Away From the World

Marooned at Chilika Lagoon

19 NOVEMBER 2014,
Boats on Lake Chilika © Karthik Janakiraman
Boats on Lake Chilika © Karthik Janakiraman

Chilika, one of Asia’s largest salt-water lakes and is ideally located to the East coast of India, in one of India’s most enchanting state – Orissa. This picturesque pear shaped lake is shallow and stretches for almost 70 Kms. With a surface area, which is all of 1,000 Sq.Kms, Chilika is easily India’s largest Lagoon. This unusual lake extends all the way to the twin districts of Ganjam and Puri. The undulating hillocks of the Eastern Ghats provides a picture perfect backdrop to the lake.

For the quintessential Bengali from West Bengal, Orissa is much preferred tourist destination. Every year millions of Bengali tourists from Calcutta and other parts of Bengal visit the state of Orissa. Most visitors from Bengal go on pilgrimage to Puri’s Jagganath Temple and compliments the tour with visits to other places of tourist interest like Bhubaneswar, Cuttack, the islands of Bhitarkanika, Simlipal Tiger Reserve and of course the treasured Chilika Lake.

From Calcutta, almost all southbound trains halt at Balugaon, which happens to be the nearest railhead from Chilika. In fact from Balugaon, Lake Chilika is a mere 12 Kms. I along with my family had been to Orissa a number of times. Most of the time, our visits were confined to Puri’s Jagganath Temple since my Mom is a devout worshipper of Lord Jagganath.

A couple of years back, a Puri hotel owner who has been receiving us as guests for a number of years, suggested that we visit the world famous Chilika Lake. When I made further queries like why is it so famous, how does one reach there and so on, he took me to the local Tourist office of Orissa Tourism. There, I was enthralled by the half-hour documentary on Lake Chilika, which the Tourist Officer had kindly arranged for me. Post documentary, there was no looking back.

I hired a cab and embarked on my journey to Chilika, which was located at a distance of 167 Kms from Puri. I must say the drive was beautiful as we crisscrossed quaint Orissa villages. The Orissa countryside looked verdant. The sight of tribal women working on knee deep waters on the paddy fields and the men folk ploughing their fields with Ox and Buffaloes was straight out of an India I never knew existed.

By the time we arrived at Chilika, dusk had already descended. My Oriya driver Narendranath Patnaik asked me whether I intended to stay at a hotel or if I agreed, he could even make arrangements for a home stay with a local fisherman’s family. On further inquiry, he revealed rather coyly that his own maternal uncle, a fisherman by profession resided just half a kilometer away from Chilika Lake.

The idea of a home stay appealed to me. I knew deep inside that being a guest of a local fisherman would be infinitely more rewarding then staying at a luxurious hotel where in the garb of professionalism, one tends to miss out on the human relations bit.

As the car stopped in front of a simple looking thatched hut, the kind which is found in rural Orissa, I and my mate Narendranath got down and after a short walk we entered his uncle’s hut. The children, all aged between 3-10 years, were overjoyed at the sight of a car. Probably they had never seen a car before and so were having one hell of a time.

After exchanging pleasantries, we freshened up and dinner was a simple affair consisting of boiled rice and Prawn curry. The Prawns were not the ordinary ones that you find in the local fish market. They were King-sized Prawns and were cooked to perfection by the resident chef – Narendranath’s aunt.

Even though it was the month of September, a time when India makes a transition from the sweltering summer to the moderate winter, I found the weather at Chilika unusually hot and humid. So instead of sleeping inside the hut, we decided to have our Charpoys (jute fiber beds) out in the open. Believe me, with a starlit sky above and a pleasant breeze blowing from the Lake, it was like “Eden on Earth”.

For the next 3 days, Narendranath’s uncle would be my guide to Lake Chilika. Having spent all his life at Lake Chilika, he knew a thing or two about this awesome lake and took me to certain places, which were worth visiting. The magical sight of the endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins particularly mesmerized me. The locals say, one should consider oneself very lucky to spot the Irrawaddy Dolphins. A staff of the Chilika Development Authority (CDA) who was on field duty, proudly declared that according to the latest WWF Dolphin count, Chilika Lake had the unique distinction of sheltering the largest number of Irrawaddy Dolphins as compared to any other lakes or lagoons in the world. Some feat that, isn’t it?

My admiration for Chilika grew ten folds more when the CDA staff divulged thus – “Sir, we at CDA don’t count Dolphins based on sightings. We do it by means of the Global Positioning System (GPS) gadgets like sample water bottles, thermometers as well as binoculars. The Line Transect Survey technique was employed and we are very proud of that”.

On Day 2, when I was about to hop into my boat, I came across a husband and wife couple from Toronto (Canada), who insisted that they be allowed to hop in to the boat as well since they were finding it difficult to communicate with the local guides who knew very little English. I understood their anxiety and acted like a true ambassador of India and had them seated comfortably on the boat.

As we set sail, the Canadian couple revealed that they had a sentimental attachment to Lake Chilika since they had adopted a child from an Orissa orphanage, who unfortunately died of an illness after five years. In his memory, the couple provide funds for a village school not far from the lake where young children are provided with free elementary education. They visit the village every year to make an assessment of the progress made by the school. As our boat sailed along Lake Chilika, we could see the rich ecosystem with a fascinating diversity of flora and fauna. Since it was the month of September and winter was just around the corner, the migratory birds had started converging on the Chilika wetland in a shimmering wave of feathers. Along the banks of the lake, the mudflats and the shallow waters, a cluster of Sandpipers, Snipes, Godwits and Stilts were in a playful and jovial mode. The Terns, we noticed, were flying above the lake to snatch out food from the water. The ethereal sight of small sized Pratincoles sitting silently on the shores of the numerous islands and the countless graceful Flamingoes feeding on shallow water made us marvel with wonder to the surreal beauty of Lake Chilika.

The forest cover surrounding Lake Chilika is sparse. The impressive sandy ridges to the south of the lake at times cuts the lake off the sea. The tidal pressure can be felt along the external waterways of the ridges. This is what makes the lake water salty in complete contrast to the fresh water of the rivers that flows into the lake. The Canadian couple – Alexander and his charming wife Dorothy were busy with their handy camcorder, capturing the majestic scene of White Bellied Sea Eagles gliding gracefully past the wetlands and the sight of the Waterfowls rising on their wings to escape the wrath of their predator’s deadly claws.

We were amazed by the sheer diversity of Waterfowls that kind of float in lake like thousands of flotillas. Conspicuous by their presence are the Red Crested Pochard, Common Pochard, Tufted Ducks, Pintail Ducks, Brahminy Duck to name just a few.

Alexander and Dorothy, it seems, knew more about Chilika than I did. After all, it was my first trip to this enchanting lagoon. I got to know from them that Chilika Lake was the proud recipient of the 2002 Ramsar Wetland Conservation Award, which is no small feat! The high quality work that the Chilika Development Authority (CDA) has undertaken for the conservation of the Chilika wetlands and the manner in which the CDA has involved the local fishing community to be a part of the conservation movement is truly exemplary.

Most lagoons of the world have been formed due primarily to the rapid rise in sea levels over the many past centuries. However, there was a lull in the rise some 7,000 years back and scientists are of the opinion that a beach might have been shaped in close proximity to the south. Again with the rise of sea levels, this beach started expanding and advanced towards the sea to give shape to Chilika. A team of archaeologists recently unearthed a fossil which is believed to date back to some 4,000 years, which is a fair enough indication of the actual age of the formation of Chilika Lake.

If Geological research is anything to go by, the Orissa coastline touched the western fringes of Lake Chilika during the Pleistocene period and the whole area to the northeast was under the sea belt.

A lot of legends and folklore are attached to Chilika. Among them the story of Orissa’s renowned poet – Purshottam Das who was an ardent disciple of Lord Jagganath, eulogized Lord Krishna in one of his poems wherein Lord Krishna is said to have danced with a local milkmaid named “Maniki” who incidentally had come to the neighborhood of Chilika to sell curd.

There is another story related to one of Orissa’s greatest poet - Radhanath Rai, who was so mesmerized by the ethereal beauty of Lake Chilika that he wrote a classic poem, aptly entitled – “Chilika” which is considered to be a work of genius, a masterpiece, in the annals of Orissa’s literary scene.

Chilika also finds mention in one of the books written by the renowned freedom fighter - Gopababdhu Das. In the book “Bandir Atmakatha” which literally means “Memoirs of a prisoner” he wrote movingly about Chilika Lake, which he got to view from the window of a train he was traveling sometimes in the year 1920.

During the British rule, when the British army pounded on southern Orissa in 1803, Fateh Ali, who was a conspirator, disclosed the route to the east by which the British armada reached Puri without much of a hassle. For cooperating with the British, Fateh Ali was bestowed with full powers over the principalities of Parikud as well as Malud.

If British Settlement Records are anything to go by, Chilika Lake is mentioned as a place meant exclusively for fishing. In the days of yore, the fishing villages of Chilika were an integral part of the then Zamindari estates. The Zamindars (Landlords) as a rule used to lease out the villages to the local fishermen of the locality.

In the year 1926, the British themselves ventured into the hugely profitable business of fishing and accordingly set up an exclusive cooperative at Balugaon, which is in close proximity to Lake Chilika.

Although, for several centuries, the fishermen’s community at Chilika were bestowed with exclusive and non-negotiable fishing rights, with the passage of time, as Prawn fishing in particular became a tremendously profitable business, dubious businessmen out to make a quick buck entered Chilika fishing landscape. For a long time, these outside elements began to hold the upper hand at the cost of the local fishermen, resulting in frequent conflicts. Given the gravity of the situation, the Government of Orissa issued a notification, which debarred local fishermen to lease out portions of Chilika Lake for fishery business. I was told by a CDA official that as far as the management of Chilika’s ecosystem is concerned, by far the most noteworthy act was the opening of the mouth of the lake to the sea and also the scouring of a primary waterway in between the lake and the sea. All this has resulted in the gradual decline of weeds as well as a corresponding increase in the level of salinity in the water, which in turn means more yields in terms of fishes like Prawns and Crabs.

I was witness to a team of conservationists from The Wetlands International, South Asia at work on the site. Organizations like them offer to CDA (Chilika Development Authority) not only the state-of-the-art techniques in preserving the fragile eco-system but also the know-how to implement often complex processes. Most visitors to Lake Chilika come with the sole aim of bird watching and bird photography. And why not? When you have Pintail, Wigeon, Gadwall, Pochards and Ducks for company. However, bird hunting in the real sense is banned. You can shoot as much as you like with cameras. But, certainly not with a gun. An exclusive Bird Protection Committee is in place, which has been set up by CDA that offers financial help to local villagers in the form of “Soft Loans” to set up alternative business.

If you are an avid fishing enthusiast, you do well to carry your fishing equipments like my Canadian friends Alexander and Dorothy. There is nothing wrong in fishing as long as you allow the fish back to the water, which is where they should be. Chilika Lake abounds in fish and as many as 27 fish species has been identified. The most common fish found in the lake are the Callichrous Bimaculatus and Wallago Attu. The later are conspicuous by their whiskered barbells on their oral cavity.

The best way to discover the sights and sounds of Lake Chilika is by occasionally anchoring ones boat alongside the numerous tribal fishing villages. Since fuel wood is scarce, one finds fisherwomen working for up to seven hours at a stretch to meet their fuel constraints. Every year the forest cover is being depleted and unless some urgent measures are undertaken by way of renewable energy, the forests surrounding Chilika might as well vanish in the years to come.

Boat sailing aside; you would do well to visit places like Rambha, Beacon Island, Honeymoon Island and Breakfast Island. Each of them has something unique to offer. The bay of Rambha for instance comprises of a cluster of small islands and in the days of yore, it used to be a much preferred picnic spot for the British. If you literally fall in love with the Bay of Rambha, don’t you worry! There is the OTDC run Panthaniwas Hotel for you to indulge in. Beacon Island on the other hand is renowned for its British built conical shaped column that rises like a sentinel. It is said that one Mr. Snodgrass the then Collector of Ganjam, used to come here for rejuvenation.

The Breakfast Island is no less charming. With its pear shape and surrounding greenery, the Island is a paradise. So is Honeymoon Island, located in close proximity to the Bay of Rambha, which is a mere 5 Kms. away. For the quizzical minded, it is here that the Limbless Lizard, which is an endangered lizard species was discovered by none other than Dr. Anandale & Kemp.

Satapada is surrounded on all three sides by the Lake and it is easily one of the best vantage points for sightseeing. If you are lucky, you might even spot the endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins.

Satapada can actually be a very good base from where to explore places like Barunkuda, Nabagraha and Chourbar Shiva temple. I was much impressed with Manikpatna, which is ideally located on the outer waterway. In the days of yore, it used to be a commercial port and had links to the Far East and beyond. Try out the locally prepared curd, which uses a specially designed bamboo basket to produce the curd. For the religious minded there is an old Shiva temple as well as a mosque.

All said and done, Chilika Lake is a fragile eco-system and whatever Tourism development is undertaken, one has to be very cautious. Proposed activities like Dolphin Watching, Water Skiing and the use of motorized boats may sound great, but the impact of tourism development on the fragile eco-system has to be ascertained before any developmental work is undertaken.

Travellers Fact File:

Getting There: Bhubaneswar is the nearest airport and is located at distance of 100 Kms. Almost all Southbound trains inclusive of the Calcutta-Mumbai trains (via Secundrabad) from Calcutta halt at places like Balugaon, Chilika Khallikote and Rambha, all of which are located in close proximity to Chilika Lake. Buses and cabs are available for hire at these stations.

If one is traveling by road, there is the National Highway 5 that extends all the way to the lake and covers places like Balugaon, Barkul and Rambha, all of which are located in close proximity to Chilika Lake. However if one is coming from Orissa’s main cities like Cuttack, Puri, Bhubaneswar or Berhampur to Chilika, buses and taxis are readily available. The Orissa Tourism Development Corporation also operates its fleet of luxury coaches from Bhubaneswar and Puri.

Accommodation: As far as accommodation is concerned, the Orissa Tourism Development Corporation run Panthanivas at Barkul, Balugaon is by far the best option. There is also the Panthanivas, Rambha and Hotel Ashoka at Balugaon. They offer both air-conditioned as well non air-conditioned rooms. The rooms are airy but the décor and the amenities are minimalist. However you can be assured of a comfortable bed, clean linens, hygienic food, good window views and clean toilets. The staffs are warm and friendly with no pretensions whatsoever.

For further information contact:

The Director of the Department of Tourism,
Paryatan Bhawan, Museum Campus,
Bhubaneswar, 751014
Orissa, India.

Tel. +91-0674-2432177
ortour@orissatourism.gov.in