My maiden voyage into Odisha was to Baripada, a small town in the district of Mayurbhanj. I hadn’t done much research on what Baripada has to offer, so I did not know what to expect. Lush green paddy fields await the oblivious traveller from the fringes of Baripada- a rural economy of which farming is the mainstay.
Surprises as soon as I enter Odisha
Odisha has the largest registered tribal community in India, and for a city dweller to see them in their element is like being transported into a completely different world altogether. Tribal women here typically dress in a saree but without a blouse, which again, to a city dweller is an unimaginable feat. I assume men here don’t objectify women, and because of that women are free to dress however they see fit. If only the rest of India were the same!
The most famous landmark in Baripada is the Belgadia Palace, home to the erstwhile royal family of Mayurbhanj. They opened their doors to the public as a boutique homestay in the beginning of 2019. The palace was painstakingly renovated to mirror its glorious past through the choice of colour scheme, fabrics, and furniture.
The all white, Victorian- Greek style palace is a museum hotel, aesthetically decorated with memorabilia from their glorious past. The walls of the palace speak through the sepia toned pictures that adorn them, of state events, weddings, and even once forbidden love stories.
Original artwork by the kings who once called this their home, adorn some of the bedroom walls, while taxidermy mounts of deer, tigers, and bisons, lay await to surprise the first time visitor.
The new generation of royals, Akshita & Mrinalika Bhanjdeo who now run the hotel, are the visitors’ guides for the entire duration of the stay-now how cool is that! They want the experience at Belgadia Palace to be warm & inviting, and they are a treasure trove of knowledge when it comes to their history. Speaking to them is the best way to learn more about the history of what was once a flourishing princely state of the country.
Fun fact: It was the foresight of HRH Sri Ram Chandra Bhanjdeo, for India as a word leader in iron ore production, that led to J.N Tata gaining his first iron ore lease in Gouramahisani in Odisha. To secure the lease, J.N Tata had to accept citizenship of Mayurbhanj!
To know more about the stories I learnt at Belgadia, read my article for the Deccan Herald!
Simlipal National Park
Baripada is the gateway to Simlipal National Park known for its abundant wildlife. Smilipal is a tiger reserve, and is also part of the Mayurbhanj Elephant reserve. It is the 7th largest national park in India, and has an abundance of red silk cotton trees.
Nature trails and picturesque waterfalls await the adventurous at Simlipal!
I was lucky to have had the opportunity to meet with a community of Santals during my visit. Their traditional welcome is by washing the guests’ feet with turmeric water. I was a little uncomfortable having my feet washed by someone, so I politely declined.
I visited early in the evening, and for some reason, none of the men of the village were around, just the women and children. They were a little apprehensive at first to talk to me, and one of the women even told me not to take her picture.
But as the evening wore on, they began warming up to me and me, them. The ice breaker definitely was the rambunctious woman who gave the demonstration of their home brewed alcohol, of fermented rice water. She excitedly stirred the mixture in a large pot whilst explaining what she was doing, and then finally sat down to drink up from a large bowl! Watching her drink was entertaining to say the least, because she sang folk songs and even danced with her bowlful of booze in one hand! This was a completely unexpected experience for me, as I didn’t expect a tribal woman to be so much like any urban girl with her favourite drink in her hand!
Shedding unnecessary preconceived notions
Meeting the Santals truly was an eye opener for me, and helped me shed some preconceived notions that I never knew I had- maybe it is the idea that people/women from rural India are overly traditional, and introverted. I’m not sure how I got that idea, it could probably be the years of conditioning based on the literature, media, public opinion, or even the movies that I’ve watched. Nevertheless, I’m glad that unnecessary notion was proved false.
I wish I had asked the name of this woman of whom I think so often about, but thanks to her the rest of the women and children got comfortable with the idea of a stranger in their midst. She even urged me to take her pictures, and struck some fine poses for my happy camera!
Soon after a photoshoot with her, even the woman who was at first apprehensive of her picture being taken, asked me to take her picture! Now that was a good feeling!
Bravely drinking home brewed alcohol
It would have been quite a pity if I hadn’t tried this concoction that helped me see the real side to these beautiful people. When I asked to try a glass, they were so surprised, and excited! Apparently, none of the visitors who come to them had ever asked to taste it- which I found surprising! It was a delight to watch them run in for a fresh glass, to pour me a huge helping. Though I wasn’t brave enough to drink as much as they gave me, I did have a small glassful of it.
It tasted like rice water, but a little funky ( the water left over from cooking red rice in a pressure cooker), and I didn’t feel the kick of the alcohol. They told me that it was fairly fresh, and that once it is allowed to ferment for longer, the alcohol content would increase, and it can be quite the potent drink!
By the time I left them, they individually came to say goodbye to me, and even told me to visit again. Apparently there is a tribal festival in January, for which they wanted me to visit- if only I could!
As a group their goodbye was the cutest, they didn’t stop waving, and I obviously had to take a picture of that!
The little time I had with them, was truly the best part of my trip to Mayurbhanj, and I hope to visit again, to spend time with them, and learn more about them.
I always enjoy walking around local markets, and the market at Baripada was no different. It was bustling with activity in the morning when I went by. Sellers seated on the ground on a jute sacks or plastic sheets selling fresh produce- fruits, vegetables, locally farmed rice varieties, handmade crafts- fans, baskets, knives, billhooks, and so much more! It was a riot of colours & noises, and the people as always, very friendly, and welcoming of tourists.
This market is a must visit to take home some souvenirs, and indulge in a snippet of local life.
The night market that I visited was so much fun! It was loud, messy, & utter chaos, but a great place to try some local food, buy fresh fish, and meat, and see a different side to life as a local. The dimly lit market is one place where you can follow your nose more than your sight! Whether it is a fresh fish stall, or the many tiny makeshift stalls selling freshly fried food, it is a wonderful assault on your senses!
This bustling market is definitely worth a visit, to see the local tribal community, and listen in on some fun banter between the buyers & sellers, though it is in a language that is foreign to most.
Sri Jagannath Temple
This 12th century temple is one of the oldest temples of Odisha built in honour of the deity, Jagannath. The Rathayatra (a public procession in a chariot), prioritises women in pulling ‘Maa Subhadra’s’ rath (chariot).
It isn’t a very big temple, and the white coat of paint on it has made it less of a visual spectacle, but it is worth a quick visit if you do have time.
Once the home of royal family of Mayurbhanj, it is now the premises of the Government Women’s College, & Maharaja Purna Chandra College.
The facade of the brick built, double storied palace was built to resemble the Buckingham Palace in London. It was sold to the Odisha government in 1956.
Haripur, a short distance from Baripada was the erstwhile capital of Mayurbhanj before it was shifted too Baripada. The ruins of a temple and a fort have been found here in recent years and are in the process of restoration. The fort was named after the Maharajah of Mayurbhanj Shri Harihar Bhanja in 1322.
Antiquarian research is still in process, and it is expected to reveal more of the fort's architecture.
The Rasikray Temple located on the premises was built in honour of Guru Raskananda Thakura and was the first temple in Odisha to be made only of bricks. The bricks still have intricate cravings on them,(though a little faint now), which was unlike the architecture of temples in the state.
The ruins lie in an open field amidst local village communities. When I was there, I saw a tribal woman bring her cow to graze amidst the ruins, and a local man working out in the solitude of the expanse, which was disrupted only by a handful of tourists-us!
It is a metal casting technique using lost-wax casting methods to create intricate objects out of metal. The Dhokra art form is named after the Dhokra Damal tribes, the traditional metalsmith of West Bengal. The Dhokra art form can be dated back 4000 years, to the time of Mohenjodaro, and the earliest Dhokra artwork that has been found is the Mohenjodaro Dancing Girl.
Sabai Grass crafts
Sabai grass is a natural fibre that grows in abundance in the Mayurbhanj district. Women led collectives supported by Odisha Rural Development & Marketing Society(ORMAS), create an array of designs of handmade baskets, table mats, bags, hats, and other household products. Sabai grass when woven is sturdy, and durable. The growth of Sabai grass industry has empowered tribal women in the region.
The talented women that I met at the workshop I visited are capable of creating any design of handbags, hats, lampshades, and other household items. So if anyone is looking for a viable, eco friendly business to invest in-contact them, and help empower these lovely women!
How to get there
Kolkata is 223km, a 5 hour drive from Baripada
Bhubneswar is 252 km, a 5 hour drive from Baripada.
I flew into Kolkata, and drove down to Baripada.
There are buses to Baripada from both Kolkata & Bhubneswar.
Drop me a comment below if you have any questions, or to let me know your thoughts on this article!