12 Thursday May, 2016
By Ellie Boulstridge, India Specialist
Arriving into Bhubaneshwar after our time in Varanasi was like landing into a different country. Similar to Chandigarh, the modern city of Bhubaneshwar was built as a state capital of Odisha (formally Orissa) after partition; meaning that it benefits from modern planning and wide spacious streets. Bhubaneshwar is also one of the cleanest cities in India, and, with its humid tropical climate and proximity to the coastline, felt like a very laid-back and friendly place. We were often approached on the street, in perfect English, by welcoming, but somewhat confused, locals who wanted to know what had brought us to Bhubaneshwar, as foreign tourist numbers are small.
On our first afternoon we explored the historic section of the city, which has a rich history spanning over 3000 years. Bhubaneshwar is often called the Temple City of India due to its uninterrupted span of temples built from around the 8th century to the 12th.
The ancient city was the capital of the Kalinga Empire, known for their sea faring and trading. More well-known is the fact that the Mauryan emperor Ashoka fought the famous Kalinga War at nearby Dhauli. The after effects and guilt from this bloody battle transformed him into a fervent Buddhist – and began the global spread of Buddhism. In Dhauli, just south of Bhubaneswar, we visited Ashoka’s famous rock edict, which is over 2000 years old, and outlines his concern for the ‘welfare of the whole world.’ The edict is protected by Odisha’s oldest Buddhist sculpture, a stone elephant.
The many temple in Bhubaneshwar are made more interesting by the fact that many remain active temples. Often in India, ancient temple sites become monuments rather than sites visited by worshippers. However, witnessing Hindu rites going on inside a temple that is nearly 1,200 years old makes for a moving site. But, as with many sites in India, they also play host to a colourful mix of courting couples, curious monkeys and the odd wild dog. Admittedly we were there in April (hardly high season) but we loved the relaxed and quiet feel of the temple complexes, and watching local life unfold around them.
We were also lucky enough to be in the city on the day of a religious festival. Hindus in Odissa, alongside other Eastern states and Gujarat, worship Lord Jagganath (meaning Lord of the Universe), a friendly and funny looking god who is always accompanied by his brother and sister in artistic, often wooden, representations. In festivals related to Jagganath massive wooden chariots are drawn through the streets by devotees – which is exactly what we witnessed on our first evening. The word Juggenaut was actually derived by the English after observing the chariots occasionally crushing devotees under their ‘unstoppable force.’
The oldest and most famous Lord Jagganath temple is found in the seaside town of Puri, an hours drive south of Bhubaneshwar on the coast. A famous pilgrimage site for Hindus, Puri is one of the four religious sites that a Hindu is expected to visit in their lifetime as part of the ‘Char Dham’. With very much the feel of a pilgrimage town, the town is bustling and busy, with pilgrims visiting the temple, praying, eating, selling and buying. The Lord Jagganath temple is not open to non-Hindus, but can be observed from a neighbouring terrace. We loved sampling the delicious local snacks, especially the deep fried Khajas; legend has it that Lord Jagannath appeared in a man’s dream and instructed him how to make them.
Another major reason for visiting Bhubaneshwar is its proximity to the ‘Sun Temple’ at Konark, built by the Eastern Ganga Dynasty in 1255 AD. The drive down from Bhubaneshwar is lovely, going past palm-fringed lagoons, charming villages, cashew-nut tree lined roads and lush green riverbanks.
Although the largest part of the temple has not survived, the remaining temple complex is an impressive site which made me think of it as a sort of Indian Angkor Wat. Vast stone chariot wheels, elephants and horses adorn the temple, and every exterior surface is covered with intricate carvings of daily life.
Konarak is also home to a large collection of erotic carvings, which were brought to life for us with the help of an enthusiastic local guide who wasn’t ashamed to describe, in detail, exactly what was going on in a number of vivid scenes!
There are two excellent hotels in Bhubaneshwar, both of which couldn’t be more different. The Mayfair Lagoon is a large leafy and green resort with a distinct sense of fun. This is the place to stay if you have a good sense of humour, want 10 different restaurants to choose from at night and like statues of Greek gods in your swimming pool. By contrast the Trident (run by Oberoi) is a sleek and understated property, but a little more grown-up. Everything runs like clockwork and a smart restaurant, idyllic pool and green central courtyard makes this a great place to escape to after a day sightseeing in the sun.
For more information or to start planning your tailor-made holiday to India, please get in touch with Ellie:
firstname.lastname@example.org // +44 (0) 207 819 9770