India’s best kept secret

If there’s anything Covid has done good for tourism, it’s the development and push of domestic travel. Navneet Mendiratta travels to Hirakud, Odisha, where the state is heavily promoting ecotourism

The cool air hits my face hard as I hold on tight to the ropes of my tandem paramotor ride. My pilot kindly encourages me to take a look below. There is fear and excitement as I look down cautiously. Below, a vast expanse of water offers a majestic view of Asia’s largest dam – Hirakud Dam, Odisha. The earth appears far away, like a distant dream. I look up again, my heart pounding in my chest. A few minutes later, the pilot guides me to a safe landing. It is an experience that will stay with me for a long time.

But honestly, who would have thought that Odisha could be so amazing. A queue of eager adventure seekers in the field stretches longer than it would have in pre-Covid times. After all, there is social distancing to consider. In those times when you think twice, or should I say four times, before setting off on a trip, between horrific pandemic waves, the lure of an offbeat destination becomes too good to resist.

This is my first time in Odisha. And my stay is an eco-retreat put on by Odisha Tourism – in fact, one of many promoting more conscious and eco-friendly tourism. Set up for a short period of three months, it is a glamping experience in its own right, very different from the type of tourism offered by Bhubaneswar, Puri or even Konark. Apart from Hirakud, Odisha Tourism has set up six Eco Resorts at Satkosia, Daringbadi, Bhitarkanika, Konark, Pati Sonapur and Koraput.

A two hour flight takes you to Jharsuguda. Then it’s just over an hour’s drive from the Eco Resort. Built on the mighty Mahanadi River, the main attraction of this eco-retreat is Asia’s longest earth dam, Hirakud. Behind the dam extends a reservoir extended over 743 km². Nestled between the Debrigarh Wildlife Sanctuary and the reservoir, this glamping site offers the opportunity to explore the quieter side of western Odisha. Twenty-five luxury tents equipped with modern amenities and every comfort are ideal for accommodation in this wild oasis.

The peace and quiet of the resort camp is intermittently interrupted by the loud shouts of water sports revelers enjoying jet skis and banana boat rides in the reservoir. Although it’s a perfect place for those looking to relax and do nothing, there’s plenty to do here for those looking for action. Besides water sports and parasailing, resort guests can keep busy with target and board games, mountain bike rides, and biking. Home to migratory birds, you can also take a guided hike or game drive in Debrigarh Wildlife Sanctuary. Sunrise and sunset are the most beautiful times of the day.

Hirakud is about 30 minutes drive from Sambalpur, a picturesque town in Odisha known for its loom and handicrafts. Sambalpur derives its name from its presiding deity – Maa Samaleswari. And if you’re lucky, you can catch the evening light and sound show at the nearby Maa Samaleswari temple. A trip to this place is a textile collector’s dream. Located on the outskirts of this town is a village of weavers. The clicks of the loom greet me as I walk down the dusty road in search of a sari after my heart.

Sambalpuri sarees are known for their incorporation of traditional designs like shankha (shell), chakra (wheel), phula (flower), all of which have deep symbolism with native Odia color red black and white representing the true Odia culture with Lord Kaalia (the color of Jagannatha’s face). The traditional craft of the ‘Bandhakala’, the art of tie-dye is reflected in their intricate weaves, also known as Sambalpuri ‘Ikkat’. In this technique, threads are first tie-dyed and then woven into a fabric, with the whole process taking several weeks.

Bichitra, in Odia, means “wonderful”. The hallmark of the Bichitrapuri saree is its large Pasapali pattern, crossing the body and a beautiful border. The name Pasapali is derived from pasa or games of chance using the chessboard. These sarees have intricate checkered patterns of contrasting colors resembling chessboards, which gives it its name. I choose a traditional black and red combination. Outside it is a delight to see local women wearing Sambalpuri and Pasapali curtains, tied high in the local style.

The drive to the eco-station is scenic, especially closer to the evening. The landscape gradually changes from roadside markets to the quiet woodland that surrounds the dam area. At the resort, an Odia thaali is waiting for me. Odia food is simple and healthy. Executive chef Surya Nayak introduces me to traditional cuisine. Rice is a staple food for the people of this state, as is fish. A typical thaali includes Daalma (pigeon pea lentils cooked with vegetables), Pakhala (prepared with rice cooked in fermented water, curd, cucumber, cumin seeds, fried onions and leaves mint), Badi-Chura (a coarsely mashed mixture of wadi, onion, salt and mustard oil, similar to aaloo chokha), Saag, Besara (mixed vegetable curry cooked in mustard paste), Bhaja (this can be any seasonal vegetable, the most popular being brinjal, or even fish), Puli Pitha (dumplings) and Chenna Poda (baked cheesecake, Indian style).

Pakhala is best served in the afternoon. Fermented water is an excellent cooking agent for beating the heat and even falling asleep. The pakhala I ate had been fermented for two days. I am told that the one fermented for four days is more potent and what the locals prefer. The Odia love their fish, hence fish curry, fish bhaaja and even dried fish concoctions are the most popular.

Good food can heal, I realize, being the city dweller that I am, trying to ignore the fatigue of working from home. A quiet bonfire is perfect near the daytime. In the distance, I hear the popular song of Odia Rangbati playing. It’s a beautiful starry night and I couldn’t have asked for a better vacation.

Comments are closed.