By Vidya Pradhan
Bhubaneswar may not be the first choice of destination for tourists visiting India but this sleepy capital of the state of Orissa is a gateway to many beautiful spots on the eastern Indian coastline like Puri, Konark, Gopalpur-on-sea and of course Chilka, the largest saltwater lake in India.
The lake is home to the Nalaban bird sanctuary and the best season to visit is October to March when migratory birds arrive from as far as Siberia.
One winter morning, our family of six and driver piled into a Tata Qualis and set off for the town of Barkul, which is situated on the lake.
The Golden Quadrilateral, a set of roads connecting the major metropolises in India, has been a boon to the road traveler and we were thrilled to find that NH-5 runs along the coast connecting Kolkata and Chennai. About 90% of the road to Chilka is part of this system and it is a pleasure to drive on the wide 4-laned highway. Of course, in true Indian style, buses and lorries frequently can be found on the wrong side of the median, having decided to take a shortcut rather than look for the appropriate break in the road. To us expats softened by years of driving in the US, this was pretty scary the first few times but we took our cue from the driver, who handled it with insouciance.( Interesting aside: some enterprising soul has developed decals that can be used to cover cracks and many cars and trucks on the road had decorative spider webs and sunrays on their windshields.)
The scenery on the way to Chilka is pretty boring. Red earth and scrub mark the flat, unaccented land, and the rare hill has been turned into an ugly quarry spewing gray stone. Occasional cashew groves break the tedium and would probably be a pretty sight in the flowering season.
The last 10% of road was truly horrifying, not to be attempted on anything with a lower suspension than an SUV and we jolted our way to Panthanivas, a lodge run by the Orissa Tourism Development Corporation(OTDC). The old hotel has had a few cottages tacked on in an attempt to appeal to the more discerning tourist. These look exactly like water towers with their legs cut off and an unfinished tower standing right next to them added to the illusion.
The cottages are supposedly only 3-4 years old and they do gleam on the outside but the inside is a whole different story. Badly bleached sheets barely cover the stained mattresses and there are a whole lot of exposed wires that I had to warn the kids against. Built in shelves are covered with fading newspaper that could date the last time any maintenance was done and the plumbing was suspect. I was horrified at the state of affairs but was assured by family members that that was the general standard for tourist lodges run by the government. What a pity.
Compensation arrived in the form of excellent food as we ravenously tucked into snacks and dinner after our 2-hour drive. Oriyas have a reputation for being good cooks and the chef at the lodge restaurant lived up to it as we savored some of the best veg pakoras I have eaten in my life.
The lake virtually laps on the shore of the lodge and we set out for a walk to explore. A long pier protects an optimistically created “water sports” lagoon, which is now used for washing clothes and religious rites. Paddle boats and motor boats run by the OTDC are available for rent but the early dusk and mosquito armies sent us scurrying back to our rooms.
The next morning we woke before dawn and dragged the sleepy kids for another walk along the pier and waited till 6:30 before being rewarded with the sight of a gorgeous sunrise. Blink, and you miss the sun popping up from the placid waters.
After breakfast, we set out to rent a boat and explore the bird sanctuary. There were many locals and tourists from nearby towns on the pier but all of them were on their way to the Kalijai temple located on one of the many islands that dot the lake. The temple is not dedicated to the goddess Kali, as one might assume, but a local lady who drowned on her way to her husband(lover?). We were probably the only visitors who were interested in the sanctuary and the reason for that soon became apparent.
Traveling with 2 kids with low attention spans, we decided on the 2 hour boat trip to the sanctuary. Other options were a 3 hour ride that would take us to the temple as well and a much longer ride that would take us to the spit that separated the lagoon from the Bay of Bengal. As it happens, even the 2 hour ride was punctuated by comments of “There’s nothing here but boats, boats and more boats,” and “When are we getting back?” For the patient traveler, there is a great deal of beauty in the calm emerald waters of the lake. Fishermen and their boats form picturesque silhouettes against the dawn and the silence is profound when the motor switches off.
Chilka is heavily fished, necessitating the creation of the protected sanctuary. No one is allowed to set foot on the islands and marshes that make up the sanctuary so vistors have to be content with long distance views of the birds. Binoculars are a must, though we did see a Brahminy kite and two magnificent sea eagles. For the kids, there is no big payoff, so beware. The intensive fishing has also driven off the dolphins which may or may not be seen in Satapada, a town some 48 kms up the coast.
Serious tourists should probably venture out to the sandbar where the lake meets the sea. There is supposed to be a beautiful stretch of empty beach there though time and kids did not permit us to explore it.
While Chilka can technically be covered in a day, the dawn boat trip forces the overnight stay. While Panthanivas is pretty awful by international standards, it is the best of the limited bunch of residential options in the area. Ignore the room conditions, gorge on the food and enjoy the service. Don’t plan on seeing any spectacular bird sightings, rather, this is a place to mellow out and enjoy the beauty of the eastern Indian coastline.
Panthanivas: (Orissa Tourism Development Corporation), Barkul, At/ PO Balugaon, Dist. Khurda, PIN 752 030, Telephone +91 6756 220488. email: firstname.lastname@example.org/ email@example.com. Rooms Rs. 375-850.