The Orissan Way

February 14, 2010

Honestly, though, It's just a catchy title. I don't know much about the Orissan way other than the distinctive way they make temples. That is more significant than one might think. There is not a lot of variety to the basic form of Hindu temples in India. From Jagdish temple in Rajasthan to Madurai in Tamil Nadu, it is rather repetitive. So it is quite a joy to see the familiar rectangular pyramid give way to an elongated dome structure seen nowhere else in the world.

Image of Sun Temple
Image of author and stone wheel

First stop was the postcard destination of Konark for the World Heritage recognized Sun Temple. Constructed as a giant chariot, it might be quite a magical location, if not for the hoards of guided tourists who swarm over the monument from dawn until dusk. I think only the Taj Mahal was worse. And that was at 9:00am.

Yeah, I should have been there earlier but I wasn't expecting such a mob on a Wednesday and the fog was rather thick when I first woke up. Oh well, photography was satisfied even if the mood was greatly diminished.

On the way in, I had another “discussion” with a prospective guide who insisted that I needed his services because otherwise I wouldn't understand anything. I tried to impress on him that I considered guides to be more distraction than help and that if I wanted facts, I would read a book. I doubt he understood or cared about my answer. And maybe he was right. With the temple's voice largely lost in the din of the crowd, maybe a few facts would help.

Much to the dismay of the hotel manager who insisted that I needed several days to explore Konark, I was done before noon. I gathered my things, packed into the squeeze bus and headed for Puri.

Puri is yet another touristy beach town. If that was all there was, I wouldn't have bothered but it was my understanding that this was the place to organize a trip to Chilika Lake to see the Irrawaddy dolphins. Not knowing any other way to do it, I went for an all day government run tour.

image of boats on sand bar

The tour part was largely OK. There wasn't much much to it beyond transport but it didn't cost much more than a local bus either. The actual boat trip, though, was a botch. We were squeezed onto a boat suitable for half or number. With no room to move, it was quite impossible to photograph the dolphins. The rest of the cruise was a long trip out to the sea mouth and back. More successful but not something interesting enough to bother, in my opinion. The prawn thali at the restaurant was something new and quite good. That's about all that I say positive about the tour.

Unfortunately, food is probably the only high point of Puri. The second target was a temple that supposed to be very nice except that it was closed to non-Hindu's. Except that it was possible to view from the library building next door. Except that the library was closed that day due to a holiday of some sort. No more exceptions. I took care of some business, ate lunch and boarded a slightly less crowded bus to Bhubaneswar.

The point of going to Bhubaneswar was mostly to book my train to Calcutta. There are trains out of Puri, but not many and the only near term option I saw was tourist quota from a train out of “BBS”, as India Rail refers to Bhubaneswar. Amazingly enough, this actually worked, only the second time in nearly four months that the tourist quota has come through. I did have to wait an extra day, however.

image of Cray like temple

The extra day was actually OK. Unlike Puri, BBS has a number of temples worth seeing, some of them dating to the 7th century. It is possible to see them all in one day but that would require suffering through the mid-day heat. The are variants of the Orissan architectural theme, looking either like Coruscant or a Cray 2.

image of complex Orissan temple

So Bhubaneswar scores highly for temples, but not so much for food. It is not that the food it is bad. Dining out just has unexpected difficulties. Most restaurants in Bhubaneswar have no menus. They aren't buffets either so the “see and point” method is not very effective. In typical Indian fashion, the proprietors see no problem with this: ‘Everything is here!’. The hotel restaurant has a menu but don't serve until 8:30pm and would rather wait until 9:00pm. Less important but still very odd is the near extinction of colas. I am a mostly disinterested spectator to the Cola Wars but I find caffeinated sugar water useful for overcoming the urge to snooze after an Indian lunch. Bhubaneswar is the first place in India where restaurateurs were not eager to sell me a cola. Sprite, 7-Up, or Miranda (orange soda), they had, but no colas. One place did have Thumps Up, the home grown Indian fizz now pumped out by Coca Cola. I'm not sure I would call it vile (a direct quote from a cola connoisseur), but it is in that direction.

My direction, when 11:00pm rolls around, is North. A seven hour overnight train will land me in Calcutta. There I hope to arrange a few days in the tiger infested swamp known as the Sunderbans. Once back, I will need to take care of some business to prepare for the crossing into Bangladesh. An Indian I met on the Chilika Lake trip was concerned that there was no convenient crossing into Asam from Bangladesh and that I should go around Bangladesh rather than through it. This inspired a bit of research and now I know that, not only is the crossing on the East side quite reasonable, but I have another reason to go: There is a highly accessible gibbon park in Bangladesh, possibly better than the one in Assam. More details when I know them, unless I get eaten by a tiger.