Set amidst the hills of the Eastern Ghats, the captivating beauty of the lake has not only left the tourist spellbound, it has fuelled the imagination of the literary giants of the region.
The largest brackish water lake in Asia is one of Odisha’s most famous tourist destinations. Chilika is spread over an area of 1165 Sq Km and extends from Puri district to Ganjam district along the east coast of Odisha. The lagoon connects with the Bay of Bengal through a narrow channel that runs parallel to the Bay of Bengal.
In 1981 Chilika was the first Indian wetland to be declared as “Wetland of International Importance” under IUCN sponsored Ramsar Convention. Chilika has also been declared as “Destination Flyway” by the United Nation’s World tourism Organisation (UNWTO) because of its natural treasure and bio-diversity.
The uniqueness of the lagoon stems from the fact that it’s virtually an assembly of marine, brackish and fresh water ecosystems that gel together to support a large and diverse variety of flora and fauna.
Chilika like most lagoons across the world was most probably formed some 8000-6000 years ago due to rise in sea levels. The tenth century text Brahmanda Purana depicts Chilika as an important gateway for Odisha’s maritime trade with Java, Borneo, China, Malaysia and other countries. The depiction is further corroborated by the records of Ptolemy, Fa-Hien and Hiuen Tsang.
As mentioned earlier when Mother Nature bestows such a bounty it’s bound to procreate itself in literary form. Chilika thus forms an important aspect of Odiya literary heritage.
One of the earliest works was by saint Purushottam Das who wrote a poem on Lord Krishna dancing with Maniki - a milkmaid selling curd- along the banks of Chilika. One of the 132 villages along the lagoon is called Manikigauda in remembrance to saint Purushottam Das’s poem.
Perhaps the most memorable piece of literature on the lagoon is “Chilika” by eminent poet Radhanath Ray. The first stanza of the paean helps us visualize this ravishing creation of Mother Nature through verse as closely as possible.
Marala malini nilambu Chilika,
Utkalara thui charu alankara,
Utkala bhubane shobhara bhandara”
The poet describes Chilika as the beautiful daughter of Mother Nature (Prakriti). While its neigh impossible to translate the above mentioned passage accurately and yet retain its charm. It can be loosely translated as – “The pleasure grove of Goddess Kamala, bedecked with garlands of swans and wrapped in blue Chilika, you are the storehouse of beauty in abundance and the most beautiful ornament in whole of Utkala.”
If Radhanath Ray’s poem best describes the lagoon, Noted freedom fighter and writer Gopabandhu Das’s famous lines from his book “Bandira Atmakatha (Biography of a prisoner)- “Raha Raha Kshane Baspiya Sakata, Dekhibi Chilika Charu Chitrapata sundara tupti ra abasada nahin jete dekhuthile nua disuthaii'' (oh train please stop for a moment so that I can observe the scenic beauty of Chilika for a moment, my heart is so enamoured by its beauty, that the more I see it, the more it feels like I am seeing it for the first time)- best describes how Chilika weaves its magic on the visitors.
Apart from Chilika, the other most prominent Odiya literary works on the lagoon are “Rail Upare Chilika” (Chilika from a train) by Gopabandhu Das and “Kalijae” by Pt. Godabarish Mishra.
More importantly Chilika served as Lord Jagannath hiding place during the tumultuous period from 1568 AD to 1735 AD, when Odisha was under constant attack by Mughals and Afghans, each time the Sevayats (people engaged in the service of Lord Jagannath) under the supervision of the various King’s of Odisha managed to relocate the Lord along with his siblings to various remote locations in Chilika from time to time, thus saving the desecration of the idol’s at the hands of the invaders.
The Gajapati or King of Odisha is therefore intrinsically connected with the Lord and is a revered figure for all the sacrifices they made to protect the Lord and contributed significantly to the cult of Lord Jagannath.
Thus Chilika is not only regarded as epitome of beauty of Mother Nature but revered as a symbol of Odisha’s rich cultural heritage by the people of Odisha.
Things to do in Chilika
First thing is to just clear your mind and take a moment to gaze at this wonderful creation of Mother Nature. After soaking in the tranquility of the blissful blue waters of Chilika, look around you and hunt for a boatman (they won’t be too far off) to experience the magical blue canvas.
One can indulge in water sports at the OTDC Barkul complex
The Lagoon is dotted with many small islands, some of the most popular ones are:
1. Kalijai Temple
Dedicated to Goddess Kali, this temple set amidst an island inside the lagoon. The pretty temple is around 45 minute’s boat ride from Balugaon.
The temple is dedicated to Goddess Kali and the legend of Kalijai –is made famous by Pt Godabarish Mishra’s epic poem “Kalijai”- which is regarded as one of the most prominent literary works on Odiya literature.
Legend of Kalijai
In the poem “Kalijai” the poet illustrates that a girl named “Jaai” was going with her father to the island of Parikud to marry. However due to a violent storm, the boat capsized- the girl “Jae” drowned but not before her prayers to Goddess Kali were answered in the form of saving everyone else in the boat except her. Thus the legend of Kalijae was formed.
Brief history of Kalijai
However historical evidence suggests that the legend of Kalijai was the Poet’s creative imagination. The “History of Parikud” published in 1930 by historian Radha Charan Panda states that the temple was made by King Jagannath Mansingh the king of Bankad in the year 1717. In the year 1779, King Harisevak Mansingh took refuge in Parikud after being defeated by the King of Khurda. After a lull, Harisevak Mansingh’s son – the crowned King of Bankadgarh Bhagirathi Mansingh was also attacked by the Khurda Army. Facing defeat the king visited the temple and surrendered himself to Goddess Kali and asked for her protection. As the winter was setting in, a huge flock of Flamingoes arrived at the lake and the army of King of Khurda mistook them for huge battalion of army assembled by the King Bhagirathi Mansingh of Bankadgarh and retreated. The local’s opine the goddess made the King victorious (Jai) hence she was named as Kalijai.
The maker sankranti festival (around 2nd week of January) is a very popular festival of the temple. Large numbers of devotees throng the temple to pay their obeisance to the Goddess.
2. Honeymoon Island
Located 5km from Rambha jetty is also known as Barkuda Island. The beautiful island is surrounded by clear and turquoise blue waters of the lagoon. Watch out for the limbless lizard while on the island. The limbless lizard is different from a snake, the most visible external differentiation are that the lizard has eye lids, external ear openings and a notched tongue.
3. Breakfast Island
This pear-shaped island in the Rambha Bay lies between Badakuda and Somolo islands. It is also known as Shankuda (conch shaped) Island. The main attraction of the island is the bungalow constructed by the King of Khallikote.
4. Beacon Island
Located 3km away from Rambha, this island is the most photographed island of Chilika, so much so that it’s almost become the identity of the lagoon. The reason for being so is the small chamber accompanied by a conical pillar constructed on a submerged mass of rock in the lagoon is an architectural marvel and is very much visible from the Rambha Jetty. The pillar had a beacon on top hence the name. The then collector of Ganjam Mr. Snodgrass, of the East India Company, built it.
5. Somolo and Dumkudi islands
Situated in the central and southern sectors of the lake. Dolphins are often sighted along the waters of the Somolo Island. The Khallikote hill range provides a beautiful backdrop to Somolo Island.
6. Birds’ Island
Located 4 KM from the Rambha jetty this island, comprising of a small hillock with exposed hanging rocks as the name suggests, is home to large number of native avian species, during winter, migratory birds are also seen in the island. The huge man made dinosaur with its egg’s scattered across the entrance of the islands keeps the kids interested.
Literally meaning Reed Island. Most of the island remains submerged during the rainy season. It’s a protected bird sanctuary requires permission to visit. During the winters one can spot the Siberian Crane’s and Flamingoes amongst other exotic species of migratory and native birds. Make sure you take the permission from OTDC Bhubaneswar for it. The private boats aren’t allowed to the island, so one has to enlist the services of the OTDC to hire the boats to the sanctuary.
One can get a glimpse of the Flamingoes from the Chemonda Village- the village can accessed by boat from Balugaon.
Where to Stay
The best option is to stay at OTDC Panthanivas Barkul or Rambha – the location of both the Panthanivas is beautiful overlooking the Chilika Lagoon. However the cottages at Rambha Panthanivas are bigger and spacious cottages and have a beautiful view of the lagoon from the balcony. The Barkul Panthanivas has water sports facilities and a children’s park. Distance between Barkul and Rambha is 22KM, but the NH 5 road and the landscape makes driving a real pleasure.
The food at both the Panthanivas is very good try the crab masala and Khaenga Besara (Mullet fish cooked in mustard paste)
The best option is to log onto the OTDC website and book online.
Where to Eat
Both the Rambha and Barkul Panthanivas are very good options, the food is good here and reasonable.
Apart from OTDC Panthanivas the other options are –
Chilika Dhaba- located near Barkul Panthanivas- it’s famous for its crab and prawn curries. But it’s a bit over hyped, the rates are reasonable nonetheless.
Narayani Restaurant –Located near Barkul Panthanivas along the NH5 is also a good option
Beera Dhaba- located on the NH5, 2-3 KM further from Rambha towards Berhampur along the highway adjacent to the HP Petrol pump- the dhaba run by Sardarji serves mouth watering vegetarian dishes and chicken. Try the dal tadka, palak paneer and chicken masala. They also serve prawn and fish cooked in amritsari style. Though the food is good it scores low on ambience and is a bit unhygienic but it’s worth a try.
Nearest airport is Bhubaneswar.
The nearest airport is Bhubaneswar and the nearest railway station is Balugaon. Many trains along the Howrah- Chennai route have stop over at Balugaon.
Alternatively buses ply regularly from Bhubaneswar and Cuttack – Barmunda and Badambadi bus stand respectively to Behrampur. For Barkul alight at Balugaon and hire an auto. For Rambha alight a bit further ahead at Keshpur and take an auto to Rambha Panthanivas.
One can hire the boats for sightseeing through OTDC, alternatively if you are hiring a private boat make sure you put on your bargaining cap and chalk out the destinations clearly. The reference point is for a one and half hour boat ride the price varies from Rs.800- Rs.1000.
Make sure the boats have life jackets
Don’t get fleeced by locals trying to sell pearls. Those are all fake even though they open the shell in front of you.
There is no scope for shopping here apart from freshly caught fish at the Balugaon market and some cane furniture or decorative items from Banapur.
Being a coastal area the temperature doesn’t vary too much but the summers can be very humid. Best time to visit the lagoon is during the winters but make sure you book the OTDC Panthanivas well in advance. Though the winters are the preferred time to visit because of the migratory birds. Chilika during the monsoon is magical and exudes a different charm altogether.
Payment to Panthanivas is preferred in cash mode (though the room booking can be done online), both Barkul and Rambha have branches and ATM’s of SBI and other banks.