Studded with sublime temples and flanked by the brilliant blue waters of the Bay of Bengal, India’s ninth-largest state is also among its least visited—and that’s half of its allure
By Jason Overdorf
Photographs by Palani Mohan
From a rooftop in the Orissan capital of Bhubaneswar, I look down into the walled grounds of the Lingaraj Temple. Built in the 11th century, it is the oldest such structure in this “city of temples,” and the most majestic, with a massive central tower of red sandstone that calls to mind the shape of a bishop’s miter. Paradoxically, however, this is as close as I can get to Bhubaneswar’s chief tourist attraction: the ancient complex is off-limits to all but devout Hindus. Without the benefit of binoculars, I have to content myself with guidebook descriptions of Lingaraj’s exquisitely carved stonework, which includes bas-reliefs of lions, elephants, and the voluptuous celestial nymphs known as apsaras.
What distinguishes this “living” temple from the nearby “dead” temples of Rajarani and Mukteshwar, which nonbelievers are welcome to enter, is that those monuments no longer enshrine a lingam, the sacred stone phallus that symbolizes Shiva. So instead of a ticket booth, I have to contend with a boy bearing a ledger and the sacred thread of a Brahman, who extorts donations from foreigners just to look over the wall. I find the experience strangely disorientating.
Perhaps because of this—or maybe just because the nearest international airport is in Kolkata, several hundred kilometers to the northeast—Orissa remains off the radar for most visitors to India. “Orissa is a pilgrimage center, not a tourist center like Goa,” Shyamhari Chakra, who reviews cultural performances and events for India’s The Hindu newspaper, reminds me on my first night in town. But as I discover on a four-day visit to the so-called “golden triangle” of Bhubaneswar, Puri, and Konark, Orissa is also one of the country’s hidden gems, with stunning natural beauty, remarkable ethnic diversity, and wonderfully nuanced cuisine. Better still, nowhere along the Orissan temple trail, which attracts tens of thousands of Indian devotees every year, does one encounter the touts and pests that plague more venerated sites such as Varanasi.