“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 lazy, long vacation in the eastern India 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.
Sarat Routray was a tour guide who specialised in trips deep into the heart and soul of indigenous Odisha and he was much respected for the passion he felt for the land and its people. He lived in the remote city of Jeypore and was an expert in all the indigenous communities of Odisha, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh. Later that evening, I looked him up in the ever obtrusive world of 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.
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So, I tossed my lazy vacation plans in the wind, called up Sarat that very night and booked myself an extensive private 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 Vishakhpatnam. 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, tell tale traces of the Hindu epic Ramayana.
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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 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.
TRAVEL TIP – 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, recieved 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 strictly prohibited and cameras are banned at tribal markets. Incidents of insurgents roaming these markets looking for photographers and camera totting tourists have been reported and these extremist groups are ruthless. Kidnapping, bombing, burning alive, executing, beheading etc are carried out by the Maoists in that area on intermittent basis and extreme caution needs to be exercised if visiting the Odisha tribal belt.
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.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE