One of the most rewarding things about my job lately has been the opportunity to travel “off the beaten path” to rural and lesser known areas of India, and see how these states are harnessing and developing their tourist potential and presenting their cultural heritage to the world. I feel blessed and privileged to not only experience it, but also to do my bit to promote their attractions.
Late last year, I went to Bihar, and visited the Sonepur Fair and Bodhgaya. Last week, I was in Orissa (recently renamed Odisha) to attend an international conference exploring the state’s potential as a destination for Buddhist tourism. Similar to Bihar, Odisha is one of India’s poorer states, but is gradually emerging.
As many of you will know, my husband’s parents come from Odisha and until now I’d never been there (and indeed it’s been more than two decades since my husband has been there, although his parents often go), so the trip had extra meaning for me. As well as discovering Odisha’s important but largely unknown Buddhist heritage, I was also looking forward to discovering my husband’s heritage — it was long overdue!
In addition, on my trip I got to meet a long-time reader of my blog, Professor Chitta Baral, also from Odisha but now living in the US (he runs the Odisha Links website). Professor Baral was instrumental in facilitating the conference on Odisha’s Buddhist heritage, and Odisha Tourism did a magnificent job of holding it right near the Buddhist sites (not an easy task, as they’re located around two hours drive from Bhubaneshwar) for extra effect.
As I discovered at the conference, what’s particularly exciting about Odisha’s Buddhist sites — made up of the “Diamond Triangle”: Ratnagiri, Udayagiri, and Lalitgiri — is that not only do they have some unique features and major historical significance, they’re so newly excavated that they’re yet to appear in any text books. Odisha Tourism has spent the last couple of year developing tourist facilities around the Buddhist sites and is now introducing them to Buddhist scholars, monks, and the travel sector.
The sites consist of a series of monasteries, temples, shrines, stupas, and sculptures of Buddhist images. As well as this, the excavations turned up objects including three relic caskets (two containing small pieces of charred bone) found inside the stupa at Lalitgiri. They’re presumed to have belonged to the Buddha himself, or one of his prominent disciples. It was fascinating to wander around the sites and let my mind imagine what it was like there long ago, during the life and times of the Buddha.
While I was in Odisha, I was also fortunate to spend some time exploring the city of temples, Bhubaneshwar (although delightfully, it felt more like a village, coming from Mumbai). Apparently, there are more than 700 temples in the city, mostly dedicated to Lord Shiva. I saw a handful of them, and was impressed by their intricate carvings and immaculately maintained grounds.
Perhaps what I loved most about Odisha was the lack of crowds, which made it possible to peacefully enjoy the sites and soak up their ambiance. Early morning at the tantric cult Yogini temple, shrouded in fog while the temple priest performed a puja, was an experience that was almost out of this world.
Odisha also has a wonderful folk and tribal culture, which is rich in the arts and handicrafts.
Strangely enough, even though Odisha was very unfamiliar to me, I felt like I’d already been acquainted with it. It was comforting hearing everyone speaking Oriya and sounding just like my mother in law, even if I didn’t understand any of it. I can’t wait to go back, this time taking my husband with me.
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