Tucking their handloom saris around the waist, the Santali women of Mayurbhanj district in Odisha, will go forage in the wilderness once a year looking for natural pigments. After shovelling red soil, uprooting fungi and sifting white clay from the riverbed, they will return with new colours to paint murals on their mud walls.
This tradition of infusing vibrance into the somnolent village square is slowly disappearing as more and more houses are built from cement but in some vestiges like at Bubeijoda, their geometric wall art is an insight into how the tribe perceives the world around them, finding symmetry within the untamed tyranny of nature.
Hand-picked by TIME Magazine’s 2023 List of World’s Greatest Places, the unsung hinterland of Mayurbhanj with 60 percent of its population composed of scheduled tribes is attracting more than its usual share of the state government’s attention, owing to its tourism potential. While the smuggling of leopard skins and pangolins in the Baripada Forest Division still runs rampant and the human-elephant conflict is turning more irascible by the day, this district is known among tourists for its sinuous waterfalls, monolithic rock stupas, and spellbinding temple architecture.
Though the Belgadia palace-turned-hotel appeals to the more consummate aficionados of luxury travel — ushering in the illustrious Bhanj dynasty into the present world — the raw invitation extended by the Odia countryside has proven irresistible to the unfazed adventurer in us. This monsoon, Homegrown pins down the five most offbeat spots in this district for the thrill seeking backpackers among our readers.
Situated along the banks of the Palpala river, stippled with pebbles and known for its kitchen stoneware, the Lulung village is ensconced by the sal and simul forests of Similipal National Park. Flanked by nature trails winding around bayous and rocks where migratory birds congregate, the Lulung Aranya Nivas forest resort and Similipal Eco Cottage exemplify sustainable accommodation in harmony with the undulating landscape, trumpet calls of elephant hordes through their rooms. A perfect daytime picnic locale, Lulung serves as the pit stop where you test your camera batteries and haggle with jeep drivers, pose next to a waterfall before embarking on your safari into the tiger reserve.
Known for its pristine meadows, crocodiles languishing along the Khairi river and some of the tallest waterfalls in the country, Similipal was recently visited by President Droupadi Murmu who was returning to her home district this May for the first time after taking office.
Sprawling across 2,750 square kilometres, Similipal derives its name from the red silk cotton (simul) trees that are swarming with a cornucopia of orchids, parakeets and hornbills. Stalking among the savanna, bison and sambar deer prick up their ears for tigers and leopards. Arguably the only place in the world where you would find this melanistic variant, dappled with darker stripes due to a genetic mutation, the rare black tiger comprises 37% of the tiger population in this protected forest.
A pro tip would be to wear muted colours and keep a mosquito repellent handy even in enclosed vehicles. The tiger reserve area, however, remains open only between 1st November and 15th June as the roads often take a hit during the turbulent monsoon that Odisha witnesses every year.
III. Devkund Falls
Literally translating to ‘bathing place for the gods’, Devkund Falls was discovered by a prince of the Bhanj dynasty during British Raj and the Ambika temple that perches close to the waterfall is still a major draw for tourists who visit the Similipal National Park. The naturally created pond is the ideal way to beat the jungle heat and if you care to clamber up the narrow, roughly hewn stone steps up to the temple, you can experience a vertigo-inducing panorama of the deciduous forests.
Bursting at the seams with devotees during Mahashivratri, the Baidyanath temple is steeped in gratitude and myth making, rumoured to grant wishes of those who pray before the household deity who is an incarnation of Lord Shiva. Named after a saint who was cured of leprosy by praying to Baidyanath, this temple is also in proximity to a kund or pond, fed by the river Gangahara. Featuring workmanship from the late 15th century, the temple is surrounded by a rampart wall called kurum bedha, erected to defend a usurper king. Serving as the configurational blueprint for other temples like Jagannath and Konark, the Baidyanath temple is carved with tableaux from the history of the Mayurbhanj royal family, a remarkable feat of Kalinga architecture indeed. Like other temples in this tradition, this one also features three antechambers namely the vimana or inner sanctum, jagamohana or assembly hall and a natamandira or festival hall.
V. Khiching City
Once the capital of Bhanja rulers, Khiching city is a distinctive heritage site for Odisha abundant in old fort ruins, more temples and Buddhist mounds. The restored ruins of Haripur fort, the black chlorite facade of the 100 feet tall Khichakeswari temple with serpents sculpted into its pilasters, the archaeological museum laden with prehistoric tools and Indo-Scythian coins from the 2nd century A.D. are only some of the mysteries waiting to be unravelled in Khiching. There was a time when the stone carvers from this city were exporting life sized Buddha sculptures all the way to Japan, however in recent years due to insufficient marketing and lack of patronage, the artisanship is tapering out.
In March this year, the Odisha government began developing a proposal to improve the infrastructure around Devkund, Bhimkund and Khiching in wake of the recent spike of global interest following the TIME listing. This is testament to the transformative powers of tourism, helping to generate employment and reinvigorate indigenous handicrafts. With an influx of tourism revenue, the tribal communities like the Santals and Kolha shall acquire access to more buyers for their handloom fabrics or tableware made of sal leaves, inducing younger generations to rediscover their way back into the fold of their cultural lineage.