Having had our taste of the wild side of Odisha with a visit to Tikarpada during the previous leg of this journey, we couldn’t wait to see what other secrets the state’s dense forest cover had in store. So, we headed straight for the Similipal Forest Reserve. Before venturing into the forest, though, we learned about the legendary tigress Khairi and the equally legendary Indian Forest Service officer, Padmashri Saroj Raj Choudhary, who raised her and kept a pet python and hyena alongside. Stories of the bond between the tigress Khairi and Choudhary are amazing and well known across the country. Choudhary is also highly regarded in the wildlife and conservation world, having done a lot for this space, including the establishment of the Similipal Tiger Reserve and the development of the pug mark tracking technique used to follow the movement of India’s Royal Bengal Tiger population out in the wild, among his many accomplishments.
After this fascinating history lesson, we continued our exploration, stopping off at a scenic stretch of farmland before heading into the actual forest. At the forest, amid 300-year-old trees and clandestine pine forests, was the Khairi River, on the banks of which the eponymous tigress was found as a cub and, consequently, named after it by Choudhary. This river runs through the forest and, as you watch it gurgle and crash along, you are overcome by a sense of peace. After reflecting in the meditative calm at the riverside, we moved on.
Later that day, we headed for the Chilika Lake — the next stop on our itinerary. The second largest brackish lagoon in the world, Chilika is spread over a massive 1,100 kilometres. With hundreds of species of migratory birds calling it their occasional home, a veritable treasure-trove of sea-life calling it their permanent home, and a rich ecology made up of seaweeds, algae, and seagrass besides, this place is a nature-lover’s paradise.
As we headed off on the boat ride to explore the lake, we had another surprise awaiting us — turns out that Chilika is home to Irrawaddy dolphins, one of two lagoons in the world and the only one in India where you can spot these rare species of dolphins. Bottlenose dolphins are also present here and while we got glimpses of these aquatic mammals swimming about from time to time, with a fin breaking the surface of the lake here and there, we didn’t see the breaching and jumping that pop culture expects you to believe will occur anytime a dolphin is around.
We also visited the Rajhans Island as part of this lake-faring adventure. This island was once an outpost for the British and there is still an old colonial guesthouse, now run by the tourism department, standing there. The Rajhans Island is largely untouched and extremely unique. Because on one side, you have the Chilika Lake, of course, but on the other, there is a white sandy beach leading straight into the Bay of Bengal and the roaring Indian Ocean. What a special, special place!
Back from the Chilika Lake and we headed towards another place that is unique to the state of Odisha: the Konark Sun Temple. Minutes away from the coastline, this towering temple is truly a sight to behold. Built under the auspices of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty in the year 1250, it pays tribute to Lord Surya, the sun god. Today, the temple is 100 feet tall and retains its original chariot-inspired shape. Legend has it that the temple was once taller, grander, and more majestic than it is now. But when you look at it, you may find that hard to believe. Shaped like the Lord Surya’s chariot, every inch of the temple is covered in detailed and elaborate carving. Just looking at the level of the detail and the intricacy of these carvings leaves you speechless; marry that to the scale of the entire temple complex and you are left astounded by your visit there.
Next, we travelled back into the forest with a visit to Kuldiha. The Kuldiha Wildlife Sanctuary is home to some exotic flora and fauna, including elephants, tigers, gaur, leopards, giant squirrels, and more. After spending some time at the laid-back Rissia Nature Camp and a foray into the deep forest nearby, we headed back out and towards civilisation.
Our next stop was the exciting Chandipur beach. This famous beach is yet another site that is unique to the state of Odisha. The water here recedes by up to five kilometres during low tide, allowing visitors to walk the seabed. It also looks undeniably attractive and is a clean and well-maintained beach too. After taking in the sunset at the beach, we moved on to Bichitrapura and the Nature Camp there. While in the region, we visited the Talsari beach and had a look at the mangrove forests just off the beach too. Talsari is another coastal destination and a feast for the eyes. This long stretch of beach starts in Odisha and continues along into neighbouring West Bengal.
From Bichitrapura, we made our way to the last destination on this trip: Bihitarkanika. The Bhitarkanika National Park is stunning. When you stay at the Ramtirtha Forest Lodge, set in the heart of a diverse mangrove forest, as we did, you are essentially living right within the mangroves. In fact, there were deer frolicking about right outside our place of stay and the boat safari we were a part of was an absolute blast too. Since Bhitarkanika happens to host the largest congregation of saltwater crocodiles in the world, we were hopeful of spotting these majestic beasts. And we were not disappointed either, as we saw a couple of them basking in the sun and a few more swimming about too! There are also wild boars, black ibis, hyenas, and the Asian openbill stork. We went right up close to the nesting area of the latter and saw them in their natural habitat.
Having explored every corner of the enthralling state that is Odisha, I can verify first-hand that what they say about this state is absolutely true. There are secrets to be found at every corner. Everyone from the tourism board, the people working at the resorts and camps we stayed at to the local populace we interacted with are all gracious, welcoming, and delightful. So, if you are planning a road trip in the future and want to visit a land that has an attractive vista or historic site at every turn, Odisha should feature at the top of your bucket list.
Text: Harket Suchde
Photography: Nitin Suryavanshi & Tally Talwar