India’s best kept secret

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India’s best kept secret

Sunday, 13 February 2022 | Navneet Mendiratta

India’s best kept secret

If there is anything that Covid did good for tourism, it was the development and push to domestic travel. Navneet Mendiratta travels to Hirakud, Odisha, where the state is promoting eco tourism in a big way

Cool air hits my face with force as I hold on tightly to the ropes of my tandem paramotor ride. My pilot gently encourages me to take a peek below. There is fear, and excitement, as I look down gingerly. Below, a vast expanse of water offers a majestic view of the biggest dam in Asia — Hirakud Dam, Odisha. The land appears far, like a distant dream. I look up again, my heart thumping loudly in the chest. Minutes later, the pilot guides me to a safe landing. This is an experience that is going to stay with me for a long time.

But honestly, who would have thought that Odisha could be this amazing. A queue of eager adventure seekers on ground extends longer than it would have been in pre-Covid times. After all, there is social distancing to be taken into account. In times when you think twice, or should I say four times, before you set out to travel, in between the horrid pandemic waves, the lure of offbeat destination becomes too good to resist.

This is my first time in Odisha. And my stay is an Eco Retreat set up by the Odisha Tourism — actually, one of several to promote a more conscious and environment friendly tourism. Set up for a short period of three months, it’s a full blown glamping experience, very different from the kind of tourism Bhubaneswar, Puri or even Konark offers. Other than Hirakud, the 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. Thereafter, it’s a little over an hour drive to the Eco Resort. Built across the mighty Mahanadi river, the main attraction of this Eco Retreat is Asia’s longest earthen dam, Hirakud. Behind the dam extends a reservoir spread over 743 sq. km. Nestled between Debrigarh Wildlife Sanctuary and the reservoir, this glamping site offers an opportunity to explore the quiet side of Western Odisha. Twenty five luxury tents equipped with modern amenities and creature comforts make for the accommodation in this wilderness oasis.

The peace and quiet of the camp resort is broken intermittently by loud whoops by the water sports revelers enjoying jet skiing and banana boat rides in the reservoir. Though it’s a perfect place for those seeking to unwind and do absolutely nothing, there is a lot to do here for those who seek action. Other than water sports and parasailing, the guests at the resort can keep themselves busy with target and board games, ATV rides and cycling. Home to migratory birds, you can also undertake a guided trek or a safari into the Debrigarh Wildlife Sanctuary. The sunrise and sunset make for the most beautiful times of the day.

Hirakud is about 30 minutes drive from Sambalpur, a quaint Odisha town known for its handloom and handicrafts. Sambalpur gets its name from its presiding deity — Maa Samaleswari. And if you are lucky, you can catch the evening light and sound show at Maa Samaleswari Temple located nearby. A trip to this place is a dream for textile collector. Located at the outskirts of this town is a weavers’ village. Claps of the loom welcome me as I walk down the dusty road in search of a sari after my heart.

Sambalpuri saris are known for their incorporation of traditional motifs like shankha (shell), chakra (wheel), phula (flower), all of which have deep symbolism with the native Odia colour red black and white represent true Odia Culture along with Lord Kaalia (Jagannatha)’s face colour. The traditional craftsmanship of the ‘Bandhakala’, the tie-dye art reflected in their intricate weaves, also known as Sambalpuri “Ikkat”. In this technique, the threads are first tie-dyed and later woven into a fabric, with the entire process taking many weeks.

Bichitra, in Odia, means “marvelous”. The hallmark of the Bichitrapuri sari is its large Pasapali design, running across the body and a beautiful border. The name Pasapali is derived from pasa or gambling games using Chessboard. These saris have intricate check patterns of contrast colors resembling the chess boards, which gives it its name. I choose a traditional black and red combination. Outside, it’s a delight to see local women wearing Sambalpuri and Pasapali drapes, hitched high in local style.

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

Pakhala is best had in the afternoons. The fermented water is great cooking agent to combat the heat and even lulls to sweet slumber. The pakhala I ate had been fermented over two days. I am told the one fermented over four days is more potent and what the locals prefer. The Odia love their fish, which is why fish curry, fish bhaaja and even dry fish preparations are the most favoured.

Good food can be healing, I realise, being the city slicker that I am, trying to shrug off the work-from-home fatigue. A quiet bonfire makes for perfect close to the day. At a distance, I can hear the popular Odia song Rangbati being played. It’s a beautiful starry night and I couldn’t have wished for a better holiday.

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