Orissa (renamed Odisha in 2011) is one of India's lesser-visited states, as it's predominantly rural and off-the-beaten-track. However, interest in Odisha's eclectic combination of attractions is growing, particularly as the state is an ideal destination for experiential travelers.
From temples to tribal villages, Odisha has some truly unique and diverse treasures to discover. These include national parks and wildlife, unpolluted beaches, traditional music and dance, handicrafts, tribal culture, Buddhist relics, and food. Odisha Tourism recently launched an "Odisha by Road" campaign with themed driving itineraries across the state. In addition, responsible tourism companies such as Grassroutes Journeys, Aitiha, and Sarna Educational And Cultural Services offer meaningful experiences and tours to lesser-known places. Read on to find out more.
Admire Ancient Temples in Bhubaneshwar
Odisha's capital city, Bhubaneshwar, was once home to thousands of temples. Only a fraction of them still remain but they're certainly impressive. The oldest one dates back to the 7th century! Also of special interest is the Ananta Vasudeva temple, with its massive temple kitchen (the largest in the city). Everyone is welcome to visit it. This guide to the top temples in Bhubaneshwar has all the details.
The remarkable new Kala Bhoomi Crafts Museum in Bhubaneshwar is one of the top museums in India that showcases the country's heritage. It opened to much acclaim in 2018 and is spread over a substantial 13 acres. The museum has four zones with eight galleries, each dedicated to different crafts such as terracotta work, traditional paintings, stone and wood carving, metal crafts, tribal crafts, and hand-looms. What really stands out is that it's an interactive museum where you can view the artisans at work and participate in workshops.
Be there are 11 a.m. for a free guided tour in English. Ekamra Walks also conducts free guided walking tours every Sunday afternoon at 3.30 p.m. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily except Mondays. The entry fee is 50 rupees for adults and 20 rupees for students.
Odisha excels at arts and crafts. There are two handicraft villages between Puri and Bhubaneshwar that you can visit, where the residents are all artisans: Raghurajpur and Pipili. Raghurajpur is about 20 minutes north of Puri and is renowned for its Pattachitra paintings, while Pipli is about 45 minutes south of Bhubaneshwar and specializes in colorful applique works. Both of these villages are interesting places to interact with the artisans, see demonstrations, and of course buy their beautiful handicrafts.
There are more handcraft villages within a couple of hours of Bhubaneshwar. Balakati specializes in brass metal work. Sadeibereni village is dedicated to the craft of dhokra—a metal casting technique using the lost wax method. Traditional ikat saris are woven at Nuapatna and Maniabandha villages. Cuttack city is the hub of Tarakasi silver filigree.
Further afield, weaving is also carried out at Berhampur in the south, and many districts in western Odisha such as Bargarh, Sonepur and Kendupalli. Ghatagaon is a terracotta handicraft village on the way to Similipal National Park.
Catch a Sunrise Over Udayagiri in Bhubaneshwar
The motley collection of 32 caves cut into the hillside on the outskirts of Bhubaneshwar are an important archeological site dating as far back as the 2nd century BCE. The caves were originally home to Jain aesthetics. The most interesting ones can be found at Udayagiri (Sunrise Hill). Don't miss the sunrise over Udayagiri if you're an early riser. If possible, join Ekamra Walks on their informative free early morning heritage walk there. It happens every Saturday morning from 6.30 a.m. Ekamra Walks conduct other free weekend heritage walks in Bhubaneshwar too. Discover what else to see and do in Bhubaneshwar.
Konark is located about two hours southeast of Bhubaneshwar and an hour east of Puri, forming part of the popular Bhubaneshwar-Puri-Konark "Golden Triangle of Odisha". The main attraction there is the 13th century Sun Temple, designed to be a huge chariot for Surya the Sun God. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site and architectural masterpiece. Erotic carvings similar to those on the Khajuraho temples are a standout feature too. Plan your visit with our essential guide to the Konark Sun Temple.
Puri is a seaside city about an hour and a half south of Bhubaneshwar. Its appeal lies in its holiness as one of the top spiritual destinations in India. Although the imposing Jagannath Temple is only open to Hindus, the roofs of nearby buildings offer decent views (for a small fee). The vicinity around the temple is intriguing too, with many small temples, shops, and an area where thousands of clay pots are stored and transported daily to cook in food for the deities. Explore it on this insightful three-hour guided tour of the Puri Old City conducted by local responsible tourism company Grass Routes Journeys.
The Rath Yatra festival, which takes place in July each year, is Odisha's biggest festival. It's the only occasion when non-Hindus can get to see the temple deities. A mere glimpse of Lord Jagannath on the chariot, or touching the chariot, is considered to be very auspicious.
Puri's Golden Beach was recently cleaned up and awarded environmentally-friendly Blue Flag status. However, the main stretch of beach does get crowded and carnival-like with camel rides and snack sellers. It becomes quieter towards the lighthouse. In between Puri and Konark on Ramchandi Beach, Lotus Eco Resort is a peaceful option.
In the far north of the state, the tide recedes out for miles at Chandipur beach, while isolated Talasari beach is known for its red crabs. The only drawback is that accommodations and facilities aren't great, as the beaches are relatively undeveloped.
In the south of Odisha near Berhampur, Gopalpur-on-Sea is a popular beach holiday destination that was a thriving sea port during British rule. It's worth staying there if you can afford the gorgeous and private Mayfair Resort.
Discover Ancient Buddhist Sites
Buddhism flourished in Odisha from the 7th to 10th centuries. You might not know about the state's sacred Buddhist sites; after all, they've only been excavated relatively recently and are largely unexplored. However, the sites, which are located about two hours northeast of Bhubaneshwar, consist of a series of monasteries, temples, shrines, stupas, and beautiful sculptures of Buddhist images. Their rural setting, among fertile hills and paddy fields, is both picturesque and peaceful. The "Diamond Triangle" of Ratnagiri, Udayagiri, and Lalitagiri has the most significant and largest concentration of Buddhist remains.
Visit a Buddhist Monastery
Padmasambhava Mahavihara Monastery (also known as Thupten Mindrolling Monastery or Jirang Monastery) is another surprise Buddhist attraction in Odisha. This Tibetan Buddhist monastery is situated in mountainous Chandragiri, about two hours west of Berhampur in southern Odisha. Tibetans fled to this part of India when a resettlement camp was established there after the 1959 Chinese invasion of Tibet. The monastery was built relatively recently, in 2003, and has an eye-catching golden 21-foot statue of Lord Buddha. It's home to about 200 monks and its beautifully decorated inside. Sunset is the most spectacular time to be there.
Spend Time with an Unusual Sect of Holy Men
Monks of the Mahima cult practice a curious blend of Buddhist and Sufi traditions at their ashram at Joranda, near Dhenkanal. The religion, Mahima Dharma, is said to have been established in the mid 19th century by Mahima Gosain as a way of rejecting Hindu religious order and high-caste Brahmanism. Poet and devotee Bhima Bhoi widely promulgated it through his compositions. The religion has no rituals or idol worship. Love and compassion for fellow beings, a classless society, a formless god, and non-violence are the main tenements. The monks have to follow a strict life of poverty, celibacy, piety and constant movement (they are not allowed to sleep in the same place two nights in a row, or take meals twice from same house in a day). It's possible to meet the monks at any time but ideally be at their ashram around noon or sunset when they perform their prayers. The cult's annual Joranda Mela takes place around the full moon in late January or February and features the lighting of a sacred fire.
Immerse Yourself in Tribal Villages and Markets
There are more than 60 tribal communities that dwell in Odisha's deep forests and hilly interiors. The largest concentration of them can be found in the hills of the Eastern Ghat mountains in far south Odisha's Koraput district. These include Dharua, Gond, Mali, Didayi, Paroja, Kutia and Dongria Kondh tribes. Visiting the tribes and attending their weekly markets can be a fascinating experience but it's best to go on an organized tour such this one offered by Grassroutes Journeys in Puri. If you do want to travel independently, stay at boutique Chandoori Sai Guest House in a pottery village in the heart of tribal Odisha. Guests are able to wander around the village, go on village-to-village hikes led by a local guide, and walk with the villagers to their local tribal market.
Chilika Lake, about 90 minutes southwest of Bhubaneshwar, is Asia's largest brackish water lagoon (a combination of sea and freshwater). It's an ecological wonder that's teeming with wildlife, particularly fish and migratory birds from far-off lands. There are even dolphins! The lake also has a number of islands, one with a temple, that can be accessed by boat. Most departures are from Satapada (where the dolphins are), located at the mouth of the Lake around 50 kilometers southwest of Puri. Other departures are possible from Barkul, Rambha, and Balugaon. The new Swosti Chilika Resort is the most luxurious place to stay in the area. For outstanding bird watching, head to Mangalajodi on the northern edge of Chilika Lake. Grassroutes Journeys offers eco-friendly Chilika Lake camping trips and bird-watching cruises.
Go Boating Through the Mangroves and Spot Crocodiles
Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary is located about three and a half hours northeast of Bhubaneshwar. It offers the thrill of seeing huge saltwater crocodiles basking on the mudflats, plus many species of birds. The main way of exploring the sanctuary is by boat through the mangroves, and it's a much quieter and more relaxed alternative to the Sundarbans in West Bengal. Nature treks inside the forest are a highlight. If you have time, go on a day trip to pristine Ekakula Island and Garhimata, where the Olive Ridley turtles nest. It's important to note that Bhitarkanika is closed from May 1 to July 31 each year for the crocodile breeding season.
Stay at Nature Camps in Remote Forest
Around 30% of Odisha is covered in forest. The Odisha Forest Corporation has community-based nature camps (tents and/or cottages), managed mostly by local women, in numerous remote locations. Notable national parks and reserves include Satkosia, Similipal, and Debrigarh. Tikarpada Wildlife Sanctuary is dedicated to crocodile conservation. Daringbadi is a picturesque hill station with waterfalls.
Many of Odisha's erstwhile royal families are restoring and converting their regal palaces and mansions into heritage homestays, where you'll be able to personally interact with your royal hosts and go on immersive excursions. Each has something different to offer. The most striking properties are Dhenkanal Palace, Aul Palace near Bhitarkanika, and Belgadia Palace in the far north Mayurbanj district. Gajalaxmi Palace, in the middle of a reserve forest near Dhenkanal, is ideal for anyone wanting a wildlife and nature experience. Kila Dalijodi, in a rural area about an hour north of Cuttack, is unparalleled for the range of local and in-house activities available including trekking, cycling, visits to tribes and a cow shelter, art, cooking, and farming.
Sample Odia Cuisine (and Get a Cooking Lesson)
Odia food will delight seafood lovers with mustard-based fish and prawn curries. Dalma (spiced vegetables and lentils) is an iconic vegetarian dish. Most Odias are passionate about pakhala (a fermented rice and curd combination). Sweets such as chhena poda (roasted cottage cheese cake) and rasagola (balls of cottage cheese in sugar syrup) are very popular. The state's cuisine is generally lighter, with less spice and oil, than the ubiquitous north Indian cuisine. Wildgrass Restaurant on VIP Road in Puri is an authentic restaurant to try it. Order a thali (platter) to sample a range of dishes. Cooking classes are conducted there too. In Bhubaneshwar, head to Dalma, the Odisha Hotel, or Kanika at the Mayfair Lagoon hotel.
Attend a Classical Music or Dance Festival
Odissi, one of the eight classical dance forms of India, originated in Odisha's Hindu temples and is associated with the worship of Lord Jagannath. It's believed to be the oldest surviving dance form in India is a feature at Odisha's traditional music and dance festivals. These festivals take place during the cooler winter at some of the top temples in Odisha including the Konark Sun Temple, and Mukteshwar and Rajarani temples in Bhubaneshwar.