of the afternoon I just relaxed and took it easy. 

The next morning I went to the famous Jagannath temple, one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Hindus in India. I took a rickshaw but had to walk the last kilometre as no electrified traffic was allowed near to the temple.

This wasn’t a bad thing as there was so much to be seen, street food stalls, fish, flower and vegetable markets, and then I even haven’t talked about the the colourful by passers. I can only recall having a big smile on my face whilst, in spite of the already high temperatures I had goosebumps on my arms. What a fantastic morning.

After a more than exciting walk I arrived at the sacred place. As a foreigner I was not allowed into the massive complex, something I respect and not even see as a missed opportunity. Outside is so much going on it’s a complete feast for the senses.

It did not take long before I was blessed by a holy Sadhu, of course for an appropriate fee of 20 rupees.

I did not know where to look, I did not know where to point my camera, what an amazing experience. I think the amount of times I asked people to take theirs picture equaled the times I was asked for a selfie, something I gladly allowed.

I spent about an hour around this sacred place before I headed back to my hotel for a short break. I checked the pictures I made and had lunch.

In the afternoon I first went to see Narendra Sarovara, a holy lake. Unfortunately the temple in the lake was under construction so I could not go and admire it. I loved the tranquil atmosphere though, only a couple of blocks from the hectic street leading toward the Jagannath temple.

Next stop was the Shree Gundicha temple, also known as the aunts house of Lord Jagannath. Although also this temple is strictly accessible to orthodox Hindhus, I got an invite from a police officer to follow him inside (including my leather belt, camera, bag and other forbidden items). Obviously the police officer wanted to get some quickly earned baksheesh but in respect of the true religious people I kindly declined the offer.

As there was still some time left I decided to return to the beach in order to enjoy the activity and a beach walk. It was wonderful to feel the warm sand under my feet. An exiting day, which concluded my stay in Puri.

Next morning I had set the alarm as this time I did not want to be late from my train. A short rickshaw ride brought me to the railway station where I made it to my train which was already waiting at the platform. I found my place, a comfortable and spacious seat in a first class couch, however… in the wrong couch.. I was then redirected to a 3 tier sleeper couch which definitely less comfortable and super crowded but I could not be bothered, this was all part of the adventure.

An hour and a half later I arrived at Cuttack where a driver was waiting for me to bring me to Kila Daljijoda, a heritage home stay in a remote corner of Odisha. After we passed the gate I was already blown away by the surroundings. Debit, the owner, was already waiting for me in front of the 1930’s former hunting mansion. I was brought to my super spacious room with two attached bathrooms. The whole building breathed a wonderful heritage atmosphere which seemed to come out straight out of a movie, it was completely surreal.

I had lunch with Debjit and his wife (fantastic homemade cuisine) and then it was time to relax. For the rest of the day there was nothing planned, just experience and live out a part of the majestic and dreamy past. The contrast with Puri could not have been bigger.

Next morning started with an early rise and a hike through the former forest where Debjit’s former grand grandfather (A maharaja) used to hunt. These forests were once owned by him but after they were nationalised became victim of the timber mafia. Now there are once again the home to indigenous tribes who live in peace with the wild elephants who live in the forest.

Mosa, my guide let me over the trails that at night are used by elephants and during the day by men. Prove of this harmony is that there have not been any incidents between the elephants and the tribes for many years.

We passed a man made lake that is now used to irrigate the lands around, the wells in the villages have not been dry since it was built. It was a peaceful walk and the only encounters we had were locals bringing burning wood the the surrounding villages.

After an hour we arrived at the village of one of the tribes living in the forest where I was allowed to look around. Villagers mentioned an elephant was spotted so we went to look for it, unfortunately without result. We did spot some monkeys though which were rather aggressive.

On our way back we were escorted by one of the village dogs. After two hours and almost 10 km we arrived back at the car where Debjit was waiting for us.

A fresh shower, breakfast, and then it was time for a rest as I was the rest of the morning of. Such a wonderful way to start the day…

I slept for almost two hours before I was woken up by a knock on the door for lunch. Perfect home cooked as I was already used to.

Then I was allowed a short break before Debjit brought me to Joranda in the district of Dhenkanal,  50 km away. It was the location of the largest Mela (Religious festival) in Odesa which is attended by more than 200.000 people and my visit just happened to coincide with that.

On arrival we passed through a funfair (pleasure is always combined with these festivals) and the crowd was overwhelming. Food stalls, religious items, souvenirs were widely available. It was also where I saw the first Sadhus.

Our first stop was the fire temple where an eternal fire was burning. From here the fire was brought to all the temples in the surrounding villages. There were 4 large fires burning around the temple where sadhus and devotees performed their rituals, it was an impressive sight but I had not seen anything yet.

A bit further on was another temple where more rituals were performed. They were accompanied by hypnotic drums, bells and trumpets while the sadhus encouraged the devotees to cheer along. It was completely surreal and somehow it made me completely emotional. I was deeply impressed.

We still had not made it to the main temple so we worked our way through the dense crowds, left our shoes behind and joined the queue to the main temple. 

It was located inside a courtyard which was now packed with people. Sadhus were walking in circles around the main temple waving feathers while the crowd was chanting and raising their arms, it was a magical experience, one could really feel the religious power and enchantment.

I could have stayed much longer but Debjit told me the ceremony was about to end and we would be trapped in a massive exodus. Time to go. 

It had been one of those mind blowing experiences. Neither did I know about this Mela, neither had I planned to visit. And this is India for you, always expect the unexpected.

After a good night sleep it was another early rise for a 7:00 private yoga class in the open air. It started of very energetic, as if my teacher wanted to wake my body, and was then followed by stretching exercises, pranayama (breathing exercises), some sun salutations, other asanas (postures) and balancing poses.

It ended up with a wonderful finger point massage and a short meditation. I was ready for another day!

After breakfast a taxi was waiting for me. In order to catch a bit more of the true Indian spirit I had planned something unusual, a visit to an orderly home for retired cows and bulls. After their productive life they are brought over here and are pampered until the end of their natural life, when they are given a proper funeral as well, a heartwarming experience.

Next was a visit to the ruins if the Buddhist monasteries in Lalitgiri (“Hill of Grace”), it is believed to be the oldest of the 3 sites which were found in this area. The ruins, spread over two adjacent hills, include a terraced stone platform, a gallery of life-size Bodhisattva figures and a domed temple. It was a nice stroll through the remains but even more interesting was the museum built on the premises, it contained a lot of restored statues that were found at the excavation site, truly interesting.

About 10 km further on, in Ratnagiri (“Hill of Jewels”), was another excavation site. It is the most impressive of the three, which, between the 7th and the 11th centuries, was a major Buddhist university and monastic establishment. Located on top of a mound, crowned by a large stupa, I admired a monastery with a central courtyard and an impressive colonnade around the monks’ cells. A beautiful 4 meter high image of the seated Buddha could be seen inside, together with other Buddhist divinities, the entrance doorway was superbly carved.

Having seen the two most beautiful of the three sites we returned back to Kili Dalijoda, a drive that took about an hour and a half. I decided to have a rest for the remainder of the day, my stay had almost come to an end and I can only say I enjoyed every single moment of it.

When I wanted to arrange a taxi for my train tomorrow Debjit told me I had booked a train to the wrong Nayagarh (Why only have one town with that name if you can have two), instead of getting stressed I found it rather hilarious. We checked other options and came to the conclusion the best thing was to book a taxi. So trains were cancelled and a taxi booked. One big advantage, instead of leaving at 6 o’clock I could now have a sleep in. Good there is always a plan B (Or C if so required). 

After a good night sleep and breakfast it was time to say goodbye to Debjit and Namrata, my stay at Kila Dalijoda had been a truly enjoyable one. But… endings are just beginnings and not much later I found myself on the road again.

We arrived at my next destination after a 4 hour drive. On arrival at the national park I had to check in with the foresters and some kilometres further on we arrived at my tented camp, which is located on a huge sandbank at the riverside.

It’s absolutely gorgeous and peaceful. Not long after I arrived I was invited for lunch in the open tent located in the middle of the circle of tents. It was very tasty and while I was enjoying my meal it started to rain. 

As I felt a bit tired I returned to my tent and slept most of the afternoon, I must have needed it.

Later on in the afternoon I met a guide who helped me arrange a taxi to Bubaneshwar on my departure date (the site manager doen’t speak English), then I met his Dutch clients with who I spent a nice evening.

I decided the next two days would be extremely quiet ones so I could recover from all impressions and prepare for the next ones.

It was difficult to sleep that night as a party was going on till late, but hey, that’s all part of the fun. I read until 1 Am and then was tired enough to fall asleep in spite of the noise. At 7:30 the noise picked up again. 

After breakfast everybody departed and I had the camp for myself. I finished my book and then went for a short walk over the sandbank by the river. Also I did a canopy walk although the monkeys were not to happy about me invading their playground.

I relaxed till lunchtime and then enjoyed an afternoon nap. Then it was time to start a new book, and… why not, another nap.

During tea time there was the usual folklore show, followed by dinner, my daily phone-call to Vladi and some more reading. That concluded another lazy and relaxing day.

At 7 o’clock I was woken up by a voice in front of my tent “Sir? chai?” I tried to sleep a bit longer which did not work out. Another day had begun.

The morning was as usual, I practised the art of doing nothing. In the afternoon the manager came to see me for some “boating”, first we drove a bit deeper in the national park after which a boat was waiting for me for a one hour ride over the Mahandi river. We saw crocodiles, monkeys, turtles, deer and some hornbills. It was a lovely trip, a welcome distraction for the day, which after my returned continued as I was used to… nothing.

Next morning came an end to my laziness when a taxi brought me to Bhubaneshwar, the temple city. As soon as we left the national park traffic became more dense and chaotic as expected. About three hours later I was dropped of at my hotel, checked-in, had lunch and a refreshing shower. Then I decided to visit two templies during the remaining hours of the day.

First I took an Uber to a hidden gem, and unfortunately a rather neglected place, the Chausath Yogini Temple. This 9th-century, circular temple, which is open to the air, is dedicated to the chausath yoginis or 64 manifestations of the goddess Shakti, who symbolizes female creative energy. Two “priests” were protecting the premises and told me photography was not allowed. A small gift however lifted this ban.

Next stop was one of the landmarks Bhubaneswar is famous for; the 10th-century Mukteshwar Temple,which is notable for its exquisite sculptures and elegant proportions. Its beautiful torana (gateway) is decorated with langorously reclining female figures. The jagamohan is illuminated by diamond-shaped latticed windows on the north and south walls, their outermost frames depicting enchanting scenes of frolicking monkeys. 

As the sun was already setting I returned to my hotel for a short break. I had discovered a nice restaurant which served cocktails so after a week and a half of no alcohol I thought I was in for a treat. A nice ending of yet another day.

It was inevitable to happen sooner later but when I woke up my stomach was restless, no delay belly but I did not want to risk to move far from my hotel room. 

In the afternoon things were much better so I booked an Uber for three hours to do a city trip. The first stop was Ram Mandir, a colourful Hindu temple. At the entrance were a couple of shops and after I left my shoes behinds I was allowed to enter the premises and admire the place.

Next stop was the magnificent 11th-century temple which represents the high point of the Orissan style. Both sculpture and architecture have evolved in perfect harmony. Its grandeur lies in its towering 55 meter high deul (spire) with dramatic vertical ribs. The temple was only accessible for Hindhus but at it’s side outside the walls an observation platform was built from where I could get a good view of the temples and the courtyard. For me it was good enough as I respect the desire for creating space for devotees.

Then we went to Dhauli, also known as Dhauligiri. It is a hill located on the banks of the river Daya, 8 km south of Bhubaneswar. It’s known for “Dhauli Santi Stupa”, a peace pagoda monument which witnesses the great Kalinga War built by Budhha Sangha and Kalinga Nippon Budhha Sangha. It was a peaceful place, and next to it was a small Hindhu temple where I received another blessing for which no money was requested, just a small donation…

There were still a couple of places I wanted to visit but with another day left I returned to my hotel for a short rest. It had been another beautiful day.

One of those places were the Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves, about 7km outside Bhubaneswar and that’s exactly where I went next day. The twin hills of Udaygiri (“Sunrise Hill”) and Khandagiri (“Broken Hill”) were honeycombed to make retreats for Jain monks in the 1st century BC. It was an extraordinary sight which I enjoyed a lot. It involved some climbing but a fresh coconut is never far away.

To escape the heat of the day I decided to visit the Odisha state Museum afterwards. Although the museum made a rather neglected impression I did spend over two enjoyable hours over here. The highlight was its rich collection of Buddhist and Jain sculptures, coins and painted palm-leaf manuscripts, as well as jewellery and art.

Opposite the museum was a shopping mall and in order to do something completely different I visited that one as well and added up with an Italian ice cream in my hands. 

Then I went on a stroll without it fixed target. I was not afraid to get lost, a Tuk Tuk or Uber ride is never far away after all. I did manage however to find my way back to the hotel on my own.

That day concluded the first part of my journey, finally I had the chance to complete my unfinished business that was so abruptly ended in 2020 when COVID was on the rise. So happy I was able to finish my aborted itinerary, so happy I started this journey in beautiful Odisha.

Odisha, you have been wonderful!!!

Continue to Part 2 Kolkata – Embracing the chaos