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No Sleep Till Sambalpur - or Joshipur, or Chandipur, or Puri

by Sarah Shuckburgh

You can see all of the Indian state of Orissa in a fortnight but if you like your comfort and hate early starts, don’t attempt it, says Sarah Shuckburgh

“You will see everything,” promised Mr Rath at Orissa Tourism. On a tattered wall-map, he indicated a circular route from Orissa’s capital, Bhubaneswar, south to Puri and Gopalpur, west to the tribal region around Jeypore, then north to Sambalpur, east to Joshipur and back down the coast via Chandipur and Chandbali.

“Two weeks, no problem,” he said, pointing us towards an ancient Ambassador car, and Babalo, a tall, skinny driver.
Unfortunately, Babalo spoke no English and we spoke no Oryan.

“No problem,” said Mr Rath. “We are buying a dictionary.”

With Mr Rath shouting directions, Babalo drove us through a chaotic melée of mopeds, rickshaws, buses and cows, past a jostling festival to the goddess Lakshmi with bare-chested men in dhotis, and nearly-naked Vishnavite ascetics sitting cross-legged on the ground. At a bookstall, Mr Rath found a pirated Oxford English-Oryan dictionary.

We tried pointing at printed hieroglyphs, but Babalo still looked blank. Mr Rath was adamant that we didn’t need a guide, but by the next morning, we’d managed to recruit Ranjan, who spoke a bit of English, had picked up useful phrases in several tribal languages while working as a driver – and knew the way. We set off, all problems apparently solved.

It didn’t take long to realise that Mr Rath’s itinerary was too ambitious. Orissa is one of India’s largest states and one of its poorest. We bumped along dusty, pot-holed roads for up to 12 hours each day, never lingering at lakes, temples, waterfalls or wildernesses. By the end we were exhausted and frazzled.

But months have passed, and as we forget the frustrations, the memories become more vivid – and what memories they are.

On our first day, we saw enough to fill a week at a more leisurely pace. After a whistlestop tour of some of Bhubaneswar’s 500 temples – densely-carved beehive shapes dating from the 6th century - we drove to Konark and joined pilgrims at the Sun Temple ruins, gazing at intimate 13th-century wall-carvings, including a thousand sexual positions to try with one or more partners, or by oneself.

That evening, we reached Puri, seaside home of the Hindu god Jagannath, whose temple kitchens feed half a million pilgrims every day. Even at midnight, the seafront heaved with holidaymakers, cooking on tin braziers, buying trinkets from hawkers and taking dips, fully dressed, in the warm Bay of Bengal.

On Day Two, as the overnight train from Calcutta disgorged more pilgrims, we set off for Chilika lake, Asia’s largest lagoon and one of the world’s most important wetlands. Fishermen vied to ferry us to an island-temple dedicated to a drowned bride whose ghostly voice still sings from the depths - but Ranjan looked at his watch, and we got back in the car. We reached Gopalpur at dusk - and were gone by sunrise.

At night, we stayed in government resthouses – Panthanivas – poorly run and uniformly spartan and shabby, with peeling paint and tangles of electric cable. Inside, walls were stippled with mildew, sleeping bodies sprawled in corridors, grimy hand-marks smeared kitchen doorways, and filthy towels hung from hand-washing taps. But the 8am check-out rule was never inconvenient, as Mr Rath decreed dawn departures.

Each morning, Babalo performed a ritual puja to bless the car, and draped fresh hibiscus and jasmine on the monkey-god Hanuman dangling above the dashboard. He and Ranjan drank curd for breakfast to ensure a safe journey, but also scoured the verges for auspicious omens, such as a mongoose, a mynah bird or a jackal on the right of the road. Seeing unlucky black cats, donkeys, owls, widows or a jackal (on our left) made them uneasy. Whenever we drove past a temple, Babalo stopped his incessant hooting and took both hands off the wheel to pray.

Leaving the coast, we drove through Brahmpur, stifling, litter-strewn capital of southern Orissa, and climbed into the cooler rainforest of the Eastern Ghats, pausing briefly at the temple and hot springs of Taptapani. Women and children laboured in roadside quarries, breaking stones, and verges were dotted with broken-down lorries, decorated with warning sprigs of foliage.

On Day Four, we entered the tribal regions, where, thanks to Ranjan’s tact and linguistic skills, we were welcomed warmly by village chiefs. Orissa is home to 62 animist tribes, materially poor but culturally rich, with traditional music, dance, craft and costume. Outcastes from Hindu society, they make up a quarter of Orissa’s population. During the next few days, Ranjan introduced us to villagers of eight different tribes, and we smiled at each other with shy curiosity. We met friendly Poraja women with tattooed faces and nose rings, their oiled hair fastened with engraved aluminium hairpins. Dongaria hunter-gatherers, with long matted ponytails adorned with combs, sat drinking mohua-flower wine. Shaven-headed Bonda women wore nothing but a narrow scarf around their hips and dozens of necklaces; their menfolk carried bows and long, sharp arrows. We stooped under thatched eaves into dark huts in immaculately swept Saura villages, and sat on the decorated mud verandahs of Gadaba houses. We bought woven palm baskets from Kumhi Khond women who smoked huge cigars with the lighted end in their mouths. Children, sometimes naked except for a lucky string around their waists, accepted our proffered biscuits and crouched to touch our feet in a traditional gesture of welcome.

From Jeypore, we drove along misty valleys and through forests of teak and sal trees to reach distant markets, where hundreds of tribes-people converged on foot to buy and sell ginger and turmeric, ten-foot lengths of sugar cane, deep-fried cakes, plastic bangles, salt, curd, rice wine and sandals made from lorry tyres.

Lunch was a daily adventure: we stopped at dilapidated roadside shacks hung with faded posters of flute-playing Krishna. Rice and dahl, cooked on wood fires, were dolloped from huge buckets on to rudimentary plates made of sal leaves pinned together with toothpick-sized bamboo slivers. We copied Ranjan, washing with a jug of water, and then eating with our right hands - a lengthy ritual of mashing and mixing before scooping a fistful into one’s mouth and flicking lingering morsels to the ground, where crows waited eagerly. Once we bought two wriggling black crabs and a dozen 8-inch tiger prawns from a fisherman on a bicycle, and another day, a live chicken which flapped and squawked in the car until we reached a roadside kitchen.

By Day Nine, we were heading north along roads of dust and boulders through the monsoon forests which cover almost half of Orissa, home to tigers, leopards, wolves, bears and elephants (although we saw none). Sections of tarmac had been swept away by recent monsoons. Babalo and Ranjan chewed betel all day, littering the wilderness with a non-degradable trail of turquoise foil. They opened the car door every few minutes to spit gory red juice which streaked the flanks of the white Ambassador.

Occasionally we reached an isolated jungle village, where women drew water at wells, or swept the earth with short besoms. Scrawny cows and pigs blocked the road as boys whacked them with sticks and pelted them with stones. Barefoot men ploughed tiny fields with oxen, or cut rice with scythes. Nobody spoke English or Hindi, so presumably few understood hoardings which read “Play cricket with everyone but have sex with only one”.

In jostling Sambalpur, Ranjan took us to visit his uncle. We sat on plastic chairs in a sparsely-furnished concrete room, sipped tea and ate doughy barfi prepared by his beautifully-dressed, silent wife. Ranjan explained that Oryan wives see their husbands as gods, and expect to be beaten and treated like slaves. During our two-week trip, Ranjan’s own wife and child were confined to their flat, forbidden to go out without him.

Oryans dread the birth of girls, who require dowries and wedding feasts and then are lost to the bridegroom’s family. Widows have the worst plight - conspicuous, cursed and polluting. Ranjan admitted that if he glimpsed a white-robed widow, he would often go home to wash and change. Widows can’t remarry, but widowers may marry as often as they choose, and receive an additional dowry with each bride. ‘Kitchen fires’, in which wives burn to death, are common.

On Day 12, we lurched into Chandipur, a litter-filled fishing village buzzing with flies. At low tide, the three-mile beach was dotted with rare horseshoe crabs, a species unchanged for 200 million years. At Chandbali, we finally had time to visit a nature reserve of brackish mangrove creeks swarming with kingfishers, storks, parakeets, monkeys and giant marine crocodiles.

Nearing the capital, we joined a stretch of dual-carriageway. Babalo slowed to a nervous crawl, honking the horn continuously. Bicycles wobbled towards us in the fast lane, swerving to avoid cows and goats lying in the sun; tinsel-strewn juggernauts (named after Lord Jagannath) thundered past us with inches to spare. In the middle of the road, farmers sat nonchalantly astride buffaloes grazing at cracks in the tarmac.

Perhaps we should have abandoned Mr Rath’s itinerary and explored the national parks at Badrama, Debrigarh or Simlipal, or the waterfalls of Keonjhar. But we were paralysed by the mind-numbing drives, by the feeling that what we’d started we must finish, and by Ranjan’s refrain of “No time for stopping”.

The extreme poverty and the lack of tourist infrastructure makes Orissa a challenging destination, but Oryans are open-hearted, unmaterialistic and welcoming, the landscapes are wild and beautiful, the cultural diversity is rich and fascinating. Just allow longer than two weeks if you want to see everything.

First published by the Telegraph

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