It was my wish to visit Chilika in winter and spend a couple of days relaxing and savoring the tasty delights served by OTDC Panthanivas. Booking at the Panthanivas was completed on-line two months in advance to avoid the heavy demand during Christmas. There was a conflict in my mind where to stay – in Rambha or Barkul. Debates on which one is the better of the two places are available in the net where several travelers have expressed their preference for either of the two places. That was when I decided to spend two days each at Rambha & Barkul to have the first hand experience of both.
As expected I could not avail train tickets for overnight journey by Chennai Mail and had to change route via Bhubaneshwar. My family of three including my wife and seven year old son started from Bhubaneswar early in the morning on 22 Dec’ 2013 and after covering Udaygiri, Khandagiri, Dhauli stupa, we hit the highway towards Rambha which is about 110 km away. It was very hot and humid with the sun beating down harshly very unlikely in December. The road is terrific, thanks to the CM. Our Indica zoomed past small hillocks, forests through few toll collection points. On our left the train track leading to south India gave company all the way. All SE Railway trains from Howrah including the Chennai Mail followed this track. After travelling for and hour and half we could see signs on the highway showing distance of Barkul and Rambha. All of a sudden there was a glimpse of the Chilka on our left and I could smell the moist air. We drove further after passing the road leading to Barkul and came down to the service road on the left and crossing the tracks we noticed the road sign for Rambha and in minutes we were in front of the gate of the Panthanivas. We drove inside along the long road leading to the portico of the Panthanivas.
It took us about 2 hours from Bhubaneshwar. I had read about the beautiful location of the Panthanivas and was very excited to be there. We checked into an AC Deluxe cottage and ordered lunch which included ‘prawn malaicurry, crab masala & parshey fry’.
The panthanivas is a huge complex. The main building houses the reception, dining room, kitchen on one side and rooms for tourists on the other side on two floors. Beyond this building there is sprawling area with flower plants, trees and beautifully maintained lawn and also a small stage for hosting social ceremonies. There are six deluxe cottages lined around the lawn, each having rooms for two families. A section of a cottage has a big drawing room, a big bed room, a small dressing room and an attached big bathroom. There is ample space for 10 people. There is a balcony all around which can be accessed from the entrance and also the bedroom on the rear. The chilka lake is just in front of the cottages and the view is stunning. A walkway leads to the rear of the complex from where a trail leads to the jetty in the lake.
We were hungry and placed ourselves at the dinning room. Rambha Panthanivas is very popular for its culinary delights, specially the ‘Crab’ and ‘prawn’ dishes are out of the world. The food was good and the taste was excellent as per reputation. After lunch we took a walk around the complex. The environment is calm and serene far from the hustle and bustle, ideal for the souls looking for a relaxed atmosphere. We took the trail to the lake towards the jetty, which was almost non-existent, destroyed by the mighty ‘phailin’. A new one was under construction in full swing. There was a motor boat and a speed boat of OTDC tied to the jetty besides a few other local boats. The local boatmen came asking us for a trip to the lake, which we had plans for the next day. It was winter but it was quite hot. We cursed ourselves for carrying all those woolens. After enjoying a lovely sunset we returned to our cottage and ordered some hot coffee. We retired for the night after booking the OTDC speed boat for next day’s trip to the lake. Though trips by local boatmen are cheaper, it is better and safe to avail the services of OTDC boats.
Next day I got up early in the morning and went to the jetty. It was a bit chilly and the sun was yet to come out in the sky. Local fishermen were leaving for the lake in their country motor boats for their catch. I could see big stretches of the lake lined with fishing nets. The sun peeped out from behind the hill and the waters shimmered in gold under the gentle breeze that was blowing.
After a mouthful breakfast with ‘Puri Sabji’; Boiled Eggs and Juice we headed for the jetty. Our boatman doubles as a kitchen hand when no trip is there. We stepped carefully into the speedboat walking past the dangerously broken stairs of the jetty. Our boatmen took off slowly, maneuvering the boat to avoid going into the fishing nets and once passed, we went full throttle. My son was really excited. The boat flew through the lake, spraying water over our faces. We came to a point called ‘breakfast Island’ which is a small hut like construction standing all alone in the middle of the lake.
It is heard that an Englishman used to come here to have breakfast and do his office work and hence the name. The next spot we visited was a rocky terrain full of boulders. We got down carefully not to slip into the water. There was small hole through which one has to crawl inside.
Inside the gap a shiva linga with offerings could be seen. I decided against my son’s suggestion to be adventurous to crawl inside the cave and got back to the boat. We saw a lot of migratory birds such as white egret, a brahmani kite, ducks.
Chilka is the largest brackish water lagoon covering an area of about 11000 sq km. There are small hills and island and intervals filled with dense vegetation. Next we stopped at one of the island called ‘honeymoon island’ where a giant dinosaur model was constructed for amusement. After moving around the lake for about two hours and clicking lots of pictures, we returned to have a sumptuous lunch. Food is quite reasonably priced and my wife had decided to have prawns in all meals for all the days in Chilka. We spent the evening walking around the nearby village and small market. The market comprises of small food stalls, shops selling items of daily use, a medicine shop etc. For any special requirement people have to go to Balugaon. There is also a SBI ATM and we found it being adequately utilized more by the tourists than locals. There were frequent power cuts but the panthanivas had a big generator as back-up. According to the manager Mr. Das, ‘Phailin’ had disrupted several power lines but restoration was in full swing.
Next day, we checked out after breakfast and waited for the auto rickshaw arranged by the manager, to drop us at Barkul panthanivas. The vehicle was spacious and had enough rooms for us and our baggage.We took the highway and headed in the opposite direction until we reached the sign showing Barkul. Once again we got down to the service road and drove straight across the tracks and ended at the Panthanivas gate. The ride was bumpy and took about an hour. We arrived at Barkul at 11 am and checked in at one of the newly built AC cottages. This OTDC complex too is huge but the environment is just the opposite to that of Rambha. What a contrast this place is to Rambha. The serenity, ambience and peace of Rambha has gone for a toss here at Barkul. Since it has got a water sport complex built on the lake adjacently, the same is open for outsiders too. Moreover, there are picnic spots given on hire. It is expected that there will be a clamour of people all through the day making the place extremely noisy. We found a lot of people howling at the reception for booking of boat trips.
The cottage complex though is secluded from the common area. The walkway on the left of the reception area leads to the thoroughfare right in the middle of the complex to the jetty. On the right are two storied rooms for rent and the huge restaurant on the left. There is a park with benches and swings for children. The cottages here, though new, are smaller than half the size of the ones in Rambha. We went to the huge restaurant and ordered lunch and took a walk to the lake. The water sports complex lies on one side housing re-creational activities like paddle boats, water scooter etc.
On the other side was the general jetty lined with scores of country motor boats for carrying people. The shops selling their stuff, the din of the visitors thronging the complex made the atmosphere seem like a fair. The water sports complex is formed by making a circular concrete dam-like embankment with an opening for boats and launches to move in and out to the lake. There were several OTDC motor boats of various capacities parked inside the complex. I was in for a shock to see the state of the houseboat which remained parked in the complex. It was completely battered, broken and stood there half drowned, filled with weeds and muck.
This houseboat was a pride of Barkul having all modern amenities of a hotel. In fact I had thought of booking here but since it was outside the main complex I decided against. Oh what a big mistake it would have been!! Culprit? Pahilin. Adjacent to the water sports complex we noticed that the amusement area is being developed afresh with new concrete bunkers, swings, slides for children, benches for people to sit. We could feel the extent of destruction pahilin had done to this place.
Food here is also tasty but it lacks the smack of Rambha kitchen and items are limited. We took local fish curry, fish fry and of course prawn curry for my wife. After taking rest we decided to go around the place in the evening. We walked to the reception and made our booking for next morning’s boat trip to Kalijai island across the Chilka. Outside the complex there were a few shops selling fruits, a small hotel and a couple of tea stalls. We stepped into one and had tea. On the other side my wife noticed a shop selling fried capsicum slices and immediately bought a dozen. The fries were very tasty indeed. A group of school children walked inside the complex led by their teacher. A few autorickshaws were parked on the lane. I remembered that arrangement for next days local tour has to be made. We sat on one of the benches inside the park and basked in the fading light from the setting sun. The noise of chirping birds returning to their nests on treetops, honking of cars and busses of returning picnickers filled the air. Night crept in slowly. We talked to the manager for a car for local trip next day and returned to our cottage. The power situation was a tad better here. I sat on the attached balcony and relished the quietness which gripped the place all of a sudden.
All the hustle and bustle during day were gone. The sound of a train passing by and an occasional bark of a dog was what we could hear. We went to the restaurant for dinner and after spending some time on the neatly cared lawn, went to sleep in the comfort of our room.
Next day it was 25th December, Christmas. Picnickers started arriving from very early morning. We could hear loud music, honking of cars. A huge crowd of outsiders were expected. We were booked for 8 AM boat trip. The boatmen came looking for us at the dining hall while we were having breakfast. We finished and followed him to the jetty. We got into the speed boat at the water sports complex and moved towards the opening into the chilka, destination Kalijai temple 10 kms away. The lake at Rambha had a hill on the lake but at Barkul there is no such obstruction. The lake seemed more vast at this place. There were other local boats carrying passengers to and from Kalijai passing by. After about an hour we could see the temple on an island. There is a jetty for parking OTDC boats.
Our boatman moored the boat here and we climbed up the stairs. The place was teaming with people, mostly locals, for whom the temple is very auspicious. The temple houses Kalijai mata.
There were devotees offering prayers & yagya, some busy lighting incense sticks and candles. There are shops selling puja items. We went to the rear of the temple and found many other shops selling their wares, mostly eatables. Ther was one shop which was selling tea – biscuits, to puri- samosa, puffed rice (muri)- chholey, and at least 20 different types of sweets. We decided to taste some sweets and selected a few from their appearance including the famous ‘chhana lora’.
A few were really very nice. Having spent our time at Kalijai we hopped back into the boat and returned to panthanivas. After lunch we took a Tata Iris van and moved on to take a llok at some local places of interest. First we went to Nirmaljhar temple 11 kms away. Inside the small gate there is a small pond in the centre, a small temple on the left and the main temple on the right. A stream flowing from the Easter Ghats has been directed here into a small kund, The sweet sound of flowing water was the only one that could be heard. There was no other living being inside. At the rear, there are small deities of ‘Dashabatara’. Though the temple has immense significance we hardly saw any signs of maintenance. We moved on to Narayani Mata temple 10 kms away. This temple is situated atop Valerry hill. After ascending the loopy road our car came to an abrupt halt. There were several cars and busses ahead of us caught in a fierce jam. Each was having its free run with restless crowd of people don’t know from where created a ruckus. The lone traffic police stood helplessly. After failed attempts by our driver to make a way through, he asked us to make the rest of the journey on foot and parked the car. We started walking past the vehicles and crowd and made our way up the steep road.
I could not understand what we so many people doing here. The area was surrounded by jungle with ‘saal’ and other trees. As we climbed further up the road we saw groups of people cooking food on giant pots. That’s it! These local people are having a picnic, and what a place to choose – a jungle. Never before I had seen so many people (thousands) picnicking in a forest. After walking further we came into a clearing with several steps. There were few shops selling puja items. Manu devotees were buying these for offering to the goddess. After climbing one more flight of stairs we reached the temple sitting amidst the forest with trees and boulders hanging over it. There were lots of monkeys prancing around and I had to be very careful with my cameras. My son was however very amused. The temple complex had a small ‘kund’ and one side there were a few fallen tree trunks (courtesy phailin).
The goddess Narayani is worshipped a devi Durga with six hands. The temple is considered as one of the ‘shakti piths’ of Orissa and is very sacred to the locals. Having spent out time here we went back to our car for our next destination 13 kms away – Dakhsaprajapati temple. This is situated in a public area and has ‘heritage’ board stuck at the entrance. Upon entering though we found small children playing cricket inside. The temple structure is just like any other temple in Orissa. Since it was closed we took a walk around the structure and returned to panthanivas in the evening. The locals were now making their way back, cars and busses moving out of the parking area. Today is our last night here, we will move to Puri tomorrow. Our experience in Puri will be posted separately.