I had been barely on the road for about 20 minutes when my taxi driver suddenly made an unscheduled stop on the highway between Bhubaneshwar to Puri. Looking out I saw the entire highway stacked with tiny stalls filled with huge drums and vessels, They were cooking and selling sweets. “You must try the famous Pahala Rasgulla,” said my driver and thrust a plate of two round piping hot balls of the delicious sweet into my hands. I was on a road trip in Odisha on the Bhubaneshwar – Cuttack highway and Pahala, a small village on the outskirts of the capital was my first halt on my way to Puri.
Odisha and West Bengal have been in a tug of war as to who has the original bragging rights for the Rasgulla. Odisha claimed that their version had existed for over 600 years as “kheer mohana” in Puri when it was offered as “Bhog” to the deities in the Jagannath temple. It later on apparently evolved into the “Pahala Rasgulla”, which is creamier than the Bengali white spongy delicacy. The colours were in shades of beige to ochre. According to the legends, a priest from the Jagannath temple saw the villagers from Pahala throwing away the excess milk from their cows. He taught them the recipes of many sweets including the rasgullas.
Besides rasgullas, you can also find different sweets made from “chhena” which is similar to panneer. My driver introduced me to chhena poda, Lord Jagannath’s favourite dish as well. But I preferred Rasgulla like his consort Lakshmi, which is softer and melts immediately in the mouth.
I could not have asked for a sweeter start for my road trip to Odisha as we drove from Bhubaneshwar to Puri. The journey became the destination for us as we continued towards Puri. Odisha for me had always been associated with Samrat Ashoka. And as a history buff since school, I had always wanted to see the battlefield which had changed Ashoka’s life forever.
The hills of Dhauli surrounded by the River Daya were witness to the bloodbath and atop them, stood the serene Vishwa Shanti Stupa with a glittering dome, which was built by the Japanese. Standing there with the wind in my face and looking down at the picturesque countryside, I could not believe that this was once a battlefield. Ashoka’s edicts were imprinted on rock faces here, especially on one of them which was carved like an elephant.
This is believed to be the earliest rock cut architecture in India. There were also two edicts which referred to the Kalinga War. Ashoka may have renounced the world after the war, but Dhauli seemed to be lost to the world at large except for some tourists at the monastery.
It was a kaleidoscope of colours at Pipli, where large radiant umbrellas greeted us as soon as we entered the nondescript hamlet of Pipli. While Odisha is known for its artisan village of Raghurajpur, where every house is a studio, Pipli is no less significant. It is one of the most colourful towns on the way from Bhubaneshwar to Puri. The artists referred to as tailors or “Darjis” here are known for their applique where they stitch colourful pieces of cloth together and create beautiful designs. Wall hangings, lamp shades, garden umbrellas, bags and purses are created with colourful fabrics and pieced together with mirrors and embellished with embroidery.
Walking around I saw shops filled with these alluring crafts as some of the girls working in them told me that there were over 100 families who created magic with their fingers. As all arts and crafts of Odisha, the applique work started as a part of the traditions associated with Puri Jagannath Temple.
It is believed that when the deities were taken out on processions, they were decorated by colourful pieces of fabric . I picked up a couple of small purses as souvenirs and we were back on the road.
My last stop before entering Puri was the magnificent Konark Temple, which to me was an ode to time. Dedicated to Surya, the Sun God, the 13th century shrine was designed like a massive chariot but it was the ornately carved twenty four wheels that caught my attention. The Puri Jagannath temple was referred to as the White Pagoda by the Europeans but the Sun Temple at Konark earned the title of Black Pagoda.
The main deity of Surya was held using two magnets – one on top and the other on the bottom and it was considered a floating idol as it lay suspended in the air. Apparently, there were several iron plates interspersed between the stones of the temples and the magnet placed on the top was massive. According to the legend, European sailors sailing on the seas were lured by the diamonds sparkling on the deity. The magnets used to swerve the ships off the coast. Eventually, the sea however retreated over the course of the year.
Finally I went over to Chandrabaga Beach to soak in some silence and let the waves bathe my restless mind. It is believed that the ocean here was a great healer and a few moments by the shore was enough to heal you. A lighthouse in the distance was silhouetted against the evening sky. The slow ebb and flow of the waves soothed my mind. The sun was calling it a day and I realized it was time to put my feet up as well. As we entered Puri, I realized that it was not just a road trip, but an amalgamation of experiences that were quintessentially Odiya.
The distance from Bhubaneshwar to Puri is about 70 kms and it takes barely a couple of hours by road. However I took several detours and stopped in different destinations such as Pahala, Dhauli, Pipli and Konark and Chandrabhaga beach before entering Puri . There are taxis and buses available but nothing really like slow travel. Have you been on road trips in Odisha ?