Sunday, July 31, 2016

Ancient Temple of Magic and Energy in Odisha - Chausathi Yogini Temple

Chausathi Yogini Temple, Hirapur

It has been a part of many cultures since ages. Of course in today’s time most of us do not believe in magic, but it still fascinates us right? In India, the earliest form of magic has its roots in Athava veda, but eventually magic or beliefs of magic grew in folklore with tantra vidya and black magic. While black magic is not really considered to be sacred in any form, tantra vidya was related to devis (Hindu Goddesses) had temples and sacred sites where believers supposedly practiced magic. With time maybe tantra vidya is gone completely, or maybe it is still practiced secretly by some people but majority of the temples have vanished with a very few exceptions. Of all the tantric temples the temples with all sixty-four devis (chausathi yogini) were even fewer and today we just know of four – two in Odisha and two in Madhya Pradesh.

The central altar
Last month visited one of them in Hirapur, Odisha which is just 5 kilometres away from Bhubaneshwar. Built somewhere around 9th century during Bramha Dynasty, Chausathi Yogini Temple of Hirapur is believed to be the most preserved yogini temples of India where locals still offer prayers to Goddess Durga. Due to the hypaethral structure of the temple it is believed that nature’s energies and elements were prayed to at this temple and feminine energy was worshiped too according to primordial texts, making this a pagan temple as well.

Devi Statues with their Vahanas
This circular limestone temple has 56 graphite devi idols cascaded in wall cavities inside the temple and 8 devis idols on the 4 sides of the central altar. All the devis are depicted with their vahanas and represent different shades of human life and feminine energy like birth, death, joy, anger, control, power etc. The central altar, though is empty as of today, it is believed that in the olden days a statue of Maha Bhairava was worshiped there, who represented Goddess Shakti (The ultimate power). The inner chakra of 8 devis is believed to represent sankoka or concentration of cosmic energy while the 64 on the other circle represent vikas or expansion of the world.

The temple in form of Shiv Ling
The architecture of the temple without the idols is also turned out to be equally interesting. An old man in the premises of the temple (probably the pandit) told me that the temple is actually a huge Shiva Lingam which was meant for worshiping the feminine energy of Ardhanareshwar (Half Man Half Woman avatar of Shiva). Later when I thought of what he said, it did make sense. The central altar was the lingam and the circular structure was the supporting kund. Also there was a small pond nearby, a water body which is very common around shiv temples. And after all, the shiv ling is just a representation of cosmic energy! Do you see the parallelism like I did?

The small village pond closeby
To know that so much thought went into creating these temples and just four of them have survived the test of time was kind of sad. The Chausathi Yogini temples, although, are one of the rarest of ancient sites of Indian History, all of them are pretty offbeat and not known to many. This temple in particular was pretty much lost in time and known only to locals till about 10 years back. In 2006, an Odishi Dancer named Pratibha Panda started a dance festival in the temple premises. After the festival was formally recognized by Odisha Government in 2010, the temple came into limelight and made its way to Odisha tourist maps. Though still offbeat and less known, the place now does see a lot of visitors from 23rd-25th of December every year – when the dance festival is held. So in case you are planning to travel to Odisha in December, you know of a place you might want to visit.

Prayers are offered to the pond too!

One of the very few completely intact statues
How to get there –
You can ask any auto or taxi to drop you at Hirapur Yogini Temple. It is 5 KM from Raja Rani Temple and a trip there can be combined with a visit to Dhauligiri or Old Bhubaneshwar. You would need maximum half an hour to explore the site. It is not advisable to go to that area post 6:00 PM.

Other Chausathi Yogini Temples.
1.   Ranipur-Jharial in Balangir district, Odisha
2.  Western group of temples in Khajuraho in Chhatarpur District, Madhya Pradesh
3.  Chaunsath Yogini Mandir in Bhedaghat in Jabalpur district, Madhya Pradesh 

The outer circle of the tempe

Sunday, July 24, 2016

White Water Rafting in Mhadei River

View from the road 
Monsoon is here and it is time for Rafting in Goa!!! Yes, you heard it right – Goa for rafting. I have traveled to Goa in literally every season and explored many shades of the state till date, but it was last year - same time, when my most adventurous trip to Goa till date happened. Well not the entire trip, but I did rafting, white water rafting, and it was the most 'adventurous' Goa has been to me so far.

It had just begun
Last year during monsoons, I did white water rafting in Mhadei River courtesy Goa Tourism. While rafting on Tilari River has always been a thing in Goa, in recent years, Goa Tourism has started endorsing rafting on Mhadei River near Valpoi and luckily I, along with some other media personals, was treated with the splashing cold waters on an overcast day.

All prepped up!
Long drive from Panjim to Valpoi, tree canopy all the way, amidst which we actually got lost twice, and then somehow managed to reach a tiny restaurant called The Earthen Pot. A dainty village, openness around, this tiny restaurant that didn’t serve normal stuff like tea, coffee or fritters and said most of the food came from town side and absolutely no hint of any river close by – all this made me wonder, where exactly does rafting happen?

Just look at the water!
From there we were driven to another place, about 10 km away with another group of enthusiastic Chinese who, perhaps, also had the same questions in their mind. Lush green forest, uneven half washed roads and then there was a faint distant gurgle of water, like from a stream and our questions were answered. After we got down from our small van we had to walk another kilometre or so and could finally see the Mhadei river – small rapids, fleeting flow and noisy in its meandering course.

And then I decided to take a dip
After a good 15 mins of prepping and instructions, the rafting chronicles finally began. 10 mins or so, nothing fast, nothing crazy – compared to my earlier experience in Teesta (Sikkim) and Ganga (Rishikesh), Mhadei seemed kind of timid. Guess the river found it insulting and we met our first rapid within minutes and guess what, it was a grade II rapid. And from there on, for the next forty minutes or so, we met several such rapids in close proximity of each other.

Drenched in the overly generous sprays of water, tired of the constant paddling, looking at the playful sun – I was happy and ready for the end of the raft but was only surprised to know there was almost another 45 minutes remaining but this stretch luckily had grade I rapids and a lot of breathable, floatable area. *Phew*

When the others decided to swim
The whole rafting happens on the stretch of the river between Valpoi Village and Mhadei River Bird Sanctuary and if you are lucky you might get to see a lot of beautiful birds all the way! For us, I was overjoyed at the sight of two spirited great hornbills that kept us company for almost an hour – playing, dancing, flying from tree to tree, chasing each other. To see these birds at wild was a priceless sight (no photos since I didn’t carry my camera during rafting).

Before it got turbulent
The Rafting experience came to an end with some of us swimming and racing to the bank. Tired and panting, drenched and cold under the setting sun – I only wished to go back and re-live that part of the day again. For about 2 hours or so I had forgotten that I was still in Goa and when I did remember details of the location again, I was in awe of the place even more. Goa is so much more than just beaches and churches!

It was fun!
So if you wish to experience Goa beyond beaches, now might be a good time. For booking the rafting trip, contact is available on Goa Tourism’s official site – the rafting trips are organised by Southern River Adventures & a Sports Pvt Ltd headed by an Englishman, John Pollard. Rafting costs 1800 INR per person and is rated easy to moderate. And if you ask me for my personal opinion – Love Rafting, don’t miss this!

Before the end - whoosh
P.S. - The bookings for Rafting in Mhadei River would be starting soon. Please check Goa Tourism site for it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Indian Monsoon Delight

A standard scene at homes during monsoon.
Monsoon is here and for Indians it is the time to indulge in Masala Chai (Spiced Tea) and Pakodas (Fritters). Imagine that long drive or that tiresome trek and then a cup of steaming tea and piping hot pakodas! Loving it? Or maybe a lazy evening, just catching up with someone or yourself, your thoughts – with a cup of tea whose steam fog your window pane that is being lashed by rains on the outside and you munch on some fritters to enjoy that moment? Sounds totally like an ideal monsoon evening right? Well of late I have been doing this quite often and this Sunday it just got a bit ‘Grand’ with flavours of monsoon served by Grand Hyatt Mumbai.

The set up at Grand Hyatt
Before I confuse you – this is a food blog post, but it has a lot to do with travel. Don’t believe me? Did you know different regions in India have different spices and forms of tea depending on the local spices? While ginger is predominant in Gujrati tea, Cardamom tea rules in the south, Oolong finds its fan base in the east while Kashmiri tea or Kahwah has a totally different set of spices. But more interesting is the story of tea’s companion Pakodas!

Lotus stem fritters famous in Kashmir during Monsoons.
Fritters or pakodas originated in India and travelled to South East Asia, England and Persia with time. Originally from west and South India, pakodas or bhajiyas were made famous in South East Asia by early merchants where they traditionally promoted chillies and bananas in form of fritters; and then picked up by Mughals, the traditional ways to making fritters travelled through north of India and all the way to Persia. Since monsoons in India is relatively cold fritters found way into many seasonal Indian Cuisines like Lucknowi, Kashmiri, Bengali and even Marwadi! 

Daal wadi or Pakodas of pulses!
All the regions made fritters of different ingredients, like Kashmir developed a taste of lotus stem fritters with the traditional Kahwah while, the Mughals adapted fritters of different daals (pulses) and the east created savoury fritters with different edible flowers. With Britishers bringing in new ingredients to Indian Market like Potatoes and Breads, the traditional fritters got innovative with the west soon developing bread pakodas, onion fritters.

The butta (corn) with a twist

You see - Food travels! And food culture of a lot of places tells you so much about the place and the influence of time and nature on those places. I never really indulged much with food travel, but for past some months I have been hooked to a show called Raja Rasoi and Anya Kahaniya which made me realize how much local or adapted food of a place can tell you about the area and people.

The menu of tGrand Hyatt Monsoon Hi-Tea
Anyways coming back to my main point, thanks to Grand Hyatt Monsoon Hi-Tea – I got a flavour of monsoon from various states of India in Mumbai! The monsoon special Hi Tea, which would be served at the hotel till 31st of August lets you taste monsoon in a very diverse way. With Kahwa to Caya, from Samosas to Daal Kachori – I travelled through some states virtually just through food which made me make a mental note – look out for regional cuisine next time you travel somewhere!

Yes well it is Hyatt, so everything is with luxury - the place.
Which place made you realise that the local cuisine is also a huge part of its identity? Or which food item made you think, where has it originated and how has it become a big part of locals somewhere. Let me know in the comments below.

P.S. You too can enjoy some very traditional Indian monsoon favourites with a twist at INR 450/-. So in case you are staying at the hotel or planning to go to Juhu side, you know a quieter classier place to enjoy the monsoon now.

Food for thought - Leaving you to think with some lovely samosas

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Exploring Chilika, a beautiful part of Odisha

Layers of blue and green seen from the road
Waves and waves breaking along. Layers of blue and green criss-crossing each other all the way. The endless stretch of highway from Bhubaneshwar and a small descend to a village hidden along a very well maintained bypass. And suddenly you find yourself face to face with a long narrow jetty that is surrounded with celeste blue water on both sides; boats parked, moving with waves. And yes this is in India and it is not a sea but a huge lake called Chilika.

First view of Chilika at Barkul Panthnivas
On my recent visit to Odisha I ventured out to see the largest brackish lake of India and the second largest coastal lagoon of the world and without a doubt, it is one of the must sees of India. The vastness of Chilika is overwhelming and the very view of this huge lake would make you think if you are still in India. 

Map of Chilika, just to give you an idea
Chilika is one of the most unexplored charms of Odisha and is so vast that you can’t cover it in a day. So when I had to choose the area to visit I chose the most interiors of Chilika that gave access to a very old Island temple and a bird sanctuary inside the lake. Yes, now you get the size of it right?

The abundance of marine life in Chilika has made it important to fisherfolks of Odisha
The ride from Bhubaneshwar to Barkul takes about 2 hours and tells you how well Indian Highways have become in recent times. Upon reaching Barkul Panthnivas (OTDC Guest house), I kept hunting for the elusive jetty while we had to do our tickets for Kalijai. (The receptionist at Barkul Panthnivas did not give us access and tickets to Nalband Bird Sanctuary, citing lack of birds and no official OTDC letter as the reason) I was understandably upset, but one sight of the blue waters of Chilika and I forgot all about Nalband.

INS Training hill on the shores of Chilika
Flanked by lush green hillocks on all sides, the boat ride to Kalijai Island was a sheer delight. And guess what 10 minutes into the boat ride and I realized we didn’t actually need to travel to Nalband to see birds, they pay you a visit during the boat ride. While I was gazing at a group of fishermen setting up nets in the traditional way for crabs and prawns, a spoonbill swiftly flew past our boat. 

Setting up nets the traditional way to catch prawns and crabs
Some more time gazing the INS base on the shores of this great lake and I spotted two Brahmani Kites circling the nets! And I was enjoying every dip of the numerous waterfowls around like a five-year-old kid! Admiring all these and the flocks of egrets, herons and storks we finally reached Kalijai Island that lies amidst the bobbing waters of the Chilika.

Waterfowls everywhere taking a dip in the water
Kalijai island is one of the smallest islands inside the Chilika Lake but is the most visited one all thanks to Faith. According to folklore, a girl names Jai was married in Parikud village inside the Chilika Lake. On the day when her father and other relatives were bringing her to her husband’s place, seemingly clear day got stormy and the water of the lake became turbulent. In the storm, some believe, Jai drowned, some believed she scarified herself to save the others. (no one else died) 

Kalijai Temple and Island
Close to where this incident happened, was an inhabited island where a temple was established in her name and Devi (Goddess Kali’s) puja is done there till date by the locals of different islands of Chilika. Truth or not, the current of Chilika is strong near this island and the island is very peaceful and pretty in its isolation. At Kalijai, I got a chance to talk to locals who told me how they believe this temple saves them during their everyday travel in turbulent waters and specially during the rainy season.

People are dead serious about their devotion to Kali Jai Ma
From there I headed back to Barkul and went to my next Chilika stop – Rambha. Rambha was the name of an apsara (most beautiful ladies) of Indralok so make the connection of the place with that name – it is bang on! Ramba Panthnivas and jetty is the most beautiful of the Chilika ends. Secluded, jutting out between rocky hills, right next to a green village, Rambha Jetty is also the oldest and the longest of all the Chilika jetties. From there one can access Dinosaur or Honeymoon Island and Breakfast Island. I decided to not take the boat ride here and instead talk to the local fishermen resting near the Jetty.

Right next to Rambha Jetty. Now you know why it is pretty
I met a guy, Loknath at Rambha, who told me that Breakfast Island was earlier called Beacon Island since Britishers had place a huge reflector on this island to help in navigating boats and smaller ships to shore. But Odisha tourism, somewhere in the 80’s made a small rest house there which was marred by the regular cyclones and now this vacant place known as the Breakfast Island has a white hut like structure which is painted regularly only for photo ops and shootings. 

Not Santorini and not a foreign place. This is Breakfast Island in Chilika 
He also told me that there would be no dolphins near Satpada till August hence a trip there would be a waste – yes I took his advice. And after a long chat with him I immersed myself in the surroundings again, listening to that mellifluous song of wind and water, loud, whizzing and in sync.

End of Rambha Jetty
Chilika gave me everything, nature, myth, stories, reality and a chance to interact with locals, but the best part about the place was that it helped me connect with myself. I was wandering literally, looking forward to cover it all about this lake, but it showed me a way to be still and imbibe the surrounding and the peace around. It lets in life from the ocean and lets them go. It was dying some years back, not anymore. Let things get to you and let go of things when needed – that is the secret to peaceful existence. Maybe I got too philosophical, but that is the secret to the beauty of Chilika Lake.

A catch before the sun sets

How to get there –
Take the Bhubaneshwar Balugan Highway and then Barkul and Rambha bypass to get to Chilika Shores of Barkul and Rambha. Best option would be travelling by a local cab.

How to get to the Islands –
At both the Panthnivas, go straight ahead to the jetty and hire a local boat. Panthanivas costs are higher and the boatmen will not stop randomly in between locations on your request. For a boat to Kalijai it is INR 600-750 per boat or RS 100-120 per seat depending on the season.
Where to Eat –
Chilika Dhaba or Barkul Panthnivas. At both places, if you love sea food, Crab Curry is a must!

The only birds that posed for my pics.

Personal recommendations:
1.   Get Nalband permit from OTDC office in Bhubaneshwar to avoid any issues at Barkul.
2.  Boat ride to Kalijai and Nalband is totally worth it in any season. Though the best time to visit this area is from November to March.
3.  Boat ride at Rambha didn’t seem worth it, but the jetty is indeed the prettiest.
4. Do not let your boatmen go very close to the Irrawady Dolphins in Chilika. These dolphins are very shy in nature and stressed by the noise of motor boats. 

Have you explored any very offbeat place recently? Do let me know about your experience in the comments below.

Fly Away

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Postcards from Odisha - Snippets of Life

For most part - highways in Odisha are like this
“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder” it is said and guess it is really true. Last week I was wandering through lanes or different corners of Odisha and despite the unmanaged dirt tracks everywhere, the horribly hot and humid weather that left me maybe 10 shades darker, and those hundred restrictions in most of the temples of the temple state, my trip to Odisha this time has been one of the most memorable trips in recent times. Many a times we fail to see what is right in our backyard and drool over what others have (forgotten places of India and exotic places abroad).

Literally from my home's backyard
Odisha, previously called as Orissa, is one such gem of a place in our own backyard while we hardly value it, because to be frank if you ask any Indian to plan a trip to somewhere in India it would be either Rajasthan, Goa, Leh and Kashmir, Delhi and Himanchal or Kerala – but what about the untouched unexplored wonders of India like Gujrat, Madhya Pradesh, North East, Bihar (yes it is an amazing place!!!) and Odisha?

Was visiting a relative and saw this Pitta bird in there garden along with a couple of shy orioles and a blue pitta!
Okay, not ranting because some of my future posts will surely make you guys add Odisha to your list. But today this post is me exploring and looking at Orissa beyond the obvious temples and Bay of Bengal. I literally stood still in the middle of nowhere at times to see the variety of life that flourished in this state where people are almost languid all the time. It is where a person used to the fast pace of metro life would wonder – what to do next! But the moment you halt and look around you see tiny artistic nests of cotton bird, India Pitta bird or a pair of Orioles frolicking or fighting over tiny yellow fruits – no need of sanctuaries or zoos, this is what you can see in your backyards literally.

You find them everywhere - literally EVERYWHERE!
And if that fragment of life doesn’t amaze you look out for dozens or squirrels scurrying around near the numerous ancient temples or the herds of monkeys enjoying an evening near caves in harmony with humans around. The coasts are equally pleasing where one might randomly see a deer family crossing the densely forested coastal roads or sitting on a beach you would be fascinated by the ever so busy red and yellow ghost crabs. 

One of the friends you would find at Chilika. The others are fast, this one is still.
And if you do venture out to the great lake called Chilika – waterfowls and scaups would lazily greet you, spoonbills would randomly fly over you and falcons and pelicans would make sure you notice them, not forgetting the shy Irrawady Dolphins!

A mummy monkey and a baby monkey taking a nap, while the rest of their heard was enjoying a beautiful sunset with us.
Amazed are we? Imagine the state and what it has to offer from what one can see just by glancing around! Like I had mentioned earlier, this was just an introduction to this ancient land of Kalinga, hope these postcards have made you curious about this lesser known state of India!

Can you name this ghost crab specie? 

And oh, before I forget, guess where this post made its mark! On's homepage :D