“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” – John Steinbeck. And that is exactly how I stumbled upon the least traveled trail of Odisha. I was on a much-needed vacation in the eastern Indian state of Odisha and being holed up in some farm resort was all that I had in mind. Ambitiously enough, I kicked off my tour with a relaxing stay at the seaside holy town of Puri, where apart from eating huge fish meals and long siestas, I did nothing much. Sometimes at sunset, I used to go for long walks on the beach and it was there, that I met a traveller, who told me about Sarat and his incredible array of adventures.

Somewhere in Koraput district

Sarat, my indigenous Odisha tour guide

Sarat Routray is a tour guide who specializes in trips of indigenous regions of Odisha and he is much respected for the passion he feels for the land and its people. He lives in the remote city of Jeypore and is quite an expert in all the indigenous communities of Odisha, Jharkhand, and Chattisgarh. Later that evening in Puri, I looked him up on the internet and the incredible experiences that he offered took my breath away. His trips usually took his clients into the very depths of the Eastern Ghats and they all seemed to be gorgeous eye-opening affairs. He introduced to the visitors, the discreetly shy Adivasis or the tribals and made them understand their amazing culture, enchanting mythological connections, and mystical shamanic beliefs. Learning about their unique dances, music, art, and language was also part of the deal and all these were more than I could resist.

A road trip through intrepid Odisha

Traveling along the Eastern Ghats

So, I tossed my lazy vacation plans in the wind, called up Sarat that very night and booked myself an extensive private offbeat Odisha tour with him. The following evening, I was on an overnight train bound for Jeypore and it turned out to be one of the best travel decisions I had ever taken. Sarat met me at the train station and after a brief tea and breakfast from a rudimentary street-side shack, we started our journey into the remote corner of Odisha. The trip started from the mystical tribal district of Koraput and ended at the languid coastal city of Vishakhapatnam. It took more than two weeks to explore the distance by road and those were some of the best days of my life. Driven along in a trusty Ambassador car, I went deep into the hearts of Koraput, Malkangiri, and Gajapati districts and the Eastern Ghats charmed me all along. A long chain of discontinuous hills that run along the east coast of India, the Eastern Ghats stretch from the red earth country of West Bengal down south to the misty hills of Karnataka. Riddled with stunning ruins, awash with diverse natural beauty, and weathered by time, the Eastern Ghats house a kaleidoscope of faces, cultures, and lifestyles and has the beautiful Indian Ocean bordering it like a lapiz lazuli ribbon. It is also the home of many indigenous communities and is still a remote virginal area. Remnants of many forgotten ancient kingdoms are scattered in its dense jungles and believers are said to have found there, telltale traces of the Hindu epic Ramayana.

Life along the Eastern Ghats

I simply love Odisha

Now imagine, all of this being packed into one trip which was never supposed to happen and you will understand why I started my post with the famous John Steinbeck quote. It is true, that the best journeys and travel experiences happen when (and where) they are least expected and my Eastern India road trip was once in a lifetime experience. It took me to a world, so unbelievably surreal and primal, that I felt as if I had entered a magical land of the avatars. Now, cheesy as it may seem to be, this experience reminds me of another travel quote worth its salt. “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at least to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”. Very few of my travel experiences have been as eye-opening as the indigenous Odisha road trip.

A beautifully face tattooed Khond woman in Odisha
PC – Sarat Routray

Things to remember before visiting the indigenous parts of Odisha 

  • Koraput, Malkangiri, and Gajapati districts of Odisha are most renowned for their vibrant tribal life and in the past have been very popular with intrepid travelers, photographers and researchers.
  • However, some years back, tourism in Odisha’s tribal belt faced a crushing blow when two Italian tourists got kidnapped by the Maoists (insurgents) and were held for ransom. Although the tourists got freed, unharmed, the act caused too many political complications, received a lot of international bad press, and put too many travel restrictions on the regions.
  • Even today, tourists (both domestic and international) to Odisha’s tribal district are strictly advised to hire services of professional local tour agencies or guides, follow only the planned and permitted tourist circuit, and lay as low as possible.
  • Photography and videography are prohibited and cameras are banned at tribal markets.
  • India is home to around 437 tribes and Odisha has the largest tribal population among all the Indian states. Out of 62 tribes of Odisha, 13 have been identified as “Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups” which means that still now they exist in very primitive conditions, are hostile to external contact, and are difficult to locate.
  • Tribal tours require a lot of caution, restriction, and respect. Most of the indigenous communities are warm and friendly towards the outsiders who visit their villages or homes. Visitors are thus, also expected to reciprocate this respect, be aware that they are visiting somebody‘s home, and not behave like they are in human zoos.

My journey through intrepid Odisha,

Took me to colourful local markets,

Obscure little villages,

And incredible natural beauty.

It was not

Just a road trip,

But more of

A learning experience

About cultures,

Our heritage,

And different ways of life.