16 June 2012

orissa again: mangalajodi and konark

It was a Friday (17th February, 2012) and the usual modus operandi of leaving office a bit early on a Friday to reach Greenwood Parks. We had a night train from Howrah to Bhubaneswar. Vikram had earlier announced that he would not accompany us for this trip and that left only four of us. Sushobhan, Yugank (it was to be his first trip with us), Amit and myself. We were definitely excited. It was to be our first trip exclusively for birding and the second Orissa trip after an earlier sojourn of Simlipal Tiger Reserve in 2011. Mangalajodi is a nondescript village and a notified Important Bird Area in Orissa’s Khurda district which is known for its majestic and inspiring turnaround. Located on the northern edges of Lake Chilika it is a bird haven where former hunters have turned hard-core protectionists. This turnaround was not sudden but involved the dedication of honest and dutiful forest officials, a supporting government and above all the locals which included many hunter-turned-conservationists who knew their new life would ensure an income only a fraction of what they earned earlier.  They would earn respect from environment lovers for sure but this crazy nation is by far more enamored by their cricketers and film stars and politicians and hardly cares about the sacrifice and perseverance of conservationists.

tangi, khurda district, NH5
The train journey was usual. Yugank taught me how to play cards and most of the journey went into that. We were reprimanded by our fellow passengers for the noise we were creating but we nevertheless continued playing, albeit muting our mouths. We reached Bhubaneswar quite in time at around three in the morning. Bhubaneswar is famous for its innumerable Hindu temples (Lingaraj, Muktesvara, etc) and Jain cave monasteries (Udayagiri, Khandagiri) but we had no time for a sojourn. Reaching out of the station we hired an auto and left for the Barmunda bus depot, at least 8 km from the station. It was a cold night but I had not carried any warm wear. Bhubaneswar was a small and sleepy city with clean roads. Our auto buzzed past a cool blowing breeze and we reached the bus depot in half an hour. It was a huge depot and before we searched and boarded a bus to Tangi, also in Khurda and a few miles from Mangalajodi, we decided to have a cup of tea. The bus left in time and I was amazed that even before day break the bus was almost filled up.

mangalajodi ecotourism resort
Yugank and I were sitting together and discussing about our earlier trips. Sushobhan and Amit were enjoying a good sleep in the opposite seat. Yugank, unknown to me, had been to a lot many places all across India and to my utter surprise was also a waterfall enthusiast. He had spent much of his life in Delhi from where the hills and jungles of the Shivalik are easily accessible as also the plateaus and ravines of Central India and the arid wilderness and monumental majesty of West India. His stories of trips to Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttarakhand were good and I was listening to everything with minute attention. A story he narrated about an official visit to Corbett National Park, where a friend of theirs, heavily drunk got lost in the buffer zone of the park, was interesting in particular. There was mayhem everywhere and people were obviously worried. I could imagine the situation. Not before long, while our stories continued, the conductor of the bus told us to get down and board another bus. We wondered why but nonetheless did what we were told. The new bus was very shaggy but that’s precisely the fun one gets in a trip! It was about to be day break. We were tired but still wide awake. We could see heaps of ash and distant forested hills interrupted by huge educational institutes and shops selling chilled beer.

chilika: a ramsar site
As a tourist, the country side always appeals me. This was a bonus, much like what had happened while on my trip to Simlipal. The day was unfolding right In front of our eyes and it is so exhilarating to see the sun rise from beyond the hills. The beauty is unparalleled. Amit and Sushobhan had also gotten up by now and we were waiting for Tangi to arrive. We had booked a resort, perhaps the only one at Mangalajodi, and the manager had called us early in the morning to confirm our arrival. He would send a vehicle to pick us from Tangi, a sleepy little town on NH5, from where our destination was almost 8 km away. I always like coming to new places. It’s always some learning. We had tea at a shop where some locals tried talking to us in broken English, assuming we were from some alien land. They tried teaching us mathematics on what the cost of four cups of tea would be and what balance would I get. Fair enough! By the time we finished our tea, our auto arrived. Yes, an auto! We had thought of an SUV but we got an auto but I quite like the idea of going around places in an auto. I remember my Ranchi trip and trip to Chandipur which was almost exclusively in an auto. The road was smooth with sun baked paddy fields on both sides right till we landed in the village, our destination for the night.

mangalajodi: a wonderland
Mangalajodi Ecotourism Resort was a rounded off campus with a couple of huts, a dormitory and a kitchen. It was located almost at the end of the village. Though the place is relatively unknown, a few tourists do come to this place so there were not many curious onlookers around. The dormitory and the huts were both made of concrete but the former was hotter so we decided for the hut instead. It was much like any other city home, just shaped like a hut. It was February but the place was quite hot. Low humidity ensured that the comfort level was manageable. The manager soon arrived and over a cup of tea and few snacks we charted the routine for the day. We were to refresh ourselves, rest for a while and then head for the feeder channels that were known to have lakhs of waterfowls besides other birds, local and migratory. Towards the end of the day we were to trek to a nearby hill for a panoramic view of the place. That was all.

our boatman: salute
The hut was good enough. The walls had beautiful hangings of birds that come to the place, right from lapwings to grebes to cormorants to godwits. Before the sun would take a cruel turn we called on the manager and told we were ready. He had fixed a SUV, a boatman and a guide for us. Driving through the village and crossing a railway track we reached a narrow straight lane that took us to a watchtower. The village was surely amazing. Homes were made with huge blocks of backed clay or stones maybe. A few old temples were testimony of its heritage. Fishermen tended to their nets while children were playing in the bylanes. The watchtower had a huge board beside it which declared Chilika Lake as a Ramsar site and called for its protection and conservation. We had already seen scattered flocks of Asian Openbills in the marshy fields and basking under the sun.

a black winged stilt (himantopus himantopus)
The hill in the background from where we had come and where we would trek later in the day was clearly visible. While we walked towards our boat we could see scores of birds everywhere, right from egrets to cormorants to godwits to sandpipers to tringas to snipes. The excitement quota was rising. It felt unbelievable. The canals with its shallow water full of heavy undergrowth looked appealing and it stretched like a silvery cord till it joined the massive lagoon a few miles from here. We took a few photographs and got into the boat. A good binocular and a high zoom camera is a must for tourists who wish to come here. We had none. The resort provides binoculars for sure but to compensate for cameras that could take photographs of birds at a distance we had a simple point-and-shoot. Ok! This trip was mostly to observe and admire the birds, their habitat, their habits, the countryside, the tranquility, the stories et al and that we would do. Photography can happen sometime else.

a little cormorant (phalacrocorax niger)
The sun was hot and getting crueler. Right from the very beginning we could see many birds foraging through the water, looking for food or simply basking. The boat was big enough to accommodate half dozen a people and we were just that many including the boatman and our guide. I am not an avid birder but had recently acquired a newfound interest on bird watching. I could at least recognize the umbrella group of the birds if not the species per se. Our guide, illiterate but intelligent, kept on pointing towards the avian, near and far. Through the binoculars we could see the world of the birds, so vast and so different. It felt like we had come to a parallel world. I had never seen a purple heron or a large egret or a greater cormorant or a ruddy shelduck. In fact we hardly get to see birds other than the ones commonly found in cities. In my various trips I have definitely come across fragmented iconic species but nothing worth making a note of, nothing that I so distinctly remember. I had seen a brahminy kite at Gaur from very close, a large bank myna at Mandarmani, and a flock of Asian Openbills at Rajarhat but this was like a lottery. I will make a note of all the birds that I could recognize but I am sure I definitely missed a few considering many waders and waterfowls look similar and beyond my comprehension.

a great egret (ardea alba)
For the next couple of hours we sat spellbound in apt attention looking at the treasure unfolding in front of us. Our wait for the iconic and brightly colored ruddy shelduck was not long. The purple heron with its elongated and snake like neck and the large egret about to fly would get anyone’s attention. For the first half an hour there was almost a fistfight amongst us to get hold of the binoculars. Wherever you looked there were birds, big and small. There were not many tourists, just another boat at a distance where they possibly had tourists from a foreign land. Santraganchi Lake on the outskirts of Kolkata is also famous for its waterfowls but I never had the opportunity to go there in winter. A rare Baikal teal had come there this winter. Going around the serpentine canals we came across a dead end where any further navigation was impossible because of the thick undergrowth. Looking through our binoculars we could see thousands of ducks (don’t ask the species please). They were mostly black and brown (northern pintails amongst others) and resting on the shore of the canal. What a pleasant sight that was! Thankfully navigation till there was not possible our crazy tourists including ourselves probably would have gone and disturbed them.

a pair of ruddy shelducks (tadorna ferruginea)
flanked by a black-tailed godwit (limosa limosa)
I had never seen so many birds in my lifetime. It was a satisfying experience. While returning we had had enough of the birds but we again got to see a couple of purple swamphens running around seeing us and a pied kingfisher aiming for a fish. What a sight that was. The place has not been notified a sanctuary or a national park because that will restrict access for local fishermen, whose livelihoods are directly dependent on the lake and its feeder water bodies. I really don’t see any reason to notify a birding area if locals believe in co-existence and live in harmony with the abundance around. Not long ago, the place was famous for its bird hunters who would kill these magnificent birds and sell their meat. That has since then stopped. Incomes obviously have gone down but these people are now adamant that their future and that of ours also, lies in conservation instead. I salute them and everyone else at Mangalajodi.

view of mangalajodi from atop the hill
While we stepped out of our boats we could see a couple of boats starting their journey and again a bunch of foreigners. The place was a major hit with people outside our country I could see. Indians by far still don’t know of this place. We waited at the watchtower for our car to come but this time the manager sent an auto again. We returned, had our lunch and decided to rest for a while. It was almost impossible to go around in the afternoon. We had no idea how the food was priced but it was good. Our guide for the nature trail came within a few hours and we set off for a walk. Cutting across mango and cashew plantations we reached the base of the forested hill where a trail led to a small cave and then to the top. The village and the water cannels in the distant looked awesome. Thousands of barn swallows circled overheard and the sun was about to set.

the head-priest of the temple we visited
Coming down we went to an old temple, had a talk with the head priest, did a round of the complex, gave him some money, ate the Prasad, went to a country boat making unit, roamed around the village and then left for our rooms. We also played fool from the hanging roots of a banyan tree and climbed the high walls of an abandoned home (some achievement!) We had planned for some drinks but considering panchayat elections were underway alcohol was not available anywhere. We did hire an auto for an evening to and from drive from Tangi looking for at least some beer but had to return empty hand. We nevertheless had to go because we had no cash and the nearest ATM was at Tangi. The rest of the evening was spent playing cards and some good adda. Dinner was also good but we already had our stomachs full. Lanky and petite Sushobhan though ate like a glutton that night. We had told the manager that we would leave early in the morning and so he was to arrange for an auto till Tangi and keep our bills ready.

susho enjoying his company in a packed auto
We woke up early next morning, paid our bills, around Rs 3000 and left for Tangi. We had our night train for Howrah the same day but we had planned to go to Konark. We could have gone to Puri too but we wanted to avoid crowd. Back on the highway, we had tea, packed some fruits and took a bus for Bhubaneswar. The weather was much like yesterday, hot but fine. The country side was more visible in the broad daylight. The hills were much nearer for quite a while and the road was good. We reached the capital city quite on time and got down at Barmunda, all over again. Direct buses to Konark were not available for the day as most of them had been assigned for election duty. We were told to get on a bus till Nimapada via Pipili and from there another vehicle till Konark. Bhubaneswar is renowned for its cruel weather and today was no different. Going through the busy and dusty city bypassing the hills that had the Jain caves we moved towards Nimapada and were soon out of the capital and amidst sylvan landscape. We had to wait for a while at Nimapada before we could get into an auto, jam-packed with localites. We were perhaps the only tourists in the auto, poor enough not to have afforded a private car from the capital. The Konark festival was underway and the auto also had a group of dancers who would perform today. One of the ladies sitting behind me tapped my elbow and told me to visit. I politely refused saying we had our return train today.

the majestic konark sun temple
It was always a dream to visit the Konark Sun Temple, a huge sandstone monument built by Narasimhadeva I of Eastern Ganga dynasty in the 13th Century which is famous for its mammoth size and erotic sculptures. It is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site from Odisha and since 1984. It would be the 5th World Heritage Site I would visit after Lumbini, Kaziranga National Park, Darjeeling Himalayan Railways and Sundarbans and I was surely excited. From the place where the auto dropped us we could see the towering monument. What a moment that was. We took pace and left for the entrance. ASI tickets these days are beautiful and I have seen them evolve since the days of my trip to Sivasagar in Assam, the former Ahom Capital. It took us around a couple of hours to merely circle around the monument, rich with its carving, erotic and heavenly, full of courtesans, artisans, dancers, etc. I often wonder with amazement at the richness of my nation. It would be quite something to research on the temple with each panel containing multiple depictions from medieval India. A panel of elephants circled around the entire temple. The magnitude of the whole complex was too overwhelming. It was a hot day but the place was full of tourists agog.

the iconic konark wheel
We took so much time to circle the black pagoda that by the time we came to the front to admire the nat mandir we realize we were getting late. We spent some time therein and then left for Bhubaneswar after having dinner at a nearby eatery. The bus was packed with daily commuters but since I was terribly tired by now I spent almost the entire journey in a deep slumber. We reached Bhubaneswar quite in time. Yugank had to take a print out of his ticket but there was no such place near the station. After that was done, we got inside the station and boarded the train which came almost in time and back to our dal chawal life.

birds we saw.. not an exhaustive list though


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  2. Good and honest post. Very informative and impressive. We are planning to go to Mangalajodi by this month end. Helpful post. Thank you..

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